As with most every Saturday, Susan Krueger is sitting quietly this day at the Homeless Animals Response Program (H.A.R.P.) adoptions table, stationed off to the left of the entrance at PETSMART in Pittsburg http://stores.petsmart.com/result-details.php?store=56. She’s got her nose buried in some paperwork, busy with whatever task at hand needs completing. She hardly notices when her name is called.
“There really isn’t much to tell you about me,” she begins before even standing up, a perplexed look on her face. “Oh, let’s just get this over with,” she says, a twinkle in her lovely, youthful brown eyes as she tosses a wry smile at her interviewer and sets off to a nearby coffee shop to relay her life’s work. But not before pointing out Robin, a black and white spotted feline who has just re-entered the adoption program, laying in the cage directly in front of the table where she can keep an eye on her.
Krueger has lots to smile about today, because now, after three weeks, she can sleep at night. “I was so worried about her – that I had made a mistake.”
She admits the decision to place her with a young couple, who with a toddler and baby on the way was clearly not ready for the commitment involved in adopting a cat, was all hers. “But the girl – she was so sure she wanted her, from the moment she set eyes on the cat,” says Krueger, her head tilted toward the ground, “And I didn’t want to say no.”
It was in her follow-up appointments (there were three), that the signs of a failed adoption couldn’t be overlooked. Robin was so happy to see me but had peed on their bed. That’s stress, says Krueger, peering over her wire-rimmed glasses. Although she tried intervention efforts, H.A.R.P. protocol, to help integrate the cat into the family unit and the cat showed signs of improvement, the cat was clearly distressed.
It was after the third visit that the young woman who had fallen under the cat’s spell made that fateful call to Krueger who had just put on her bathrobe for the evening. “She called me to say she had decided to give the cat back and they just were not ready to adopt. I told her I’d be right there.”
The miss-hap adoption was not the first nor will it be the last, says Krueger, who has been an active member of the non-profit animal welfare organization – H.A.R.P. http://www.harp-rescue.org/ – since its inception and then as a member of H.A.L.O. for two years with then president Karen Kops. “People don’t always understand what’s involved with adoptions. These are lives [they are taking home] and they need attention.”
How people tend to care or don’t care for their pets has perplexed Krueger most of her life. Living as a single mother of three in San Pablo, Calif. in the 1970s, she was shocked by the number of cats, hungry and roaming freely in her neighborhood. “I’d make up chicken stew and rice with carrots. They would run up my back waiting for their food.”
What she wasn’t aware of haunts her to this day. “I didn’t know about spaying. I wish I had done something about it back then.” That she did more than most doesn’t soothe the memory for her. “I would sit for hours with them, cats and dogs – there were tons of dogs – petting and talking to them.”
It wasn’t her first foray into the protection of our furry friends. As a child growing up very happily in Minnesota where “everyone took care of their dogs,” Krueger’s father had a beloved dog, named Duke. “He would dress him up with a hat to make us laugh,” she says, smiling brightly at the memory. “We all loved that dog.”
Then life changed drastically for Krueger. Her father died when she was 10, so her mother, after a couple of years, moved Krueger and her two older sisters out west seeking work. Left to her own devices with her mother working constantly, she befriended the lost and hungry animals in her El Cerrito neighborhood.
“I was 12 when I saw a cat in the field with a fish hook caught in its mouth. I went home and called everyone I know to help me take it out,” she says, still pained by the memory. “No one knew what to do.”
But the failed rescue didn’t deter her resolve to continue helping when and where she saw need.
As an adult, there have been numerous animal rescues and pets of her own. “I’ve always had animals,” she says, starting with her first dog, Rommel, a black German Shepherd with a beautiful coat, which she purchased at a pet store in Berkeley when she was 19. “He always seemed to be sick all the time, so I fed him hamburger with skim milk and kibble. I think he was sick when I got him but what I could I do? I couldn’t get rid of him.”
With her daughter a toddler at the time, Krueger admits she had her hands full. “He was a jumper and was always getting out.”
In spite of the trials he brought her young family, she says, “it never occurred to us to put him down,” she says of the dog that passed away when he was 10 years old.
Then, with husband Darrell years later, there came Daisy, a white poodle. “She had cataracts and her ears were all black inside when I found her. Then we found out she was blind and deaf.” The family, including Krueger’s cats, didn’t quite know what to make of the new addition, whom Krueger fed milk toast to three times a day. “They attacked her at first.” She smiles at the absurdity and adds, “It’s always a 3-ring circus at my house.”
She credits Darrell for his unflagging support of her work with H.A.R.P. “Let’s just say it right now, Darrell is as committed to these animals as I am!” she says emphatically, reciting as proof his morning mission to walk their beloved Daisy until her passing at roughly age 16. “He fights to the end,” she says of her husband, who helps set-up and tear down H.A.R.P. equipment at each and every adoption event and regularly helps with donation pick-ups of food, litter, and other supplies.
Of Daisy’s passing, the wound is still fresh. “She was so disoriented. I finally decided to put her to sleep. I felt so guilty.”
After their last dog Tessie, a mutt, died at home, she and Darrell made a conscious decision she says not to get another. “We like to travel and I don’t like leaving them behind.”
She admits her devotion to animals and their protection hasn’t always set well with her family.
“My kids (she has two sons and a daughter) don’t feel about them the way I do, maybe that’s because they had enough of it growing it,” she says, laughing.
But Krueger herself has paused from time to time to contemplate her own nature. “I don’t feel like a normal person when it comes to my compassion for animals,” she says, adding, “whatever it is, it’s innate.”
It’s not the only area of her life in which Krueger has explored the depths of her compassion. As a correctional officer working at one of California’s most notorious prisons for 19 years, she guarded prisoners on death row, carrying prisoners meals up five flights of stairs, three times a day. “I did all of the duties of an officer,” she says matter-of-factly. But the magnitude of her work isn’t lost on Krueger, who says, “It’s such a different environment in there.”
At 40, a single mom working at a child care center for low income families, Krueger learned about a Department of Corrections program training mothers of children on welfare to work in prisons. “I thought, why am I working for half of that kind of income? Why can’t I do that?”
So after six weeks at the correctional academy in Galt and flourishing in the psychological and written testing that followed, Krueger thought she could taste success. “But I failed at the physical test.” Once more her resolve was tested, but Krueger hardly blinked. “I joined the gym and began to get in shape.” While some, like Darrell whom she had started to date, voiced concern, Krueger wasn’t about to be deterred.
“A lot of people would be shocked at what I saw,” she says, that twinkle reappearing in her eye. “But I’m not easily shocked.”
There was much to challenge her or anyone in her role at the prison, where she says all of the correctional officers worked in every facet of the prison, including West Block, the receiving center. Like her fellow officers, Krueger was tasked with guarding 180 prisoners (two to each 9 x 4 foot cell) in her group.
“I remember telling the sergeant, ‘I’m not giving anyone a call!’” she says of her determination, during one of her first shifts, to not be played for a sucker. Then a kind and gentle looking man came into her receiving area and told her he had not yet had his phone call with his lawyer.
“That was it. There went my resolve!” she says, laughing. Later she told the sergeant, “I didn’t even last 10 minutes!” When she returned for her next shift, the prisoner was gone and she was told that he had been wrongly arrested. “I felt good about having given him that phone call.”
Krueger also worked for two years with families in the prison’s visiting room, one of the toughest stints emotionally that she did there.
“Some of the officers wouldn’t take a prisoner to sickbay when he was sick. I wasn’t like that,” she pauses then adds, “I’m still naive. I still think there’s good in everyone. It was the same with the inmates.”
She retired in 2002 and while she misses the camaraderie she shared with her follow officers, Krueger knew it was her chance to finally fully unleash her compassionate side and devote herself to a full-fledged volunteer mission with an animal rescue group.
“I had rescued eight kittens and after two months, found Karen, “ then president of H.A.L.O. Through the organization, she found homes for every one of the kittens and hasn’t looked back. “I try to do my best,” she says of taking over the reins of Feline Cat Manager. “But I’ve simplified a lot of things.”
While ever-devoted to rescuing the unwanted and abandoned, Krueger says she’s determined to maintain balance in her life.
“First my life, then H.A.R.P.,” says this grandmother of seven children, ranging from 7-18, whom she babysits three times a week. She also reads every morning, everything from Harry Potter to mysteries and cares for her own nine cats. “And I will always continue to foster,” she adds.
It’s not hard to imagine Krueger doing just a little bit more, should the perfect storm come crashing down at her feet. Following Hurricane Katrina, H.A.R.P. took on the care and adoption of 11 dogs that were flown into SFO. Krueger spent weeks out at the kennel in Knightsen where they were being housed until the night she decided three of them needed to come home with her.
“I took them for walks every night,” she says, and after three weeks of bringing the dogs to adoption events, they were placed into permanent homes.
“My philosophy is that they wouldn’t be adopted if I didn’t bring them to adoption.” The memory of one such dog, Sara, whom she drove all the way to Sacramento, brings a smile to her face. “She got the best family!”
An ardent supporter and volunteer with SNIP, which performs spaying and neutering of homeless animals, Krueger sounds part wistful, part defeated when she thinks back over her life-long rescuing habits. “It seems like it never ends. I wish everyone would take notice of a stray dog or cat walking by. I’d like it to be everyone’s responsibility but that’s not the way of the world.
“I get tired of going to adoption events. I get crabby, “ she says smiling, then in a serious tone adds, “After all, we all get compassion burnout.”
Monitoring H.A.R.P.’s message line on a daily basis often presents the greatest of challenges.
“How many times can you hear, ‘I can’t take my cat with me to my new apartment’ or ‘I’m going on vacation, so I have to give up my pet?’ I tend to respond with, ‘Well, there are animal friendly places you can go instead.’”
She recalls one particular event that has stuck with her. A woman moving to the Hawaiian Islands was considering giving up her cat rather than placing it in the island’s mandatory three month quarantine system.
“I told her that in the long-term, the outcome is not good. Wouldn’t that dog rather go through three lonely months than a life-time without the human he’s devoted to?”
Krueger doesn’t mince words with the advice she gives those contemplating giving up their cherished pet. “My best piece of advice is don’t give them up. The outcome will not be good.”
Note: To find out about H.A.R.P. and what you can do to help homeless and abandoned animals in East Contra Costa County, contact H.A.R.P.’s message line at: (925) 431-8546.