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.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Charles's Forever Home

Lara, of Basha's Fund, featured Charlie on Petfinder.com--and was overwhelmed with responses about all four kittens. So many people were interested that, as she put it, "We could place them with just the four-star adopters."

And that is just what happened for Charlie! He went to his new home two days ago, and here is an update note from his new parents, along with a few photos they sent:


Dear Jenny and Lara,
This is Michael and Amanda and we are writing to give you the update on Charles Gimli (we updated his name a little). We are loving him and he is loving life. He and Zephyr are becoming best friends, although I think the big kitty is a little intimidating some times. We are keeping a good eye on them though. He is eating well and using the box perfectly. He is enjoying all the toys and the romping with a new friend. He is very sociable and friendly. Everyone who has visited him thinks he's awesome. We are attaching some pictures of the first day and half. Thank you so much for setting us up with the kitty of our dreams.



Little Charlie has come a long way from wandering the parking lot in Lafayette, LA. (See The Lafayette, LA: Cajun Cats post for the beginning of his story.)

P.S. I find it so interesting how much Zephyr looks like Chance (one of the adult cats I rescued from Lafayette.)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cedarhill Sanctuary, Caledonia, Mississippi: Feline Self-Determination

Without a doubt, Cedarhill Sanctuary, in Caledonia, Mississippi has created the most appealing residence for rescued cats that I have experienced thus far.

Kay McElroy, the founder and director of Cedarhill, explained, “Free will is the key. These cats all get to make a choice about where and how they live. I respect them as individuals.” Her instincts helped to create a paradise for discarded domestic cats from all over the country and even the world. She took in 53 Katrina cats, but also accepted seven cats from Greece, along with dozens of others that needed refuge and a good home each with its own unique history.

She started as a rescue for Big Cats (Lions and Tigers, as well as Cougars)—and there are plenty of those too. ”There is no question, people’s interest in the Big Cats helps fund this sanctuary for over 200 domestic cats, as well. Not to mention the dogs and horses.”

Kay stresses, “This is not a zoo. Zoos are for people. I am very selective about who gets to visit Cedarhill, because this is a sanctuary, it is all about the animals here.”

Essentially, there are four different options for the Cedarhill domestic cats. The Senior House for older cats and those with special medical needs (though there are also a couple of younger, healthy cats that insisted on moving in and have settled nicely with their elders.) The Senior house includes a large kitchen for meal preparation, dish sterilization and load after load of laundry. The 50 cats live in four large rooms, a screened in porch and a serene enclosed backyard.

The next option is a ½ acre outdoor enclosure complete with trees to climb, a play fort, cubbies, and four climate controlled cottages. All 150 cats are free to roam the entire enclosure and sleep wherever they please. In two of the cottages, the sleeping arrangements are more individual (cat beds rest on shelves that create divisions of space), and in two they are more communal (essentially beds, where 20 cats will curl up in one big heap.) The more independent cats tend to prefer the cottages with the shelves, while other cats like the cuddle cottages.

Some cats don’t adjust well to communal life on such a grand scale and they are divided into small groupings of 4 or 5 cats with their own cottage and enclosure, separate from the large group. Kay has only had two cats that had a violent response to sharing space with others. For one, his sociability issues were resolved with anti-depressant medication. With another, he needed his own private enclosure. “In truth, I think he just likes being on his own. I tried reintroducing him to the large enclosure after a few years, but he was very clear that he wanted his own space. He is the only cat I have had that is willing to fight to the death. But when he is alone, he has a very sweet disposition. They are all different and I try to respect that.”

Some cats wander the larger property, making their homes in heated cubbies. While some others prefer to stay in the main house with Kay.

Cedarhill doesn’t use any volunteers. All of the staff are paid professionals, selected for their love of animals and willingness to treat all of the animals with the utmost care and compassion. Cleaning of the interior spaces happens twice a day, litter boxes are scooped three times a day (and there are a lot of litter boxes), cats are fed and medicated as needed, and all of the staff also spend quality time with the cats. “Sometimes, I will just lay on the mattress with the cats and let them all love on me at once.” Says the staffer who works with the Senior cats five days a week.

As Kay and I entered the Senior House, about 20 cats trotted over to greet us, all rubbing heads against each other in shared excitement. I took off my sweater, as it was very warm indoors and one dottering kitty obliged me by depositing a good dose of his scent on it. My bad. The group radiated good health, with plush coats and bright eyes, only when I stroked their spines did I feel those tell-tale protrusions that give away a cat’s advancing age. Otherwise I would have thought they were much younger. “I feed them Felidae. My holistic vet recommended it highly and I think it shows in their coats.”

We received a similar greeting when we entered the large enclosure, a swell of head butting, allo-grooming cats hurried to greet us. We visited each cottage and Kay greeted each cat by name, laughing about the ‘orange mafia’—a particularly clickish group of orange tabbies that band together through thick and thin. In the red cottage, Kay points out a grey tabby, “She is quite a character, she always has a big, black boyfriend. This one is her third. With each one, she lets him sleep with her and attend to her with grooming and companionship, then suddenly one day, she’ll spurn him. Doesn’t want anything more to do with him, and she’ll pick another black tom to hang with. The previous one lasted for three years, now she ignores him.”

As we sit in the red cottage, several low level spats occur. An odd hiss here and there, an occasional bat of a sheathed claw. “Do these encounters ever escalate to a full scale fight?” I ask.

“Only with the two cats I mentioned before—one was cleared up with medication, the other can’t be with other cats. But otherwise, no, just the occasional stand-off like what you have witnessed.”

“And how do you respond?”

“Usually, I really don’t have to. They are communicating ‘I want this sleeping spot.’ ‘Move over’ ‘Let me eat in peace’.”

I wondered if some of the escalating aggression cases I have seen are really a three way interaction. Cat hisses at cat, person reacts with extreme concern or scolding which escalates the pattern and inadvertently encourages repetition. Perhaps a more hands off approach would be much better, except in the most extreme cases. Here are a 150 cats that interact constantly without fighting. Kay understands that hissing is just a feline way of saying “Back off” and doesn’t warrant a scolding or human intervention, perhaps that is part of why it works here.

For more information about Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary please visit their website at www.cedrhill.org

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Nashville, TN: Attachment

Tommorow I take the kittens to their new foster mom. Jenny Towle has lots of experience and is a wonderful woman. But I really want to keep these babies. I am convinced that they are the sweetest, most delightful kittens that were ever born. They radiate confidence and affection. So snuggly and loving. I can barely stand it. I made every argument and plea possible to my husband who vetoed them as additions to our family. Part of me knows that he is right, to add four more would be too much. But when I look at their trusting little faces, they are so much more than a number.

If it weren’t for my husband, I might be in danger of being a well intentioned cat hoarder. My mind is feverish with awful images of the terrible fates that could befall my beloved little kittens: Nola, Kate, Charles and Annie. Perhaps I could make a more persuasive argument in favor of keeping them if I wasn’t about to leave for two months.

These are their photos and the descriptions I sent to Lara of Basha’s Fund/Doodlebug Manor, who will be placing them:

Cajun Kittens
Born on the Bayou, these four kittens are bold and cuddly (not a scaredy cat in the bunch!) They are happy to sleep in a pile or curl up on your shoulder, nuzzling into your neck. Each one is confident and affectionate—the purrfect combination. If you are looking for a snuggly cat that will come when you call—don’t miss out on these darlings.


Nola (for New Orleans Louisiana)
Nola is a delightful black and grey classic tabby. She has the most reserved nature of the litter, sweet and petite.


Annie (named after the cook at the Creole house bed and breakfast in New Orleans) An adventurous youngster (and my eight year old daughter’s favorite because of her loving personality.) This fluffy gray kitten will probably have a medium length coat.

Kate (named after Kate Chopin author of The Awakening) mostly tabby with a touch of tortie in her face, Kate is my favorite for her smart sparky character. She comes running when I enter the room and will scale any bedsheet to snuggle up under the covers with you at night.

Charles (named after St. Charles avenue in New Orleans): The only boy of the litter, he is an exceptionally sweet cat. He also comes running when he sees me and purrs the instant I pick him up. His fluffy coat will probably be medium length.
I don’t know how rescuers do this, again and again, raise up and love cats just to hand them over with hearts full of hope to relative strangers. I love these kittens, but right now I can barely look at them knowing that we will be separated tomorrow.

New Orleans: ARNO Feline Enrichment

It’s early in the morning, before anyone else is up and about at Animal Rescue New Orleans. Jackie, the kennel manager, gave me a key the previous evening so that I could collect three cats that I would be transporting to the Wags and Whiskers rescue in Middle Tennessee. All three have delightful personalities and will have a much easier time finding homes out of New Orleans.

Flicking on the lights in the office, all of the familiar feline faces perk up. I have made a difference here, small perhaps, but many of these cats are different than they were when I first arrived. They move to the front of their cages, ears cupped forward, “What do you have for us today?” They seem to ask.

On the walls above the cats are cheerful posters that another volunteer (a first grade teacher) had lettered and illustrated. They provide guidelines for the ARNO Feline Enrichment program.

When I arrived at ARNO two weeks ago, Robin, the shelter director took me into her office. “I know that our conditions here are not ideal. I hope you understand that we are doing the best we can.”

“I’m not here to judge, just to help however I can.”

“I really do want the best for our cats—if you have any ideas for how we can improve things for them, please let me know.” She was in earnest. “There are no egos here, just a lot of work and good will.”

I spent my first few days cleaning cages, feeding cats and observing. Many of the cats rarely lifted their heads or acknowledged me as I moved around them. Living in cages is a standard arrangement for cats in most shelters. Some shelters overcome the issues of depression by maintaining a cageless environment, which can have its own challenges, but cages are the most common arrangement—and the cats get bored, and that boredom leads to depression.

ARNO was doing an excellent job feeding, medicating and keeping the cats in sanitary conditions—but unlike the dogs who at least get walked a few times a day, most of the cats only received occasionally stroking or a passerby would wiggle their fingers in the cage for some of the younger cats.

My first action was to order some appropriate toys from my favorite vendors. The Cat Dancers (basically a wire with bits of cardboard on the end, see www.CatDancer.com ) were the perfect toy for caged cats, because they are very inexpensive (especially because the company has special pricing for shelters), and it is easy to poke the flimsy wire into the cage and bounce the end about. The cats LOVED it—essentially, it’s like a cricket or little fly had just happened upon their cage. The erratic motion caught the attention of all the cats in the room when I introduced the first Cat Dancer—suddenly something was happening!

People often overlook a cat’s need to hunt. We are so caught up in feeding them and giving them cozy places to sleep that we forget that they are supposed to spend 8 hours a day awake: exploring, hunting, grooming, eating and playing.

I purchased Cat Dancers for every cage; we taped the cat’s names onto the wire to help prevent the spread of any germs. The morning that the Dancers arrived, 20 high school students from Michigan were volunteering—the front cat room sprang to life as each student engaged a cat in play.

Another great toy for the caged cats is called Da Bird (a fishing pole type toy with a special swivel before the feathered bob—when it is lassoed over head it looks and sounds like a real bird, see www.go-cat.com). I purchased several of these for the different cat rooms and instructed the volunteers to spend 10 minutes whirling the toy around prior to providing the cats with their daily wet food.

According to Temple Grandin, in her book “Animals in Translation”, studies show that the part of the brain formerly referred to as the ‘pleasure center’ is actually a seeking circuit. In other words, for all animals (including humans) anticipation is the most pleasurable state of mind. The brain of an animal lights up with activity when it is anticipating food, the behaviors of anticipation are happy and excited, once the food actually arrives, the thrill is over. (This explains the phenomena of shop-a-holics—as it is the anticipation that provides the rush, rather than the actual acquisition.)

By whirling and plopping and playing with Da Bird before mealtime, the cats get stimulated on two fronts. First, their hunting instincts are triggered, I was asked if it isn’t mean to ‘tease’ the cats like that since Da Bird is outside the cage, but I reminded everyone that cats are not aerobic hunters, most of their hunting time is spent stalking—so this experience very much approximates the real experience of hunting (on the other hand, the cats are having physical interaction with the Cat Dancers so that urge is also being satisfied.) The routine of this ‘hunt’ before feeding also stimulates their seeking circuit and helps build up the anticipation of the wet food meal. 10 minutes isn’t a lot but it is an easily doable piece of the enrichment program.

The key to the ARNO enrichment plan working was that it had to be 1) inexpensive 2) not time consuming 3) easy to communicate.

The posters on the wall explained the use of Da Bird and the Cat Dancers. They also explained a schedule of self-starting toys to introduce to the cage each day.

Here is the key to ARNO Feline Enrichment: Novelty and Motion. Motion is exciting for cats—thus the Cat Dancer bouncing and Da Bird fluttering. When I first arrived at ARNO several of the cages had a strand of Mardi gras beads hanging from the top of the cage, occasionally a stuffed animal or a ping pong ball graced the floor of the cage. Most looked like they were long time residence of the cage and the cats were ignoring them.

Novelty is interesting—it is interesting to all animals. Yes, cats don’t like change, but they do like variety in their hunting experiences. So I put together this schedule:

Monday
Pipe Cleaners: Attach three pipe cleaners together, and then wind them around a finger so that they form a bouncy spiral. Attach one end to the top of the cage, so they hang down for batting around. Also wind a single piper cleaner around your finger and toss into the cage.

Tuesday
Feathers: Twist part of the pipe cleaners from Monday around a couple of feathers so that there are feathers hanging down in the cage, and attached to the loose pipe cleaner also.

Wednesday
Mardi gras Beads: Remove any left over feathers and discard. Attach a strand or two of plastic Mardi gras beads to the hanging pipe cleaners (be sure the strand is cut so that it is not longer a loop.)

Thursday
Treat Balls: Remove all pipe cleaners and Mardi gras beads from the cage (discard the pipe cleaners. Wash and disinfect the Mardi gras beads for reuse next week.) Using the really cheap plastic Easter eggs (the ones that pop open easily), drop a few highly desirable cat treats inside the egg, then close it and toss it into the cage.

Friday
Catnip Pompoms and Corks: Remove the plastic eggs from the cages (wash and disinfect for reuse next week) be sure that the Pompom balls and Corks have been marinated in good potent catnip (add a little more to the container if necessary.) Toss a couple of pompoms and a wine cork into the cage.

Saturday
Paper Bags and ping pong balls: Remove the pompoms to be washed and disinfected and dried for reuse next week (if possible), discard the wine corks. Fold the top of a paper bag back so that it holds the bag in an open position. Toss a ping pong ball into the bag and place in cage. Be sure to remove any extra beds to make room for play.

Sunday
Empty toilet paper and paper towel rolls: Discard yesterday’s paper bags and remove and wash the Ping-Pong balls for reuse next week. Toss an empty toilet paper roll and an empty paper towel roll into the cage.

Each day the former items were removed and replaced with the new items. Some cats would engage with their toys throughout the day, others would spend 5 to 15 minutes investigating the objects and then ignore them for the rest of the day. But the vast majority of cats were interested—even if only briefly. Combining these items with the Action of the interactive toys began to bring the place to life.

The program is self-reinforcing, because all of the regular volunteers and the staff noted the positive changes in the cats—some of which were quite remarkable. Like Nunny, the ginger tabby with a terrible skin condition. Day after day he slept in his hammock, ignoring the world around him; he recoiled when anyone tried to pat him, looking scared and miserable. But several days of play turned his little personality around. He loved batting at the Cat Dancer and the pipe cleaners in his cage. Even when another cat was playing, he would jump out of his hammock to watch.

I reminded everyone that it was okay to skip an occasional day—when there aren’t enough volunteers to do the enrichment, it can wait for the next day. It is important that the regiment not be too strict, because there are days when there aren’t enough people to do the extras. But Robin, Anastasia and Jackie all committed to making ARNO feline enrichment continue to happen, even after I left.

The last addition to the program was the ARNO Kitty-Cat Playground (where the ARNO cats play.) The ARNO staff had built a secure enclosure within the warehouse. Robin’s vision is that eventually it will contain several pens of seven cats each, where volunteers can enter and play with the cats (which can be awkward when the cats are in small cages.) In the interim, there are several cat cages in that enclosure. I gathered up all the random scratching posts and other cat structures that had been donated to ARNO. Jackie provided a nice large rug. I scattered the structures about, then let six cats out of their cats (locking the gate to the enclosure). We played for hours with the pole toys, cats jumping onto structures, scratching at the posts, leaping and bounding after Da Bird. I tried to make the space comfortable and inviting so that volunteers would be drawn to spend some time there, playing with the cats.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New Orleans: Contemplating the Purr

4am on my last night in New Orleans and I can't sleep. The Maine Coon from the Lafayette animal control, Chance, jumps onto the bed, he plops down next to me, fidgets and adjusts, sighs, rests his head on his paws and mellows into a throaty purr.

One of the great alures of the cat, the purr happens when a cat is happy, but it also happens when cats are scared. What a conundrum--why the same response to such contrasting feelings?

The kittens run to my feet as I stand at the sink or sit at my computer. They mew and purr, rubbing their tiny fluffy bodies against me until I pick them up and then their purr accelerates.

Yesterday, I read that the Purr actually acts as a soliciation for contact. Which explains the contradictions 'purrfectly.'

Purring can mean: "Oh yes! Please keep rubbing me like that!:
or "I'm just so happy to be near you."
or "Hold me, I'm scared."
Or in the case of the kittens (just like my 3 year old daughter says with her arms in the air and her body pressed against my legs): "Mommy, uppy me!"

The purr is powerful and soothing communication between mamma cat and her babies. The mother and kittens purr as they nurse--again a communication that invites contact "Here I am babies, cuddle up, eat and stay warm." The kittens respond with their own contact seeking and maintaining purr.

I explained all of this to my mother who responded, "So then, what does it mean when they stop purring?" In my experience, it usually means they have fallen asleep.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

New Orleans: Angels


I felt terrible leaving Evangeline at ARNO for the night. Set up in a clean cage, the way she watched me spoke of yet another abandonment. Why are you leaving me here? She implored. “Evangeline, I love you and I promise you that I will take care of you.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I needed to keep her separated from the kittens and ‘Chance’. I stroked her fur and cried. This pretty, loving manx should have been easy to place, but the disease that has invaded her body is a scarlet letter that warns off adoption. What would I do with her? The weight of this responsibility was overwhelming.

Because of her feline leukemia positive status, I couldn’t mix her with my cats at home, I just couldn’t expose them to that level of risk, especially my beloved Henry with his FIV positive status. ARNO doesn’t euthanize feline leukemia cats and the thought of extinguishing this little life was too painful to bare.

On Tuesday morning, I called Jodi, a woman in Nashville who provides a home for cats with Feline Leukemia. But she didn’t have room for Evangeline. “I never planned to be a leukemia rescue. But several years ago, I was working with the Purr Factory rescue group. I had about 30 cats here, when I brought home a pregnant female. She gave birth almost immediately, so I hadn’t had a chance to do anything. Turned out she had feline leukemia, and of course, so did her kittens. By the time I found out, it was too late. The disease swept through the population. You can’t imagine the guilt I felt as one cat after another died in my arms. Those months were like living in hell. I loved those cats and my carelessness was responsible for losing them. In the end, I decided to do leukemia rescue. I needed something good to come from all of that loss. I had learned so much about the disease and I wanted to do something—something good to make up for my mistake.”

10 of the original 30 cats in her population had died from Leukemia. Jodi’s number’s reflect the statistics given to me by Dr. Norris, the ARNO vet. “Of the cats that test positive for Feline Leukemia, I see about 1/3 that die within a year or so from secondary infections, 1/3 are carriers without symptoms, and 1/3 end up reverting to negative—their bodies beat the virus.” He uses several remedies, including one called Staph Protein A to help with the reversal.

Jodi’s current leukemia cats seem to live at least 4 years. “I use a lot of holistic remedies, immune boosters etc. All of my leukemia kitties are so loving and friendly. I love them.”

After my phone call with Jodi, I went to the dining room at the hotel. A young law student was sitting with her friend eating breakfast. “How’s Evangeline doing?” She asked.

“She has feline leukemia.” I went on to explain what that meant. She was so sad and so sincere in her concern. Over the weekend, I had walked around the hotel with Evangeline in my arms, every one was amazed at how relaxed and friendly she was. The young law student had told me that she lives in New York and had left her beloved kitty behind with her parents. She was having cat withdrawal and loved snuggling Evangeline.

Suddenly an idea! “Kathy,” I asked, “You are flying to New York today, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you be willing to transport Evangeline to a sanctuary on Long Island for Feline Leukemia cats?”

She reflected for a moment. “Yeah, I could do that. I’d have to keep her with me until the weekend, but that’s doable—if that’s okay.”

Immediately I called Robin at ARNO, she called Susan from Angel’s Gate Sanctuary in Long Island (www.angelsgate.org ) The answer was yes! If we could get Evangeline to the sanctuary, they would accept her. I called Continental airlines to book Evangeline’s passage as Kathy Hwang’s underseat companion. Then I dashed to ARNO to collect Evangeline and have the vet complete her Health Certificate for the flight (that is when I met the fabulous Dr. Norris—a Robert De Niro look alike when he smiles.)

By 12:45 Evangeline, Kathy and I reunited at the airport. I stayed with them to make sure everything was going smoothly. “Evangeline is a really great cat. After a few days together… what if I wanted to keep her?”

“Just let me know, I’ll work it out with Angel’s Gate. I think you two would make a terrific pair and you clearly love cats.” We had already thoroughly explored the complexities of caring for a Feline Leukemia cat. “Either way, I’m coming to New York in June, I can either visit her at your place, or if you like we can visit her together at Angel’s Gate.”

How quickly it all happened! By 1:15, I was driving away, missing sweet Evangeline already. Before I left, I whispered to her, “You be sure to charm Kathy, okay?” I hope that those two will stay together. But either way, Evangeline’s future looks bright. The Angel’s gate sanctuary is a cage free, loving sanctuary set up to care for special needs animals.

New Orleans: Broken Heart

The enormity of the situation here has swept over me, one wave after another until it has knocked me down. I want to hide from it—and just cuddle with these cats that are temporarily blessing my life and my hotel room. My face hurts from crying and my mind wants to shut it all out. I know I’m not the first and I am far from the last person to feel this way—about cats, about poverty, about war, crime, abused children, the list is endless. But right now, today, I am immobilized by a physical depression so profound, I need to spend some time with a few individual cats to remind me how intimate and personal, individual and sacred each cat is. When it comes to rescue work, the bigger picture can destroy you.

I am in awe of Robin, Jackie, Anastasia, Alyssa—and all of the volunteers who slug it out, day after day after day working one cat at a time to push back against the problems of unwanted, neglected, abused and forgotten animals. “Sorry, Ma’am, but today is not dump your cat at ARNO day.” I heard Robin tell a woman who had decided that they no longer wanted to keep her granddaughter’s cat because their FEMA trailers were too crowded. Robin was rebounding from the day before, when a taped up box had been left outside the front door of the shelter, two horribly sick cats inside, both crusted with blood and feces. They were rushed to the vet, and cared for tenderly, but one had to be euthanized, his prognosis was so poor. Anastasia and I cleaned up the other cat with a warm and gentle sponge bath. She was so appreciative, she rubbed against our gloved hands purring. Most of her fur was gone and she was covered with fleas, but her little soul was so gentle and sweet.

Last night Alyssa and I went out trapping again. First we had to release cats that had already been fixed. A gaggle of little black boys swarmed around us at our first stop (the burnt down home that is occupied by a colony of ferals.) They all wanted to know if they could keep the cats inside the carriers. “I want a kitty, I want a kitty.” “I’m gonna catch me one of those kitties with this here pole!” One shouted out brightly. “No, no,” I responded, “don’t go near those kitties with the pole, you might hurt them.”

I struggled to explain TrapNeuterReturn to the children—sort of on the spot Humane Education, but these children were so hyper and excited about the cats that I doubt they absorbed anything I said. Their enthusiasm and desire to help was touching though. They all stood back and watched as we released a cat. “Can I come wich you and help you catch some more?” “Whach you doin’ with dese cats anyway?” No matter how many times I tried to explain, the same questions kept coming.

Then we drove a few blocks away to release another cat. We parked and pulled out the carrier, at the end of the block a group of teen-age boys was beating up one boy. Between us and the teen-age boys was a group of older men cradling beers and liquor bottles. They stared at us as we released the cat, which flew out of the carrier and across the street, disappearing under a FEMA trailer.

Alyssa makes it her policy to explain to bystanders what it is that she is doing and enlist their help or atleast their understanding. We pulled up next to the group of drunken men and rolled down the window. “Whach you doin’ dumpin cats in our neighborhood?” A mean faced fellow approached the car. He was the only white man in the group although later Alyssa explained that he was probably Creole. The racial issues in New Orleans are so complex and frightening that I can barely comprehend them.

Alyssa explained to the man that we had actually caught the cat at that residence, taken it to get its shots and get fixed and now we were returning it. She offered the name of one of the neighbors that had been helping her and feeding the cats.

The man responded, “Well you dumped that cat in the wrong neighborhood, missy. I tell you, I’ll set my own trap and then I’ll really fix that cat.” His sinister laugh was not reciprocated by the group, which stood back with amusement to watch this conflict unfold.

With patience, Alyssa tried once again to explain the benefits of TNR and what we were doing. Again the man threatened the cats, only more explicitly. Then Alyssa warned him that if he were to harm the cats, he would be prosecuted and serve jail time. He glared at her,”Yay? And then what?” Was his response.

We drove down the block and Alyssa stopped to ask the street toughs for the address of the Creole man that had made the threats. These young man crowded around the car and insisted that I videotape them (I had my video camera with me) as they beat on one of the guys in their group. A woman from the house on the corner opened her front door and yelled, “Unless you all are going to cut the grass, get off my property!”

Eventually one of the guys told Alyssa the address of the Creole man. Alyssa would file a report of the threat with the SPCA so they would know who to investigate if anything did happen to those cats.

As we cruised through the streets, we saw dozens of cats just hanging around. We trapped four cats and called it quits at 10pm. Then we stopped by a rescue workers house. I asked Maria if there had always been so many cats in New Orleans. “Oh yeah there were,” she said,”They have just gotten bolder, they have to. They used to be able to scavenge through restaurant garbage and residential garbage—but so many places have closed and neighborhoods are abandoned that they are bolder, you see them more because they have to work harder to find their food.”

I asked her if she did TNR before the hurricane. “No, I had enough to do here.” She has an immaculate home that provides sanctuary to over 50 cats and several dogs. ”I had no time for all that.”

“So what is different now?”

She laughs. “Honey, everything is different now.”

“But you still have so much to do here, why are you out there doing TNR also?”

“Because there is so much suffering out there. So I just do it, I do everything I can for those cats and its not enough, but I just have to. There is more support for this work now. Now that the whole world knows about the situation of cats in New Orleans. Its gotten attention—so that changes things too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

New Orleans: Update on the Maine Coon


While Evangeline was at the vet on Monday, I drove back to Lafayette. A little bit of confusion and $13 later, that big lug of a fellow was in my car. Shaved is not a good look for him, but he was just as loving as promised. Once his fur grows back, I’m sure he will be spectacular. And best of all, a woman in Bolivar, Tennessee wanted to adopt him. Lara had checked all her references (including her vet and they were all very enthusiastic about her qualifications.) I spoke with her on the phone and she told me that her last cat was a big old Maine Coon male that she had adopted from a shelter years ago. He too had been shaved, so it seemed like fate. We made arrangements to meet on Sunday afternoon in West Tennessee on my way home.

For the meanwhile, I am keeping him separated from the kittens and Evangeline is spending the night at ARNO.

The hotel I am staying at is made of three buildings, a mansion that used to belong to a minister, slave quarters and a bordello. I am staying in the bordello, complete with a red chaise lounge. 'Chance' as Lara has dubbed him, loves to lounge on the chaise (bordello style) and watch the action on the street. I coo at him and tell him how much his new mommy is looking forward to meeting him.

New Orleans: Feline Leukemia

Although the feline rescue rules about quarantine nagged at me, I ignored them. I had never rescued two different groups of cats at the same time before and I was being swept away by the behavioral possibilities.

Evangeline (as the hotel manager named her) was so charming and the kittens needed a mother. Judging by her nipples, she had the kind of experience that might qualify her for the job of foster mother.

The ideal kittenhood includes a loving mother who is well-socialized to people, siblings with whom to develop peer-to-peer relationships and important social skills, as well as loads of affection from humans. A mother helps bring these things together because cats are excellent observational learners, watching their mother receive affection from humans, as well as all of her social cues, actions and reactions strongly informs the development of the kitten’s personality.

Many singleton, handraised kittens never learn appropriate feline social etiquette and have difficulty getting along with other cats for the rest of their lives. They can even be jumpy and awkward with people.

Evangeline snuggled the kittens and helped them settle. Without her, they scattered and toddled about aimlessly. But her presence was magnetic. They piled around her and she would rub their tummies with her paws, rolling on her side as though inviting them to nurse. None of them did, but they pushed into her warm fur and fell asleep.

If she began grooming them, I would know that she had fully accepted her role as foster mother.

Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night, we all slept together. What a wonderful experiment this would be!

At ARNO, the cats are quarantined for three weeks before being introduced to any other cats. As a precaution.

I have no expertise in disease management and am an amateur rescuer at best, though filled with good intentions.

On Monday, Robin (the shelter director of ARNO) took Evangeline to the vet for spaying, vaccinations and testing. That afternoon, Robin called me, “Evangeline is feline leukemia positive.”

“No. Oh no—no!”

Feline Leukemia, which is a highly contagious virus, is a death sentence for a cat.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Lafayette, Louisiana: Cajun Cats


Almost a mile off the 10 freeway, next to the power station sits the Roicy-Duhon Animal Control Shelter of Lafayette, Louisiana. As I pull up in my van on Friday afternoon, a black woman is ushering her children into a beat-up black Cadillac. “But Mama, they can get out—Mammma!”

“Hush up!”

The car peels out of the parking lot, disappearing down the road, leaving behind a box of kittens.

The kittens tip the box over and tumble out. The busy road is just meters away. I gather up the four fuzzy bodies, just weeks old and look for someone official. But the shelter seems to be closed. The posted hours are 1:30 to 5pm on Friday. I knock on the doors and walk around the building. It is 1:45 and no one is there.

I trundle the kittens into a cat carrier and we drive to the police station down the road.

“Hi! Animal Control was supposed to open at 1:30, but no one seems to be there. Do you know if there is someone I can call?”

The Louisiana State Troopers regard me coldly. “It’s a state holiday. The whole city is closed. Ain’t nobody gonna be there today.”

“Oh dear. I just drove all the way from New Orleans to pick up a cat. Is there anyone we can call?” It was a two and a half hour drive.

“Nope. Nobody will be there til Monday.”

“Surely someone is there at least to take care of the animals.”

The two officers look at each other and guffaw. “I doubt it. Soon as an animal comes in that building its put to sleep. There’s nothin’ there to take care of.”

Clearly these gentlemen are intent on not being helpful.

In the car, I call Lara from the Basha’s Fund/Doodlebug Manor rescue in Nashville. The night before, she had received a plea from the Roicy-Dunn Animal Control about a sweet Maine Coon cat whose euthanasia had been postponed three times in the hopes that he would be adopted. If he wasn’t picked up by Monday at 5pm, he would be put to sleep. Lara had asked me if I would provide transport for this guy (since I am more or less in the area.) If I brought him to Nashville, she would find him a home.

No where in the original email, or on their website did it mention that the shelter would be closed for Good Friday. Nor was it mentioned in the emails that had gone back and forth between Lara and the shelter that morning.

We decided that I would return to the shelter and wait until Lara was able to get ahold of someone. Although no one was answering the phones.

A rusty pickup truck followed me into the parking lot. The hoarse yowl of a scared cat resonated from the back of the truck. The door swung open, boots landed hard on the ground followed by a large brown wad of brown spit. A leathery red-neck in a trucker’s cap hoisted a cat trap out of the truck bed.

He dumped the whole thing on the hot pavement and returned to the truck.

“Sir!” I called out. “Is that a feral cat?”

“Yup.”

“You know they’ll euthanize it if you leave it here.”

Poker-face. “Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure you can’t just let it live where you found it?”

“Looka here, I ain’t got any pets, but I got fleas. Get rid of these here cats hanging around my place, an’ I got rid of dem fleas.” With that he climbed into his truck and drove off.

I approached the trap. The cat inside looked up at me and yowled (not hissing, just crying.) As I brought my fingers close, she rubbed against the bars. I stroked her and she responded with affection. This was no feral.

I couldn’t leave her in the trap. It might be three days before an animal control officer would appear. She could die from dehydration and heat exposure. And even if an officer did come, her prognosis for survival still wasn’t good.

As soon as I opened the trap, she bounded into my arms, claws sheathed. She buried her head in my chest and purred.

I called Lara. “I better get out of this parking lot before anyone else shows up to dump a cat.”

“Don’t worry, Jenny Towle (of Loving Kittens Rescue) and I will help you place them.”

“This cat is so loving. She’s a tuxedo manx. Somebody will fall in love with her.”

Driving back to New Orleans, the freeway cut through miles and miles of swamp. True Cajun country. For the whole drive, this petit Cajun Manx stays snuggled in my arms and I am in danger of that person being me.

I stop at Petsmart to pick up flea treatments and all the appropriate kitten supplies. The hotel has already okayed having the cats in the room.

Looks like I’m a foster mom.