Have you ever heard someone say that they are searching shelters and they want an adoptable pet to pick them? Well, let me tell you my story. In early 2014, I met my cat, Lewis. I was working as a cat caretaker in the shelter and he was a feral cat, trapped and neutered, but couldn’t be returned. He was frightened, unhappy, and shut down. He curled in on himself and closed the rest of the world out.
I wish I could say it was love at first sight. That I could look into those lifeless eyes and see spirit and potential. And I tried. I offered treats, toys, wet food, contact, and quiet company with no interaction. I gave him time. But progress wasn’t just slow. It was nonexistent. All he did, all day every day, was lie tensely on one shelf and stare straight ahead. The only response you could get out of him was a flinch if you touched him. He showed no recognition of or preference for the people who took care of him every day.
Try as I might, I couldn’t picture him ever opening up. I never introduced him to potential adopters because… what would I say? “This is Lewis, he doesn’t do anything or like anything”? “If you’re looking for a houseplant that kind of seems to resent you, consider Lewis”? Not exactly a winning sales pitch.
I never would have chosen Lewis as my cat on my own. And in 2019, when he was given to me as a foster cat, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I would take good care of him and love him like I loved every animal, but never expected him to love me back.
Well, it turns out no matter how long you work with animals and how much you think you know, they’ve always got something to teach you. Slowly but surely, Lewis came to life. Right now, he’s lying on the back of the couch behind me, paws draped over my shoulder. He’s rarely more than a few feet away. He joins me in the shower, sleeps wrapped around my head, gets into EVERYTHING, and makes me laugh every day. It boggles my mind to think that the cat who never lets me eat cheese in peace could ever have been so shut down.
And this is just one story. I could tell you so many more- transformations I’ve seen firsthand and many more that I’ve seen in photos, videos, and stories after an animal is adopted from the shelter. Dogs who barked and howled nonstop in their kennels and haven’t made a peep since they got home. Cats who must have started to think their names were “be careful, she bites” who magically transformed into snugglemuffins. Photo upon photo upon photo of animals I knew as a tightly-wound spring finally able to sleep peacefully in their new homes. It’s not just a few isolated miracles, either. When an animal finally gets a chance, it’s the norm.
Animal shelters are amazing places full of compassionate people saving lives every day. But for a lot of animals, even the best shelter can be a very stressful place for them to live and doesn’t always give them what they need to shine. As Lewis taught me, the pet you see in the shelter may not be the same one who comes home with you.
Being scared, confused, lonely, over- or under- stimulated (or both at the same time) can make an animal behave in all kinds of ways people find off-putting. They might act shy or aloof or tetchy. They may be friendly and loving, but easily overstimulated and, seemingly out of nowhere, go from seeking affection to objecting to it. They may bark excessively, jump fences, or have less tolerance for other animals than they otherwise might. Their anxiety may affect them physically and cause them to over-groom or to lose or gain weight, which might make them less attractive to potential adopters.
The tragedy of it is, so many excellent animals miss out on homes that would be perfect for them and adopters miss out on loving fantastic animals because they won’t take the time to stop and try to understand and see beyond what’s right in front of them. Instead of seeing an overwhelmed cat in a pretty extreme environment and thinking, “she’s probably overwhelmed. This is a pretty extreme environment,” they go, “well she doesn’t seem to like me very much” and dismiss her out of hand. Instead of seeing a dog who is defensive, exhausted, and confused because he has to live among dozens of wound-up dogs 24/7 and thinking “well, my home doesn’t have dozens of wound-up dogs, so he’ll feel much better there” they go “I dunno, he doesn’t seem very friendly.”
After all, who’s the human in this equation? Who’s the one who is supposed to be capable of critical thinking, compassion, and imagination? And yet, so many people think it’s the animal’s job to understand that they’re supposed to perform, to be perfect at all times in all environments, and to be pleasing to all humans in order to be worth anything. I mean, my cat is brilliant, but he’s a cat. He does what feels best to him at the time. He doesn’t have the capacity or the inclination to worry about how anyone else sees him and how that might affect his life.
So next time you find yourself looking for another pet, take your time. Listen to the workers or volunteers when they tell you about the ones who “don’t show well.” Understand that, no matter how good a person you are, you are a stranger to these animals. Let go of the romantic notion that you want the animal to instantly pick you because the shy ones often won’t ever “pick” anyone they don’t know. And the most solid chemistry is the kind that develops over time. Slow down and don’t miss out on some of the most amazing animals you’ll ever meet because they don’t make the best first impression. Buying a bouquet of flowers is nice, but there’s a unique kind of reward in starting with an unassuming seed and watching it blossom.
Whether your pet was the longest shelter resident or the pick of the litter, they’re all priceless treasures to us! Leaving town for a bit? Your precious jewel will be in good hands with our talented and compassionate pet-sitters. Check out our services page for more information on how we can help you, visit our Facebook page where we rave about your babies, or call us in the office at 636-405-0400
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.