West Coast Alcohol Cats

I was standing in the corner of a dog kennel with my back turned, as a large, young Boxer jumped up, pummeling my arm, not letting me leave. It was the first day of work at my new job, and I could feel the bruises start. The shaded outdoor dog kennels house around 175 dogs at any given time, includes dozens of breeds (most common are pitties and chihuahuas, but also has huskies, shepherds, labs, beagles, etc.), many of them sweet, wonderful dogs. This particular Boxer was just young and rowdy, not aggressive at all. And he was beating the crap out of me.

As I got out of the kennel, unscathed except for a purpling arm, it was clear that this was going to be very different than my cat days at the ARL in Boston.

Scaredy Cat
Transitioning to a new coast was a very scary prospect for me. I’ve only ever lived in two places my whole life: my parents’ house in New York State, and Boston. And I love Boston. So even though I was eager for the new job, and gaining new experiences, on the inside I was panicking.

I had to remind myself of Pacino, and all the other cats who came to the ARL several times before finally finding the right home. Pacino, when he first arrived at the shelter, was super sweet but super shy. Hiding in everyone’s lap. The second time he came to the shelter, he was still shy, but still sweet. And then the third time he ended back at the shelter, something had changed. He was sweet as ever, but finally over his fear of change. He had been moved around so much, that he was suddenly able to adapt to being in new situations. He strutted the upstairs hallway of the shelter like he owned the place. And finally, he was adopted by the perfect family and became the first cat to a young boy.

I had to be like Pacino. I needed to uproot myself in order to build confidence. If I had stayed in one place, I would have been too comfortable, and in turn too scared to ever go anywhere. As I was panicking about the move, I had to constantly remind myself that it would be good for me, just as it was good for Pacino and other shelter cats like him.

So despite the fear, and with the hope of moving forward in life, I packed everything up, including Smirnoff and Bacardi, and headed for Tinsel Town.

Cats on a Plane
Animal aviation is a complex web of rules and procedure and sedatives. But after I had called the airline to book two passengers and two cats, ordered the right pet carriers, experimented with cat sedative dosages (as Bacardi has panic attacks when he travels), and made sure all of my checked bags were under 50 pounds (it was touch and go for a while, and I eventually had to leave behind Bacardi’s dry food). After I had given away or sold the alcohol cats’ nice scartching post and cat tree, and tried to encourage them to use the litterbox one last time before I threw it away, it was time to go.

At security, I had to take each cat out of the carrier, walk with them through the metal detector (while their carrier went through the xray), and have the cat hair from my hands tested. Luckily, they let me walk back and forth and do both cats (first Bacardi, then Smirnoff), so that my friend who was traveling with me didn’t have to try and wrangle a nervous cat.

But despite a two-hour delay, I was so incredibly proud of the alcohol cats. They were in their carriers for about 11+ hours, didn’t have any accidents, and only started to meow and complain about 30 minutes before the plane landed (by which time, the sedatives had long since worn off). For most of the flight, they slept under the seats in front of us.

The Pacino Theory, Part 2
When I moved last summer, it was a 20 minute drive across the Charles River. Both cats wailed the entire time, and Smirnoff huddled behind Bacardi in the bathroom of my new apartment. He had spent the past two years of his life (so, two-thirds of his total life) in my Brighton apartment. For a week, he spent most of each day under the kitchen sink.

So naturally, I was apprehensive about traveling across the country. But then the day of plane travel went smoother than I could have possibly expected. And the alcohol cats were fully settled in my new apartment in two days.

They proved once again that the Pacino Theory is true. The more you uproot yourself and take chances, the easier the transition becomes every time you do it.

So then I had no excuse. If Smirnoff and Bacardi could brave a transcontinental journey, and stand strong at the other end of it, so could I.

Best Friends Animal Society
I spent the first few days of work being pulled around by large dogs, eager to get out of their kennels and into the play yards. I knew that dogs would be at least half of the job, as the shelter can house around 175 dogs at one time, (and I made sure to spend time with the dogs in order to get more comfortable handling them), but I was eager to show my expertise.

During the quieter hours, I snuck into the cat rooms for some peace.

There are two communal cat rooms at the shelter, both designed by Jackson Galaxy. I slipped into the bigger one, and purring bodies came over, rubbing against my legs and arms.

I picked up a grey tabby with a crooked mouth. His name is Kirby and he’s fourteen. He only has three teeth, has some arthritis, and spends all day lounging on the floor. I scooped him up and he sat in my lap, purring gently and drooling as I petted him.

And despite the marks of the Boxer still on my arm, I felt like I was in a good place. A no-kill shelter that cares deeply about its animals, that will rescue all types of cats. The Best Friends Animal Society shelter in Mission Hills, CA, has several senior cats, FIV+ cats, a FELV+ cat room, and a mostly volunteer-run neonatal nursery, that bottle feeds tiny kittens around the clock. A room that would make the ARL cat ladies swoon in envy.

To be a part of that, I’ll take on a few dogs.

To Be Continued…


Meeting Jackson Galaxy

Photo by Christine Barton
Photo by Christine Barton

A Cat Named Bette Midler
Yesterday at 1pm at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, grumbles of “I was waiting for hours,” and “I was here first,” and “I was first in line,” cut through me as I tried to organize the chaos while people fought over the tiny, adorable kittens up for adoption.

Meanwhile, the adult cats could do nothing to make themselves small enough or cute enough for attention. By 1:20pm, most of the kittens were spoken for. I was kept busy doing interviews and paperwork, but once the madness died down, there was a lull.

Then at 3:15pm, a group of college guys came into the shelter. I asked if they were looking to adopt a cat or were just looking, when one of them said he wanted to adopt a cat, preferably a short-haired female. I took them upstairs to meet Bette Midler.

Bette Midler had been with us over 100 days. She was a six-year-old active cat who had spent most of the six years of her life in a basement as a mouser. Until we rescued her. It took a long time for her to adjust to being at the shelter, and had been put into an office foster because of her behavior (essentially, she lived in a large empty office where she had a lot more room, could look out windows, and was away from the stress of other animals). But she still wasn’t getting adopted.

Once the guys met Bette Midler, she melted. One of them was able to sit on the floor and cradle her in his lap while she looked adoringly up at him. His friends called him “the cat whisperer.”

And then those magic words came… “yeah, I’ll adopt her” and my heart nearly burst and I wanted to throw myself at him and hug him and thought, yes! This is what animal shelters are about. Finding cats like Bette Midler, who so deserve a new chance in life, a wonderful home.

Jackson Galaxy at the BPL
Jackson Galaxy at the BPL

Waiting in Line
I thought of Bette Midler as I waited in line to meet Jackson Galaxy, the famed cat behaviorist from the TV show My Cat From HellHe was giving a book talk at the Boston Public Library as part of his paperback book tour. I thought about Bette amid grumbles of, “I got here at 10 this morning,” and “Make sure that lady doesn’t cut the line,” and “I was here first.” (In this instance, Jackson Galaxy was the tiny, adorable kitten.)

I had arrived at 11:30 this morning, thinking it was better to be overly cautious. When the library opened its doors at 1pm, some people actually began running to the lecture hall. The door to the lecture hall didn’t open until 1:30. Jackson Galaxy arrived at the event’s start  time, 2pm.

Then he gave his talk.

There is no other way to describe Jackson Galaxy except that he’s cool. He talked about how ridiculous it is that so many people in this country own cats, but it’s still considered to be taboo. How we’re all viewed as “crazy cat ladies” (yes, even the men). Well that just isn’t true.

He talked about his background of working with cats in the shelter. And that what started as an “easy” job that he could tolerate while being a musician turned into him being a cat behaviorist on TV. He talked about working with cats in shelters, and clicker training them, and getting them to appear more adoptable. And he talked about how a cat named Benny in part changed everything, because Benny challenged him and humbled him as a cat behaviorist on a daily basis. Jackson Galaxy’s book, Cat Daddy, is mostly about the story of Benny, and Jackson’s transition from working at a shelter to becoming a full-time cat behaviorist.

It’s not really an exaggeration to say that I would have listen to this guy talk all day. But after his chat and some Q&As, he was done.

Waiting in Line Some More
After the talk, there was a long line wrapped around the lobby of the lecture hall so that people could meet Jackson and have a book signed. I knew I would have only a short moment with him and was wishing I had paid more attention in speech class in college—now was the time I needed an “elevator pitch”—so I tried to rehearse what I would say.

I wanted to tell Jackson about Bette Midler. About how when cats like her get adopted, I feel such joy that I know I need to be spending my time in the shelter instead of behind a desk. I wanted to tell him that my cat, Smirnoff, is my Benny—he gave me a crash course in cat behavior that while tough when I adopted him, I will forever be grateful for. That my cats, Smirnoff and Bacardi, are the best companions I could ask for. I wanted to tell him that I love my volunteer work so much, and since I’m planning on moving to LA very soon, I’m trying to get a job at a shelter in LA working with cats. That I love Best Friends Animal Society and hope I hear back from my job application this week. That I know he loves Best Friends too (he was wearing a No Kill LA wristband). I wanted to ask him if there are any other organizations in LA I should be connecting with. And I wanted to let him know that his show inspires me to think outside the box and that I want to become a shelter cat behaviorist, making cats’ time in a shelter the best it can be and decrease the time it takes for “problem” cats (and all cats) to get adopted.

But how do you say all that at once?

Meeting Jackson
For every person who was in line to meet Jackson Galaxy, he gave a smile that said, “hey, thank you so much for coming to hear me talk, I think you’re awesome.”

But despite his high approach-ability, I was still nervous as I got nearer in line. What do I say? How can I tell him that I am interested in the super nerdy behavior stuff that often gets cut from his TV show, that he mentioned during his talk? How can I let him know that what I’d really love to do is grab a coffee and pick his brain about the shelter cat world, even though I know he’s way too busy to give some girl he’s never met his time?

I was next in line when it was announced that Jackson could only stay another ten minutes because he had a flight to catch. Suddenly, my semi-prepared speech had to be axed down significantly.

As I gave him my book to be signed, I said, “I’m moving to LA this summer. I want to work for Best Friends. I want to be a shelter cat behaviorist.” You know, the Sparks Note version.

There was no mention of Bette Midler, who is now settled into her new home with her new owner who adores her. No mention of Smirnoff who is at home with Bacardi, waiting for his dinner, and who is no longer an out-of-control high arousal cat.

Jackson Galaxy nodded his head, and said something like, “They’re really great,” meaning Best Friends, and some other positive response to my wanting to be a shelter cat behaviorist. Honestly, I was concentrating too hard on what I was going to say to listen properly.

Meeting Jackson Galaxy
Meeting Jackson Galaxy. Blurrily.

I got one very blurry photo of us. (My semi-decent digital camera is somewhere at the animal shelter, so I had to dig out a super old one that barely functions. Plus I’m pretty sure the guy taking it didn’t care.)

I managed to offer Jackson a business card and told him I was going to write a blog post about the event if he wanted to check it out later. “Yeah, definitely,” he said. Then I left.

A Guy Named Jackson Galaxy
Now I’m back home with the alcohol cats. They’re slightly annoyed that I’m writing this instead of feeding them dinner (even though it’s not dinner time yet). Smirnoff is meowing his displeasure while Bacardi tries to walk across my laptop.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at work at a desk job so I can pay my rent, waiting for it to be Saturday again so I can go to the Animal Rescue League of Boston and help more cats get adopted. I’m hoping that very soon, that’s all I’ll be doing.

Jackson, if you do end up reading this, what else can I say? You’re a cool dude. Thank you for helping shelter cats.

I hope to see you in LA.

Smirnoff checking out his signed copy of "Cat Daddy."
Smirnoff checking out his signed copy of “Cat Daddy.”