I KNOW WHY THE CAGED CAT PURRS
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- No one knows why cats purr. No one knows how cats purr. But most of us know how to make a cat purr.
Purring is the sound of sheer happiness. It is the sound of comfort. It can lull you to sleep at night, or help you when you're grieving, or reassure you that at least something is right in this insane world of ours. Cats purr when they're happy, but also when they're in extreme pain or when they're dying - then they purr to comfort themselves.
Some people are afraid of cats - it's called ailurophobia. Julius Caesar and Napoleon were afraid of them, for example. And Attorney General John Ashcroft believes that calico cats are instruments of the devil. But these fears say more about them than about their cats.
I learned all this from the Windham County Humane Society when I started hanging out there last fall, after my beloved cat Dancer disappeared. To quell my pain, I started looking for a cat to replace her, as if one could.
I spent a lot of time learning from the WCHS's resident cat guru, Julie Miller. She must have thought I was hopeless, the way I dropped by so often and never adopted a cat. Her job is to find good homes for her charges, moving them out as fast as she can because there are always more waiting in the wings. I think she wanted me to take a cat home after every visit. She told me that having only one cat is boring; at home she has 13.
But Julie knows, as I do, that it isn't about you finding a cat. The right cat finds you.
To help with the findings, Julie puts signs on the cats' cages: "I have a mind of my own and have found I like people," was posted on the cage of a sleek, gray one-year-old.
"I had been living outside through the bitter cold," said a placid orange-and-white two-year-old. "My ears have a bit of frostbite on the tips. A nice person snuck me into his apartment when he could, but no cats were allowed, and he arranged to have me come here and find a home."
"My owner went away for Christmas vacation and did not want to pay anyone to take care of me while she was gone, so she brought me here," said another.
After a few weeks, my respect and tenderness for cats became balanced by my contempt for the way some humans treat them.
True, some pet owners get sick and can't take care of their animals anymore. Some have to move into assisted living and give up their pets. Some die.
But some people use pregnancy as an excuse to get rid of a cat. Or they move and don't want to be bothered. Some dump their pets in the woods and hope for the best. And still others put them in a carton and leave them on the steps of the humane society in the dead of night.
"Some of the 'strays' people find are their own cats and dogs," Julie said. "'Oh,' they'll say, 'I just found this dog by the road and he seems to like the name Lucky. And he's about 11.' Like they know it's wrong to give up their pets, so they avoid the stigma by 'finding them' and bringing them to the humane society. But it denies the animal its history."
An animal's history is important. Does it get along well with children, for example? Is it comfortable around other dogs or cats? Does it scratch people? Is it afraid of cars, or chairs, or closets? Is it a good hunter? Does it tend to run away?
"When we know something about the animal's personality, we're more able to prepare the person who's adopting it," Julie said. "We need to know the bad and the good. People don't like surprises."
WCHS, like many humane societies, stopped euthanizing strays some time ago. Now the animals are fed and sheltered until they find a home, no matter how long it takes. Because it can sometimes take a year, there's often be a waiting list.
There are many ways we humans can redeem ourselves in the eyes of the humane society staff. We can become a foster family, caring for a pregnant cat and later, her kittens, until they are spayed or neutered and adopted. We can donate food, cat litter, blankets, towels and absorbent sheets. We can learn to work with the animals. We can work in the office doing mailings. We can leave them money in our wills. We can support their fund-raising drives.
The price of caring for our unwanted pets is high. It costs $3,000 a year to feed the animals in the shelter here, and $3,500 to heat the buildings. The adoption service costs $8,500, and it costs $22,000 to run the administrative office. It costs about $25,000 to spay and neuter the animals. The shelter employs nine people, five of them full time, and they care for about 800 cats and dogs a year. Yet the yearly budget is only $250,000, according to manager Sue Caviola, who is so crazy about dogs that she takes the strays to lunch with her, and gives them rides in her car.
Once a cat or dog comes to the shelter, it is examined, given its shots, spayed or neutered, tested and wormed. It is also socialized, because many mistreated animals are shy and a bit freaked.
This was true of a little black kitten with green eyes who spent her days trembling in the back of her cage. During most of my visits last fall, I didn't even notice her. Then one day, for mysterious reasons, she marched to the front of her cage and demanded to be petted. She allowed me to take her out and cradle her against my chest. Then, in a fit of ecstasy, she butted her little wet nose hard into my chin, rolled over in my arms, exposed her belly and wriggled impatiently, wanting to be stroked.
It goes to show how little control we have over choosing the ones we love. Of course I took that kitten home the same day, and she's grown into a sleek, stunning and affectionate yearling cat. As for her shyness, take my word for it, it has not been a problem.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.