Story by Nicole Gounalis
When I first met Ember, my two-year-old rescue cat, she was about six months old. I had recently started volunteering at Cat Town, an adoption center-cat café in Oakland, CA. I began volunteering a few months after moving to Oakland under difficult circumstances: my boyfriend, Nathan, who was living in San Francisco at the time, had been in a near-fatal bicycle accident and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. I had never been involved with any kind of animal rescue before, but, as a lifelong cat lover, I thought it would be a good way to meet new people and get my mind off things.
Ember came into the café from Oakland’s municipal shelter, Oakland Animal Services, as part of a then-new initiative called the Forgotten Kitten Project, which helps jump-start the socialization process in older kittens who are at high-risk for being euthanized. Born into an animal hoarding situation, Ember was brought into the shelter and put on bite quarantine after a stressful intake, which meant that if no one intervened she would be euthanized within ten days. Cat Town brought her to the café, where she was completely shut down. No one could touch her, and volunteers and guests alike were afraid of her.
During her time at the café, I started initiating play sessions with Ember and we developed a bond. I started to wonder if she’d get along with my resident cat, another rescue named Dez. Soon, however, she got ringworm and had to be sent to a foster home, where she regressed. I went to visit her there after about a month, and decided to bring her home. In the time since Nathan’s accident, I had struggled to feel a sense of purpose, but the prospect of helping Ember made me feel hopeful for the first time in a while.
Since Ember still needed a lot of socialization, she came home to a large closet space that I set up just for her. Every day for three months, I went in and sat with her for about a half-hour, reading aloud or silently. Slowly, Ember grew more comfortable and began to trust me, a process that unfolded alongside Nathan’s continued recovery. Ember and Dez began to slide paws through the closet door, playing with one another. As we did scent-swaps and parallel feedings, the magic of patience started to kick in. One day, Ember came up to me and rubbed against my legs, offering her back to be pet. The next day, she darted out of her closet space to explore. Soon enough, she and Dez were playing together and sharing the space. Ember began to cozy up to Nathan as well! Today, we are one happy family, and I often reflect on how those days sitting with Ember were therapeutic for me. Earning Ember’s trust, and, with Cat Town’s help, saving her life, made me realize that, even in the face of an uncontrollable and devastating reality, I can still do something that matters.
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