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.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Best Friends, Kanab, Utah: The Haj

The red earth splendor of the canyon walls swoop toward the crisp blue sky. Tough scrubby plants of sage and chaparral push out of the parched clay earth. Nature’s own xeri-scaping imbues the entire sanctuary with beauty.

Tasteful and inconspicuous, amidst this desert rapture, buildings and the gentle influence of human landscaping contribute to my sense of uplift. All 30,000 acres of this canyon forms the Mecca for every animal lover. Home to over 1800 previously unwanted animals, over 400 human employees tend to them, accompanied by countless volunteers.

This is the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. The largest sanctuary dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of companion animals, including cats, dogs, horses, bunnies, parrots, pigs, goats and a few others.

I had planned this trip long before I had any inkling that my husband of ten years was planning to leave me. I arrived here fresh from the battleground of marriage dissolution, not having any idea how profoundly lucky I am.

I spent the day touring the enormous facility. Climbing into a shuttle with 11 other people for the general tour, we visited the cat community and doggie ‘subdivision’ briefly. Then I took a separate ‘pot-bellied’ pig tour, followed by a delicious, gourmet vegetarian lunch (just $4!) at Angel’s Village. After lunch, I enjoyed some mutual head-bobbing and squawking with the cockatoos and African grays of the bird house, and then, as I strolled down the graveled road the leads from the birds to the bunnies, looking out at the breathtaking vista, happiness welled up within me, ballooning and fanning out from my body so that it filled the entire cradle of this canyon. And I existed seamlessly in love.

The world is so much larger than my divorce, my ego (or even my husband’s ego.) My soul rejoices that at this moment, in this place, I inhabit a world where the love between humans and their animals companions has manifested in this cheerful, practical place.

After a brief visit with the bunnies, I returned to the cabin that I am renting from Best Friends for the next 12 days. Awaiting me in my room is K.C. The housekeeping staff has provided my ‘sleep over buddy’ with a litterbox, scratching post, food and water, a big bag full of cat toys and a cozy cat bed..

When I open the door, , KC stands amidst my pillows, stretches and jumps off the bed to greet me.
(K.C. at the bat--during one of our play sessions in my room at Best Friends.)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Angel's Gate, Long Island, New York: Sweet Evangeline

(Please see my April 2007 posts about the Cajun Cats for the back story on how I found Evangeline in Louisiana and how she was fortunate enough to get placed with Angel's Gate in New York upon learning that she had Feline Leukemia.)

Pulling up in front of Angel's Gate, the sanctuary seems like just another affluent, sprawling Long Island home. The only clue to its mission is the small dog ramp that rests on the front stairs. Susan Marino, the founder of Angel's Gate met me at the door. "Let's go around the back way." She suggested, pushing back a bevy of curious dogs.

She knew I was here to visit Evangeline and led me immediately to the Feline Leukemia cabin. "She has a bad cold. It started yesterday, so I was about to pull her from the cabin and put her in intensive care." Oh dear. I worried. Sweet Evangeline, the little tuxedo manx that had spent several nights curled up in my hotel room bed in New Orleans. I was grateful that Angel's Gate had been able to take her, since for so many cats Feline Leukemia is a death sentance.

But not at Angel's Gate, the nations first recognized animal hospice, dedicated to helping sick and injured animals finish out their lives with dignity. Two volunteers sat with the Feline Leukemia cats when we entered, lavishing these loving felines with attention. I recognized poor little Evangeline immediately. She looked miserable, with runny eyes and a disheveled coat--a stark contrast from the rest of the leukemia cats, whose bright spirits and good health were a delight. "With the Feline Leukemia cats, some of them die within the first month of arriving--but if they get through that, they usually live for years with very good quality of life. In Evangeline's case, some sanctuaries would just let her cold run its course, but not here. I treat every animal as though it were a human child, giving it the appropriate medications and keeping it as comfortable as possible, with much hope for healing." Susan Marino is a retired pediatric nurse and she puts all of her skills to use at the hospice.

We brought Evangeline to the intensive care unit. "I like using the nebulizer for upper resperatory infections, that way the saline helps clear out their nasal passages and lungs, plus the anti-biotic goes straight to their resperatory system. Its the same thing we used to do for the children in ICU." She places Evangeline in a small box after hooking up the sterile medical equipment. For ten minutes the manx breathes her medication and seems to perk up. After she finishes receiving her antibiotic, Susan administers some IV fluids. "Just like Anitra Frazier, I am a big believer in giving these cats fluids--even for a cold. It really helps them."

Usually, all the cats at Angel's Gate eat a raw food diet that is ground by a butcher especially for them, 50% organic chicken meat and 50 percent organic bones. To that Susan adds 10% grated organic vegetables, colostrum, and a high-protein blend called "Sea-Cure"--as well as other herbal and homeopathic remedies as needed for the cat's condition. However, when a cat is feeling as poorly as Evangeline, she will offer up a prescription diet. She settles Evangeline into her cozy kennel with an offering of wet canned food. After the nebulizer and the fluids, Evangeline has gained an appetite and she relishes her food.

After she eats, she dedicates herself to some grooming--she does look much better already. "I will keep her in the ICU until she is all better. Using the nebulizer two times a day, giving her fluids as needed. I'm sure she'll pull through."

And then it happens. For the first time since I have arrived, Evangeline looks at me invitingly. I reach out to pet her. As I stroke her, she begins to purr and knead at the faux sheepskin that covers the her cage floor. I believe that she remembers me as I whisper sweet nothings to her. "Look at you--a little cajun swamp cat getting Park Avenue nursing care. I am so glad for you Little Evangeline. I hope you are feeling better. Aren't you a lucky girl to be here. Susan is taking such good care of you."

It is hard to leave her again. Especially when she is feeling so poorly, but after half an hour of cuddling Evangeline and visiting with Susan, I know that Susan has alot of other animals to tend to. In other parts of the main house, I got to cuddle with the FIV cats in their special room, and visit a large bathroom that houses several diaper clad cats, as well as meeting the twitchy cats with neural disorders that hangout in the bird room. So many cast off kitties, eager for affection and attention.

"All of the animals here are loved." Susan assures me. The entire place is immaculate and smells like cleaning solutions. "We clean constantly--I am a big believer in scrubbing things down. We don't take any short cuts. The comfort of the animals is our top priority."

Angel's Gate employs some full time staff, including two vet techs. They also depend on some wonderful volunteers and others who are serving out community service sentances. Money is always an issue. My dear, generous friend, Karen, is paying for Evangeline's expenses. But there are plenty of other cats, dogs, horses, geese and others that need support. "Right now I have several animals waiting for important surgeries, so we keep sending out the fundraising letters and making appeals on television and radio. It usually works out, but I can tell you, there are plenty of times when Vic(her husband) and I are living on pasta so the animals can have everything they need."

So what drives Susan to do all this work, day after day? "Its the animals." She says succinctly. "Responding to their needs is a spiritual experience. For me, it is always about the animals."

New York, New York: Chasing the Gentle Cat Groomer

Most pet groomers won’t even think about grooming a cat. Those that do often resort to a combination of force and restraints to subdue a cat—some also don Kevlar sleeves and even face masks as protection. They speak wearily of cat bites and other injuries. It is a tough business.

Enter Anitra Frazier. 30 years ago, she was working for a veterinarian who sent her out to make cat grooming house calls, armed with nothing more than a comb and a pair of dissecting shears. She knew nothing about scruffing cats or any other methods of restraint. She had never groomed dogs, so she didn’t apply dog grooming methods to her cat grooming. She proceeded to develop a completely unique and very gentle method of cat grooming, that incorporates the cat’s guardian as a soothing assistant and focuses on keeping the cat relaxed and comfortable.

Her famous bestselling book “The Natural Cat” is about to be released in its third edition. In the book she describes the techniques she uses. But most of the book is dedicated to feline nutrition, because as a groomer she discovered that the true key to a great coat is nutrition.

Anitra invited me to spend a couple of days observing her, so that I could gain a deeper understanding of her techniques. It is one thing to read about gentle cat grooming—and another thing entirely to witness her in action.

For two days I chased after her as we traversed Manhattan from top to bottom and even detoured in Brooklyn. She is a wonder. At seventy years old, she is fast and fit, and definitely a challenge to keep up with.

She doesn’t use electric clippers or any other methods of shaving a cat. “I never do a lion clip. The poor cats look ridiculous. Its embarrassing for them. Plus the shaving is terrifying for them—and often painful. No, my job is to show the cat that grooming is a pleasure. I will never hurt them. I speak to them, offering positive mental pictures.” She cooes her examples. “Now my dear, this is going to feel so good and you are going to look so beautiful. Isn’t it lovely to be clean? I’m going to take out this uncomfortable little matte—there you go, now doesn’t that feel better? Now I am going to do the same thing on the other side, and won’t that feel good?” Her specialty for long-haired cats is the very attractive Teddy Clip, their fur cut down to about ½ inch long with scissors.

She breaks every common rule of grooming, holding the cat close to her body, helping it feel safe and secure. She uses as little restraint as possible, often seeming not to control the cat at all, but cutting fur and combing whatever part of the body that the cat presents to her. Yet she is managing the cat, “Don’t ever let the cat escape, it is important that they learn that the groomer will let them go when the session is done.” Sometimes the session is done before the cat’s coat is finished. “I can always come back another time. This is why I charge by the hour rather than the job. It isn’t worth stressing the cat to finish the coat. Sometimes we get it all done. Sometimes just one half.”

As the cat tires of the grooming session, Anitra calls on the cat’s guardian and trusted companion to distract the cat with love talk and stroking to the head. This is incredibly effective and I watched as one cat after another responded to this calming contact, closing their eyes and acquiescing to more grooming.

“With some of these cats it took them a long time to understand how wonderful it is to be groomed. They had had a bad experience with another groomer—or some other trauma and it took a lot of time to develop trust. But then they learn the routine and some of them start to enjoy it.”

Anitra also provides holistic nursing for geriatric cats. We visited one cat that is suffering from kidney failure. Anitra visits three times a week to administer sub-cutaneous fluids. “I think that sub-cutaneous fluids are terribly underused. I offer fluids anytime a cat is going off its food, or its coat seems dry. Sometimes that little pick me up can really make a huge difference for the cat. It doesn’t have to be a lot of fluids just 100 cc’s can make all the difference sometimes. It is so easy for cats to become dehydrated. Especially on these dry food diets that everyone is so fond of.” She tsks. “I tell all my clients to get their cats on a raw food diet—ground organic beef, with calcium added and some shredded vegetables—that will make a huge difference in how much grooming they need—as well as their overall health. I also like to garnish the raw meat with a little bit of PetGuard wet food—for palatability. With cats its all about Taste, Texture and temperature. If they don’t like something, try warming it or adjusting what vegetables you ad. Some cats like the sweeter vegetables like a good baked squash—while I have known other cats that would kill for a bit of chopped asparagus in their dinner.”

This diet has an amazing effect on her client's coats. The Persians' fur was as light as air, silky puffs of fluff, making the groomer's job much easier.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Wolf Park, Battle Ground, Indiana: The Mouths of Wolves

Caesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer of National Geographic fame) is often the bane of my cat consultations. “I’m doing everything just the way Caesar Millan says, I’m using calm assertive energy and showing my cat that I am the leader of the pack.” His methods are deeply imbedded in the psyches of those that enjoy his show—and they are a source of much controversy in the dog training world, but simply put, they are all wrong for cats.

Because both dogs and cats are predators and can live companionably with humans, people sometimes treat cats like dogs. And yet they are completely different species. The Cat family evolved in the Old World (Europe and Africa primarily), while the canine and wolf families originated in the New World (North and South America). True, over thousands of years some cats migrated to the New World and some Wolves migrated to the Old World (primarily over the ice bridges of the Bering Straights, I am told.) In many ways they fill the same niche—but they are built entirely differently. A cats claws and teeth combine as formidable hunting tools allowing most kinds of cats to hunt alone, while most wolves need to hunt in packs for optimal survival (to bring down big prey.) Cats are not pack animals.

Because most people know so much more about dog behavior than cat behavior, sometimes it helps to contrast the two. But I don’t relate well to dogs or understand them, so I visited a Nashville area dog trainer to try to learn more about dog behavior. I asked her, “In my cat books, they say that one reason that discipline doesn’t work with a cat (unlike a dog), is that the cat is a solitary hunter—if a cat spoils its own hunt, the cat is the only one that loses. But with a pack animal—like dogs—the alpha male will discipline the dog that makes the mistakes. Is that true? Do they really do that? Also, cats are known for congregating for social purposes that include mating, but their interest in companionship is not based on survival—while a dog is dependent on the pack for survival and that is the basis of the distinct personality difference between the independent cat and the subservient dog—is that true?”

Unknowingly, I had stepped right into the middle of the great dog debate. There are (at least) two dog camps: the Positive Reinforcement school (using positive reinforcement to shape behavior, commonly referred to as ‘Clicker Training’) vs. the Dominance Theory of dog training (such as the famed Caesar Millan, who works to establish himself as the Alpha leader of the pack, using appropriate discipline etc..) My assumptions about dogs drew from the Dominance theory, while I was interviewing a clicker trainer. She kindly declined the interpretations of dog behavior that I had presented and instructed me, “If you really want to understand the roots of dog behavior, you should take a class at Wolf Park.”

Wolf Park! ( ) What a marvelous detour on my cat odyssey. Immediately I signed up for their ‘Weekend Wolf Intensive”—three days of education about wolf behavior and interaction with real, live wolves!

When I mentioned that I was going to Wolf Park to gain a better understanding of dogs, several people assured me that the two species were, in fact, unrelated and quite distinct: Lupus vs. Canine, but according to the ethologists at Wolf Park, this controversy may have been cleared up by DNA and other research. For starters, Wolves and domestic dogs have identical DNA, and they can mate and produce fertile young.

Another piece of interesting evidence is a 50 year research project done in Russia that quickly simulated the same results that probably took many thousands of years to occur naturally. In the experiments with Silver foxes, the foxes were divided and bred exclusively for their sociability to humans. Through the generations of foxes that became increasingly friendly and well adapted to human companionship, the animals underwent a physical transformation that was NOT being selected for: their tails curled, their ears flopped and their coats became spotted. Similar experiments in rats and rabbits (selected for their friendliness with humans) produced similar physical traits.

Based on these and other evidence, the currently accepted conclusion is that our modern domestic dog is a descendent of the wolf. As humans settled into an agrarian lifestyle, they created garbage dumps, during times of scarce prey, wolves would scavenge those dumps. The wolves that habituated most easily to humans would have had a higher success rate, thus surviving to breed pups that also adapted well to humans.

The difference between dogs and wolves? Dogs have adapted so well to humans—and humans to dogs, that some researchers see the evolution of humans and dogs as linked. Dogs see humans as part of their pack. While Wolves see humans as distinct and different from themselves. According to the staff at Wolf Park, “We learned that we were much safer when we accentuated our differences, rather than trying to integrate into the pack. I think the wolves here think of us like highly productive pets, who provide food—and are marvelous groomers, but we exist outside of the pack structure. The advantage being that we exist outside of the constant awareness and struggle for place in the pack heirarcy. Simply put, our skin is too fragile to be tested regularly.”

The boisterous wolves pounce on each other, growling and rolling. It seems that consciousness of their ranking pervades their every waking minute. But their hierarchies are changeable and function differently in different packs.

Although there are behaviors that are consistent from pack to pack, each pack is made of individual personalities that coalesce to create a specific culture—much like we see in different cat communities. The culture of the pack may be determined by the personality of the Alpha male. At Wolf Park, the staff speak loathingly about the days when Renki was the Alpha. “He was such a bully, the pack was in constant conflict.” Finally, he was overthrown when the rest of the pack of six ganged up on him. Tristan emerged as the Alpha male, much to everyone’s joy, because Tristan doesn’t rule by brute force. “Some wolves just have that personality. Something about the way they carry themselves commands respect—they don’t have to prove their strength daily. Just like some human leaders, the pack just follows.”

The wolves contact with each other is overwhelmingly oral. And it strikes me that this is a strong distinction between cats and dogs. Cats engage in a nose to nose sniff in greeting, then perhaps a head butt or cheek rub and a good whiff of each other’s tushies, but wolves engage in mouth to mouth, well lathered greetings involving tongues and teeth. As I observed them at the park, it seemed that they were constantly in each others mouths.

In fact, they were also very intimate with my mouth. We were instructed to let the wolves kiss us, as this is a friendly way to interact with them. When we entered their pen, I positioned myself next to a large log. Kailani (the alpha female by virtue of being the only female in this pack) leapt onto the log and extended her long nose to sniff me. I avoided direct eye contact (very rude with cats and wolves), but offered her my face to sniff. Immediately her tongue was working its way all over my mouth, wet nose probing too. It was very gratifying, but I drew away as she became more excitable. Later, she approached me again, as I sat on a different log. This time her greeting was so enthusiastic that she nibbled on my lower lip before I pulled away. Her kisses left my lips lightly damp and very salty because of the dog treats she had just eaten.

Not being overly fond of being licked, it was clear that this is another reason I relate better to cats than dogs. A level of oral contact that I (frankly) consider highly excessive is a natural part of canine/lupus communication—and a very important one too. Yes, its true, cats engage in mutual grooming—and in fact, I even enjoy the exfoliated effect of a bit of cat grooming on my hand—but I don’t like being slobbered on.

I also found the wolves constant angling for position exhausting to watch. Most cats exist in fluid hierarchies that operate more like time-share arrangements—though occasional personality clashes may cause discord in a particular home. With the canine family, each pack has an institutionalized structure, which may have its own quirks from pack to pack, but none the less, the hierarchy is obvious and crucial to their social organization--very different from cats.

The ranking of the pack became very clearly, very quickly. Tristan stayed out of most of the wrangling, benevolent Alpha that he is, though occasionally he might step in to break up a conflict. The wrestling and ritualized (not dangerous) aggression between the 2nd and 3rd in the hierarchy—particularly with regard to Rudy, the omega wolf, was persistent. It was clear that humans wouldn’t stand a chance (as pack members) in an environment of constant testing.

What I learned seemed to indicate that both the positive reinforcement folks and the dominance theory folks have some insight into the nature of the dog/wolf. There is no question that wolves organize themselves in dominance hierarchies, and that, according to the many years of experience at Wolf Park, positive reinforcement is crucial to shaping their behaviors to be compatible with their human handlers. With dogs, that same hierarchy has been adjusted to include humans, and watching the wolves, it seems that being a benevolent alpha (with calm, assertive energy, like Tristan) is essential to managing a dog, but that positive reinforcement is clearly the key to unlock many beneficial behaviors in the human/canine relationship.

Did I get answers to the questions I had originally posed to the dog trainer? Sort of.

No, the alpha wolf doesn’t ‘discipline’ a pack member that messes up the hunt. In fact, 9 out of ten attempts to bring down prey fail. In a given pack, some of the older wolves won’t even participate in the hunting, though they do get to partake of the meat. An Alpha male isn’t necessarily the best hunter, he may have other qualities that make him the leader.

One of the great benefits of visiting Wolf Park is observing the Wolf/Bison demonstration. Of course, a wolf’s preferred prey is an elk or deer, but Bison is another prey that have been integral to the wolves existence. We watched two wolves attempt to snag a calf from a herd of Bison. Mostly, we watched the young ‘punk’ Bison males chase off the wolves. A wolf is no match for the powerful Bison, clearly to take down such a prey takes the power of a pack.

In their hunt, wolves are very different from humans, who usually prize the strongest member of a herd. Wolves test and watch for the weakest animal in the herd, they work to separate that animal from the herd often chasing the herd for long distances before finding their kill. This aerobic form of hunting is very different from the cat, who is a stalker and pouncer and rarely does more than a sprint to take down its prey—alone.

So what about the question of discipline? Wolves do discipline each other down the hierarchy, insisting on submission from lower ranking members. With their pups, they are very tolerant until the pups mature, then the adults will assert themselves mostly using their mouths to correct annoying behaviors.

I collected some of fur that wolves had shed. “Take it home to your cats, their reaction will be a lot of fun.” In true dog form, the fur gave off a pungent odor. The fur enthralled ycats, who chewed on it and played with it and reacted as though it were catnip.

As my friend observed, she said, “I bet it’s the smell of carrion, the wolves roll around in all sorts of gross smelling stuff don’t they?”

'Yes, they do,' I thought as I reached down to pet my own smelly dogs whose unwashed frontier spirits stand in such distinct contrast to the old world gentility of my sweetly, self perfumed cats.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Indiana State Prison: A few more thoughts

Reading over my last post, I wanted to clarify a few things:

The prison population at Indiana State Prison is about 2,000 with 47 cats currently registered in the program. According to the staff, problems with cat safety are few and far between. It was clear to me that these cats are cherished by their people. The cats are pampered and well-tended, getting more attention than most housepets.

The inmates have been incredibly resourceful in providing a comfortable and safe environment for the cats. And their cats receive top priority in the men’s financial arrangements. As Bear put it, “There have been plenty of times when my locker was empty, because I had spent all the money I had on my cat. I can go without, but my cat never does and that kind of responsibility is the kind of challenge that makes you grow.”

From my interviews, it is clear that for all the problems and dangers of prison culture, at Indiana State Prison, the predominant culture is one that cherishes cats and the role that they play in the lives of the men that are incarcerated there.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Indiana State Prison, Michigan City, Indiana: A Better Place for Everyone

Cats started the Indiana State Prison cat program. One by one, over the years, they arrived, entering the prison through the bars of the North Gate, depositing litters of kittens into the eager arms and hearts of the inmates there.

Indiana State Prison is a men’s maximum security prison. Before coming here, I had mentioned my impending visit in various conversations. Concerned cat lovers had fretted over the fate of cats confined with such a rough crowd. 70% of the offenders incarcerated at Indiana State Prison are there for murder.

However, during my interviews, I found that whatever the complexities of their relationships with other people, most of the offenders in the cat program have always been animal lovers. And their devotion to their cats goes beyond providing these felines with security. These men adore their cats. Again and again, they affirmed that the cats had changed their lives, calming their anger, offering them love and teaching them about the joys and sacrifices of responsibility.

“When I arrived here, I had nothing to lose.” Explains ‘Bear’. “When you have nothing to lose—you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. When I got my first cat, it changed me. There is something about holding a cat that makes your anger melt away. And if someone does something that upsets me—I have to remember my cat. I can’t keep my cat if I get into trouble.” He smiles wryly, reaching for little Ziggy. Bear’s last cat died recently from a pulmonary disorder. Bear was devastated, as were the other men on his floor. Because the cat died of natural causes, he was able to get a new kitten. Ziggy was sourced through a local animal shelter that works with the prison.

He and his cellmate, Tom (who also has a cat, Booger) had to ‘kitten-proof’ their cell. They took down the cat tree that they had constructed for Booger and the previous cat, concerned that the very energetic and inquisitive kitten might injure himself on it. They also built a makeshift ‘cage’ for Ziggy to keep him safe when Tom and Bear have to be away from the cell.

According to the rules, all the cats are supposed to be leased at all times, but the guards and administration are very lax about these regulations, observing closely and using their discretion in individual cases, always with an eye toward the safety of the cat.

The gorgeous, fluffly Milo tends to stay in Mark Booher’s cell. Though the cat’s outgoing, sociable personality draws many visitors to his cell. The showers are immediately adjacent to Mr. Booher’s cell and Milo will pad over to stay close to his person. “A while back, I had a court date so I was gone for 10 days. The last thing I did before leaving was to shower. Milo followed along. When I got back, everyone told me that whenever he heard the showers turned on, Milo would hop over to see if it was me. It was nice to know that he was missing me.” Mr. Booher continues, “I was really lucky to get a cat like Milo. He has softened me. In a place like this, you have to keep your front up all the time, but not with Milo.”

Mark’s mother has always been a cat lover. Being able to swap cat anecdotes helps him stay close to her. “If it wasn’t for Milo, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.” He gestures out at the prison. “The cat program is the best thing happening here. It gives my life a purpose.”

James Stone got his first cat ‘Jinx’ years ago, well before the prison formalized the cat program. An inmate in his building had found a cat in the yard and brought it to his cell. “James, something is wrong with this cat.” The inmate called on him because James had a reputation for caring about animals.- Examining the cat, James assured him that the cat was fine—just in labor. Both men attended the birth. As the kittens matured, the other man sold these highly prized companions to other offenders for hundreds of dollars. But the runt of the litter was twitchy, with a crooked tail, poor balance and patches of fur missing. “He was real pathetic and nobody wanted that kitten. The guy was asking $300 cash, then a week later he dropped the price to $200, then $100—then $50 in kit. Finally, he just wanted to get rid of it. I was afraid he might kill it, so I took it.” Like the tale of the Ugly Duckling, ‘Jinx’ grew to be the most handsome and popular cat of the litter. “Even Major Cabanaw loved him. I’d come back to my cell and the guys would tell me,’The Major was here, hanging out in your cell with Jinx.’”

Indeed, Major Cabanaw has a photo of James Stone and Jinx on the bulletin board in his office. “I am 100% in favor of the cat program.” He proclaims proudly. “I don’t know of any other corrections facility that has a program like this—but I would recommend it for all prisons. The bottom line—it gives the offenders a reason to behave. It changes them. I’ve got guys in here who caused all kinds of problems—then they got a cat and thats it—they settle down and haven't caused any trouble since.”

A Major is the highest ranking corrections officer in the system. Indiana State Prison is only supposed to have one major overseeing the internal workings of the prison. My guide for the day, Vince Morton, is also a Major, but he was promoted to an administrative position overseeing prisoner grievances and other special programs (like the cat program.)

I asked if Major Cabanaw had concerns for the safety of the cats. “Of course, we always want to ensure the safety of the cats, and the staff is great about keeping an eye out for them. But mostly, it’s the offenders keeping them safe. I have never once seen an offender kill his own cat. We screen them to be sure they have no history of animal abuse. But I’ll tell you this, there was a guy killed in here because he had spit soda pop onto someone else’s cat.”

Kris St. Martin, a corrections officer, tells me, “There was a guy here whose cat was killed a couple of years ago. The guys on the floor put out a contract on that cat killer. No one was ever able to figure out who had done it, but if they had, well, as I said, there was a contract on him…Mostly these guys are really protective of the cats and they all benefit from their presence. A cat will visit with the offenders in their neighboring cells, and it means a lot to all of them. Occasionally, we get someone who has issues with casts, so we move them out to another building.”

When I visited, James Stone was providing a bit of ‘kitty day-care’ for another offender's cat, while he looked after his own cat. “Yeah, I take care of this guy’s cat while he’s at work.” James smiles proudly. This seems to be a fairly common practice among the cat program participants.

Jinx passed away from natural causes. The local shelter helped James find a cat that look a lot like Jinx. “ ‘Jinxster’ has the white paws, which Jinx didn’t have, and his personality is different, but he is still a great cat.”

Jinxster walked right up to me and offered a friendly overture as James continued to speak. “I have a temper. One time some things happened and I was feeling pretty serious about doing something. I was ready to do something. But Raol put Jinxster in my arms, and I just held him until I didn’t need to do something anymore.”

Slightly sheepish, he claims, “During my first 15 years here, I was trouble. I was out there in the yard, just making trouble.” Vince Morton and Kris St. Martin nod their heads knowingly, they both knew him before his first cat. “But Jinx changed all that. I’m a different person now.”

He shows me the marvelous cat house he built for his cats from scrap lumber and other odds and ends. I am amazed at how intuitively these men have responded to their cats needs. All of them have responded to the cats desire for height by constructing shelves for the cats.

“They certainly are innovative and resourceful.” Vince Morton affirms. Cat toys made from found pigeon feathers, boxes, string, scraps of carpet and fabric retrieved from dumpsters. A faux lambs wool paint roller makes a terrific cat toy.

The Assistant Superindent of the prison tells me, “I know there are people out there who think the offenders shouldn’t have cats. Some people don’t want them to have TV or anything to do. But I would support this cat program at any prison. Those cats humanize the men. The cats give them unconditional love, for many of those guys, that may be the only love they have ever experienced in their lives. And the bottom line for me, is that my staff are safer because of it. Every day that none of my staff gets hurt—that’s a good day. Watching over these guys is a dangerous job. And anything that makes that job safer is good with me.”

The administration and the staff that I spoke with emphatically supported the program. “I’ve been here for over 25 years, and I have seen a lot of offenders transformed by the cats.” Vince Morton is the man who kindly organized my visit and took a morning away from his vacation time to show me around. “This is an important program, I’m glad for an opportunity to tell people about it.”

My last interview was with Michael Overstreet, on death row. The program was only recently opened to Death Row inmates. Mr. Overstreet applied to the program and six weeks later received a darling black kitten, whom his seventeen year old daughter named ‘Athena’.

The cat program is virtually cost free to the prison (and tax-payers!) The program participants are responsible for all the expenses relating to the cat, including food, litter and veterinary bills. They can earn that money through work programs or through financial support from their families. “My grandmother is a real cat person.” Mr. Overstreet explains, “I asked her if she would sponsor my cat and she agreed…This cat has brought me so much happiness and order to my days. I used to sleep all day and be up all night. But now I have responsibilities.” Athena runs around the cell investigating everything, pressing her head through the bars to inquire about me. I was able to enter all of the other prisoner’s cells, but the rules are different on Death Row. No one enters the prisoner’s cells unless the offender is handcuffed, for one thing.

With each interview, I shook hands with the offenders. Vince Morton had advised me, “Most of the staff don’t know the specifics of the crimes these guys have committed. I find that its better not to know. It helps you be fair with them, if you aren’t thinking about what they did—and you absolutely don’t want to bring it up.”

All of our conversations focused on the cats, the logistics of prison litterbox maintenance, the importance of the cat relationship, anecdotes and one cat’s preference for ice water (all the inmates on Milo’s floor keep his water bowl nicely chilled by constantly refreshing his ice—since he has expressed a preference for cold water.)

I hadn’t known what to expect, never having been to a prison before. My entire idea of this world was based on The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Prison Break. I had anticipated mind-games and all sorts of possible unpleasantness. Instead, I found these men to be humble, respectful and profoundly sincere in their humanity and love for their cats.

In spite of the setting and the non-specific knowledge that their presence here was caused by unthinkable actions, I left the prison surprisingly uplifted, being so impressed by the compassion of the staff and the transformational impact of the cats.

When I arrived at my hotel two hours away in Lafayette, Indiana and had unpacked, I sat at my computer to download the photographs I had taken of the prison cats. Curiousity overcame me and I did a google search for ‘Michael Overstreet’.

As soon as I read it, I knew I would not look into the pasts of my other acquaintances.

Mr. Overstreet’s crime is the stuff of every woman’s worst nightmare.

On a deeply spiritual level, I believe in compassion for all beings. I believe in the right to rehabilitation. I believe that the entire universe benefits every time a heart is opened to true love. I believe these convictions so deeply that I believe that no matter how heinous the crime, that as long as the animal is safe, this cat program is good and right, not just as a reward for present good behavior, but because learning to love selflessly—even when the soul learning that love is about to be extinguished—the ability to experience that kind of love lightens the world. It makes the world a better place for everyone.

No studies have been done examining the impact of prison animal programs on recidivism. But Superintendent Buss assured me that the data for prisoner conduct within the facility is conclusive, the cats make the prison a better environment. The whole program is incredibly inspiring regarding the potential for animals to heal humans.

But Vince Morton was right, there are some things that it is better not to know.

Tonight I sit with great discomfort about Michael Overstreet, who loves his little cat Athena, and his four children and the grandmother that is sponsoring his kitten. Michael Overstreet whose hand I shook and with whom I spoke about the vagaries of love.