Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Unpredictable Outcomes

The interesting thing about embarking on an odyssey is that you don’t know where it will take you. As this journey has unfolded, my itineraries have changed and so have I. While I was gone, my husband discovered that he liked life better without me—that was certainly a surprise that has fundamentally changed my life. With my foundations shaken, I looked around me and have found my calling.

Two of my visits created turning points in my focus. It was sparked by a conversation with Jo Elmore the ASPCA representative in Gulfport, Mississippi. He told me about some of the innovative programs he had started while running the Humane Society in St. Thomas (Virgin Islands). St.Thomas has the highest per capita murder rate in the United States. The interior of the islands is marked by poverty and violence. Running an animal shelter in such an environment is an uphill battle. But Mr.Elmore is a non-lateral thinker. Grant funding for animal rescue can be a challenge to procure, more readily available is grant money for under-privileged children’s programs. He got funding to start a children’s summer camp at the shelter, teaching the kids Humane Education, keeping them occupied and engaging them in positive, compassionate interactions with the animals. This program gave rise to an internship program for high school students, getting them more involved in the shelter.

Mr.Elmore is a deeply egalitarian man. He sees that the animal rights movement is dominated by upper middle class white people (himself included). This concern gave rise to creating a scholarship program for the students that complete the internship program. Any of those interns that want to attend college to study an animal related field (like zoology, ethology, veterinary medicine or even some more tangentially related topics) are eligible for a scholarship program to help them pay for college.

Another incredible innovation (that I haven’t heard of anywhere else), included a Trap-Neuter Return program for feral cats operated by a group of At-Risk Youth. This program was funded by the United States Justice Department as part of its gang prevention programs. Essentially, the program involved recruiting young people who were considered at risk for gang involvement, teaching them about Humane animal practices, including locating feral cat colonies, trapping the cats, getting them vaccinated and fixed at the shelter, then releasing them and working with the community to create managed cat colonies.

These youth were particularly well situated and street savvy enough to meet the challenges of some of the tricky neighborhoods where many feral cat colonies exist. The program capitalizes on the ‘hunting’ style excitement of capturing wild cats, but then directs that energy toward positive change for the cats and the community.

I interviewed Mr.Elmore just a few days after my disturbing experiences trapping cats in New Orleans—and found his ideas to synthesize solutions with my concerns. (See my post entitled New Orleans: The Radical Ladies of TNR, April 2007.)

Of course, at that time, my focus was still squarely on the cats. However, when I told my father about these programs, he saw the programs as an incredible opportunity to help reconnect children with nature and other living beings, basically an opportunity for rehabilitation for the children that also benefits the animals.

With this in mind, I embarked on my trip to Indiana State Prison. (See my posts about the Prison Visit in May 2007.) My experience there was exhilarating—experiencing how much their connection with their cats had transformed the lives and personalities of the inmates.

The result of all of this is a major change in my life plans.

I had been planning on going to Veterinary Technician training in the fall. In preparation for opening a Cat Retirement Home a couple of years down the road. However, the divorce and impending loss of my husband’s income from my life means that a risky entrepreneurial business venture, coupled with a two-year degree whose starting salary in a vet’s office is only $10 an hour, has caused me to rethink that plan. In doing so, I believe I have found my calling.

In the fall, I will be returning to school to work towards an advanced degree in human psychology with an emphasis in Pet Assisted Therapies. In addition to enrolling at local University, I am also doing the Delta Society training for Pet Assisted Therapy partners. What interests me most is the possibility of doing research and developing programs that help to heal people through rehabilitating animals, or at the very least caring for animals in a very reciprocal manner. This idea is catching hold in prisons across the country and I want to participate in it.

Additionally, I see opportunities for this kind of work to help heal returning soldiers and others who suffer from PTSD—or to help intervene and prevent the onset of PTSD.

Perhaps, down the road, instead of establishing a Retirement Home for Cats, that is strictly focused on the cats, the idea can be expanded to include a retreat center for soldiers and others in need of Pet Assisted Therapy.

The possibilities in this field are just beginning to open up as the human relationship to our companion pets and the natural world changes and evolves.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Reciprocity and the Union with Other

My friend Dana asked me why cats have made such a difference in my life in the past few years. “Why now and not before?”

I have always loved cats, kept cats, rescued cats. But something about the relationship changed fundamentally when I started studying them with the goal of true understanding. But when Dana asked the question, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why that changed ME so much. Why does understanding cats change my ability to get on an airplane, or have a relationship with my father? The two things seem so unrelated.

Then I read some of Mark Beckoff’s perspective on his study of animals. He explained that when he was studying coyotes, he learned to see the world through their eyes. He experiences this kind of immersion with the world of each animal that he studies. Now, Mark Beckoff is a famous ethologist and he didn’t mention anything directly relating to a transcendent event during his studies, but I wonder if this study of animals isn’t almost like a shamanic journey for the mystically challenged.

I have been told of profoundly moving mental and spiritual shamanic journeys that people have had with horses, bears and wild cats. Their souls journeying in unity with their spirit animal. This is a powerful tradition in many of the spiritual medicines of ‘first peoples’. I have tiptoed into this world, nervous and skeptical, but never fully understood it.

Most profound spiritual experiences involve a sense of merging with other. Whether its God or the earth or a community of people, or a releasing of the mind through meditation or prayer, there is a release from self that happens, an expansion into Other.

Perhaps on a less mystical level, the experience of working to view the world through the eyes of another animal—the investigation, understanding and love of another species allows a transformation within a person similar to spiritual transformation, but more empirical.

Interestingly, during my interviews with one of the inmates at Indiana State Prison, James Stone said to me, “Some people come here and find Islam, some find Baptism, and some of us find cats.” I don’t think he was defining cats as a sort of religion, but rather a transformative experience equal to the religious kind that happens for some—a different way of finding union with Other.

Why do the men in prison have such a profound relationship with their cats? First of all, there is little that is casual about prison—thus their relationships with their cats are not casual. Secondly, they spend an incredible amount of time with their cats. I found that most of them had instinctively responded to their cats needs, setting up their cells as though they had all been advised by a cat behaviorist. With little else to do or focus on, they have become keen observers of the cat. Perhaps without deliberate intention, they had experienced the kind of immersion that Mark Beckoff experiences when he studies a species.

During one of my interviews at Best Friends with the director of Humane Education there, she mentioned “Reciprocity” as crucial to the rehabilitative relationship. “The danger in recognizing the healing abilities of animals—in accepting that they can help rehabilitate people, is that it will become just another way that humans use animals. For the relationship to be truly healing, it has to be reciprocal, benefiting the animal as well as the human.” I think this has been crucial to my own experience as well, by coming to understand cats better, I have been better able to serve them. Improving their lives has contributed to my sense of opening, release from self-obsession and the ability to accept the gifts of joy that cats have brought to my life.

Another inmate at Indiana State Prison spoke vehemently, “There are so many guys in prison here that would do anything for their cats. there are guys in prisons all over the country that would benefit from a program like this, and yet they aren’t allowed to take care of cats, while at the same time there are millions of cats being killed every year because no one wants them. It seems like we should be able to help each other—many of those cats could be taken care of and loved.” Sitting in his cell, just two floors beneath the death row inmates, it was clear that the realities of death row were quite prescient to him—whether it be death row for humans or death row at any of the many shelters around the country. This man clearly recognized the significance of the reciprocity of the rehabilitative relationship.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Ben chose my daughter, April. She was only three at the time. Five years later she is just starting to understand how special that is. This handsome tomcat was probably about a year old when our neighbor, Peggy, found him in the parking lot of a Marriot hotel. She brought him home to join her menagerie of rescued kitties. Being the jovial sort, he immediately endeared himself to the neighborhood. Each day, when April and I would go for our afternoon stroll, Ben would follow us. He adored April, rubbing and purring on her, tripping her little legs so that she would land on her bottom and he could nuzzle her hair. At first, I tried to discourage him from following us. I was terrified that he would get lost. But he was very clever and insistent. So we were just very careful about crossing streets and I would pick him up whenever a car approached, making sure that he returned safely home at the end of the walk.

But Ben’s obvious ardor for April grew—he insisted upon visiting her in our home, wanting to join her for naptime (much to the chagrin of my other cats!) Finally, Peggy declared that Ben was clearly meant to be April’s cat and she released from any claim to him. We were delighted! And immediately took our virile boy to the vet to be neutered.

He indulged April’s every whim, letting her dress him up in doll clothes and push him around in a stroller. He comforted her through tears and tantrums. Even now, when my highly emotional daughter will embark on one of her rages—I can call Ben, and our self-taught ‘pet assisted therapy cat’ will trot to her side, comforting and calming her until the episode is over.

He purrs for all of us—but he reserves his ‘cheetah purr’ for April. Late at night, when Ben and April lay with their heads on the same pillow, I will waken on the other side of the house to the loud pulse of his deep, resonant purr—his April purr that sounds just like a Cheetah.

I tell her how unique it is to be truly chosen by a cat the way that Ben chose her. She doesn’t fully understand, but she does love and cherish him. The other day she asked me how long Ben would live? I told her that we feed him only the best food and take excellent care of him in the hopes that he will live a long time, perhaps long enough to see her off to college. It is possible. I certainly hope so.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: Visiting Dribbles

I am a sucker for an affectionate cat. As the days pass, I migrate from cat house to cat house, seeking out my favorite felines. As I mentioned before, my fondness for Dribbles was only handicapped by his very messy backside, but the caregivers have clued me into a work-around. If I visit the Kitty Motel after lunch, when the staff is washing up the backsides of the Incontinents, I can swaddle his freshly laundered bottom and thoroughly enjoy the sweet smelling, well maintained upper half of this loving cat. Oh Dribbles! xxxooo

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: A Symphony of Remembrance

All day the sun bleaches the canyon. But as the moon rises, it coaxes burnt sienna and red umber from the cliffs. Shadows and twilight’s blues awaken the textures of the canyon. An evening breeze sweeps up the hillside and across Angel’s Rest, inviting hundreds of chimes to release their song.

Each chime was hung in remembrance of a pet’s passing. As the wind changes course, the symphony spreads across the cemetery. It curls around the juniper trees, then catches a chime, one here, another one further off, and then a whole stand of slender pipes that sway against each other like the dance of a hundred souls.

Out of concern for the wildlife, flowers are forbidden. Instead, the gravesites are festooned with frayed collars and pretty stones.

This is a place where a person can sit and cry and feel joy and revel in their memories or just not think at all, absorbing each musical note as a legacy of the loves and lives held safely here at Angel’s Rest.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: Reconsidering Incontinence

There are several ‘suites’ at Best Friends dedicated to incontinent cats. Surprisingly, I found many of these leaky cats the most captivating in the sanctuary.

Zander had me in fits of giggles as he climbed all over my shoulders and arms, shellacking my hair with his copious drool. He balanced his bulky body by winding his back legs around my arms and grasping tightly, while he explored my face with his own.

Dribbles is another shoulder riding cat, however his particular bowel dysfunction persuaded me to decline that level of intimacy (I’m a pretty earthy girl, but…) However, this charming tuxedo won me over with his abundant head butting, rubbing his whiskers and mouth against my cheeks and chin.

Dilly is much less approachable, but this young cat earned my respect through her strength and determination. Paralyzed, she drags her stiff hind legs behind her, but manages to scale any cat tree with claw and muscle—just using her front paws. As she thrusts her torso over the edge of the platform, a large splat of urine flies to the floor, but Dilly ignores this, settling into a bit of displacement grooming.

Entering the lobby of another cat building, I am enthralled by the enthusiastic greeting I receive there. Scooter, a handsome black cat who lost both of his hind legs to a car accident, literally scoots on two front paws, sliding his hinny on the smooth, slick floor, as he hurries to be the first to bask in the attention of any visitors that open the door. He purrs and rubs against me in triumph.

His buddy, a fluffy, gray cat is slowed in his scooting by the two immobile hind legs he drags behind him, but manages to arrive quickly and commandeer one of my hands for his own portion of stroking and rubbing.

Some cats have higher thresholds for touch than others. Given the time, I love to engage a cat in affection until it walks away, polite, but finished.

I don’t think Scooter has such a threshold, it seemed that I could have spent the entire day praising and petting him and he never would have tired of the attention.

Another pair of favorites, Cashew and Pella have been adopted and will be going home in a few weeks. Both born without eyes, this brother and sister seem to have an intuitive ability to seek out and find any welcoming laps. As soon as I sit, the five year old blind siblings come running and deftly leap onto my thighs. Cashew settles there, while Pessa climbs up higher wanting to be held like a human infant when it is being burped. Both are highly inquisitive, captivated by the Peek-A-Prize toy, batting at the numerous balls and tiny pillows that they can reach between the holes. I have never seen other cats react so enthusiastically to the Peek-a-prize when there weren't treats in it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Best Friends Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah: Cleaning Up

“The turn over here is pretty high.” One Best Friends caregiver confides. “I think people come here and find out that they don’t love animals as much as they think they do.”

The majority of the work here is cleaning. Poop scooping, litter box disinfecting, mopping, sweeping, dishes, laundry…an endless list of chores required to maintain hygiene and the physical needs of the animals.

In the “Incontinental Suite”, women wash the bottoms of cats who can’t attend to themselves. Little cats with neurological disorders, whose feet splay and tumble like toddlers on roller-skates, squirt streams of urine across freshly laundered bedding and newly scrubbed walls and floors. The fabrics are scooped up and deposited on the hilltop of soiled linens next to the continuously running washing machine.

Volunteers, many of them in their early teens, traipse through the buildings lavishing the cats with affection while the staff scurries to keep their charges clean, fed and appropriately medicated.

There are plenty of politics and stresses between staff members, human resources and other management. Like asking a large group of people from vastly different backgrounds , education and experience to parent a child by consensus, the low-level discord is inevitable. “The thing to remember is that Best Friends is a corporation.” One caregiver reminds me.

For all the challenges of working for a large corporation, there are benefits (health insurance for one!) “I had my own cat rescue for 10 years, as well as working a secretarial job. I LOVE it here. I get to spend all my time with the cats. I don’t have to fundraise, worry about money, or feel dread about what messages I’m going to find on my answering machine when I get home. I just get to take care of the cats all day.” Explains another caregiver who has been a Best Friends for over two years.

“I have never had less money, or a smaller place to live—but I’ve also never been happier.” Another employee beams as she unpacks hundreds of cans of cat food, stacking them on a shelf.

(This is Toshiba, the infamous paper towel shredder. One caregiver told me that even when the paper towels are carefully concealed in a bucket, staff have been know to arrive in the morning to find his entire suite covered in shredded paper towels. Toshiba will greet them sweetly as though he has no idea what has gone on here, but the fact that his fur is covered in paper towel fibers and scraps gives him away every time.)