What I learned about healing trauma at the Cat’s Home.

Do you ever get sick of ideas and thinking and just want to hang out in experiences and doing?

I’ve been immersed in a rich tapestry of experiences fostering cats for a local animal shelter. I had become interested in the power of communities to heal, particularly in relation to the small group of people who don’t do well with psychotherapy. At the cats home I found a community healing orphaned, damaged, abandoned cats and kittens and there were so many parallels with my work and what I was exploring that I got immersed, while also enjoying some kitten company.

I recall a conversation with Rob on Christmas Eve when I had a homeless mother cat and her kittens upstairs in our bathroom but downstairs I had a one hour session with a homeless teenager and then she left through the front door into the big harsh world.

I reflected on her life in foster care and beyond, and the parallels between the cats home and the human system wondering why one seemed to work well and the other didn’t. Bad behavior in the cats was more likely to be understood as the result of cruelty or neglect and not some intrinsic badness.

The confronting difference was that antisocial cats were euthanaised…. but not always. There are definitely a handful of people braving the teeth and claws and having success at rebuilding trust in antisocial cats.

The feline family moved on and were adopted and we ended up with a motley crew of 6 teenagers who had ringworm and were thrown together by circumstance. Now ringworm, which is just a glorified form of tinea has some serious prejudices and baggage attached in the cat world, and cats are commonly euthanaised in shelters to prevent the spread of this highly contagious fungus. Take a moment to imagine if children were euthanaised for having ringworm. The parallel in therapy for this mob was probably in the Axis 2 realm. Not many people wanted to touch them.

This mob became a tight knit group, united by the trauma of twice weekly antifungal baths. Two of them must have grown up with a dog and taught the others that dogs are fun. The leader of the group, a big black panther named Sambucca was a beautiful goofy loving felllow but when he was cured and went back to the Cat’s Home he suddenly behaved as if he hated cats. He was relegated to a single cage in the boarding section and we went in to bat for his good character. In the end it was his love of dogs that got him adopted by a German Shepherd who had recently lost his pet cat.

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I wondered how many clients I see in the nasty bitter stage, and how different it would be if I got to glimpse before and after to see what is possible.

The next foster was Snowflake, a 2 1/2 week old innocent who apart from being abandoned for a day and a half had known no trauma. Food, warmth and a tender touch and she was putty in our hands.

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Then, as she grew and started to play she was missing the learning that comes from siblings about not playing too roughly. So after we put the word out, Louis arrived.

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Now Louis had a very different beginning. He was found abandoned in a barn at the age of 4 weeks, but it was clear his innocence had been rocked. The story was that he liked other cats and played hard, but if a human approached he froze, flattened himself to the ground and became paralyzed. My guess is that something had toyed with him. Maybe a dog that chased if he ran, taunted harder if he moved, so he had leaned to play possum.

The first night my son spent holding him and when I walked in to check he said “I don’t know what you are saying about this kitten being scared, he is just sitting here in my arms snuggled up.” I took a closer look. He wasn’t happy, he was paralyzed. So we upped the gentleness and reassurance. I remember the day about a week later when I walked into the kitten room and he ran away! Yay, progress. The progression was then from running, to starting to run and then slowing down. Then starting to run and changing direction to approach. Then catching himself before he ran. Then approaching. And then that magical day when I walked into the room and he immediately started to purr.

Now I didn’t do any therapy. All we did was provide a safe and loving environment… and he worked it out for himself. And that, for me, is the most powerful distillation of the rich tapestry of this whole experience that also aligns with what we know about therapy.

 

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