Lessons of compassion at Pets Lifeline
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Sometimes the most unexpected moments are the most rewarding for Mary Green, the humane educator at Pets Lifeline, the nonprofit animal shelter serving Sonoma Valley.
Green often encounters children who don’t have a family pet, but occasionally she meets a child who has never been around dogs or cats at all.
“Last year (at summer camp) I had a little boy who had never heard a kitten purr,” Green recalls. When the child listened to the rhythmic contentment of the kitten’s purr, “He was thrilled.”
Linking children with pets is a longtime mission for Green, a 68-year-old retired elementary schoolteacher who embarked on a second career with Pets Lifeline by serendipity.
She adopted a cat from the shelter in 2000 and returned a year later to adopt a second one. Before long, she answered a call for volunteers and found herself doing laundry and washing litter boxes.
“What everyone hates to do,” she says with a wry laugh.
She also began fostering kittens and developed a special talent caring for the tiniest and neediest newborns, some requiring care in the middle of the night.
Her volunteer responsibilities grew along with her desire to help the valley’s homeless pets.
“I just never went away,” she says. Green joined the staff as a paid employee in 2005.
Although her job description is broad – everything from helping with mobile adoptions to maintaining health records and updating the shelter’s Facebook page – Green is most passionate about educating children about the proper treatment of animals.
She runs the shelter’s popular day camp, with 10 weeklong sessions offered throughout the summer. Kids from 6 to 12 learn the circumstances of how animals end up at Pets Lifeline, what makes a suitable adoptive home and what they can do to spread the message of compassionate care for all animals.
“She’s very good with animals,” notes 7-year-old Isabel White, one of the day campers at a recent session. “And she’s nice.”
“She is nice,” echoes a fellow camper, 10-year-old David Burgess.
Green hopes youngsters like Isabel and David leave her day camp with a greater understanding of pet stewardship.
“I hope they come away with a love of animals and be good caregivers of animals and spread the word,” Green says.
During the academic year, Green visits schools and shares the same message: treat animals compassionately. One of her own pets, a solid gray cat named Flopsy, inspired the shelter’s humane education program and is its official ambassador.
The affectionate 8-year-old cat has a neurological disorder and can’t walk. She arrives at classroom visits in a pet stroller but playfully moves about, seemingly unfazed by her limitations.
“She kind of rolls and scoots and flops,” Green says of Flopsy’s motions.
Flopsy wins hearts and shows students that every animal is deserving of love – even a cat unable to walk. The feline is just one of several special-needs cats in Green’s household. Sparkles can only take seven or eight steps before falling, Petunia is a diabetic requiring shots.
Calm and soft-spoken, Green’s patience is evident as she details the special care her cats require. Flopsy and Sparkles are unable to use a litter box “but it’s not their fault,” Green says. “I do a lot of laundry and scrubbing the floor.”
In addition to caring for her own cats, Green also provides foster care and feeds feral cats, including a colony in her Boyes Hot Springs neighborhood. She rises early every morning so she can feed the colony at 5 a.m.
“Basically I spend all my money on cat food,” she says.
Caring for cats and kittens is second nature to Green. She always had cats throughout her childhood in Stockton and can barely recall a time when she didn’t have a cat.
Although critics claim cats are somewhat aloof, Green says their unconditional love and peaceful companionship always win out. She just wishes everyone – kids and adults alike – could recognize that dogs and cats deserve a loving home.
“The whole idea with humane education is that animals have feelings and you should treat an animal the way you want to be treated,” she says.
“Don’t throw an animal away. Ask for help. And do a better job than your parents.”
While Green has seen some improvement since she began working with Pets Lifeline eight years ago, there still are people who neglect animals. The shelter has taken in dogs and cats placed over the shelter gates after hours, opened boxes to find kittens or cats inside and rescued pets abandoned after owners moved away and left them behind.
“These things happen,” Green says. “I don’t go into it (with the kids).”
Instead, she addresses the eight basic needs of all animals: food, water, shelter, training, grooming, veterinary care, exercise and love.
While nearly every child she encounters wants to have a pet of their own, many can’t. Some live in rentals forbidding pets, some families cannot afford pets and some family members are allergic to pets or dander. Sometimes parents are just indifferent and don’t want the responsibility of a pet.
Green explains to children that each concern is a legitimate reason not to adopt an animal.
“It’s hard on everyone when an animal has to come back (to the shelter),” she says.
She emphasizes that having a pet isn’t a requirement for loving animals.
“I’m hoping when they get to be an age to have animals they’ll stop and think about what makes a good owner,” Green says.
“Be kind to your friends’ animals. When you come to the point to have an animal you’ll know what to do.”
Green also works with children through Kids Speak for Pets, a joint program with Vicki Whiting’s Sonoma-based Kids Scoop newspaper program and funded through a grant from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley’s private Rose Marie Piper Foundation.
The four-week program promotes reading and writing while teaching students in fourth and fifth grades about the Pets Lifeline mission. Held twice a year, Kids Speak for Pets brings Green to campuses where the local Boys and Girls Clubs offers afterschool programs.
Students also tour Pets Lifeline, where they select an adoptable animal to observe and write about. They receive official press passes and work as Kids Scoop correspondents compiling biographies about the dog or cat each has chosen to profile.
Green says it isn’t easy summing up an animal’s physical traits and personality into a few words “that will have a good outcome for the animal.”
The bios help pets get adopted. They are printed in Kids Scoop and posted on the Pets Lifeline website. One time the bio was so personal and compelling that the young writer ended up adopting the pet he’d profiled.
For Green, it was just another unexpected moment with gigantic rewards.
Summer camp sessions begin each Monday through Aug. 12 at Pets Lifeline, 19686 Eighth St. E. For registration information, call Mary Green at 996-4577, ext. 109.