Would you adopt a disabled pet?

NICK BARNETT
Last updated 12:53 10/06/2014

The pet in the store is blind, or partly deaf, or will never be able to stop its legs wobbling or head bobbing. You know you'd fall in love with it - or maybe you already have - but its future is not going to be the standard kind of life that most pets get. Knowing that, would you adopt it?

Mala
  Mala at home. She has one good eye and a 'frazzled' ear.

I'm sure some of us, in some cases, would wonder about future vet bills, and to me that's not selfish or unworthy. It's exactly the kind of thing a responsible pet owner does think about ahead of time, so they don't take on more than they can cope with.

Some people do make that estimation, and adopt the pet anyway. The man who took on the now-famous Lil Bub is one; he thought there might not be too much of a future ahead of the little cat he met, but he decided he'd give it as comfortable and loving a life as he could. I'd like to think I'd do the same.

I'd also like to think that looks - in other words, conventional looks - aren't a factor for me in choosing a pet. But I wonder if that's completely true, for me and for other people. I'll never forget what I heard the SPCA shelter worker say when I took home two cats for possible adoption many years ago. I overheard her telling a colleague that she was happy to let me have the cats on appro because "they're both good-looking cats so they'll have no problems being adopted later".

I imagine that "good looking" can mean healthy looking, youthful, possessed of all its teeth, eyes, senses and limbs, and not just conforming to a chocolate-box standard of photogenic pulchritude. These are the pets - the battle-scarred, the survivors - that might be tougher to find homes for.

But if you give them a chance to meet people and show their character, then they'll charm and seduce someone just as powerfully as a cat or dog that's a ribbon-worthy specimen.

That's why I like the new programme being run by Animates and the SPCA. They call it Animates Angels, and the angels are the animals that find their way to SPCA shelters around the country and that need a little more primetime exposure in order to find a home.

When a special-needs animal arrives at a shelter, the SPCA team contacts Animates' services and welfare manager Nikki Marchant-Ludlow, who then works to find space for the animal at one of the chain's bigger branches. There, with plenty of people visiting the branch and meeting the animals, there's more chance of matching the pet to new owners (though Nikki points out what many of us believe, namely that the pets are the ones truly making the choice).

The programme, which started last month, focuses on caring for pets with special care needs and finding them the perfect home. The first pet adopted under the programme was Mala, a young tabby cat with one eye and a damaged ear. Mala came from Taupo, but was moved to Animates' Silverdale branch, where, one day, she met a six-year-old boy named Jared.

Mala Jared
  Mala plays with six-year-old Jared.
"Jared was in the enclosure with Mala for 20 to 30 minutes, playing with her with some toy mice," says Jared's mother, Tracey Lewis. "She kept on butting him with her head!"

The boy and the cat bonded, and soon Mala joined the family - which also includes another cat, Holly, and a Labrador, Penny.

Mala is just like another cat, says Tracey. The only thing noticeably different is that Mala has less peripheral vision than normal, and so can be taken by surprise by, say, Holly jumping out at her from behind a corner. She's not allowed out at night.

Nikki says she was overcome when she learned Mala had been adopted.  "Mala's story gives us hope that we can go on to save the lives of many more pets who have been previously overlooked."

Jilly and Jazzy
  Jilly and Jazzy now have a home.
Kittens Jilly and Jazzy are also in the Animates Angels programme. They contracted feline panleukopenia (commonly referred to as feline distemper), a virus that affects the blood cells, but survived the life-threatening illness. They found their way to Taupo SPCA, where they were cared for by staff and volunteers, and were then sent to Animates Silverdale. Animates have been told that it is unlikely their back leg wobbles and head bobbing will ever improve, but say there's every reason to expect that they will live normal, happy lives.

Just the other week, Jilly and Jazzy found a home.

For the SPCA, the Animates Angels programme allows it to go on saving as many animals as possible beyond its network of often overstretched shelters, says Ian Hill, SPCA Inspector at the Taupo Centre.

Nikki says she's passionate about the programme. "The more people talk about it and realise that these special-needs pets have all the personality that other pets have, and as much to offer, the better," she says. "I really want people to realise that these pets don't need to be euthanased and they don't need to sit in shelters.  Because we [Animates] have the number of stores and we have the foot traffic, there is more exposure. The shelters that are out in the middle of nowhere, they just don't have that foot traffic. It's a real blessing that we're able to come to the party.

"We have to find these pets a home, you know?"

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