I didn’t grow up with cats. By the time I was on my own and ready to be “owned” by a feline, I had a lot to learn. And, I confess to making nearly every mistake possible, except for one: choosing a great veterinarian, a pioneer in the field of cat behavior who helped me start seeing the world from a feline perspective.
As fate would have it, I took the next big step at a zoo. Family and friends were mystified by my choice to first volunteer, and then to work at one of the places I loathed as a child. But from the moment I walked on the grounds at Woodland Park Zoo, I experienced a rapidly evolving institution, fully committed to improving the lives of both captive and wild animals. What started as a weekly volunteer commitment soon became my life. I worked fulltime in the education department, and spent every spare minute in the feline unit.
It was heaven to be around cats big and small. I facilitated a Snow Leopard introduction, helped raise cubs, shivered silently in the pre-dawn cold observing a pair of Canadian Lynx settle into a new enclosure, and learned to medicate Sand Cats. I also scooped and scrubbed, prepared food, and dropped sheep carcasses off a roof into the African Lion enclosure.
All the while, I witnessed both overt and subtle expressions of feline behavior, and then went home to continue field studies in my own living room. My little brown tabby cautiously avoided direct eye contact with her larger feline housemate just as subordinate lions did at the zoo. She made her mark on the communal scratching post the same way tigers clawed logs in their enclosure. It was just a matter of scale. And for me, it was three life-changing years of immersion in the daily details of cat life.
Shortly after the publication of my second book, I began work at a companion animal shelter. This was a completely different experience, one that required compassion not only for the animals, but for people who do not always make the best choices. I was fortunate to work with dedicated and creative colleagues who understood the importance of offering solutions rather than placing blame. As we pored over release forms, it became obvious to us that that the primary reasons for surrender were behavioral problems. We wanted people to be able to turn to the shelter for advice and support before issues grew into reasons to give up their companions.
Our mission to decrease the number of homeless animals included the development of behavior helplines for people with challenging dogs and cats. Months before we started answering phones, a small group of us trained with a veterinarian/behaviorist who walked us through every possible scenario we could encounter. We learned why animals express various behaviors, and we came up with humane solutions to turn around bad situations. By the time the helplines opened, trained staff and volunteers were prepared to take calls from people who often felt desperate. With our help, hundreds of animals stayed in their homes rather than being surrendered at a shelter.
Shortly after leaving the shelter, I began offering private behavior consultations. Every experience has broadened my understanding of feline behavior. And like cats themselves, I remain curious and eager to learn more. If you are having “issues” with your feline companion, do not hesitate to contact me at constance at pieceablekingdom dot com.