On the evening of July 19, animal control and humane law enforcement officers with the Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) removed 63 cats and kittens from a home in Northwest Washington as part of a case of hoarding and inhumane treatment of animals. The vast majority were kittens under a month old who were placed in foster homes. Several adult and adolescent cats were taken to our adoption center on Oglethorpe Street. All of them were unsocialized and shut down.
The first thing I did was set up a boom box and put in a CD called “Through a Cat’s Ear,” a collection of classical music recorded acoustically for the feline ear and proven to relieve stress in cats, setting the player for play and repeat. Then, armed with syringes filled with baby food and packages of flaked salmon, my behavior and training colleagues and I went to work.
Our first goal was to help these hissing, swatting, growling cats to develop a new association with us approaching them. For this, we used classical conditioning, the pairing of two stimuli to produce a new learned response. In this case, really delicious food appeared when people approached. Several times a day, we would simply open a kitty condo door, present ourselves, and deliver a yummy dollop of chicken baby food or flakes of salmon. Some of the cats ate, some didn’t. A handful of the cats hissed, swatted, or charged at us, but we didn’t stop. By the third day, we started seeing a difference.
We celebrated little victories. Cliff, a stunning white cat, had moved! He was no longer curled up under his raised bed; he was sleeping on top of it. Bowie, a handsome ginger tabby, who would hiss and spit at anyone who opened his cage, blinked his eyes at me, a feline signal for “I mean no harm.”
I blinked my eyes at him and he blinked back. Reciprocating eye blinks—yes! Sia and Sybil, two of our adolescents, approached the front of their cage and sniffed a hand. Rick, another ginger tom, however, was still hissing, spitting, charging, and swatting.
While each of the cats progressed at their own pace, it was obviously time for some of them to move on to the next step: touch and engagement. Using operant conditioning, we rewarded the cats with a tasty treat when they performed the behaviors that we wanted to encourage. If a cat offered eye contact, moved forward, or touched their nose to a trainer’s hand or a target stick, we would mark the behavior with a clicker and give them a high- value treat because behaviors that are reinforced have a higher likelihood of being repeated than those that aren’t. Again, some cats continued to become more comfortable with us while others...not so much.
Three weeks into this process, one of my colleagues had an idea. Because these cats had never been confined and had lived amongst one another, perhaps we should move them to the behavior and training department office where they could move around at will. One by one, we loaded cats into carriers and took them to our office. Some of the cats were easily handled while others had to be wrapped in a towel to reduce their stress. Rick was his usual fractious self and had to be cornered by carrier until he stepped inside.
We placed the carriers on the floor of our large, multi-person office and opened the doors, letting the cats come out at their own pace and explore. For the next two days, our team continued with the plan, tossing treats toward the more cautious cats and rewarding touches and pets with the more social ones. One day, three cats—including Rick!—were lined up next to each other beside my desk. So I sat on the floor and placed a few flakes of salmon in front of each of them, which they all ate. I repeated this exercise over and over. Then, I began to rest my hand near them without giving any food. If they solicited any kind of engagement, I rewarded them. When it was Rick’s turn, he reached out his paw toward me in an inviting way; I moved my hand closer and he rubbed his cheek and head on my hand!
On August 16, exactly four weeks after these cats were removed from deplorable, inhumane conditions, four of them—Sia, Sybil, Georgie, and Rick—were made available for adoption. And by September 10, all of them—including Rick—had begun new lives in loving homes where they receive the care and individual attention they deserve. Bowie soon followed and it’s just a matter of time before Cliff, too, gets a happy ending and new beginning of his own.
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