An Open Letter to My Crazy Cat Ladies

To My Favorite Crazy Cat Ladies,

At 5 a.m. this morning, I was wide awake. I had just fed the alcohol cats some breakfast, but instead of stumbling back to sleep like I usually do, I found myself thinking instead. These thoughts wouldn’t let me alone, and I watched Bacardi watch the sun rise at the end of my bed.

You ladies (and gentlemen) were part of those thoughts. You see, it would be extremely helpful to have some of you—actually, all of you—here with me in Los Angeles. It’s not because I miss you (although I do very much!) but because I have come to realize what a truly exceptional group of people you all are and I need your help.

At the shelter I’m at now, they do some amazing things. There’s a kitten nursery that Marna would be supremely jealous of. They have great teams of dog caregivers and cat caregivers and adoption specialists. They adopt out a lot of animals. But the one area that needs improvement is with adult cats. For some reason, they are the hardest population to adopt out, and this is where you come in.

You see, I’ve come to realize that the Animal Rescue League of Boston has no idea how lucky it is to have such a dedicated (if not sometimes overly dedicated) group of cat volunteers who collectively do the work of several paid employees, who help turn cats around that behaviorally wouldn’t make it at most shelters. (Although I have to interject that the shelter I’m at now is no-kill, so a cat with behavioral issues would never be “at risk” here. But it also has the advantage of not doing intake from the public, so it generally doesn’t have work with as many behaviorally-challenged cats.) But seriously, someone should do a case study on you guys. It’s crazy some of the things you manage to do.

You guys work with super shy cats. Cats that corner themselves in the back of the cage and hiss all day. Cats with fear aggression. Cats with normal aggression. Cats like Tono, who came in declawed on all four paws, who no one could touch for weeks. Until the crazy cat lady crew worked their patient magic, and advocated for him, and he turned into the sweetest cat and was adopted. I’m not afraid to repeat myself: do you all ever realize how amazing you are? If I could get even a pinch of that magic and bring it here, it would make such a difference.

At the shelter I’m at now, I’m the crazy cat lady. Singular. Even among the hard-working cat caregivers and some great volunteers who come in, I alone have gained the title. I’m not even technically part of the cat team, and I’m the crazy cat lady. And it’s because of you guys. Because you instilled in me not only the knowledge of helping cats get adopted, but a burning passion for it. To me, there is nothing more spectacularly interesting than a cat.

Last week, I had some time when the adoption center was quiet. I took another look at a cat named Dahlila, that I had heard was a bit wild (seemingly high arousal) and had seemed that way when I had visited her before. She has a note on her kennel card that she shouldn’t go home to kids or other cats. (It’s true—she hates other cats.) But it was hard to tell exactly what her deal is.

In that moment,  I pictured Michelle, a hundred times, insisting on taking a cat up to the feline suite to see how they would do. How important she knew it was to see a cat in complete isolation. So I got permission to take Dahlila on a trip to a room where I could let her out completely apart from any other cats. No dogs barking. No distractions. And what I found is that Dahlila isn’t high arousal at all. Not one bit. She’s energetic, playful, and comes off strong—but is a complete mush on the inside. All she wanted to do was climb into my lap and rub against my chest. I petted her strongly and continuously, trying to find what Jackson Galaxy calls “the challenge line”. And what I found is that she didn’t have one. She never got overstimulated. She never went to bite or scratch me. She never even walked away. In other words, she is a great chatty cat. She loves to talk and loves attention. She doesn’t show well to visitors in her cage, but that’s not the real Dahlila.

And it was a lesson I won’t forget anytime soon. In fact, it’s what has energized me.

I wish I could be on Marna’s deck, drinking wine and chatting about all this in person. I wish I could steal Christine and her stunning (and more importantly, dedicated) photography. I wish I could laugh with Kim on the drive to the shelter about my crazy plans to get cats adopted. I wish I could steal the Saturday crew that can adopt out a senior cat like it’s no big deal. I wish I could steal the socialization powers of Jane and and Kim C, Terri’s firm belief in every cat, Amy’s tirelessness, and mix it all with the stubborn determination of Michelle. I wish I could steal all of you. Boston’s cats have no idea how lucky they are.

But I can’t do that.

What I can do is remember all you’ve taught me and apply it.

So now, as I brainstorm suggestions for improving adult cat adoptions, which I’ve been asked to compile together, which I want to make my own personal project, I keep a running chant in the back of my mind: what would the crazy cat ladies do?

And it helps.

And I just wanted you all to know that.


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…

Are Shelter Animals “Broken”?

It’s been nearly two and a half years since I began volunteering at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL), and almost a year for the Great Dog Rescue of New England (GDRNE). The idea of animal shelters had flitted across my mind growing up. I often thought that volunteering at a shelter meant nothing more than cleaning kennels and occasionally cuddling a puppy. Goodness knows, I didn’t even consider how many cats are in shelters. Small animals never even crossed my mind. Part of it was that I didn’t have any animals growing up that didn’t live in tanks, and those came from a local pet shop or from our garden. One friend had a dog that was a “buy at the side of the road” type of puppy from someone whose dog had had a litter. Another neighbor ended up adopting a dog that was super shy—at the very least “quirky.” Not exactly a great shelter example. Only one of my parents’ friends had “normal” rescue dogs (and it turns out, were fostered for GDRNE), and that seemed to be because he was an excellent dog trainer. So I understand the stigma against shelter animals, because as much as I champion for them now, I never knew what to expect growing up. Continue reading “Are Shelter Animals “Broken”?”