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Cat biographies

Charlotte - pop-up cat cafe 5-20-18

Recently, a biography for a shelter cat named Perdita went viral after the shelter described her as the “world’s worst cat” and “just a jerk.”

Luckily, the shelter was flooded with applications from people wanting to adopt this cat, and they’re in the process of reviewing them. Apparently if you can strike the right tone, maybe that kind of a bio works.

A commercial for a Samsung product depicted a shelter worker who happened to take a photo of a dog that looked like Chewbacca. Next thing we know, there’s a kid who’s desperate to adopt this dog because of how it looks. By the time he convinces his dad to go to the shelter, though, another boy has adopted the dog—but the kid turns around and sees a cat in a black cape, leaving us all wondering if maybe he’ll adopt the cat instead.

Most of the time, trying to get pets adopted isn’t this dramatic. I know, because a few months ago, I joined the cat bio team at Protectors of Animals [“POA”], a local cat and dog shelter where I found not only my lovely Charlotte, but my sweet Buddy, whose bio was the reason I contacted POA in the first place.

Buddy's ad

The head of the team is an employment lawyer who spends her days dealing with all the crap a lawyer faces when she represents people who have been wrongfully fired or demoted. Let’s call her “Shelly.” To balance her days as a lawyer, Shelly spends her evenings and weekends helping cats find homes.

(Interesting side note: Shelly was the one who introduced me to Charlotte. Clearly, matchmaking is one of her many skills.)

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POA has one paid employee; everybody else who puts in hours and hours to help these cats and dogs is a volunteer. I’ve thought over the years that I’d like to help out, but my schedule is erratic on its best days. Then, Shelly posted on Facebook that she was looking for people to write biographies for cats who were looking for homes.

This, I thought, was something I could do. (With my limited skill set and bizarre schedule, it might well be the only thing I could do, but let’s not go there.)

I contacted Shelly to explain my interest and qualifications. A few nights later, I met her at POA. She showed me around, introduced me to cats, explained the various coding systems (orange cards on the cage mean “don’t touch”, while yellow cards indicate whether the cat can be taken out of its cage), and talked about our role in the adoption process. “We’re the bridge,” she said. “We connect the cat with its new family.” She acknowledged the elephant in the room, i.e., the risk that a volunteer will fall in love with all the cats she deals with and want to adopt them all. Considering how many times I’ve heard someone say about a pound or shelter, “I just want to take all of them!”, it was a realistic concern, and I appreciated her bringing it into the light.

The bio writing process is pretty straightforward. On or around Monday, Shelly emails the team with a list of cats who need bios, including a short description of each. We respond by email as to who we want to write for. Sometimes, there’s a cat who just seems to be tailor-made for a volunteer, such as one team member who’s a sucker for senior cats and recently wrote a heartbreakingly beautiful bio for an older black cat. (He got adopted last weekend. Hurray!)

Once we sign up for a cat, we go over to the shelter to meet them. After all, you can’t write effectively about a cat you don’t know. There’s paperwork about them, as well as comments from the socialization team about things like how they are with other cats, how they respond to being brushed or held, how playful they are, and the like. Shelly assures the team that if you get to the shelter and you just don’t connect with the cat, somebody else can write the bio.

The first cat I wrote a bio for was Molly. She was a beautiful dark gray girl; her sparkly collar hung on the door of her cage for when she was out. After spending time with her, I decided she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn—the elegance, the grace, the quiet beauty. I wrote the bio that way. Not long afterward, Molly was adopted.

I’ve written a dozen or so bios since then. On one occasion, I went to the shelter to meet a cat, and she was clearly not interested in human contact, but the young orange kitty in a nearby cage wanted so much for me to fuss over him that he was impossible to ignore. So, that week I didn’t write about standoffish Mimi, but I wrote about little orange Pilgrim, who was adopted a few days later.

Which is not to suggest that we won’t write bios if the cats aren’t snuggly, playful little love bugs. Cats are who they are, after all. We try to walk the line between being honest about the cat’s personality and needs, and presenting the cat in a way that may appeal to a potential adopter. If a cat needs an experienced cat owner who knows how to handle behavioral challenges or medical issues, we say so. Not every cat is bouncy and happy, although some improve radically once they’re out of the shelter environment. Regardless, we try to highlight the cat’s good qualities while being honest about the kind of home where it might fit, such as one without small children or other pets.

Saturday is when POA has adoption hours. We try to put the bios up by Wednesday or Thursday so that people who may be thinking about coming in have a chance to look at who’s available and what we’ve said about them. A member of the adoption team told me that people have come in looking for a particular cat because of the bio, which makes me happy because even if that cat is no longer available, the people are there, and they may meet another cat who’s perfect for them.

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Sometimes, adoptions don’t work out. I wrote a bio for one cat in which I specifically said that she was shy, not confident, and didn’t trust the world. She was adopted; within a few days, she was returned because she’d spent all her time hiding under the bed. (“Which part of ‘shy, not confident, and not trusting’ didn’t they understand?” I demanded.) On the upside, this kitty has been adopted again. Fingers crossed that this time, it’s for keeps.

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Last week, I wrote about a lovely bonded pair. When we say cats are “bonded,” we mean their need to be together is so strong that they have to be adopted together. Obviously, it’s harder to get people to adopt a pair than just one cat, but in my opinion, these two were bonded. (Mind you, my opinion doesn’t mean a lot; there are people who have been doing this for years and who know infinitely more than I do about such matters.) But I needed to know if they were bonded, because it would affect how I wrote their bio. Luckily, the decision makers agreed, and so I wrote a bio for the two of them.

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These two were beautiful, loving cats who’d had some bad luck. Their family had made the decision to take in a family member with some serious issues; as a result, they ended up having to make the hard, hard decision to surrender those sweet cats. (Not certain I’d have taken in the family member if it meant losing my cats. I know that says a lot about me.)

When I met these cats, it was clear they’d been loved and cherished. You can tell when cats come from a loving home, because even when they look lost and confused by the shelter environment, they still respond to people. One of them purred when I petted him; the other rolled on her back and let me rub her belly—a gesture any cat lover recognizes as one of extraordinary trust and vulnerability.

So I wrote this in their bio. I was delighted to see it being shared around Facebook. I was thrilled beyond measure when the woman who adopted them two days later posted photos of them and talked about how quickly they’ve adapted to their new home.

Shelly kindly lets us know each week which cats have been adopted. It makes me incredibly happy that so far, every cat I’ve written a bio for has found a home. Granted, some of them have taken longer than others, and I expect the final decision has much more to do with the cat’s personality than with my eloquent words, but if what I wrote gets the adopter in the door where all these beautiful cats are waiting for their forever homes, that’s good enough for me.

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One of my favorite cats was one I never got to write for. When Finn was first brought in, he was so terrified that he had a towel pinned across the front of his cage to block noise and traffic. He was a big long-haired black cat who looked almost exactly like Buddy, and my heart went out to him. As time passed, the towel was removed, and he was moved into a cage in the cat room. To my surprise, he decided he liked people. One night, I arrived to find a socialization volunteer sitting by his open cage, petting him, and he was eating it up. I was able to pet him and play with him, and he was a happy boy. The next week, he was able to be out of his cage and wandering around the cat room; when I sat down on the floor, he climbed into my lap, purring nonstop.

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By this time, Finn was on an adoption hold, which in his case meant that someone wanted to adopt him when the POA staff deemed him ready to go. Before I left, I made a point of fussing over him and wishing him well in case this was our goodbye.

As it turned out, it was. The next time I came in, Finn had gone home.

As much as I’d love to have held him one more time, I can’t be sad for Finn. He’s in his forever home where he’ll be loved and cherished. And that, after all, was why we were all there: to help Finn cross the bridge from the shelter to his home.

There will always be more cats needing homes. More Finns, more Buddys, more Charlottes.

But as long as there are stray cats, abandoned cats, surrendered cats—there will be places like POA where volunteers spend countless hours caring for those sweet babies and trying to match them up with loving families.

I’m proud to be a part of such a team.

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