What Volunteering With Cats Taught Me About Talking to Humans

I’m a volunteer at the local Humane Society and have been for over a year and a half. I’ve seen a lot of animals go through, and contrary to what people would think, it doesn’t make me sad. I’m happy, in fact, to see the cats and dogs find good homes, and I’m glad to play a role in getting those animals ready to be adopted. The only times I’m sad is when a cat or a dog comes back in because someone underestimated the responsibility and simply failed to learn about their animal before adopting them.

This winter, for example, a beautiful domestic long hair cat was adopted out and returned within a couple of weeks. The cat – named Snowball for her flowing white hair – was special needs because it’s deaf. She was a cat I’d worked with quite a bit, helping to socialize her to people and being petted and brushed. She’d always been incredibly sweet to me, and never got testy with me, even if I accidentally surprised her.

When she came back – because she “didn’t get along with the kids in the house” – she was jumpy, afraid, and hissed at me when I tried to pet her. It took a lot of rehab to get her used to humans again. I suspected that the problem was not so much the cat as it was the kids who wouldn’t leave her alone. It was clear that something had gone on.

Working with cats has taught me a lot about working with humans, in fact. There are patterns that need to be followed and a language that needs to spoken and understood. You can’t just pick up a cat that’s a stranger to you and handle it like you would a cat you’ve known for fifteen years. You can’t expect the cat to just be an object that sits there and purrs for your convenience – an axiom a lot of adopters seem to fail to understand. Since working at the Humane Society, I’ve developed stronger feelings about declawing, about how people treat their animals, about how cats are socialized by their humans and all the different personalities animals can have.

Now, I don’t make the animal rights activist mistake of attributing human aspects to cat behavior. Cats don’t do things out of spite or revenge and they certainly don’t experience or articulate “love” in the ways humans do. Indeed, most scientific evidence points to the idea that cats see their humans as big, unfurry, helpless kittens. Their behavior, then, is often trying to train us to be good cats, just as we’re trying to train them to be good pets.

This awareness of the communication gaps and the methods of communicating between the species has had an effect on how I live and communicate with humans. Don’t mistake me here, I’m not comparing humans to animals in a one to one ratio. But that learning and knowing and understanding carefully how people respond to each other and how things can go has made it easier for me to feel confident in my conversations and discussions.

There’s this internal tension within our individualistic culture between our different ways of communication within a community. On one hand, how we approach communication shouldn’t matter because we as people are what matters. On the other, we are living within a community that only functions well if everyone can communicate. I do my best to stick to the former principle, because all too often the lines of dismissal within communication fall along lines of power. If I had a dollar for every time I’d been dismissed because I “sounded angry,” only to watch my exact same argument be repeated by a man and accepted, I wouldn’t have to take out loans for Oxford.

And that’s where learning comes in. I believe there is a middle ground between the individualistic “I can say whatever without accountability for how I say it” manner and the tone policing “you must always be perceived as kind no matter what” manner. I believe that we don’t have to take crap from people, but that learning and paying close and careful attention to how people react and communicate can better serve our progressive goals.

I’m hardly a person who believes in moderation in all things. I believe we should take our lives seriously and that we shouldn’t temper how we feel. But I also believe that how we feel must include some form of empathy for the Other – if we are to have Christian love, we need to have some modicum of understanding for how our neighbor receives our words.

I’m not saying that, for example, queer people should temper how we approach our issues within the church. Instead, I’m proposing that those of us with more power, more privilege, ought to exercise greater care in how we approach issues. We ought to learn about our privilege and recognize, quickly, the ways in which our privilege is used to dismiss marginalized people. It is the privileged who have a greater responsibility for communication, for grace, for understanding.

When I work with the cats at the Humane Society, I have some general principles of approach and communication. But I also know that each cat is different, and I have to spend some of my time learning what’s different for each of them. For example, one of the cats, Pepe, simply doesn’t like me. No matter what I do, no matter what I try, there seems to be a genuine dislike there that will not go away. I probably remind her of someone who abused her in the past, and while that’s not my fault, it would simply do more damage if I tried to push my friendship onto her.

We must be willing to take that same care with others around us. We must be willing to step back and realize when our contributions will hurt more than help. We must take the time upon ourselves to learn, to communicate, and to have the grace required to listen.

[Pictured: A cat from the Humane Society named Sully who was missing his right front paw.]