Lisa Morabito is the Programs Manager at BARCS – The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter. It’s a nice title that fits neatly on a business card. What Lisa actually does on a daily basis would likely require multiple volumes. I spent some time with Lisa on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, shadowing her to find out what a day was like in her world. Turns out, that mission was not so cut and dry. In a mere four hours, I saw Lisa take on roles that those who are faint of heart or weak of spirit just could not handle. On any given day, she is a caregiver, a protector, a babysitter, a secretary, a punching bag, a mother, a supporter, a maid, a scapegoat, a wrangler, a counselor, and a maker of impossibly difficult decisions; the one that many others in the shelter turn to for answers. She is tough and composed at the exterior because she has to be. Inside, she has known heartbreak and loss, but has gained strength from those experiences so she can keep fighting every day for the animals that depend on her.
“It’s truly a rollercoaster of emotions every single day, but there’s no way that I’d look those animals the eyes and tell them I can’t handle the emotional toll it takes to save their lives,” Lisa said.
I’ll be honest with you. I had about two pages written that chronologically detailed what Lisa did on that Tuesday and why, but after fighting with that uninspiring version for far too long, I deleted it all. Yes, it’s absolutely necessary to perform certain tasks every day, but I need for you as the reader to understand that working at BARCS is far, far more than a job; it is an unrelenting front-line battle and a labor of love.
BARCS has received a lot of criticism over the years, especially with the growing popularity of social media. After having spent time behind the scenes and meeting different people who have been associated with the shelter for a long time, I don’t think that criticism is warranted. Yes, there are some hot-button issues that make emotions run high (especially euthanasia, which I will address), but one message was loud and clear within the first few minutes of my arrival:
The staff and volunteers at BARCS are doing the very best they can with what they have.
The building that they share with Animal Control was built in the early 1980’s. It is on a floodplain, it has poor air circulation, and sometimes even has crates spilling into the hallways to make room for every soul seeking safety. Even so, this building and the people within provide shelter, warmth and care to many animals who have never experienced such things before. Do the dogs and cats care that the poor air circulation makes it more difficult for them to recover from upper respiratory infections (URI’s)? Probably not. They care about finally encountering a hand that will not inflict pain. They care about tasty food that comes on a regular basis. They experience the joy that comes from a good walk, a head scratch, a fun toy or a soft blanket.
I had the humbling experience of following Lisa and her magical clipboard as she checked on every single animal at the shelter that day, and got to see for myself that, although shelter pets have different needs, personalities and histories (like we all do), they are all deserving of the chance to succeed and to know love. I would say that there is organized chaos happening round-the-clock at BARCS, but the system in which the staff keeps up with the progress and turnover of animals is surprisingly thorough. The secret? Avid note taking. To best determine the ideal course of action for each animal, Lisa visits each cage and takes a look at the notes provided. Some animals are as sweet as can be when approached one-on-one, but can get anxious from the noise of the kennels and therefore not show very well. An animal like this would have a better chance of being adopted if they could relax at a foster home instead of at the shelter. If Lisa comes across a case like this, she adds that animal’s name to the foster list. Another animal might be recovering from a medical procedure and needs more time to rest before meeting a potential forever family. Possibly a dog comes in with a bite wound and needs to be quarantined, or another is part of a legal investigation and needs to be cared for but, not adopted out until the investigation is complete. Sometimes original intake notes from Animal Control are included also. The idea is simple enough, but with the sheer volume and diversity of the animals at BARCS, thorough notes are crucial to 1) ensure the animal is getting what it needs and 2) facilitate accurate communication between staff and volunteers. If you think about it, five cat rooms, along with the “adoptable dog” kennel rooms, the quarantine area, the bite investigation kennels, the “infirmary” kennels (mostly for dogs with URI’s), the surgery cages, the exotic animal area, and the modular building in the parking lot that houses dogs that come in as owner surrenders or as strays makes for a whole lot of ground to cover. In addition to that, volunteers log how dogs do on walks and in socialization classes. Yep, these dogs get to have play group.
“Brian George, our Enrichment Coordinator, is doing so many wonderful things,” Lisa explained as she showed me the dog walk chart in the hallway that is filled out daily.
The best part of this lengthy process was getting to see Lisa’s relationships with the animals that we visited. Many she has gotten to know, and is able to tell their stories as if they are old friends. She greets each one with happiness and affection, treating each one like an individual who matters. When we entered the second dog room, Vixen, aka Mama Bear, jumped up and wiggled her wiggle butt especially joyously. Vixen had suffered horrific injuries, most likely related to dog fighting, so Lisa took her home over the holidays to help her recuperate. Her physical scars are just light remnants of her injuries, but her emotional scars are long gone, thanks to the affection and care she was given. Even some of the more shy pups lit up when Lisa came around, which makes me believe that there is far more benefit to this process than just good record-keeping.
Once the pen and paper portion was complete, it was time to head back to Lisa’s office for some good, old-fashioned data entry. Each animal has a digital record that dates back to their first day at the shelter, and that record is crucial when performing behavior follow-ups and personality assessments.
The walk back to Lisa’s office, apart from being one giant maze if you’re not used to it, took us past smiling volunteers taking excited pups out for walks, to join a play group or to an adoption room for a meet-and-greet.
The hustle and bustle continued in Lisa’s office, a space that she shares with Foster Coordinator Nejla Solano, Rescue Coordinator Juliette Crosson, Adoption Counselor Melanie Snyder, and on that day, Uso the Pitbull puppy. They rummaged up a chair for me, and I sat much how a child might sit if they were caught in the stew pot during a rousing game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Never-ending piles of paperwork encroached upon everyone’s space, but even so, it was easy to see that each of these women absolutely love what they do. Photos of smiling dogs and cozy cats, as well as cards, notes, and pet-related decorations adorned their desks and walls. One photo in particular caught my eye, as it was a photo of a dog we in the rescue community likely all knew, all pulled for, and ultimately all grieved for. The dog in the picture was Molly, and the woman who worked so tirelessly to give Molly hope and love was Lisa. I didn’t put two and two together until that moment, but when I did, I had to stop myself from hugging this person that I had just met.
“Seeing her pictures still brings tears to my eyes, and then waves of anger come and go because I am still mad that she didn’t make it after how far she came. She definitely made a huge impact on me, and she keeps me going on the really the tough days,” Lisa said.
I mention Molly because she is a shining example of how shelter work is truly a 24/7 gig. You don’t leave it at the office when you go home. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.
Luckily for pets like Molly, Lisa is a bleeding heart warrior for the underdog. Senior, special-needs souls with underbites (or any combination of those three), hold a special place in her heart. She readily admits that if she could, she would open her home as a sanctuary for all of them. In the meantime, she does her best to make their time at BARCS as sanctuary-like as possible.
Lisa had barely started typing up the previously-collected notes when the phone started ringing. The staff and volunteers would pop by the office constantly, needing Lisa’s opinion on something or needing a question answered. Keyboards attached to nearly-obsolete computers were clicking away, the foster kitten in a carrier on Juliette’s desk had stepped in her own poo, and someone decided it would be a good idea to give Uso a squeak toy. On top of this, visitors had started to gather in the lobby, adding a low conversation hum to the soundtrack. My head was going back and forth as if watching a pink-pong match, but the women weren’t phased. This was a slow day!
Then, for me, everything came crashing to a halt when I saw Shasta – a dog that had just been surrendered. In what felt like slow motion, I stood up in disbelief and walked over to her, following everyone else who had jumped up instantly. I saw every single one of her ribs. I saw her hip bones protruding from under her mangy fur. I saw every vertebrae of her spine. I saw a dog that was so obviously over-bred, so mistreated, and yet somehow still so full of love.
Are you f’ing kidding me? Are you f’ing kidding me right now?! Am I actually f’ing seeing this?!
I was filled with a mix of rage, heartbreak, and sickness at a level that was new to me.
There’s got to be a baseball bat or something around here somewhere. I don’t work here; I could still catch those worthless wastes of oxygen in the parking lot…
I wanted to hurt the people who hurt Shasta. Thankfully, the staff at BARCS are better able to handle their reactions, and focused immediately on what Shasta needed to get on the road to recovery. She was quickly placed into foster care, joining the approximately 500 other animals that have gone from the shelter to a foster home before they transition to their forever homes.
Meeting Shasta was an eye-opener, to say the least. It’s one thing to see photos of abused animals online, but it’s quite another to be face-to-face with them. You can’t click on the X to make the picture go away, and you can’t change the channel like when that dang Sarah McLachlan commercial comes on. You have to allow yourself to open up and feel the pain, shock and anger of the experience completely. It is awful and overwhelming. More importantly, it is the driving force that fuels rescue workers and advocates to go back day after day and fight to save lives.
With the ugliness of some people still fresh on my mind, I asked Lisa how in the world she copes with it. Her answer: focus on the needs of the animal.
“If someone is surrendering an animal, I can’t say anything to them no matter what reason they give. I just want to know the truth so I can figure out the best option for the animal,” she said.
I would imagine that the ability to bite one’s tongue is a required skill for both the staff and volunteers at BARCS, not only when it comes to abusers, but to angry pet owners and critics.
“Sometimes people don’t realize that Animal Control is a completely separate organization from us, even though we share a building,” Lisa explained. “I have been screamed at, threatened, and cursed because they think that we took their pet, when in reality it was Animal Control.”
As I mentioned before, but will never completely understand, there’s a fair bit of drama in the rescue community. BARCS catches a lot of heat, especially because they do perform euthanasia at the shelter. There’s no way around it; having to perform euthanasia sucks. It is heartbreaking and unfair that some animals meet that fate when, if there were more resources, they might have had a chance. It is sad, but it is reality, and there’s no point in my telling you this story if I don’t tell it completely.
Let me reiterate: The staff and volunteers at BARCS are doing the very best they can with what they have.
“We get criticism because we’re a ‘kill’ shelter, but I don’t think people fully understand the meaning of no-kill. Look at Safe Haven. Some of those dogs were kept there for years and they eventually literally went crazy. That’s not humane.”
“It doesn’t get easier,” Lisa said. “Our goal is not to have to euthanize any animals but the untreatable ones, and we’re getting closer to reaching that.”
Some people don’t believe there is any such thing as “untreatable.” It’s easy to think this way, since no one likes to accept that an animal cannot be rehabilitated. Lisa, however, has a responsibility to ensure the safety of the staff and volunteers, as well as the other animals and the potential adoptive family. If a dog bites and/or is overly aggressive, it is going to be safer for everyone to have that dog euthanized. It’s so important to consider the big picture when it comes to issues like this. Not to mention the perennial problem of not enough space or money to treat the number of sick, injured and neglected animals dumped on their doorstep every day
The problem isn’t BARCS or rescue groups. The problem is a festering culture of animal abusers, along with apathetic, irresponsible pet “owners.” Many of these people weren’t taught basic values and often get caught up in a criminal lifestyle. They have a blatant lack of respect for life, no sense of accountability, and leave the rest of us scrambling to pick up the pieces. If we could somehow reach them and make a change, the entire landscape of animal rescue would shift dramatically.
“Some rescues and shelters can deny certain animals, but we’re open-admission here,” Lisa explained. “We have to take anything on a pole, anything that’s muzzled, biting, hissing, whatever — and do our best with what limited resources we have.” BARCS takes in an average of 35 animals per day, and not all of them are domesticated. Animal Control has brought in seagulls, birds, squirrels, and even an alligator.
Just take a moment to imagine that. I’ll wait.
Social media has been a wonderful outlet for sharing animals available for rescue, foster and adoption, as well as raising money for them. It has also been a scathing playground for critics, adding more stress to an already stressful cause.
Lisa says that she has responded to negative Facebook comments by inviting people to come and do what she does for a day, but so far no one has taken her up on the offer.
“Our critics don’t see us when we sit in here [in the office] and cry because we can’t save them all,” Lisa said as Uso squirmed on her lap. “Sometimes you just have to take a time out from it all and kiss a puppy.
So, to the BARCS critics, I urge you…no, I challenge you to be better. Instead of making a nasty comment, offer a solution. Imagine what goal you would like to see for BARCS and how you can be a part of helping to reach that goal. Before you judge, be as informed as possible about what you are judging. Go spend some time with Lisa and the folks at the shelter. I guarantee the experience will be life-changing.
As I got in my car to leave, I took a deep breath. I was pretty proud of myself for keeping it together during my visit. Then, the reality of the experience and the faces of the animals I met began flashing through my head. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was one of those ugly, hot mess cries I’m sure we’ve all experienced — mascara running down the face, snot everywhere, stupid noises, shortness of breath, the works. I let everything in completely and felt the sharp, unyielding pain of my heart breaking.
My heart is still broken, and I’m still angry…not for the animals who are in the shelter, but for the animals who haven’t found safety yet, and could possibly die without ever having known a life outside of abuse and neglect. We need to continue to focus on them as well, and figure out how to change the outlook on abuse from within communities that have high instances of animal cruelty. The abusers likely aren’t going to be reading this blog, but they have probably seen our signs. What else can we do?
Next time you find yourself feeling sorry for shelter animals, snap out of it. Feel pissed off. Feel protective. Feel empowered. Feel like you can make a difference in one life or many. Feel that love inside that you can provide them. Feel like you can be their strength and their hope, because you can. Lisa Morabito does it every day, and the animals need more people like her.
Written by Carly McGee, special correspondent to SYSS