The work that isn’t work

The work that isn’t work

The first time I went back to the PAWS (Philippine Animal Welfare Society) shelter in 2020 was to bury a kitten.

Catboy lost his appetite and began looking lethargic late in April of 2020. When he died, the “reopening” of the world as we knew it already seemed distant and vague, with Metro Manila still in the thick of what would become one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

Shortly before this, I was working as an independent curator, and I had sent a few overly optimistic text messages to an artist about mockups for an exhibition ready to be presented to the director of an institution where we were planning a show. “We’re hoping to maybe open in June,” I had told him. June came and went.

I struggle to recall what went into that curatorial proposal, but I have no problem remembering Catboy’s soft fur and small body, still warm as I held him while waiting for Kuya Robin to finish digging the grave that would be his final resting place. “Saan yung silangan (Which way is east)?” I asked him, and he pointed to a sea of billboards to my left. 

I laid Catboy down in the fertile earth, orienting his tiny head towards the billboards before scooping and pouring a few handfuls of dirt over him. A tiny skull that had belonged to another animal was still beside the freshly covered grave. (In the shelter is a common burial ground for its past residents, including foster pets, and the remains of our long-gone companions are on occasion, often by accident, unearthed.)  

I took the skull and put it on the pile of stones that served as Catboy’s headstone. Kuya Robin laughed. Work at the shelter is often one small death after another, and we needed that moment of levity, however absurd or morbid it may have seemed.

Volunteer since 2011

The work
Bunwich, when he was plucked from a trashcan outside a doughnut store. —PHOTOS BY ALICE SARMIENTO

If the pandemic brings to light the things that are worth saving, where does the life of one kitten fall into that discussion? I had been a volunteer of PAWS since 2011, which is already more than a quarter of my life, surpassing the time I’ve spent working with art and artists. The first time I set foot there was to bring in a kitten I had found on the sidewalk. “We might have to euthanize this one,” said the volunteer at the desk at the time. I can’t remember if I asked her why, but I do remember what she said next: “People think we don’t euthanize animals at PAWS, but we do. PAWS euthanizes animals.” 

While animal shelter workers are often forced into a tense intimacy with death, what we are not quite as familiar with is the whole concept of “work,” the most obvious aspect of which is the unpaid nature of what we do. My partner once posed this question: “Is this your hobby?” I couldn’t answer, or at least I can’t remember what i said. I wasn’t doing it for money, and even the love was open to debate in the face of all that death. Must be a hobby, then? 

Truth is, my work in this area has until now felt more accidental than deliberate. I never felt compelled to think about the emotional and physical expense that came with actually considering—I mean really, really considering—the smallness of life. An average native cat weighs 8 pounds, or roughly 3.5 kilos, the average native kitten even less. It should be easy to forget how that feels in your arms, and like any other rational human being buckling under the pressures of late-stage capitalism, I often put more effort into forgetting, compartmentalizing, or employing other practical coping mechanisms we came up with. There were always more important things to do. Things that were “actual work.”

The work that isn’t work prepares you for ridicule. While my occasional work (“actual work”) as a curator is premised almost entirely on the concept of care, conversations about animal welfare have (until recently) often involved openly negotiating what does and doesn’t deserve care—a negotiation that is often received with scoffing and smirking. The work that isn’t work teaches you to anticipate being discredited and diminished. A few months into the pandemic, after being deeply immersed in the shelter’s day-to-day activities under quarantine, I told a friend: “I think I just want to do this or be involved in this for the long haul.” The friend, a researcher and organizer, looked concerned. “Yes, but…” she said, “what will you do as a real job?” 

The work
And here’s Bunwich now.

While volunteer work is often interpreted as something one can easily opt out of, there never seems to be a shortage of small animals put in harm’s way—all these sickly, fragile, vulnerable beings getting in the way of the demands of modern life. Until I became more comfortable with handling animals—kittens, to be specific—the only options I had were to look away or move the animal somewhere relatively safe, and then keep walking. 

‘A small tragedy’

Comedian George Carlin did several bits on pets and how no one warns you that when you purchase a pet, you’re actually purchasing “a small tragedy.” They’re definitely going to die before you do. We could say the same thing about our rescues, withholding the “purchase” part. No one actually wants these animals, That’s how they end up on the street in the first place.

I still think about Marcy, one of my first rescue kittens. I fished her out of a gutter one rainy night, and as a consequence, immediately signed myself up for the round-the-clock care of a dying creature. Her body was basically a host to an endless supply of parasites, which would eventually prove fatal. When I took her in, she couldn’t even walk. But a week into treatment, she came running out of my bedroom, only to run back inside when I began shrieking in excitement over how “Marcy can run!” 

But it didn’t take long for Marcy to fall ill and immobile again; this time, she never recovered. Somehow, we pulled through months of her being bedridden, of seizures in the middle of the night, of needing to be cleaned whenever she soiled herself. I spoke with Marcy’s vet, and the choice was for her to slowly deteriorate with the increased frequency of her seizures, or we could let her go then and there. We chose to let her go.

Few people are privy to the terms by which euthanasia is done. At the shelter, another person aside from the vet has to be in the room. Sometimes that person is me, as was the case with Marcy on that afternoon in 2013. When it was over, I tearfully thanked the doctor before taking Marcy’s body to a freshly dug plot on the other side of the compound. This plot would be close to where we buried Catboy seven years later. Again, this intimacy with death.  

After burying Marcy, I walked back to the shelter’s front office and collapsed into the arms of my friend T, who had graciously agreed to stay with me through the ordeal. Anna, our director, also happened to be there, and she rushed to my side when she heard me sobbing.

“We care so much, we care so much,” she said over and over again, her hand on my shoulder.  Her words would resonate later, as we all gathered over a pandemic-era Zoom call to say goodbye to Kallie, a shelter cat who was no longer responding to treatment for neurological damage. Our vet had tried everything, and the day before, I received a call to come and “just be with Kallie.”

‘Gentle hands’

Euthanasia does not take long. “There might be a shudder and some unpleasant gasps,” another vet had warned me. But mostly there is silence. We put Kallie on a soft bed with her head raised just a bit, so that her face was visible to the other volunteers who had joined the call. 

“Thank you for being here with Kallie,” Anna told us. “Thank you for holding her and treating her with gentle hands.”

I’ve had a lot of time to think about those words—“gentle hands,” not only in the context of this work that isn’t work, but also in what I, or we, do as cultural workers in a country with such a low regard for its cultural sector. I think a lot about care, but mostly within the legitimizing frameworks of the curatorial. I had never really thought about the importance of treating objects with gentle hands, especially with regard to the career-making world of “actual work.” But I also question the useful pragmatism of compartmentalizing, especially in the context of these multiple involvements. 

To keep ourselves from breaking, we compartmentalize and separate actual work from the work we allow near our hearts. But there is work that demands our all, and sometimes it’s not the so-called actual work, but the moments we are called to hold something with gentle hands. To just be there, whether it’s for the tiniest of animals or the most vulnerable of us.

I wish this were in the vocabulary of work—actual work, employable work—but that is often not the case. There is still so much to unlearn.

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