Greetings, dear readers! I hope this article finds you (and your kitties) filled with as much hope for the future as we’ve been blessed with at Suzie’s Cat Refuge. We have much to be grateful for, as we’ve come a very long way in our rescue efforts this year! Eight adoptions (so far!), new foster volunteers, and the coming-together of a board of directors, are just a few of many exciting developments around here. We are now a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit! We’re starting to feel like an honest to God animal rescue, and holy divine pooper-scooper, does that ever feel spectacular! A big, sincere thanks to those of you who have supported us, in one way or another, through our amazing journey leading up to this point.
Our experiences in fostering rescued cats have been nothing out of the ordinary. By that, I mean, always totally unpredictable, sometimes utterly horrifying, occasionally, delightful and rewarding, and all too often, frustrating, and even heartbreaking. I had an experience recently that contained nearly all of those descriptives, to a certain degree. Since the experience involved a couple of adorable black kitties, I was hoping to publish this by Halloween. Obviously, I’m getting it done a little late in the season, but there really is no wrong time to tell the story of my two little misters named Double and Trouble.
The truth be told, fostering these little loves was pure delight from start to finish. They were healthy, for one thing. Always a plus! Especially with cats that aren’t socialized. Nothing dulls your enthusiasm for rescue work like trying to administer antibiotic eye ointment to a cat that wants to tear your eyes clean out of their sockets! Thankfully, there was nothing going on with these two that a little chicken soup for the soul couldn’t cure. They used their litter boxes well, had hearty, voracious appetites, and they blended nicely with the other resident cats, once the time came for them to emerge from the foster den. They also made the most endearing, high-pitched little chirpy-twittery noises every time they got excited. And although they were not friendly to start with, in time, they developed into sweet, funny, inquisitive little gentlemen…the kind that melt hearts and leave permanent, paw-shaped impressions on souls.
They were found abandoned outside of an apartment building in North Minneapolis, at about six months old. It was February, and they were cold, hungry, and terrified. Somehow, a concerned resident managed to lure them into a pet carrier, and bring them to a local shelter, where life, unfortunately, didn’t improve much for them…other than…at least they were warm and fed. But they remained scared, cowering in the back of their cages, wildly darting away from every attempted human interaction.
Cats like Double and Trouble don’t often make it to the adoption floor. Too scared to thrive in a room overrun with curious children and people looking to adopt, they are deemed “unadoptable,” at least from a shelter environment, and usually either transferred to a foster-based rescue, where they will have the opportunity to become social on their own terms, or they might be euthanized if rescue groups are too full to take them. We love socialization projects at Suzie’s Cat Refuge! So it goes without saying that Double and Trouble escaped the needle of death, and found their way to my foster space.
Within five minutes of releasing them from their carriers (which I’m pretty sure were labeled wrong to begin with), I completely lost track of which one was who. At that point, their names might as well have been Black Kitty and Black Kitty. But within a week or so, based on their shelter photos (or mugshots, as I like to call them), and comparing their behavior at home to how they behaved when I visited them at the shelter, I was able to piece together that Double was probably the one with the slightly more pronounced white specks, who allowed some petting, but would hiss when approached. And Trouble was…well…the “other one,” the one with a minor case of the sniffles, who would hide in plain sight (usually up high, perched on the cat tower), but immediately flee if I so much as entertained the thought of wandering near. The possibility remains that I might have mistaken their identities. We will never know for sure who Trouble (or the “other one”) really is.
The socialization process began. If you ever decide to take on a project like this yourself (and I hope that you do), be prepared to feel very unloved for no less than three weeks, and bored out of your skull for at least a few days. The yummy food and the fuzzy blankets that you’ve provided for them are nice, but you are still very big and scary, and the cats are convinced that you secretly plan to cook them on a rotisserie, once they’ve marbled up. In order to UNconvince them of such hideous fears, you cannot simply plop the Fancy Feast down on the floor, and then go fold laundry. No, ma’am! You must sit quietly, and do absolutely nothing for a minimum of two hours per day. No eye contact. No shifting in your seat. No scratching of itches, and for the love of all that is holy, do not sneeze! No breathing, and absolutely NOOOO touchy the kitty! You may, however…talk…a little bit…in a quiet, friendly tone, to get them accustomed to the sound of your voice. You may also read a book, or play on your smartphone. After two or three days, they will probably be comfortable eating their food in your presence. At that point, you can begin moving their food a little closer to where you’re sitting, closer and closer each day, until they will eat right next to you.
For Double and Trouble, this process took about two weeks. I had gotten them to the point where they would eat their Fancy Feast off my lap, with their front paws propped right up on my legs! And yet, they persisted with their very strict, “No touchy the kitty!” policy. I noticed they had no such rules about “No touchy the human,” however.
They weren’t friendly yet, but their curious, playful instincts were in full swing. If I sat in the room quietly, they would bat their little toy mice around on the floor, or engage with each other in chasey-tackley games. To get them more comfortable in the presence of human hands, I invented a little game called Kill the Chopstick, which involved running a bamboo chopstick along the floor while the kitties chased it. Similar to the string toy concept, except with a chopstick, your hand is less than a foot away from the other end, and the kitty claws can’t penetrate, or get stuck on it, so you can keep it moving. This allows the cat to grow accustomed to your movements, and develop a positive association with you, since you’re engaging them in something they enjoy. Every now and then, Double and Trouble would “touchy the human,” tapping my hand with their little paws.
Over the next few weeks, the kitties learned that human limbs were nothing to be concerned about. Finally, on one sunny afternoon of glorious triumph, Trouble not only allowed me to pet him, but he purred and leaned into my hand as if being petted was the missing piece that he’d been searching for, his entire life. I am very thrilled to have caught this momentous achievement on video! Double, who always allowed petting, but clearly didn’t enjoy it, also reached this long-awaited milestone, about a week later. After two months of steady social progress, it was time to open the gate, and allow them to come downstairs. Interestingly, Double evolved to be the more outgoing cat, even though it took him longer to warm up.
At one point in years past, following a scary and heartbreaking ordeal involving a cat with Feline Leukemia, I was very adamant that you should never mix your foster cats with your resident cats. While there are some circumstances where this rule still applies, in recent years, I’ve changed my tune somewhat, having learned that seeing how a once unsocialized cat will get along as part of an ordinary household, is really a very critical next step in the process. How will they react to the other cats in the home? To the other people in the home? To the humming and swishing of a dishwasher? How will they react toward strangers when visitors come over? All very important things to know, so that you can determine the type of home for which the cat is best suited, and educate new owners on the best way to accommodate their furry friend.
The following facts about Double and Trouble were unveiled within weeks of their introduction to the household. 1) Both cats are nonconfrontational, and integrate easily with other friendly cats, 2) Double loves everyone, has no fear of anything, and can probably live just about anywhere, 3) Trouble is a very adamant “mamas boy” who thinks I’m the bees knees, but regards everyone else with intense suspicion, and 4) The two of them together are highly entertaining, and quickly become household favorites, despite Trouble’s unwillingness to bond with (most) people.
The disparity between facts number 2 and 3 had me concerned about whether they could be adopted as a pair. It was abundantly clear that they had vastly different home requirements. Double would certainly adapt fine to whatever home Trouble was suited for, but Trouble might not do so well in a house with a lot of noise, or with kids, or people who aren’t experts at working with timid cats (and most people aren’t).
But I had to try! For one thing, it’s just nice when cats that are bonded can stay together. It’s also more beneficial to the rescue effort, in terms of cost savings and space availability, when we have the luxury of two cats leaving at the same time. Also, placing them singly would significantly change how I would have to present them in the adoption “marketplace” (for lack of a better term). A name change would be in order, for sure. Trouble, I suppose, is a halfway decent stand-alone name, but let’s face it. The only reason for naming a cat Double is if he comes with a brother named Trouble! The fact that they were a creatively-named duo was half of what made them stand out in the first place, and with black cats (which are difficult to photograph and tend to all look the same), clever positioning is sometimes the only way they’ll ever get noticed. With that in mind, onto Petfinder.com they went, listed as a pair, with the option to adopt one or the other, and a reduced fee for adopting the two. We would keep our fingers crossed, and pray that fact number 4 would encourage just the right family to adopt (and love) them both.
The waiting began. And, the waiting continued. For four months, there was not one single e-mail, voice message, Facebook comment, or Petfinder inquiry, asking a single question about Double and Trouble. Not a peep. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t mind so much, either. I know I should be working as hard as I can to promote my adoptable cats, so that I can move them through the program, and open my space to other cats in need. Most of the time, I’m happy to see them move on to their adoptive homes. But these little “bubbs” were such natural fixtures around here! My roommate had grown especially attached to Double, who would often curl up in a cozy little nook by his computer. And Trouble continued to melt my heart with his sweet little chirps, his expressive tail that would bob up and down excitedly like a symphony conductor as he walked, and his prevailing, stubborn attachment to me, and me alone. Trouble hadn’t grown any friendlier toward the other members of the household, which made me wonder how he would do in a whole new place with unfamiliar people. He didn’t hide, and he didn’t mind being around people, but he would immediately bolt if anybody walked toward him. Even with me, his trust had limits.
Trouble had a highly intense fear of physical restraint on any level. He would seek attention, and roll around on the floor and purr while I scratched his little belly, but if I tried to pick him up, he would immediately panic and scratch me to ribbons. For this reason, I was never able to trim his nails, or manually place him into a pet carrier. How would I even bring him to his adoptive home? For that matter, if the new owner decided that things weren’t working out, how would they bring him back? With the ever-growing laundry list of possible things that could go wrong, one day, the defeating thought occurred, Perhaps I should just…adopt him.
No sooner did that thought occur than a Petfinder inquiry came through my e-mail. A lady and her husband, who had recently lost their beloved senior cat to lymphoma, were looking forward to becoming fur parents again, after a few months of intense grief. They were interested in adopting Double and Trouble, together. All at once, my heart fell to the floor, and my anxiety levels shot through the roof. I was heartbroken at the thought of them no longer being here, especially thinking about Trouble being scared in a new place with strange people. And the logistics of getting Trouble into a carrier for transport raced through my brain, and kept me awake at night.
But I have to try!
People are often surprised when I tell them that the adoption phase is the most stressful part of the entire rescue process. On the one hand, it’s the driving force (and ultimate goal) behind everything we do. It’s also necessary if we’re going to continue helping more cats. And don’t get me wrong. Adoptions are intensely rewarding when just the right match comes together! But very rarely do I have complete confidence that things will go that way. Sometimes it seems like adoptions don’t work out, almost as often as they do! And it’s not because people are “bad”. It’s a question of whether they’re the right fit for the cat they’re adopting. Often, there’s some lingering concern which makes me think, Hmmm. That could be a problem. But maybe it won’t! And how will you know, if you don’t give it a chance?
Double and Trouble’s adoption prospects were a joy to work with. They asked intelligent questions, were receptive to my advice, and they spent a considerable time studying the information pamphlet (aka “Parenting Guide”) that I had written about Double and Trouble. They were gainfully employed, lived in a beautiful, spacious home, and they had a solid history of responsible pet ownership. They also had a five-year-old daughter.
I gave it to them straight, and sugar-coated absolutely nothing. I wasn’t sure if Trouble would be happy living with a child. He had no history with kids, one way or the other, but I suspected that all the vigorous, youthful activity and noise would be too scary for him. Furthermore, I couldn’t guarantee that he would become friendly toward anyone. I suspected that he could eventually bond with at least one member of the household, if they followed the exact same socialization process that I did (which I wrote about in detail in the Parenting Guide). I advised them that within a month or two, Trouble should no longer be hiding, and that if he was still too scared to come out by that time, he is probably too stressed there, and should come back. And, I explained why “bringing him back” might not go smoothly. If nothing else, he would certainly be a good companion for his brother, who would surely adapt just fine in the new home. After a week of dead silence (during which time, I wondered if they had decided to move on), I received an out-of-the-blue e-mail from them which read, “We would like to proceed.”
The following week was mostly spent planning and practicing my strategy for transport, as well as lots of crying, and tossing and turning at night. I was going to miss those boys terribly, and I was extremely anxious about what I would do if I couldn’t get Trouble to go into a carrier. No matter what, I would not betray his trust by chasing him into a corner, picking him up by the scruff, and forcing him into a box. Somehow, I would have to convince him to go in there on his own.
Every evening, Double would eat his canned food alone in my office, and Trouble would follow me upstairs to eat his. I placed his food in a spacious pet carrier with a wide entrance. Trouble walked right in, and dove happily into his food. I did this every day (each time, leaving the carrier door open), until it was time to bring the boys to their new home. On that day, when Trouble walked into the carrier, I silently closed the door behind him, and felt the weight of the world lift from my shoulders, when he acted like he didn’t even notice. I had successfully contained him…without causing trauma, and without his final moment with me being one of terror and betrayal.
Double and Trouble’s adoptive parents had taken great care to provide the perfect starter space for their new fur kids. It was a quiet guest bedroom with large windows, fully equipped with food, water, toys, two litter boxes, and a comfy bed, which they could either sleep on, or hide under. I asked for a moment alone with the kitties, to help ease the transition and get them situated. I placed the carriers on the bed, and opened the doors. Both boys slowly ventured out. They didn’t run and hide, like I thought they would. They explored the entire room, sniffing every nook and cranny, and taking inventory of the supplies. Once they were satisfied that’d been provided with all the essential basics, Double wandered back into his carrier, and laid down. He didn’t seem scared, just comfy. I decided to leave the carrier there, so he could just stay in it. Trouble had made his way to a space just under the window, where he had plopped himself down on the floor. I knelt down beside him and began petting him. He looked up at me with big yellow eyes, his gaze seeming to convey a sense of gratitude for the reassuring pets. Was this really the last time I would see my boy? Double was sacked out comfortably with his head near the doorway of his carrier, just within kissing reach. I said goodbye, and managed to choke back tears before looking back one last time, and then I closed the door behind me, and headed home….to a Double-and-Trouble-less house, which would surely feel empty for quite a while.
In the following two weeks, I felt highly optimistic about Double and Trouble’s placement, having seen the ease at which they had settled into their cozy little room. In addition, the relief of having two less cats in the house was starting to be felt. My little gray and white kitty, Farrah, certainly didn’t mind their absence! Kind of the hissy, growly one of the bunch, Farrah doesn’t mind other cats, as long as they leave her alone, but toward the end, Double had developed a bit of King Shit attitude, which Farrah was having none of. Double could sense her disapproval, which only made him want to pester her more. Trouble had been more respectful of Farrah’s boundaries, so she didn’t mind him as much. Satisfied that the boys had gone to a safe, loving home with devoted pet parents, my heart began to move on.
One day, an e-mail update came from Double and Trouble’s new mom. One cat was still hiding, while the other had pretty much taken over the house. This news was nothing alarming or unexpected. But, there was one problem. At least one of the cats had begun pooping on their bed at night while they slept (ew!!), and several other accidents had been discovered throughout the home (also, very “ew!”). This news was absolutely shocking to me! Even at the very beginning, when they were at their most terrified, two (near feral) kittens, still shaking off the stress of the shelter environment, they had nonetheless, exhibited nothing other than rockstar poop and pee habits! So, WTF?! I searched my brain for possible solutions. I recalled that the litter boxes they had been set up with in their new home were quite small, and contained only, maybe, two inches of litter on the bottom. Was it possible that they were unhappy with the bathroom accommodations? I recommended that they try using bigger litter boxes, and making sure there was at least three inches of litter in the bottom. Not wanting to give up, they were happy to try my suggestion, and I crossed my fingers and hoped to hear much better news, after a few more weeks.
More news did come, but not the kind I was hoping for. Trouble would have to come back. The soiling incidents had grown more frequent, and after keeping Trouble separate from his brother for the past week, they determined that he was the one that wasn’t using the box. In addition, he continued to hide, only coming out to eat and drink when no one was around. Double, on the other hand, had adjusted beautifully, and they would be keeping him.
I’ve never had such mixed emotions surrounding a failed adoption. Usually, I’m just plain frustrated. For one thing, it stifles the rescue effort! Having to take them back means I no longer have a space available, which means a cat that needs help won’t get it, at least not from me. Possibly not from anyone else either, since most rescues operate in a constant state of busting at the seams. When I learned that Trouble would be coming back, the first emotion I felt was anxiety. Once again, we would be faced with the task of getting him into a carrier, and there was no guarantee that his adopters would be able to accomplish that task as easily as I did. On the other hand, my little “Troubly-Bubbs” was coming home, which brought tears of joy to my eyes! But would he still be the same cat? Would he remember me? Would he resume his good litter box habits, or would he poop on my bed too? Perhaps he was permanently ruined, after six weeks of living afraid. And yes…I was frustrated too. I suspected that if I’d been a fly on the wall for those six weeks, I might have discovered the problem and been able to fix it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to fix something that I can’t see. No matter how happy I am that Trouble got to come home, a successful adoption with his partner in crime would still have been the far more satisfying outcome.
And, home he came! No “trouble” getting him into the carrier (pun intended), using the same strategy that I had employed to bring him there. Thank goodness for Fancy Feast, and cats that are highly food-motivated! To my delight, within less than an hour of coming home, it was as if he had never left. He was already playing with his favorite toys, eating, purring and allowing pets…and, using his box! The other cats seemed excited to see him too, which made me feel a little better about separating him from his brother.
If you ever try to adopt a pet from a rescue, and your application is denied, please know that it’s not necessarily because you’re a bad pet owner. Keep in mind, rescue folks don’t get paid for their work, and the work, as I’ve mentioned, is often an anxiety-fueled test of one’s patience, and even tedious at times. We endure a lot of stress (and boredom!) trying to rehabilitate animals that have emerged from rough situations, and we don’t want to put them through the trauma of relocating them to another home, unless the odds of them staying in that home are very high. Otherwise, we risk situations that put us (and the animals) under even more stress.
I tend to air on the side of giving things a chance, even if I have some minor concerns. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised with the results. Even when the adoption fails, I often learn something about the cat that gives me a clearer picture of the kind of home that might work better. Unfortunately, in Trouble’s case, we didn’t figure out what would work better, since we couldn’t isolate the problem. He just wasn’t happy there, and we don’t know for sure the reason why…which is why I’ve decided to adopt him, rather than put him through the process again, and risk the same issue. I don’t know what Trouble needs in order to live happily in another person’s home. But he’s happy here, and he is loved. To this day, I remain the only person who has ever been able bury my face in his soft belly fur, kiss the top of his head, or squish his little toe beans. Too bad I still can’t trim his nails! One thing’s for sure, no one can say that he hasn’t lived up to his name.