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I had low expectations when I started volunteering at the animal shelter.
My main goal was not to adopt 23.5 cats and reach master level: Crazy Cat Lady. I couldn’t help but swirl uncomfortably with my feelings like a bowl of cereal with too much milk.
In the beginning, it was all I had. I didn’t have the support of square numbered facts to restrain my hesitations and heart palpitations.
Instead, I was worried about wanting to adopt all the cats and going from hair-free to excessively hairy with scratches too.
But I did it anyways. Frequently, when I ignore my biggest worries and do the thing, I’m rewarded with more than a regret-free life, I’m bestowed unexpected happiness from the strangest places.
Purpose > Pay
Money doesn’t buy loyalty like purpose will.
Originally, I wanted to help cats.
I didn’t know what that looked like outside of helping cats be better…cats. I know plenty about nature, but when it comes to cat psychology, I’m as helpful as hemorrhoids on an elephant.
On my first day, I chatted with the volunteer coordinator and she mentioned how some older women come in and cuddle the friendly cats. I absorbed the information and a question percolated to the top, what about the less friendly cats?
It was in that moment I figured out my volunteering purpose: I need to cuddle the less friendly cats. Once a week, I visit with the less friendly cats which means there is little to any cuddling.
These are the cats who cower in the corner and refuse to make eye contact. My intent isn’t to expose them to their biggest fear, which is every inch of hairless human before them but to help them be slightly less fearful when they meet other humans so they can find a forever home.
Food to Fun
From food to fun, everyone (especially cats) has a trigger.
I’m familiar with getting people to relax, decades of employment in the customer service industry will do that. My default is a question, I ask about their life.
Cats don’t do words.
I should have read the manual.
Instead, I try other tactics to change fear into fun.
Some cats are food-based.
As soon as food is near, they gulp it up and look at the slot machine of treats that I am.
Some cats are curious which is easily transferred into fun. I try a gaggle of toys strewn about the room like a kid who emptied their toy chest and refused to put them away.
I ease into or away from each trigger depending on the cat’s behavior. Cats have more overt cues versus human’s subvert cues. Their body language and eyes will tell me everything from fear (I’m an inch big, don’t look over here) to fun (hello treat dispensing, play machine. Pet me. Now.).
Love Isn’t Transactional
There are times when a cat is so fearful of my presence, even when I’m at the far side of the room, that the best we can do is sit and breathe together.
In those moments, when I feel helpless in their terror, I send them love. Not a physical wall with petting or verbal expressions of praise, but with my feelings. I just sit and send them love from across the room.
Of all the lessons, this is the most humbling. Outside of ex-boyfriends, I have yet to love when it hasn’t been returned. Since I have experienced transactional love for 99% of my life, I have expectations. Mainly, that once offered it’s automatically returned.
Volunteering at the animal shelter is how I practice nontransactional love. I take the love feeling and broadcast it to the tiny ball of fur cowering in the corner, not expecting anything to change. Instead, I’m giving in the purest form, without expecting anything in return.
No tax deductions, receipts, or payment, just one human trying to help one cat.
Contained Best Life
Even when contained, cats live their best life.
Not that they know it, but they’re in an animal shelter. It’s not the fancy shelter with spacious cubbies and luxurious adoption rooms. Instead, it’s a city-run shelter where the floors are a shade above concrete, and the space is designed for cleanliness, not comfort.
Cats don’t dwell. They greet me with meows as soon as I step in the room, ready for the day.
In a place I consider drab and on the edge of heartbreak, the cats are living their best life even when contained. If they still live their best life in such a facility, who am I to complain?
On accident, the cats were showing me how to live with intent. Intent and gratitude.
Joshua Becker over at Becoming Minimalist has the words, “Gratitude reframes our circumstances. It drives out discontent. It directs our attention to the good things in our lives. It brings attentiveness and intentionality. And it more appropriately positions our attitude in relation to the universe and world around us.”
Volunteering at the Animal Shelter
Months later, do still I feel the urge to adopt 23.5 cats? Sometimes but it’s less potent.
Even if I took all the cats home, that’s one moment when many more cats will roll through the door. I can do better by showing up week after week and help the desperate cases. Even if its sitting in a room, hurling love, and waiting to see if it sticks.