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Tortie Reform

Best Friends Animal Society
Best Friends Network - Arizona

March 6, 2008

When 75 cats from the Nye County Cat Rescue rolled into Phoenix in mid-January, Best Friends volunteer Kate Benjamin had high hopes. Sitka, a quiet, black sweetheart of a cat she’d bonded with during her visit to the Pahrump facility in December, was slated to be among the cats on their way to Arizona, and Kate had every intention of adopting her. By the time the truck was loaded for its road trip, though, Sitka was on her way to a rescue facility in California.

Could one of the other cats win Kate over the way Sitka had? With 75 cats to choose from, Kate was optimistic. Not just any cat would do, though. Any newcomer would have to be able to get along with the four cats she already owned, including Ando, her dominant 15-lb. male. There was a delicate balance in the household, and Kate was in no hurry to disrupt it. At the same time, though, she was compelled—knowing what they’d been through, and the struggles that lay ahead—to adopt one of these cats.

Thankfully, fellow Best Friends volunteer Gilla (a Cat Whisperer if ever one existed), who Kate had met in Pahrump, was there to provide some much-needed guidance. After walking up and down the truck’s aisle, describing the nuance of each cat’s personality, Gilla settled on Flora, a tiny tortoise-shell female. Despite her size, Flora would stand up for herself, Kate was told. This little cat was no pushover.

Flora herself provided any proof that was necessary just minutes later. She was given the opportunity to get out and stretch while visiting with Kate and Gilla in the fenced area that had been set up for the cats and their prospective owners to get to know each other. The series of events that followed, it’s safe to say, did not make for the day’s best photo op. “This tiny cat was just so scared,” recalls Kate. “You could tell that she’d been through a lot, and wasn’t quite over it.” But when all the excitement was over, Flora got what she wanted: to be returned to the comfort and safety of her cage. And she got a new home, too. Despite all the drama—or maybe because of it—Kate was sold on Flora. It was clear, she said, that Flora was going to be a “hard sell” as far as adoption was concerned (especially when up against the likes of orange tabby Mike Anderson, an instant charmer—and recently minted television celebrity).

Fast forward six weeks. Who is this little cat (still only tipping the scales at six pounds, despite a very healthy appetite) marching around Kate’s home with such confidence? It certainly looks like Flora, but so much has changed. For one thing, she’s had her badly needed dental work (something Kate knew was in the cards when she adopted Flora), so her gums are no longer inflamed. No doubt that’s got something to do with her sunnier disposition. And she’s met her brothers and sisters, an important part of the next chapter in her life. She’s especially fond of Ando—the mere sight of him causes her to begin purring. As for Ando, well, he’s less certain about Flora.

One thing’s for sure: there’s a new sheriff in town. In her enthusiasm for her new siblings, Flora tends to race toward them, head down, looking for a friendly head-butt. The others don’t know what to make of it. And she’s not afraid to give any one of them—including Mackenzie, who’s three times her size—a playful whack. This is utterly new to this crew, who up until now had the pecking order pretty well sorted out.

Kate was told, when she first inquired about how Flora might get along with the others, that this little girl had “torti-tude.” For the past six weeks, Flora has lived up to this claim—especially before the dental work. She kept to herself mostly, curled up inside a small, cozy box that she’s made her own. It took quite a bit of work to coax her out, and then further work—and patience—to get a purr out of her. And she was about as likely to swat at you as let you scratch her head. All the while, though, it was apparent that Flora is not an aggressive cat. She just needed—as they liked to say in Pahrump—“more work.”

Slowly, though, she’s coming around. The greatest incentive for her to venture out beyond her box was Ando. When he was in the room (she’s still got a room all to herself, and roams the rest of the house only under close supervision), she was a different cat altogether. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. Like so many of the Pahrump cats, she had no grievance against other cats; it was the humans she couldn’t trust. But, just like some of the “hard cases” in Pahrump, she seemed to benefit from seeing other cats soaking up human contact. And over time, it seems, she’s looking for her own human contact.

These days, any time Kate’s near, Flora takes advantage, getting in a back scratch or head butt. “She’s really staring to come out of her shell,” says Kate. “It’s amazing how much she wants to trust people again.” She’s no lap cat—not yet, anyhow. But given the transformation that’s taken place in just six short weeks, nothing is out of the question. It’s said that leopards can’t change their spots, but, like so many of the Pahrump cats, Flora is challenging the conventional wisdom.

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© 2008 peter j. wolf