Volunteers of the Month: Erin and Gina

While it’s not true for all of our cats, some have never lived in a home before, and it's a large part of our mission to help those who aren’t well-socialized find loving families.   It’s an incredible experience to earn the trust of a fearful cat and watch him blossom overtime into a lovely companion, but it can also be a little stressful at first, especially if this is your first time doing so.

We use the term “under socialized” to refer to cats and older kittens who aren’t feral, and respond positively to human interaction, but are wary and fearful with people, because they haven’t had much experience receiving positive attention, or attention at all.

Our Forgotten Kitten Project is a special program for kittens who come into the shelter around four months or older, after the ideal window for socializing them has closed. Where many people believe it's too late to socialize these kittens - and as a result they are euthanized in significant numbers in shelters across the country - we have found that pairing these kittens with confident cats, and getting them desensitized to stimulation in our cat café, has resulted in their becoming great companions.

It takes time and patience, and we have seen again and again that under socialized cats and kittens can thrive after adoption. But their adopters may need some extra support on the road to their happy, loving relationship.  That's where volunteers, Erin D and Gina B, came in!

We sat down with the two of them to ask about all things cats and their volunteer work at Cat Town!

Cat Town: So Erin and Gina, you're both cat people. How many cats do you have at home?

Erin D: Six. [which includes Cat Town foster fail, Jamie]

Gina B: Nick is our only cat these days, but Zazu and Balou from next door spend quite a bit of time in my yard and I am their backup guardian, so it feels like 1-3/4 cats.

Gina and her neighbor cat friend

Gina and her neighbor cat friend

CT: Have you been a cat person your whole life?

GB: Yup!

ED: No, I used to be highly allergic growing up and then in my mid-20s discovered I had outgrown [my allergies]. My husband always had cats and after staying a long weekend at a friend's house and falling in love with her polydactyl cat I knew I wanted a cat in my life. One cat...I ended up falling in love with a cat that had a sister and that was the beginning of our multi-cat household. 

Erin shows her love of cats with her feline themed Halloween costume

Erin shows her love of cats with her feline themed Halloween costume

CT: How did you get involved with Cat Town?

ED: We moved to Oakland seven years ago from Minneapolis. In Minneapolis we volunteered at a shelter for five years doing cat adoptions. We were missing volunteering with cats, even though we have a mini Cat Town at home. We have our own under socialized cat that [my husband] rescued from New Mexico that we worked with and hearing the mission of Cat Town we knew we understood this type of cat and wanted to help more of them, so we signed up for a session and dove right in to all things Cat Town.

GB: I signed up right after the cafe opened, wanting to work in CZ2 [what was the transitional space infor cats coming out of the shelter, and will soon be our new adoption center for the hardest-to-place cats], but ending up as a Cat Zone attendant and adoption counselor instead for the first year and a half. I started working in CZ2 pretty regularly in the fall.

Gina reads up on Levi before the Cat Zone opens for the day

Gina reads up on Levi before the Cat Zone opens for the day

CT: What inspired you to start the Case Management Program?

GB: I was dismayed to see so many of our longtime residents returned at around the same time last fall. I contacted Dawn [Cat Town's Foster Coordinator] about starting a proactive outreach program to help keep cats in homes. Erin had independently suggested something similar, so Dawn put us together, she and Ann [Cat Town Founder] gave us some guidance, and we went from there. Erin and I have complementary skills, so it's been a good partnership.

ED: In November we had a slew of cats returned all around the same time and I really wanted to help figure out how we could better help our cats and their humans adjust - our cats are special and need humans with greater understanding and patience than cats from a regular shelter. Gina had a similar idea and we developed a program to support the adopters of our more under socialized cats in hope of having less returns by proactively reaching out and making the adopters feel supported (versus having them call us if there are issues - although we answer those queries too). We also developed materials to help potential adopters truly understand the cats we have at Cat Town before making a commitment. 

Erin hugs Elise goodbye before sending her off to her adoptive home.

Erin hugs Elise goodbye before sending her off to her adoptive home.

CT: What is your favorite thing about working with under socialized cats?

ED: Seeing their progress and gaining their trust. I love seeing them grow more and more confident as they get comfortable. The mission of Cat Town is incredible and I love being a part of helping save so many cats lives. 

GB: t's such a delight to see them open up and learn to trust people. The best moment to witness is when [a cat] is torn between the safety of the Quiet Zone [a space in the Cat Zone for cats to retreat from the main space] and the allure of toys in the main room. You can almost see the wheels turning in their head. 

Gina gives fluffy cat, Sinatra, a brushing in the Cat Zone

Gina gives fluffy cat, Sinatra, a brushing in the Cat Zone

CT: What is something you’ve learned about under socialized cats during your time at Cat Town that you think people wouldn’t expect to be true?

ED: Never underestimate the power of just being there. Sometimes that is all the cat can handle and that is okay, and it doesn't mean you are not helping or making progress. Every positive interaction adds up.

GB: Maybe that love and communication come in so many forms. A lot of people make assumptions about cats based on their own experience with them, which is perfectly understandable -- we all do. But I love the way every cat has his or her own way of letting us know when they want more or less interaction, or attention, or treats (although almost everybody wants more treats). I'm as thrilled to get slow blinks from a newcomer as I am to give a full belly rub to a longtime resident -- both are super special.