Written by Casey Hersch, LCSW
This is the third in a series of posts about Casey’s experience following the loss of her senior cat Yochabel. Click here to read I Am Pawso: The Journey Begins, I Am Pawso: Meet Pawso, I Am Pawso: Shake and Turn, Grow and Learn, and I Am Pawso: The Social Emotional Learning Center.
After her senior cat Yochabel’s passing, Casey was convinced that she would not regain stability unless she adopted another hospice cat. Struggling with her own chronic autoimmune disease and childhood trauma, Casey believes her life purpose is to give back her own healthcare knowledge to help vulnerable senior cats. Instead, to her surprise, kittens were just what the doctor ordered. She began her journey with foster kitten Pawso, who shows Casey her new life purpose. Pawso not only teaches Casey how to live but has a very important message to share with the world.
The foster coordinator entered the dance room and gasped in shock and awe.
“What is this?” She exclaimed.
I had felt the same shock as I watched Scott replace the kitten Confidence Building Station with the Social Emotional Learning Center. Inspired by Samba’s courageous trek across the curtain rod and flat screen television, Scott lost no time in taking our kitten wonderland to the next level.
Social Emotional Learning Center
Scott built a floor to ceiling carpeted pole (and uber scratching post) that led to a skybox attached to the ceiling: the purrfect vantage point for the kittens to oversee their surroundings. From there, he built a series of rope bridges, connected ramps, and steps that led up, down, and around the perimeter of the cat room. In the middle of the ceiling, Scott built the central skybox. The only way to get to this prime location was to cross the wobbly rope bridge and walk over a curved narrow catwalk leading into one side of the skybox. Out the other side of the skybox was a second ramp leading to a platform along the top of the wall and over the doorway. Exiting this walkway required jumping down onto a series of wall mounted steps that landed them back on floor level. From there, the kittens could climb a second floor- to-ceiling carpeted pole and circle the room again, only this time, with a new perspective.
Still not convinced that Scott’s building masterpiece was solely intended for the greater good of the kitten’s learning, I nevertheless felt deeply appreciative of his growth and willingness to support me and the kittens on our tumultuous journey together.
In many ways, the kitten playground had become my adult version of the tree house I always wanted but never had as a child. On an emotional level, through kitten fostering, I had many opportunities to write my new childhood story filled with the play, love, and security that I provided to my foster kittens.
On a practical level, I secretly felt relief that my furniture and carpeting had been spared from claw damage in part due to the activity and stimulation Scott provided for Pawso and Samba. After all, Pawso and Samba were teaching me how to truly raise felines. Cats need to safely climb, exercise, and explore. They naturally seek high lookouts. When we stifle their natural instincts and confine them to ground level, it’s no wonder so many cats find annoying ( to us) ways to get into mischief. This then leads to some stressed owners returning their adopted cats to shelters because “the cat doesn’t fit my home or lifestyle.” Oftentimes, the lack of success in integrating the cat(s) into homes is because many owners do not understand the instinctual needs of cats.
Click here to watch a video of Pawso and Samba’s Social Emotional Learning Center.
Separation and growing up is tough
As the foster coordinator explored every square inch of the cat room, Samba grabbed our attention by stretching her beautiful spotted body along the pole and scratching and sharpening her claws with vigor. As her back twitched and her eyes widened, she quickly raced up her pole. In her version of “show and tell,” she made her way across her personalized cat walk, quickly conquering all obstacles, and parked herself like a queen on a throne in the central skybox. Pawso, who hid down below within the safety of the Kitten Confidence Building Station, was more concerned about the foster coordinator’s presence in his room than he was in feeding his sister’s very inflated ego.
The fun came to an end as the coordinator got to the real purpose of her visit. Now that Samba had an interested adopter, it was time to get her spayed. I knew this day was coming, but it had arrived quicker than I expected. When she yanked Pawso from the comforts of his hiding station to get a good look at him, she commented that he was still underweight and perhaps we would wait a bit longer before getting him neutered. I sighed in relief because I knew Pawso would be traumatized spending the night at the vet hospital. I wanted more time to help him grow and learn before such a big event.
Obviously, I wanted Samba to have a wonderful future, but I couldn’t separate Pawso from Samba in my mind. To me, they were inseparable. I shared that Pawso was incredibly dependent on his sister and I didn’t feel they should be separated. The coordinator, while empathic, stressed that in a system with too many kittens and cats, when one gets adopted, it frees space to save more lives. I simply needed to put aside my emotions and understand there is a process that must be followed.
However, the coordinator gave me another option. If I would take Pawso and Samba to the local pet store the following weekend, I could personally try and market them as a bonded pair to potential adopters. With my testimony, perhaps I would find a family who would want both of them. I felt my blood begin to boil just like it did when I worked with children in the foster care system. Oftentimes, the focus on adoption, and understandably so, tramples the individual needs and best interests of the child. Kitten rescue was not any different than human social services. Low resources and too many needs lead to decisions that must address the current crisis. This approach comes at the expense of the unique needs of the participants.
I knew taking Pawso to a public event and putting him on display to potential adopters would traumatize him and likely undo all the progress he had made thus far. I also knew that no one would want Pawso because in that new environment, he would naturally go into survival mode and hide, claw, hiss, and express his anger and fear. I knew adopters wanted cute, fluffy, cuddly kittens. Pawso was no such thing! I knew I had a lot to think about but one thing at a time….
A new side of Pawso
As I loaded Samba into her cat carrier on spay day, I was excited that this lovely cat would never get pregnant and never contribute to the already existing overpopulation of cats. However, I watched Pawso silently cower in the corner of the room, and for the first time, break his silence by voicing the saddest little “meep.” Could it be that he was letting us know he did not want Samba to leave?
When I returned to the cat room, without Samba, Pawso almost tripped me as he barreled toward my legs with the same pitiful “meep,” only much louder. This was the first time Pawso had ever approached me so comfortably and eager. I bent down and petted him. He did not reject me. I sat on the couch and he jumped up on my lap with the intention to be as still as possible, but his tiny body shook so much I could feel the shivers through my legs. I savored this special moment to finally be close to this precious kitten whom I had loved for months. However, I knew that his urgency to be near me was due to his devastation that his sissy and “mama” Samba was gone.
I spent all afternoon with Pawso at my heels and marveled at his sudden tolerance of my touch without any claws or nips. As night came, bedtime haunted both of us. Knowing he would have a terrible night the moment I closed the cat door and the dark loneliness surrounded him, I went through all of my childhood stuffies until I found my favorite cat. I laid the black and white stuffed cat at the top of the kitty Confidence Station, Pawso’s favorite spot, and in no time at all, I found him curled up and snuggling close to the stuffed cat for the comfort of a sense of connection.
Samba returns home
Samba was gone for three long days as the vet hospital. Over those three days, my relationship with Pawso changed considerably, and I firmly knew that under no circumstances could Pawso ever be separated from his sister. I also knew that I would never take Pawso to the adoption fair. Pawso and Samba were and always would be a bonded pair.
The day that Samba returned, Pawso seemed less like the awkward and insecure kitten he was before she left. More self-assured, he greeted her lovingly, as then redirected his attention toward taking his first steps on the Social Emotional Learning Center. Scratching the pole with vigor, he clawed his way to the top. When he realized he made it to the top, he panicked, and made an erratic wrong turn which sent him over the top of the open-door frame. Unable to turn around, he toppled off and hit the floor before I could rescue him.
Samba watched and reacted but the uncomfortable cone on her head prevented her from rushing to his rescue. To our surprise, Pawso picked himself up and went right back to it. Pawso was showing Samba that he was OK and while she was recovering, he would guard their territory from the topmost perches of the cat room. Later that night, Pawso made his way to one of the ceiling shelves over the doorway. Peeping at us, upside down, as we ate our dinner in the kitchen, I saw him lose balance.
I jumped out of my chair and grabbed Pawso by his hind legs before he hit the hardwood floor. “There you go,” I said, “shake it off. You go this.” As I watched Pawso flounder and try again, I saw his resilience and ability to turn a bad situation into a positive. I also noted that Pawso was not yet stable, confident, or agile, like his sister. He needed much more nurturing and learning.
When the foster coordinator returned for Samba’s post-spaying check-up, I had a lot to say to her. I listed all the reasons why why Samba should not be adopted without Pawso, and emphasized the morality of keeping all bonded pairs together. She looked past me and gazed at the magnificent cat room Scott had built for Pawso and Samba.
“I don’t know what you are worried about,” she said. “You know, you aren’t going to let these cats go. Anyone who builds a cat center like this for their fosters is never gonna let them go.”
Just then I heard Scott pull up in the driveway in his oversized work truck. I ran outside to greet him as he was unloading a large tree branch.
“What now?” I asked.
“It’s time we bring the outside inside,” he replied.
Stay tuned for I Am Pawso: Getting Purrspective during the Pandemic.
About Casey Hersch
Casey Hersch, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, author, animal rescuer, and Latin ballroom dancer. She uses holistic and resilience-based models to help children and families cope with trauma, stress, and illness. Her upcoming children’s rhyming book I Am Pawso: A Cat Teaches Kids Ways to Turn Around Difficult Situations (Fall 2023—Amazon,) is about her foster turned adopted cat, Pawso. The book is a collection of Pawso Practices that reduce stress and encourage healthy choices. Casey lives in California with her husband, Scott (I Am Pawso illustrator), and her cats Pawso and Samba.
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