Anastasia has no instinct for self-preservation—at least not where cats are concerned. A petite beauty, even as she ages her skin is flawless, not a visible pore anywhere on her face.
But her arms and hands criss-cross lacerations, punctures and bruises. For the past six months, she has volunteered at the ARNO shelter everyday, tending to the sick cats and socializing the ferals. Cat bites inject nasty bacteria into the flesh and can be incredibly dangerous. Anastasia has been bitten at least a dozen times.
When it happened this afternoon, she was frantic. “If my husband finds out—its not that he could forbid me from coming—its just that he worries, you know? And I’ve already taken so many antibiotics—I just can’t be on them all the time…I know its me, when they try to bolt or do anything, I know I should just get out of their way, but my instinct is to hold on. I don’t know why but every time, I just try to grab hold of them—even though I know what happens.”
Earlier in the day, Anastasia gave me a tour of the ARNO feline quarantine area. She spoke lovingly of each cat. So many she had coaxed from wildness with her gentle voice and bold hand. “I use the gloves at first, but as soon as I can, I switch to my bare hand.” She approaches cats even as they hiss, spit and lay their ears flat—sometimes they mellow as she speaks to them and rubs them. Using this approach, she has tamed many cats, but the consequences are dire.
I’m reminded of the snake handlers in the backwoods of Tennessee who dance with rattle snakes in religious ecstasy—rarely being bitten, but none the less, usually dying from the poison. There is a kind of religious grace in Anastasia’s devotion, but her beloved cats will not be well served by her lack of caution.
She rubs at her hands, soaking them in hydrogen peroxide. “They usually swell up—my hands will be useless tomorrow. And there is so much to be done.”
Everyone here is a volunteer—even those that work 7 days a week. As I arrived this morning, I watched a lithe young Americorps volunteer trying to managed a mixed breed lab as it lunged for a surprisingly relaxed fluffy black cat.
Robin, the shelter director (not just volunteer coordinator), emerged from the warehouse, stomping out a cigarette.
“Is that your dog socializer?” I asked.
She took one look at the situation and took over. “He’s a cat killer. But clearly, Mimi doesn’t care.” While Robin instructed the volunteer and the dog, ‘Mimi’ strolled calmly away.
The entrance to the shelter was barricaded with palates of Felidae canned cat food. More were being unloaded from a semi. “The truckers are great—they deliver it and only charge us for the gas. It cost $1000 to get the food here, but its worth it. I can spend $7,000 in a couple of months on food. Felidae donated it—all I had to do was get it here.”
The shelter still seems to be operating in a state of emergency. The organized chaos reminds me of the tv show MASH when Radar would cry out “Incoming!” The cages are clean, the animals well cared for and all the volunteers move non-stop: walking dogs, administering medication, attending to numerous visitors.
The most adoptable cats lounge in cages in the office. “Elizabeth might become a celebrity’s cat.” Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts niece, who is about to be the Nancy Drew of the big screen) and her friend, Christine Schwarzenegger (daughter of Arnold) just finished two days of volunteering at ARNO. “They loved Elizabeth. Emma’s mom says they are considering adopting her.” It is easy to understand why, Elizabeth is a charmer.
We unload the Whiskas cat food from my van and one of the resident cats assumes responsibility for the stack. “This is great.” Robin smiles, rubbing my back. “Unfortunately, it will all be gone by tomorrow.”
My efforts are just a drop in this vast, vast ocean of need.
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 http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . 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.