Happy 66: Les Chats de Photinakis

My husband and I are both cat people, and for years before we got married we lived together in a tiny, tiny condo in downtown Boston. 350 square feet, to be exact. Barely enough space for one person, let alone two, and definitely not big enough for a cat to be happy. Fast forward past our wedding and we got around to buying a house in the spring of 2014, and the long-running joke was the moment I got the house keys in my hand, I was going to rush out and get a kitty or two.  Moving day came and went and things didn't quite work out that way -- I didn't want to bring a kitty home to total upheaval.

Both my husband and I knew that we wanted to adopt cats from a local shelter, and not just any cats -- but shy, skittish ones that aren't "adoptable." Lots of families with little kids need docile cats, and first-time cat owners should probably get friendlier cats, but my husband and I are both experienced with cats (having had cats in our families growing up and as young adults), and in both our cases the cats we grew up with were skittish. One of my earliest memories while we started dating was trading stories about how our childhood cats would do kind of hilarious things when they were startled, and while many of our friends and family never saw our pets ("are you sure you actually have a cat? I've never seen her...") we knew the love and trust of a cat who slowly grows to trust and bond with you is like nothing else in the world. 

I contacted a local shelter that was seriously overcrowded, as we live in an area where a lot of people have been hit hard by the economic downturn lately and as a result have let their cats go feral. I submitted a lengthy application and specifically told them I wanted their shy, skittish kitties -- two of them, specifically, so they could keep each other company while my husband and I work our day jobs. I got a call back almost immediately, because the shelter thought I was playing a joke on them. Nobody ever requested shy cats, they said. Especially since I had gone through their cat listings on petfinder and specifically mentioned two sisters, about 2 years old, who were not just shy but had actually been adopted before and given back.  Not only that, but they were feral for the first few months of their lives, and while the shelter did the best they could to socialize them after they were brought in, those first months can be so crucial to socializing a cat to humans.  These girls never really learned to trust humans, potentially because they had bad experiences with us during their very young kitten months.

Skittish kitties take a lot of patience and they teach humility, and they require that you respect the cat's needs -- especially their need to be hidden and their need to be independent. As adorable as they are, and as much as you just could snatch them up and squeeze and hug them (and oh man, that urge is very strong!), you just can't do this to a shy cat.  Thankfully, my husband and I both had years of experience with many cats over our lifetime to learn this lesson -- and I am grateful to the cats of our lives that taught us this the hard way, claws and all!

We went to the shelter to meet the girls we picked out from the shelter's Petfinder listing. The all-black cat sat right down between my husband and me, claiming the two of us as hers, basically the moment we met. We were able to give her scritches and pet her immediately -- it seems she had warmed up to humans and, while still skittish, she welcomed some human attention.  Her sister, however, hid for quite a while and we all had a hard time finding her. Eventually we found her being groomed by her mother, but she hissed at us whenever we tried to get close.  She was a stunningly beautiful calico, but she was not friendly in the slightest. Many people wanted to adopt her, because she is such a beautiful cat, but her personality is such that the shelter knew she was going to be hard to adopt out permanently.  Thankfully, my husband and I made the cut!

There was a bit of a saga with the shelter in getting our girls home -- it was stressful, and taught me a valuable lesson in making sure you go to a reputable shelter, especially one that makes the adoption process as easy as possible (once the adopters have been thoroughly vetted, of course!)  But once they were home, the real adventure began.

We named the all-black sister Pickles -- she remains very affectionate and just loves getting brushed. She's a little bit vocal, as she chirps at birds and yowls when it rains -- her affection was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise. It's wonderful when she jumps up to sit beside one of us, just like she did when we met her at the shelter. She knows we are her humans and she is just incredibly sweet.

Her sister, Chili, the calico, has the famous "tortitude" -- in other words, she is very spicy! Chili is a hisser -- she will hiss at anyone and anything. This was disconcerting at first, as we thought it was a sign of aggression, but really it's a sign of fear.  When we first brought them home Chili constantly hid, to the point I was worried she wasn't eating and I bought a nanny cam to spy on her while I was at work (seriously!). Thankfully, she's just fine and has a healthy appetite.  It took a few months to get to the point where she wouldn't run and hide if we came in the room, and now we're at the point where she almost never hisses, but gives me an inquisitive look, sniffs my hand, and then goes back to what she was doing. Most evenings I'll see her wandering around, making her rounds and exploring new things - she's very adventurous! Every week we hit a new milestone with her -- she'll respond to play, she'll eat out of my hand, she'll come up to one of us to give us a sniff.  It may take a year or more for her to be OK with being petted or brushed, or it might never happen, and that's fine by me!  I am just happy to see her sunbathing on a windowsill or gracing us with her presence. It's so rewarding to see the progress we make, day by day.

Not long after the girls started exploring our house, I started finding Q-tips, half-eaten, EVERYWHERE around the house. I found out it was Chili who was obsessed with Q-tips -- and after I bought a catnip chili toy, Pickles became its owner. (Yes, Pickles loves her chili... Chili doesn't like it as much!)  They are sisters, but they aren't affectionate with each other... yet.  Their personalities are still blossoming as they settle in to the house more month by month and realize that this really is their forever home.  I can't wait to see what else they have in store for us. Who knows, maybe this time next year Chili will be a lap cat? 

Author: Maria Photinakis

Artist: Maria Photinakis

Editor: Marjorie Skiba

About the Author: Maria lives in the beautiful Boston area with her husband and two cats. When not daydreaming, doodling, or otherwise making the comics and illustrations that you can see here, she enjoys all sorts of crafty things, like cosplay and ikebana, and nerdy things, like hacking her DEFCON badge and podcasting with friends.

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