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Dog Becomes a Cat Whisperer

A woman finds a rescued feral cat unapproachable—until an unlikely expert offers her assistance.

Marci Kladnik, with Barney and Maggie
Credit: © 2011 Michael Brian ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Amber eyes blazed at me from the wire cage in my garage. “Here, little guy,” I said to the scrawny, 10-week-old gray-and-white kitten cowering inside. I held a bowl of food in one hand and reached for the latch with the other.

Hiss! Spit! Razor-sharp claws swiped at me. I jumped back, nearly dropping the dish.

This kitten was wild! Really wild. He was a feral I’d caught the night before during my first-ever cat rescue job.

I had just started volunteering for Catalyst for Cats, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit that traps, neuters or spays, then releases feral cats and rescues and finds homes for their kittens. The veterinarian was closed, so I’d brought this kitten home.

Now I couldn’t feed him or even get close without him spitting, hissing or trembling. Could I get him to trust me? To trust anyone enough to be adopted?

I knew how he felt. I was pretty scared too. I was out of work. My daughters were grown and lived hours away and I had just filed for divorce.

I wanted to believe that God had a new purpose for me, yet I couldn’t help but wonder if it was too late to start over at 59. How could I trust that things would work out for me when my life had been turned upside down?

Still, each morning, I believed the answer would come to me. Lord, what’s next for me? Help me figure this out.

At least I had my cats, Dodo and Spencer. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a cat. And there was my sweet three-year-old Scottish terrier, Maggie. Scotties aren’t known for being very cat-friendly, but Maggie adored Dodo and Spencer. The three of them brought me comfort.

Friends helped too. Seeking support one day, I stopped over at Sandy’s house. A woman named Linda, whom I didn’t know, was there too. We chatted for a bit and then Linda happened to mention her volunteer work with Catalyst for Cats.

“I’ve moved out of the area so I’m looking for someone to take over my job trapping feral cats and rescuing their kittens,” she said. “If you know of anyone, please let me know.”

Hmm, I love cats. I have all this time on my hands now. It could be a fun part-time sort of thing…

“How ’bout me?” I said.

“That would be terrific,” Linda said.

Three nights later we were standing in a field, empty save for three abandoned, ramshackle barns—home to several wild cats and kittens.

“Our goal is to capture a black mother cat and her four kittens—three black, one gray-and-white,” said Linda.

Linda set traps baited with food, then we stepped back and waited. About a half hour later, three hungry kittens—all black—crept into the traps. Linda said she’d take them to a foster home.

“It’s your job to get that last kitten and the mother,” she added. “Try again early tomorrow morning.”

Me? Rescuing cats on my own? It might sound crazy, but I couldn’t wait! Besides, it looked so easy. I already felt like I was making a difference, getting kittens into good homes before they became too wild to be domesticated.

The next morning I was back at the field. I set up the traps and waited … and waited. An hour went by, still nothing. I guess it’s not that easy after all.

Later that day, around dusk, I returned. Within minutes I caught the mother and another black kitten—one we hadn’t known about. Excitedly, I called Linda to pick them up. The last kitten, the little gray-and-white one, peered down from the barn rafters, the white fur on his face shining in the dark.

“Mew, purrt-purrt,” I called, baiting the trap. He mewed but was too frightened to come down, even for the food. Disappointed, I packed up for the night. I’d have to try another time.

The next morning I came back and the kitten was still up in the rafters. He was terrified and just wouldn’t budge. That night I tried again for two hours with no luck, so I took a break and drove home to feed Maggie, Dodo and Spencer. When I returned, I found the kitten… inside the trap!

“Don’t worry, we’re gonna take you to your brothers and sisters and find you all good homes,” I said, quickly covering the trap with a sheet to calm him. Success! Maybe rescuing cats was going to work out for me after all.

Now, face-to-face with the terrified kitten in my garage, I wasn’t so sure. Anytime I got close to his cage, he lashed out. How was I supposed to help tame him?

Lord, this kitten is so afraid to trust, I prayed. Tell me how to help him.

The kitten cried and trembled, his amber eyes huge with fear. Maybe if he sees me with another cat he’ll realize I’m not a threat, I thought. I started with Dodo, who was all black like the kitten’s mother. The sight of something familiar just might calm him.

I held Dodo and stepped closer to the cage. Hissss!

Spencer didn’t care much for the kitten either.

The thought popped into my head, What about Maggie? A strange idea, bringing a dog to a skittish kitten, and yet…

I went inside the house and got Maggie. Holding her up to the kitten, I tried not to make any sudden movements. Purr. The kitten inched forward. Purr. Purr. He stuck his fuzzy gray paw through the cage. Purr. Purr.

Maggie slipped out of my arms and edged closer to the cage until she was nose to nose with the kitten. I wanted to let the kitten out so they could be even closer. But those teeth! Those claws!

I looked at Maggie wagging her tail excitedly. And the kitten? He only wanted Maggie. I tentatively reached my finger into the cage and stroked his side. Purr.

“Okay, you guys, I get it,” I said, trying not to laugh. “Here you go.” Slowly, I opened the cage and lifted the kitten out, setting him on my lap. He continued purring, paying no attention to me.

He only had eyes for Maggie, who sniffed the kitten’s face and gave him a good lick. He purred even louder. Who knew my Scottie would turn out to be the cat whisperer!

A little while later I brought Maggie and the kitten inside the house and let them bond even more.

Later that day, I picked up the kitten’s mother from the vet. “She needs to stay with you for a few days before you release her,” she said.

Back home, I put the mother’s cage in the kitten’s room. His reaction? He walked right back to Maggie. His mother looked on calmly, as if even she sensed Maggie had a special bond with her baby.

Several days later I released the mother cat. And you can probably guess what happened with the kitten. How could I break his heart—and Maggie’s—by adopting him out? And so Barney, named for the barn where I rescued him, found his forever home with us.

Dodo and Spencer eventually accepted Barney too. But Maggie was his real BFF. The two spent all day chasing balls, and each other, up and down the hallway. They napped together on the window seat.

Barney wouldn’t even eat unless Maggie was by his side. And when he was finished, Maggie licked his face clean. Their antics kept me laughing (and reaching for my camera!).

Four years later, Maggie and Barney are still inseparable. Now when I take Maggie for a walk, Barney watches at the window, running to the door as we come in.

One time, a loud purring woke me up. It wasn’t Spencer; he was at my feet. It wasn’t Dodo; he was on my pillow. I checked Maggie’s crate beside my bed. There was Barney, his little gray-and-white head resting contentedly against Maggie’s.

Oh, and I should mention that Maggie’s not the only cat whisperer in the house these days. She has trained a sidekick: Barney! Whenever I take in a rescued kitten now, he accepts them with open paws. No claws. No teeth. Just love.

Maggie’s even taught him her trademark welcome—the nose-to-nose rub.

And me? My “part-time,” “just for fun” volunteering gig for Catalyst for Cats has turned into a full-blown career. I’m now a board member, education outreach coordinator, adoption and foster coordinator, website manager and fosterer of special-needs kittens.

I’ve even started a newspaper column about cats and a series of children’s stories about Maggie. The work is challenging sometimes, but it brings me more joy and fulfillment than I ever thought possible.

Who knew my dog would turn out to be the cat whisperer? The same One who knew what my new purpose would be and guided me to it. Now that’s wild.

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