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Pets Large & Small

"You’re supposed to love it forever…"

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(2/2012) Shelley McAllister turns 14 in almost as many hours and she's so excited, she can't sleep. Her mind keeps turning over everything that's going to happen tomorrow -- almost like the night before Christmas.

As she watches the glow-in-the-dark stars on her bedroom ceiling, she ticks off her mental list for the upcoming day.

First, her party. All her friends are coming over. They have games planned and balloons and of course, the cake. Shelley grins into her blanket. Her mom always tells her someday her sweet tooth will come back to haunt her. Shelley doesn’t really know what that means, but her mom kinda smiled when she said it, so it's probably supposed to be funny.

After the fun and games at her party, naturally, she’ll open her presents. She always gets so excited to see what's beneath all the pretty wrapping paper. She wiggles a little under the covers just thinking about it.

Then will be the coolest gift of all. Her mom had finally told her she could have a pet cat. All her other friends have pets of some kind and she's always wanted one, but mom had always said, "When you’re older."

Shelley had heard those words so many times, she could almost say them along with mom when the subject of having an animal ever came up.

Well, now that she’s older, mom explained that Shelley will have to help take care of her pet and the cat will be her responsibility. Shelley eagerly agreed. She wants so much to be the mom to a brand new baby kitten. She imagines her four-legged friend sleeping right beside her at night and she thinks of all the secrets she could share.

She looks at the clock beside her bed and when she notices only five minutes have passed, she rolls over fitfully, certain that tomorrow will never get here…


Briana McAllister hopes she can reassemble her house after the rampage of six adolescent girls on a sugar high. She vows not to think about the work that awaits her at home as she takes her daughter to the local animal shelter for the final present of the day.

Briana can practically see the excitement radiating off Shelley as she closes the door of their Volkswagen. Briana mentally chuckles when Shelley snaps her own seatbelt in place without being told. It looks like her daughter's attempting to be the model child in the face of what she deems, "the best birthday present ever."

Briana wonders how many animals she’d have to adopt in order to have her daughter behave this well until she turns 18.

After buckling herself in and pulling out of the driveway, Briana smiles to herself. She's actually quite proud of Shelley. Her grades are always good; she's active in school. She's kind and treats people fairly. Parenting is hands-down the toughest job Briana McAllister has ever had, but looking at her daughter now, it appears as though she’s done pretty well.

It seems a logical time to introduce the responsibility of caring for a pet.

By the time they pull into the shelter, Shelley almost can’t physically stay in her seat. Briana warns her to stay calm and not upset the animals. Shelley bobs her head in immediate agreement as they open the doors.

Briana's surprised at how clean the shelter looks and smells. She's always associated animal shelters with messy places and animals that aren’t healthy. Looking around, she realizes her assumptions had been wrong.

They hear the dogs eagerly barking in the kennels and when Shelley asks if they could see them, Briana agrees, but reminds her daughter they're actually here for a cat. Shelley swears they were just going to look.

Briana really does love animals, but over the years, taking care of her daughter took up most of her time and attention and energy and she didn’t have a chance to think about bringing a pet into her home. Now, though, seeing all the faces of the dogs inside the cages, Briana feels a knot start to form in her throat. She can't understand why someone would surrender an animal to a shelter just because he "pulled too much on a leash."

Briana watches her daughter let a Lab lick her fingers. Shelley giggles, but the expression falls to a frown as they leave the kennels.

"Ready to see the cats?" Briana asks.

Shelley merely nods.

The number of cats in the adoption cages is actually staggering. The felines are all different shapes, sizes and colors. Paws reach beyond the cage doors to try to make contact and others try meows to get attention.

Briana can help but touch one of the extended paws and whisper, "Hi there, baby."

She can hear the purring from where she stands. Suddenly, the animal-lover in here is struck with the fervent wish to be able to take them all home so they'll never be without touch or love again. She kisses the paw in her hand and turns to her daughter, surprised to find tears in Shelley's eyes.

Briana slides her fingers through her daughter’s dark brown hair and before she can ask, Shelley speaks. "Mama," she whispers. "All these babies need homes?"

Briana nods.

"Why?" Shelley asks around a slight sniffle.

Briana moves from cage to cage reading each reason for surrender or telling her daughter which cats were found as strays.

"But what do they mean they can’t care for the cat?" Shelley wants to know.

Briana shrugs. "I don’t know, honey."

"When you take an animal into your home, you’re supposed to love it forever, no matter what, right? Isn’t that what you said? I mean, that’s what you told me before we ever came here."

Briana can only nod, not trusting her voice not to break.

"Why didn’t these people know that?" Shelley asks, tracing the reason "we’re moving" with her fingertip.

"I don’t know, baby," Briana whispers. "Some people don’t see animals that way."

Shelley has never looked more serious or sounded more solemn. "That’s not right, mama. It’s not. Animals deserve love and respect and a home where they’ll be cared for forever, no matter what."

A sense of pride and respect and admiration washes through Briana. The feelings are so intense that at that moment, she can’t speak. Instead she kisses her daughter’s head.

Shelley’s voice is just a whisper. "Let’s promise right now that whatever happens, we’ll love our new kitten and never give him up," Shelley’s blue eyes are so sincere. "Okay, mama?"

Briana nods, kisses Shelley’s forehead again and clears her throat, trying to unclog the emotion that's caught there. For the next ten minutes, she follows her daughter from cage to cage until Shelley spots Oscar. She hears her daughter gasp, sees the resulting 500-watt smile and when Briana looks into the blue-green eyes of the tiny gray kitten, she knows, deep in her heart, that they’d met their newest family member.

Briana sits with her daughter to fill out the adoption application, reviewing and reading each section to Shelley, so they both know what's involved in the process. The two are approved quickly and soon, they're deciding on collar color and whether to keep the name.

The shelter staff explain that he didn’t have a name when he came in, so he wouldn’t necessarily recognize Oscar, but both Briana and Shelley like the moniker and opt to keep it.

Briana also reads the adoption agreement to her daughter and Shelley watches her mom initial each condition and sign the document. Soon, they were taking Oscar out the door, receiving well-wishes and thanks from the staff.

Briana leaves the shelter that day, new kitten snuggled into a carrier on her daughter's lap, and she knows that Shelley's 14th birthday had brought one of the greatest lessons in life – love and respect for all creatures…


Oscar lived with the McAllisters for an amazing 17 years. Throughout their lives, he was a friend, a confidant, a source of smiles, a stress reliever, and most importantly, a part of the family. Shelley was true to her word and Oscar never went without love and was never given up. Oscar taught the McAllisters about unconditional love and the McAllisters taught Oscar that some human beings can cherish a pet for all of his days.

He truly was the "best present ever."

Jennifer Vanderau is the Director of Communications for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter in Chambersburg, Pa., and can be reached at The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at (717) 263-5791 or visit the website

Read other articles by Jennifer Vanderau