I’m working on a new project.
No, it’s not a new product, and it isn’t box-shaped, and it has nothing to do with business. In fact, I’d vigorously argue that it’s more important than almost anything I work on all week long.
The name of this “project” is Rory.
Rory has mossy green eyes that she averts if you try to look into them, and velvety fur that begs to be touched, but which my hands have never felt.
Her coat is an outrageous explosion of color: auburn, charcoal, and tiger-striped gray patches, tossed onto a snowy background, but she clearly unaware of her calico beauty.
She is a too-long resident of Metrowest Humane Society, where I volunteer each week. Metrowest Humane is a cats-only, no-kill animal shelter in Ashland, Massachusetts, and wonderful place to live if you are a cat without a family of your own (yet). The shelter is more home than shelter, and little Rory has a “bedroom” – not a cage – of her very own, filled with special beds, toys galore, a cat tree, and large picture window behind which a bird feeder has been hung. There is a table in front of the window, which puts Rory at the perfect height to watch the avian action at the feeder all day long.
She came to the shelter with siblings who have long since been adopted. But any humans who came to visit her, drawn in by her incredible beauty, would have been rebuffed with a quick swipe of her sharp claws. I have been on the receiving end of those claws and I cannot blame those kind people who come to the shelter looking for a pet but do not choose her.
Unfortunately, a shy or fearful cat has a way of self-reinforcing her own behavior. The more a cat like Rory retreats, or lashes out, the less human interaction she enjoys. The less human interaction she enjoys, the less social she becomes, and the less likely potential adopters will see her as the loving social creature she can be.
Rory has been a resident of Metrowest Humane Society for more than a year now, and her chances of getting adopted are getting slimmer. Shelter Manager Lisa has asked me to devote my volunteer time each week just to Rory, and I am delighted to do exactly that.
Each week I bring a special treat – something unique the shelter doesn’t stock – and a book. I sit at her table, I offer the treats (usually placing them down for her at some distance) and I read. I don’t touch. If I get too close with treats in my hands, I will have a wound to show for it. I know she doesn’t mean it – she is only afraid – and so I hold my tongue, rinse the mark, and back off until she is ready for me to come closer.
For fun, I’ve been reading to her from the adolescent series, Warriors, about feral cat “clans.” I’m not sure how closely she is following the plotlines, or whether the fictional cats’ collective bravery is rubbing off, but I’m hoping that the sound of my voice will begin to convince her that sometimes humans just want to keep you company, and nothing more.
I also bring boxes. There is science behind the use of cardboard boxes in cat shelters. Ethologist Claudia Vinke of Utrecht University studied cats in a Dutch shelter and found that cats with access to a cardboard box were less stressed than their counterparts without boxes. Rory is curious about my boxes. She’ll sniff, and poke a head inside. I don’t yet know what sort of good it is doing for her, but it is encouraging to me to see her up and out of her bed, taking an interest in something new.
Shelter Manager Lisa has hope for Rory with a dedicated volunteer like me. She says she’s seen this kind of attention pay off with other shy or fear-aggressive cats.
We will see. We will see.
Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.