Take the Time to Smell the Roses and Pet a Cat: A Shelter Intervention Counselor’s Perspective About A Cat Named Gary
One of the toughest aspects of my job as the Shelter Intervention Counselor for The Arizona Pet Project is the emotions that come along with helping families and their pets. Every client has a unique story and deeply personal reason as to why they are forced to surrender their pets. Our clients come to us after facing tragedy and loss, heartbreak and failures. Their stories are almost always sad, and my job is to listen, counsel and find creative ways to overcome their challenges, so they may keep their pets, instead of turning them into the shelter. And while The Arizona Pet Project strives to give every client a joyous ending to their story, due to the immense need in the community, this is not always possible.
Most days, I’m able to process their stories, but other times, they replay in my head. Several months into the job, I began feeling restless, unable to sleep and I soon found myself sitting outside many nights thinking about these families.
In addition to the common threads in each of our clients’ stories, like financial hardship and sudden crises, another commonality started to become clear to me – the human-animal bond. It ’s present in every narrative. I can’t tell you how many times clients have come to the realization of this powerful bond as they are explaining why their pet means so much to them. I see it in every family I meet I see it in the children who light up with joy knowing their dog is coming home. I see it in every happy wag of the tail. I feel it in every hug and every thank you I’ve received from crying families. I feel it in every slobbery kiss from a dog happy to be going home, and every purr of a cat who receives care.
When the Shelter Intervention program began in early 2017, a homeless woman gave me a cat named Gary. She was going to be hospitalized for a major surgery and wanted to make sure he had a home since she knew she would be gone a few months. I don’t know why but I took him home. I don’t think I thought it through. I did not want a cat. I had never owned a cat. I knew nothing about cats (full disclosure: I’ve always been more of a dog guy). I didn’t know what I was planning on doing with him once I got home. I didn’t know how cats functioned. At the time, I had no interest in learning these things. Especially, as overwhelmed and sleep-deprived as I was.
Once home, Gary must have felt the same way about me because he wanted nothing to do with anyone. He stayed outside, only coming in to eat and knock everything off the desk. He would bite me to let me know he liked being pet, but not more than twice. He loved slapping me with a paw full of sharp nails. He kept his distance and I kept mine.
A few months ago, my anxieties began to intensify. Sleep was even more difficult to accomplish, and again I found myself outside under the moon. Except for thistime, I was also staring at a cat who wanted nothing more but to lay in my flower bed and think about biting me. Then one night he decided that I would be allowed to pet him three times. Then four. Then five. So it went, a slow friendship emerging on Gary’s terms.
Now, I start and end every day sharing a tight hug with him. I hug Gary until he lets out a deep purr. I hug him until he tries to escape the hug. He only wants to stop once we get the weird looks from the neighbors, because he doesn’t want everyone to know he has a soft spot. Gary’s tough-cat image clearly means a lot to him.
Recently, my friends and family have noticed that I am a much happier person. My body language has improved. I no longer arrive at home after a day at the shelter with the appearance of a heavy weight on my shoulders. I sleep better and am brighter all around. It was not until a recent conversation with a co-worker that I realized Gary and I have created the type of bond The Arizona Pet Project works so hard to support. The bond we share has improved my work performance, it makes me be a better person, and it just helps me be. Once a homeless feral, Gary has found his place in life, giving to my family what we at The Arizona Pet Project try to preserve for others.