I have written bits and pieces of this story elsewhere, but decided to put it all in one place for posterity. – HH
I knew I was in trouble when Renee showed me his picture on her phone.
“His name is Pepe, and he has spent over a year at the no-kill shelter. He is so ugly no one will ever adopt him. So we should.”
I admit, he didn’t look like much. He was an eight year old ginger Tom who looked like a shopworn stuffed animal. He had been horribly abused as a younger cat, and at some point had a bad ear infection no one treated, so most of his ears had rotted away.
We decided to go for a visit and check him out. He lived in a giant walk-in cage with other cats, but he was cowered under some boxes, hiding. He looked virtually catatonic. He didn’t want to be held, or petted or played with. He came out of the boxes long enough to eat the snacks we gave him, and then he went back into hiding.
The shelter tried to be realistic with us.
“He has been horribly abused. He doesn’t like to cuddle, and he isn’t really affectionate. But he is special, and he needs a home where people will love him.”
If you know anything about us, you know that lost causes do not scare us off. So we signed the papers and agreed to take care of him the rest of his life. Our first clue to how hard this was going to be was fighting to put him in the cat carrier, and his screaming once we shut the door. We had to wrap the carrier in a towel to calm him down, and while most families have pictures of the adoptive parents holding their new kitty, we have one of us holding a towel-covered pet carrier with dazed looks on our faces.
As we left, the shelter people thanked us for picking him, and we thanked them for keeping him alive and well until we discovered him.
We gave Pepe his own room at the house, with a closed door so he could be comfortable before we introduced him to the other cats. He promptly found every single hiding place in that room, and spent much time just staring off into space. If you tried to pet him, he would attack your hand and then go hide again.
It went like that for about four months. But in the mornings, we would find his toys scattered and food eaten, so apparently he is having a ball when we aren’t looking.
So we decided that if all he gets is to spend his remaining five or six years in a loving home filled with kitty treats and toys and with people committed to loving him even when he doesn’t have the resources to love us back, that is a lot more than he would have had in the first place, and a lot more than any of us deserve.
But slowly, things began to change. We made it a point to just hang out in his room. He would come out of hiding and walk around us, still looking lost and confused, but at least out of hiding. I would put cat treats on the floor in front of me, and he would eye them, but ignore them until I walked away, when he would dash in, eat them all, and then hide again.
After weeks of this, he began to eat the treats at my feet. Then he would come to wherever in the room the treats were. We began to open the door to his room to let the other cats peep in (Pepe would run and hide again), with the hope he would decide to explore the larger house. Nope. He would walk right up to where the threshold and look out, but never cross it.
Four months after he came to his forever home, he began to tentatively explore. He was so brave – it was obvious he was scared. He would come out of the room, go some 10 feet into the rest of the house and then run back to the safety of his room, only to creep back out an hour or two later.
These days, things are very different. Pepe has gained weight and his coat is shiny, he walks around the house like he owns it, he plays with the other cats, and, most noticeable of all, he sings.
Here is how I described it when I first noticed it:
I don’t have another word for it – it sounds like singing. Early in the morning when it’s just he and I awake, he walks through the house, going in every open room, singing all the while. Like he’s making rounds.
He still does that. In fact, he is doing that while I am writing this, drinking coffee at the dining room table. He is still skittish, and if you came over, he would probably still hide from you. If I move too fast near his face, he will freak out, and every once in a while he and the other cats will get into it over space. But he is home. This is his place.
The other night, the cat who we were warned is not affectionate and that would never snuggle climbed on the bed and nestled up beside my legs and slept, looking for all the world like he was contented. Every night as we eat dinner, he sits beside the table – we have come to realize that he often wants to be near us, but not touch us. As introverts ourselves, we understand that completely.
Everything I know about trauma and recovery says that if we have been traumatized, we cannot begin to heal and recover until we feel safe – which is why the concept of safe places features so prominently in my work. So Pepe being more fully a cat than we have ever seen him means that he feels safe.
Which makes me very happy, indeed.