cats know the value of silence (Photo: MNStudio/Shutterstock)
home is where the cat is (Photo: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock)
Alex. He was something. More, actually, than I could have asked for. Adopted in 1996, Alex was a male tabby with magnificent green eyes and an abusive past. We bonded, deeply. No matter where I was in the house, he sought me out and came to sit beside me. He dozed beside me as I slogged through the voluminous work of graduate school. He accompanied me through various ups and downs in my life. His level gaze brought me a sense of balance. His antics made me smile.
When family members came to live with us in 2009, two cats came with the package. One of them was a black cat named Raleigh, a fearful cat whom we sometimes referred to as a “special needs kitty.” Uncharacteristically of male adult cats, when Alex and Raleigh first saw each other, they simply looked at each other without hostility. They moved closer and closer to each other, and Alex accepted Raleigh into his home as his friend.
When it was time for Raleigh to move to his new home, he had a difficult time adjusting and hid in a closet of his new home for nearly a week. The decision was made to give Raleigh to me, and Alex and Raleigh became roommates. They were always around each other and loved to wrestle. In my memory, I can still hear their little playful meows.
Raleigh passed away unexpectedly, and young, in 2012. Alex was the only cat in the house then. He mourned his friend’s loss—I could tell—because he seemed uninterested in everything.
Several months later, we adopted two kittens—sisters—Tessa and Daisy. We were a bit worried about how Alex would feel having two new kittens in his house. True to his open-hearted disposition, he wasn’t unkind to them. One day, Alex was taking a nap on a sunny spot on the screen-in porch. Tessa sidled up to him and lay down up against him. Alex swung around and looked at her, then apparently decided it was okay. He closed his eyes and slept and Tessa did the same. snuggled up against him. Alex had a generous soul.
Alex greeted me at the door everyday, like a dog, when I came home from work. In the last couple of months of his life, he’d lost almost all of his hearing and I had to find him when I returned home. When I did, he invariably would glance up at me and greet me with an adorable little chirp-meow that sounded like hello.
By November of last year, Alex’s health had declined drastically and he was barely eating and drinking. The vet and I made the decision to euthanize him. We did so on November 29, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. He was, in many ways, my best friend.
Alex was buried alongside Raleigh in the backyard under the bird feeder, which they had spent countless hours watching through the screen. Above their graves there are a circle of stones and flowers, and the birds swoop in for their food.
I believe I will see Raleigh and Alex again one day. Alex and Raleigh, you will never be forgotten, and I love you both.
A four-part story by pioneering educator and award-winning author Karla McLaren.
© Karla McLaren 2014
I don’t merely love animals; animals were my shelter and my sanctuary when I was little. The animals in my neighborhood helped me survive the overwhelming emotional realities of a childhood filled with abuse, and to be honest, they helped me learn how to love, how to trust, and how to endure. I don’t merely love animals; I respect them, I admire them, and I value them. I admire their intelligence, their empathy, their dignity, and their sense of humor. When people ask me jokingly, “Were you raised by wolves?” I proudly say “Yes: house wolves and housecats.”
So when my local animal shelter sent out a call for volunteers to help socialize the animals, of course I went, got trained, and began to work with hundreds of homeless dogs, cats, horses, birds, goats, rabbits, turtles, and pigs. This is the story of a few of the characters I met there.
He wasn’t merely not looking at me. He was staring past me with an intensity that said, “You’re so not here that even the thought of you not being here fills me with disgust.” I get that every now and then, and though it does hurt, I’ve learned not to crumble.
I gingerly push a meaty treat through his kennel door and onto the left side of his blanket, away from where he sits, but still within his field of view. “Well Mr. Crankypants, Mr. Dark Cloud of the Kennel, Mr. Hate, everyone gets a treat, no matter how rotten they are.” My friend in the next kennel, the silly brindle-colored hound dog Jake, waits patiently (as we’ve been trying to get all the dogs to do). I move in front of Jake’s kennel, give him a treat from the pouch on my belt, and pet him and talk to him. I overplay our relationship a bit for the benefit of Hate Boy, whose kennel card identifies him as “Milton.” Really, some people should not be allowed to name animals.
I shouldn’t be in this part of the kennel. I’m just a volunteer, and I’m not supposed to go behind the sign that says “Staff Only,” but I nearly always ignore the rules and just shrug apologetically if anyone catches me. This area is a chained-off part of the shelter, which is made up of rows of roomy kennel cages on either side of a cement walkway. My job this morning is to “greet and treat” all of the dogs so that they’ll associate the front of their kennels (and people peering at them) with positive things. We want them looking eagerly at people – not sulking or shivering underneath their blankets, or sitting alone out in their private dog runs. We want them to have the best chance of being adopted.
Milton, Jake, and the other dogs in the chained-off area are isolated from the public for some reason, and I’m not supposed to interact with them. I used to stop at the chain that separated them from the rest of the kennel, but their crestfallen looks were just too hard to ignore. All of these dogs’ kennel cards explain why they’re behind the chain and separated from the other dogs. Sometimes, they’re recuperating from surgery (all animals at our shelter are spayed and neutered, thank goodness). For instance, my goofy friend Jake had a twisted leg that required surgery, and he’ll be in this isolation area until his cast comes off. Sometimes, these dogs are waiting to be temperament tested (denoted by a blue “T” on their cards). Sometimes, they’ve been temperament tested and found wanting (the blue “T” will have a red line through it), and they’re awaiting a decision about their fate. Milton’s T was red-lined; he was a fate boy. But this didn’t mean he couldn’t have a treat while he was waiting – at least that’s what I think.
Temperament testing is different than training testing – where we find out if a dog knows basic commands. All of the staff and volunteers are taught how to train and resocialize animals, because no matter what their previous owners write on their surrender sheets, many animals end up at the shelter because they’re poorly trained. They’ve been rewarded for rotten behaviors, and ignored when they’re being good, so they become what their owners inadvertently ask them to become. We expect that, but what’s really frustrating is that we can usually get a dog turned around behaviorally in just a few training sessions. If people would just swallow their pride and pay for some training, they’d have happy and well-adjusted animals that they wouldn’t need to bring to the shelter. Habits can be changed. What I’ve learned is that most animals are very reachable, and they’ll do whatever their human wishes if they’re just asked in the right way. However, if a dog (like Milton) is temperament tested and found to be unreachable, he’ll most likely be euthanized. At this shelter, we get basketsful of puppies and kittens, crippled animals and sick animals that owners can’t afford to treat, older pets whose owners have died, stray animals from all over the county, and renters’ pets whose presence actually stops their owners from finding a place to live. No matter how many adoptions we manage in a day or a week, more animals come pouring in and the kennel is nearly always full to capacity. There’s just not enough shelter space for animals like Milton who have decided that people are the enemy. We can only do so much.
When people learn that I work at the shelter, they imagine that I’m overwhelmed by the need and sadness of the animals, but really, that’s not how it works. The trick is to just love everyone and not get too attached to specific personalities. A little bit of love can go a long way, and the more love the animals experience, the more likely they are to feel welcoming toward people and end up being adopted. No matter what, the names on the kennel cards will change, and life will move forward. Adoptions happen regularly, foster parents step forward, and many of the animals find homes. There is hope, and whatever sadness I might feel is actually reduced by being here, by helping, and by loving the animals.
I finish giving treats to the dogs in the chained-off area, and as I head back into the regular kennel, I throw Milton a kiss, just to be funny – but he steadfastly refuses to look at me, and he hasn’t touched the treat I gave him. Oh well. It’s time for my second round through the kennels.
to be continued next week…
for part 2: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/14/shelter-part-2/
for part 3: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/21/shelter-part-3/
Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.
The Art of Empathy
What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life. Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you.
For part I: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2013/09/13/i-was-born-in-the-middle-of-winter/
Part II: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2013/09/20/part-ii-i-was-born-on-an-amish-farm-in-the-middle-of-winter/
I do not understand why Gracie doesn’t want to play. She runs from me, and when I tackle and bite her, she doesn’t reciprocate. She just hisses and yells. I suspect she needs training on how to play, so I do it again and again. I keep waiting for her to clobber me, but she never does. Mostly she skulks around trying to avoid me, looking left and right before exiting a room. My surprise attack is one of my favorites, but she doesn’t seem to like it. Her lack of playfulness makes no sense to me. I overheard my people say that I have no skill in alternate perspective taking.
Eventually, I get bored with Gracie—there’s only so much enjoyment one can derive from being hissed at. I turn my attention to my people, swatting them as they go by my perch and occasionally chewing on them if I’m more rambunctious than usual. I mean it in the nicest possible way, of course, and I keep my claws sheathed, but they don’t seem to like this. What’s wrong with them? Over time they’ve started referring to me as Bothersome Bean instead of Mr. Bean.
There is one game my people and I have enjoyed: fetch. It originally went like this: they threw a toy for me, I chased it, I dropped it, they walked over, sighed, picked it up, and threw it for me again. This game had minimal appeal to me because it was always on their terms (strict) and their timetables (limited) and, sadly, they became bored with it quickly. I changed up the game, and they seem to have caught on: I bring them a toy—pop-off milk carton rings are best (and they smell of fragrant milk and remind me of my early youth)—they throw it, I chase it and bring it back to them, and they throw it again. They’re able to do this even when they’re busy doing other things—and they are always busy doing, doing, doing—so this suits me perfectly.
I can happily play fetch for 20 minutes at a stretch, panting all the while. I’ve heard my people complain that this does not seem to tire me out, and they also complain about “my behavior” in general. They think there might be something wrong with me—as if biting Gracie were an issue. They know nothing. Still, they’ve tried many, many things with me: admonishing me, ignoring me, distracting me, and implementing ideas various people have suggested. Nothing works because there is nothing wrong with me; it’s they who are the issue. They just don’t understand. Even the Jackson Galaxy (My Cat from Hell, on Animal Planet) website jingle tries to tell them. It goes like this: “You’re a bad cat. I’m not a bad cat. You’re a bad cat. I’m not a bad cat. You’re a bad cat. I’m not a bad cat. . . I’m just misunderstood.”
I know this: although I am Bothersome Bean to them and to sweet Gracie, I know I am essentially good, and I trust that I have found my forever home with them. They said so.
to be continued…
Part IV: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2013/10/04/part-iv-in-the-middle-of-winter/
Do you have ideas on how to gently stop kittens and cats from biting? Please share them with us—via our contact page or firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!
He closes the door of the red pick-up truck, repositions his gun over his shoulder, and sets off into the woods. Despite trying to ease his weight onto the twigs and leaves, toe first then heel, his footfalls snap and crackle and echo through the pre-dawn forest.
A doe lifts her head from foraging, her button-black nose twitching with scent-taking. With noiseless ease, she lopes off, her white tail high. A groundhog stands on the crest of his mound-home squinting into the distance, his forepaws tucked up to his heart, his teddy-bear ears angled forward. He squeaks and retreats inside his burrow. A flock of quibbling sparrows wheels off into the sky. Only the cat remains. She is motionless except for the white tip of her tail.
The hunter walks on, pausing from time to time, looking around, then moving on. The cat follows, unnoticed, at a distance.
When the sun has climbed well above the horizon, the hunter sits down on a large, sunny rock. He opens a thermos of steaming coffee, crinkles flat the wax paper covering his sandwich, and munches thoughtfully, his head angled to the side. Sun-warmed and drowsy, his shoulders relax and he closes his eyes.
The cats comes closer, soundlessly. She sits a few feet in front of him and looks up. The hunter opens his eyes and startles, then feels foolish. He mutters something about cats—he’s never liked cats. He glares at the cat and looks into her gold eyes. She holds his gaze evenly. He sighs, then he breaks off a small piece of cheese from his sandwich and tosses it on the ground. The cat eats it and looks up expectantly. The man breaks off a larger piece and holds it out to her. She gracefully leaps onto the rock, and with one paw on the hunter’s leg, she gingerly takes the cheese from his hand. The hunter slides his broad palm down her back, then offers her the rest of his sandwich.
After a while, he gathers his things, slings the gun over his shoulder, and sets off. The cat jumps down and follows. Twice he looks back over his shoulder. He opens the truck door and sweeps his arm wide in a welcoming gesture. The cat jumps in, settles herself on the passenger seat, and washes her face.
Two seasons have passed since I found my hunter. He wasn’t much of a hunter, really—I could read that much in the way he moved. It was plain to me that he wasn’t really interested in hunting as much as he was playing a role. It was also plain to me that he thought he didn’t like cats. Most people who give cats a chance find they like them after all.
These days I wait by the window for my hunter. He comes in with a blast of cold air. I jump down and wind my way around his legs. He stoops to pet me and says a word or two. Then we pass a companionable evening in silence. His gun is in the attic, tucked away forever.
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I was born under a porch where I nestled with my mother and siblings in the cool, shaded dirt. We stayed put when she left each night; she didn’t tell us to do so, but she made it clear somehow. We weren’t inclined to wander anyway—there were odd sounds at night beyond the latticework that separated us from the world. So we chewed on each other, and climbed on top of each other, and silently curled around each other, awaiting her return. She came back before first light. We nursed happily and slept.
One morning there was commotion outside our hideaway. Our mother stepped in front of us, tense. There was a wrenching sound, then the latticework fell away and sunlight streamed in. A man and woman stooped down and peered at us, making friendly little sounds. My mother, wary, moved toward them, her thin body silhouetted against the glare. She sniffed their hands then allowed them to pet her. She turned to us and meowed, and we came to her. The man gently scooped all four of us kittens up at once in his arms and placed us in a crate. He called to my mother, who looked at us in the crate, glanced to the side toward freedom, looked at us again, then climbed into the crate. We pressed against her body on the jostling ride.
We came to a place of meowing cats and barking dogs and talking people. A woman carried us to a cage in a back room. Another woman draped our mother across her shoulder, petting her, and brought her to join us. There was a bowl of water, into which I dipped my nose and sneezed repeatedly. There was a bowl of food that my mother ate, all at once. There was a soft blanket on which we slept and passed the time together.
People came and went—tall people and little people, high voices and low voices, kind hands that pet us and fed us. My mother grew less boney. We grew bigger.
An older man came one day, white haired and angular. He opened our cage and petted each of us with exquisite tenderness, then the spoke to our mother. They regarded each other for some time, as though something was passing between them. Before he took her away, he held her near each of us. We touched noses with her, and then she was gone.
Two days later, two of my siblings were adopted by a young couple, and three days after that, my remaining sibling was adopted. The cage had a lot of space to move in, but I missed the sense of belonging and deep comfort that came from my family’s nearness. The people who cared for me were kind, picked me up, and spoke to me, but mostly they were bustling about caring for so many cats.
At night the shelter grew quiet and peaceful. The moon came through the bars of my cage, bluing the floor and my black fur. In its soothing light, I slept deeply.
One day a woman came and paused before each of the cages. I liked the way she moved, like a blade of tall grass in the wind. She lay her open palm against the door of each cage and talked softly to the cats. When she came to my cage I stretched my arm out toward her and blinked slowly—the language of cat love. She asked someone if she could hold me.
When the door swung open, I walked into her outstretched arms, settled in, and reached up and touched her face with my paw. She laughed, a lovely, silvery sound, stroked my fur, and said something to the shelter person. I went home with her.
Sometimes I dream of my mother and siblings, a far-off memory now. In my dreams each of them has someone to love.
Some have the mistaken belief that shelter cats aren’t adoptable, that they’re in the shelter for behavioral and other problems. Generally this is not true. Cats land in shelters because 2% of lost cats ever find their way home… because unscrupulous owners abandon them…because their people die…. Please consider adopting from a shelter. There are 70 million homeless cats in the U.S.
About www.untoldanimalstories.org —We tell animals’ stories from their perspectives. Gentle in our approach rather than shocking, we invite connection, compassion and, from that, action. We also provide tips on what you can do to help animals, and seek new action ideas, as well as animal and rescue stories, from you…. Please write to us at email@example.com