Almost two months ago, I welcomed this little fuzzbucket into my life.
This is Jasper. I adopted him from the Animal Protective Association of Missouri, a fantastic shelter in the St. Louis area. I visited a few local shelters and met more great cats than I could count, but something got me stuck on this little black kitten with bat ears. Here’s our story so far.
It’s no secret that I’m an animal fanatic — a crazy cat lady, even. I’ve even spent the past two summers interning with a major pet food corporation, where my duties range from researching and writing about the medical and emotional benefits of having pets to partnering with shelters on awareness campaigns. I grew up the daughter of a veterinarian, and as a result, I’ve spent the past 20 years head-over-heels in love with animals. Over the years, we’ve welcomed a total of five cats, four dogs, countless fish and a California baja kingsnake into our family. The snake’s name was Elvis. She was four feet long.
Plus, as my parents love to remind me, my first word was not “mama” or “dada” like a normal baby. It was “cat.”
So, for the past year or so, I’ve been seriously considering adopting a cat. It’s a major step. The average lifespan of an indoor house cat is about 13 years (although one of my coworkers just lost a cat who was 25-and-a-half). Jasper will hopefully be in my life until I’m well into my 30s. I needed to know that I would always be able to care for him, no matter what else may happen in the next 10 years. Before I even considered bringing Jasper home, I made sure that any cat I adopted would have a guaranteed home with family or friends if anything was to ever happen to me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I know that most college students my age are not in a position to bring an animal into their life. I’m at a point in my life where I can. I live comfortably in an apartment. I have the finances to feed and care for a cat. (And, to be fair, I pay my vet bills by helping out around my parents’ house.) It was the right time for me to adopt a cat, and Jasper was that cat.
Looking back, Jasper was not what I had in mind, and I initially wanted to adopt an older cat. Statistically, kittens are overwhelmingly more likely to be adopted, and my family has always tried to adopt older, down-on-their-luck cats. So many wonderful senior cats get overlooked in favor of adorable, squeal-inducing kittens. But, I had to examine my own situation more carefully. Because I’m in college, I split my time between living alone in an apartment and living at home with another cat and two 90-pound dogs. I met several sweet older cats, but all of them were skittish around large dogs or other cats, and I knew that a younger cat would adapt much better to my family’s chaotic household. It would be far more responsible to adopt a young cat who would be happy in my home than an older cat who would be fearful and uncomfortable for the rest of his life.
So, I started meeting kittens. Good lord. I started looking at animal shelters in June — the height of kitten season. Everywhere I turned, there were small kittens, fuzzy kittens, kittens of every color. Just when I would fall in love with one, a shelter worker told me there were nine more in the back.
As I was walking around the APA, visiting with all these wonderful cats, I noticed a very small, black kitten with his paws to the glass, meowing — practically yelling — for my attention. When I squatted down to visit with him, I could hear him purring through the glass. The other kittens in his room were asleep or hanging upside down from scratching posts, but he was the one who wanted nothing more than to meet me. I asked a volunteer if I could visit with him, and she brought both of us into an adoption room, closing the door behind her. He chased a mouse toy for a few minutes before climbing into my lap and promptly falling asleep, purring with contentment.
I knew he was my cat.
But I’m a firm believer in not making impulse decisions, so I left the APA to visit the Humane Society of Missouri, another fantastic St. Louis-area shelter. There, I met even more awesome cats, but I knew my heart was back at the APA, stolen by a black kitten. I hurried back to the APA and almost bowled over a family leaving with a kitten in a carrier. My heart was in my throat as I asked which kitten they had adopted, and I breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t say Jasper. Seeing the look on my face, they asked which kitten I had my heart set on. When I told them his name, they yelled, “Oh my gosh, we loved Jasper! We were this close to adopting him! We’re so glad he’s going home!” Then, the mom pulled me into a hug.
A few minutes and a lot of paperwork later, he was mine. And he’s turned out to be an even better cat than I could have dreamed. He’s breathed new life into the house, and Boo, our lethargic 9-year-old cat, seems eight years younger when the pair of them run laps around the living room. Even the dogs love him, and it always makes me smile to see two 90-pound behemoths gently touching noses with a scruffy 2-pound kitten. He’s definitely the loudest cat I’ve ever had, and every day when I come home from work, he greets me at the door, squawking like some sort of cat-parrot hybrid. He’s slowly growing into his gigantic bat ears, but the nickname “Baby Bat” has stuck. And as I write this, he’s asleep in my lap, purring just as loud as the day I brought him home.
I love this cat more than I thought I could ever love anything.
In my time as an intern, the most rewarding project I’ve worked on centers on one of the biggest barriers to adoption: perception. In the past, most shelter communications have relied on overdramatic, pitiful imagery — usually showing animals cowering in rusty cages. While tactics like this can be effective (Sarah McLachlan’s heart-wrenching ASPCA animal cruelty video is the most prominent example of this), it’s effective in the wrong way: These ads don’t inspire you to adopt. Sad, pathetic dogs and cats make you feel pity, but you don’t want to welcome that animal into your family.
When people think shelter, they think damaged or dangerous animals, and those barriers are preventing the adoptions of millions of wonderful pets. The numbers are sobering: A 2011 study found that only 24.5% of new dogs come from a shelter, and only 22% of cats. While I’m the proud owner of two awesome dogs from an ethical, responsible breeder, there are millions of equally awesome dogs languishing in shelters, waiting for the right person to give them a home.
So, instead of spamming Facebook with pictures of mangy dogs and sorrowful cats, we’re trying to show these animals as they really are: happy, healthy pets who want nothing more than a happy home. Something as simple as changing photography tactics (photographing outside instead of in dingy cages, or from eye level instead of above) can make an overwhelming difference. By providing shelters with the right tools, we can help them spotlight how incredible their animals are and drive more adoptions.
The only thing wrong with shelter animals is that they’re in a shelter. The proof is curled up in my lap, purring like a jet engine.