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Dream Small

Best Friends Animal Society
Best Friends Network

September 3, 2008

Most of us know better than to corner an animal.

Thanks to Marlin Perkins and his award-winning Wild Kingdom television show, I learned this lesson while I was still quite young. And yet, here I am disregarding everything I've been taught, reaching arm-deep into a wire cage to pet a cat most people would consider feral. I've taken her body language, hisses, and growls under advisement, but cautiously press onward.

This is no ordinary cat (assuming there is such a thing as an ordinary cat to begin with, of course), however. This is Ginseng, a slightly round girl with face that reminds me of a mountain lion. Her tawny coat is trimmed out in subtle stripes.

Like so many of The Great Kitty Rescue cats, Ginseng was incredibly fearful when she came to Best Friends. According to Terri Gonzales, who runs Miss Sherry’s Finishing School for Felines at Best Friends’ Rescue Village, Ginseng had developed a unique method for creating a safe place for herself: she’d burrow under piles of her fellow cats. Although this kept her safe from human contact, she paid a heavy price. In addition to the scratches she received on her face, her level of fearfulness only increased—meaning she was going to have a tough time finding a home. Which is why Gonzales put Ginseng on the short list of “students” for Miss Sherry’s.

I first met Ginseng over Memorial Day weekend. In fact, she was the first cat with which I worked. Corinne Mitchell gave an excellent demo with the equally excellent Paprika. Then, my girlfriend Kate and I got to work.

And this is work (which is not to say it’s not intensely pleasurable, too). Socializing fearful and shy cats requires a bit of courage, a good deal of patience, and—occasionally— bandages.

Among the more unexpected challenges is the physiology of the human body, the generally taken-for-granted fact that your eyes and shoulder sockets are located relatively close together. What happens as you’re reaching into the cage—especially if you don’t have very long arms—is that you block your line of sight with your arm or hand. And, like some cruel trigonometry joke, this moment of temporary blindness comes at the moment you most need a clear view of the events about to unfold—when you finally touch the cat, just as the angle between sight line and extended arm decreases to its minimum. (There’s a life lesson here, I’m sure: something about the human tendency to be our own greatest obstacles.)

Working with the school cats, I find myself feeling a little bit like a martial artist—reading every nuanced signal the cat’s sending and trying to use all of it to my advantage. The ears can often be a good guide. If they’re turned forward and standing up like little triangles, that’s generally a good sign. I’ll take ears-up over flat ears any day, even if the cats is hissing and growling.

On the other hand, I’ve petted cats that were exhibiting all the warning signs—textbook cases, at least in terms of the visuals, of a cat about to attack—and had little trouble. That was the case when I first worked with Ginseng. In time, she actually relaxed a little, her body becoming less rigid while her ears slowly stood up. This was often accompanied by an audible sigh, which I took as an expression of either resignation or exhaustion—or both.

That was three months ago. Now, thanks to the dedication and hard work of everybody at Miss Sherry’s, Ginseng is a much more relaxed cat—well on her way to being an adoption candidate.

And now she’s going to be getting even more one-on-one schooling, as I apply everything I’ve learned from the people at Miss Sherry’s in my own home. And of course al of it will be carefully documented and shared freely via Ginseng’s own blog (coming soon).

• • •

When I was in my late twenties (in what was, apparently, just the first of several mid-life crises) I became interested in training big cats. When I’d go to those wild animal parks, the only shows I was interested in were the big cat shows. The birds of prey put on a good show, of course, with their majestic looks and all. But from what I could tell, there just isn’t a lot of opportunity for interaction between a hawk or an eagle and its handler. Anybody could see it was the people working with the cats who had the most fun, directing their charges to jump from stool to stool, or splashing around in those sprawling, sculpted concrete pools.

Looking back, I don’t know how serious I really was, although I did visit Moorpark College once while I was in Los Angeles on business. About 45 miles north of L.A., Moorpark College boasts one of the few academic programs offering a bachelor’s degree in what they call Exotic Animal Training and Management (surely, the program’s unfortunate acronym, EATM, provides untold inspiration for clever slogans splashed across the sweatshirts and jackets sold in the campus bookstore).

Of course all of that was before Roy Horn was mauled by one of the world-famous Siegfried & Roy white tigers in 2003 (the same year, by the way, that Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by one of the grizzly bears they were filming in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Reserve). But by 2003, my big cat ambitions had largely disappeared on their own (in 1996, I’d traded one engineering job—and all of its Dilbertian accoutrements—for another).

It wasn’t until December 2007, when I became involved (however marginally) in The Great Kitty Rescue, that I once again had an urge to work with cats. Although the cats were considerably smaller than those I originally dreamed of, the urge was considerably stronger. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. It’s taken 12 years, but here I am working with my very own exotic cat.

• • •

Sunday afternoon I loaded up Ginseng and said my awkward goodbyes to everybody at Miss Sherry’s. Nearby, Best Friends’ Rapid Response Team packed up supplies and headed to the Gulf Coast to mop up after Hurricane Gustav.

It’s always tough heading home after spending time at Rescue Village. The visits—with people and cats that have become like family to me—are always too brief. This time was no different. The bonds created here have only strengthened in light of recent events—the loss of Cover Girl and Mags, and now my agreement to foster Ginseng.

As I bumped along 89A, just south of Kanab, one of my favorite Tom Petty songs came on the radio. And as I listened to the refrain of Square One, I couldn’t help but think of The Great Kitty Rescue and Miss Sherry’s. And of Ginseng, of course, who was jostling gently along in the backseat as we headed toward home.

Square one, my slate is clear
Rest your head on me, my dear
It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears
Took a long time to get back here


Best Friends Animal Society

The Great Kitty Rescue

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