Monday, October 11, 2010

Please Don't Call them "Mean Cats": the Continued Journey of Cher

Hi folks, I have been spending a lot of time with beautiful kitty Cher at BARC shelter in Brooklyn. She has been at the shelter a long time. Most people are afraid to deal with her because she can quickly shift her energy and swat quite hard. A few other people at BARC and I have been working with her slowly and steadily and she has really been making progress.

The other day, when she was in relaxed mode, sitting on my lap PURRING, a volunteer who had not been there for a while entered and said "Is that the mean cat?"

I think I just was not processing what she said, as I never refer to cats as "mean cats", and I wasn't sure if I heard her right, so I asked her again. "Is that the MEAN CAT??"

and I said, "Do you mean Cher?" "Yes, the mean cat."

I have to take a minute to protest this term, "mean". I really prefer if someone describes the behavior, for example - that cat will swat when it gets over-stimulated, or that cat is very frightened of other cats, etc. People putting their subjective value judgments on an animal, instead of looking at the animal in a more compassionate, understanding way, is SO unhelpful to the animal and perpetuates a negative picture of the animal, making it more difficult for it to see and to be seen in a more positive way.

Soo, with that in mind, following is more about my adventure with Cher, in which she teaches me so much.

A few weeks ago, when I first started working with her, I started out by using long-handled brushes probably used for barbequeing. If she attached one brush, I could do circles and strokes on her with the other brush. I kept the sessions extremely short, just a few circles and strokes, then closing the cage. The next step was that she was comfortable enough to come out of the cage and onto my lap, just walking onto my lap briefly and then going back into the cage. When she came out, I did a few circles and strokes on her with the brushes, , sometimes rolling and stroking with the wooden handles on the other ends of the brushes. Little by little I was able to touch her more with my hands, and lately she has been purring, settling in my lap and I am able to touch her on her head and her body with my hand.

I have been reminded a few times though, that I can't let my mind stray while I am touching her because she still can get suddenly startled and get into extreme play mode and swat or suddenly think my leg is a toy to pounce on. So I have started putting a towel in my lap to provide a bit more protection in case she does this, and am more careful to limit the time of the sessions so that there is less possibility for her to get into a ramped-up mode. My cat Garbanzo shares a lot of similarities with Cher's personality. They can be quite loving and affectionate once they warm up to you but you have to really respect their limits, as when they become over-stimulated or get into play mode, you have to give them a break, either leave them be or redirect their energy and play with them with a toy. They can also get overwhelmed with too much contact, and sometimes can get startled with loud noises or other animals, so it is necessary to give them the space that they need.

This type of personality requires a lot of time and patience in working with them but the rewards are very huge. I feel that a person with a quiet, patient energy who could spend the time to let Cher become comfortable and not push her for a lot of contact too fast would be able to do well with her. I think once she is in a home, out of a cage, it will be easier for her to chill out even more. In the meantime, I am so glad she is able to have more and more calm, purring moments in my lap or with the other patient people who work with her.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I can't imagine how shelter cats have any sort of friendly disposition, being in such an unfamiliar place with so much sensory activity constantly (smells, sounds, not always pleasant ones!). I know I wouldn't be amused if I were a cat. Yet, they somehow push through and retain their willingness to be engaged, somehow relax with the shelter staff. It's humbling. The "mean" cats are still working their way through a hard situation -- tougher for some than others.

    I just found this blog and am learning a lot. Thank you for all YOU do.

  2. thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment so thoughtfully, it means a great deal. Cher was adopted a couple of months or so after this post, to a woman who seemed to be very kind and understanding so that was wonderful!