How not to adopt a cat.

Over the weekend, my husband and I decided to get a kitten. Today I visited an animal shelter that specializes in cats. It did not go well.

Modesty aside, I believe we would be great pet owners. We’re responsible, caring, and financially stable. We live in an apartment and we like having the flexibility to be gone all day or for a weekend, so we wouldn’t be good dog owners, but I’m sure we could provide a great home for a cat.

And yet, my visit to the shelter was a disaster. The volunteers at the shelter will probably go home and tell their families about the horrible woman who came in today (unless their cats are their only families). It would not have gone worse if I showed up wearing a fur stole made from a cat, complete with stuffed head and paws.

I’ll start by explaining that I’m not always good at dealing with people. My husband accuses me of being robotic. My family calls me impatient (and sometimes worse). I never mean to be rude to people, but sometimes, perhaps, I come off as rude. I think what is happening at these times is that I approach a social interaction as an efficient exchange of information, but that is not always what a social interaction is. There are other aspects, social niceties, that I’m oblivious to. Plus, sometimes I just forget that in certain situations you should just tell people what they want to hear and I’m honest instead.

(When my husband got home from work I tried to explain what had happened at the shelter. I said: “You know how sometimes I’m not good at talking to people?” He responded: “What do you mean?,” waited a beat, and then burst into laughter.)

On to my disastrous attempt to find a cat to adopt.

I walked in to a small office with that distinctive pet store smell. The office had a tiny central room, surrounded by other rooms where the cats were hanging out. There were three volunteers there, a kindly older woman, a young man who looked like a college kid and was in training, and a heavyset younger woman. I filled out the form given to me by the trainee and handed it the older volunteer, who began interviewing me while the trainee sat with us and the younger woman apparently eavesdropped.

On the form, I had selected the option that the cat might be alone for more than 9 hours a day. I explained that we liked to go out of town for weekends, and that we might both be gone all day at times working full time, although my job was flexible and not always full-time.

I quickly realized she had me pegged as someone for whom an older cat—not a kitten— would be appropriate. But instead of explaining that I often work from home and was willing and able to devote a few months to caring for and bonding with a kitten, and that low maintenance was what I eventually wanted from the cat, I blurted out: “We only want a kitten.”

It’s true. I want a pet for selfish reasons; I’m not just trying to do a good deed. Kitten-hood or puppy-hood is one of the best parts of having a pet, in my opinion. And I feel like I would need to get a kitten to be able to bond with it. I’ve never had a cat before. I am afraid that if we got an adult cat, it would just feel like we were doing it a favor by letting it live in our apartment. It would just stare at me and pee on things and I wouldn’t know how to interact with it.

But instead of explaining that, as the tension mounted I just repeated “I hear what you are saying, but we only want a kitten.” She said, more firmly, they probably wouldn’t give me a kitten, given our lifestyle.

Then I tried to backpedal, explaining that I was willing to devote more time to taking care of younger cat for the first few months. But I could tell that all they were seeing was a thoughtless would-be pet owner who wanted a cute kitten but would neglect it and give it back when it had behavioral problems. I kept interrupting them, working up to full-on annoying mode.

It wasn’t going well.

We went further down the survey, reaching the question: “Will you declaw the cat?” Answers: Yes, No, or Maybe. I had checked “Maybe.” Honestly, when we first thought about getting a cat I assumed we would get it declawed. I find cats slightly scary and I don’t like when other people’s cats scratch me with their claws. Then I read about declawing online and learned that many people think it is inhumane. I settled on not declawing the cat at first and seeing how it went.

Older volunteer: “Were you thinking of declawing the cat?”

Me: “Well, I know the whole story about it and I know that people are really opposed to it, but I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other.”

Older volunteer: “You checked ‘maybe.’”

Me: “Like I said, I haven’t given it much thought. I know what people say about it.”

The younger volunteer chimed in again to explain how declawing is mutilation, and how cats that get declawed are brought back with behavioral problems. Again, I helpfully interrupted her to explain that I know all that.

She tells me that to adopt a cat I’d have to sign a contract saying I won’t declaw the cat. I’m nonplused. I guess if it is a requirement, I’m willing to commit to it. But I wonder why they didn’t just start with that. Why not phrase the question differently: Will you sign a contract agreeing not to declaw the cat? Yes or no. I feel ambushed. I wonder if they just want to catch people in the wrong answer so that they can explain why declawing is so bad.

At least I have enough good sense to refrain from revealing that I am actually slightly afraid of cats and their claws. It’s not a great quality in a potential cat owner. I know they will just tell me to train the cat properly, and will think I’m hopeless if I say that I was thinking I would get it declawed if, down the road, it keeps scratching me and our future babies.

The older volunteer moves down the form. We rent, not own. She asks if the building allows pets. Me: “Er, yes. I know they allow dogs, so I’m sure cats are fine.”

The younger volunteer chimes in again: “Have you paid your pet deposit?”

I’m confused again. We don’t have a pet yet. Is her point that it is an expense I haven’t considered? I say, obnoxiously, “That’s not a problem for us.” Younger volunteer: “Landlords don’t like it when you go to them and tell them you’ve already had a cat for three months.” Her tone is now openly hostile. They hate me.

Now, I live in a pet-friendly building. It’s also run in a pretty laid-back manner. My husband has lived here for six years and has a good relationship with the apartment manager. I’m sure there wouldn’t be any issues with our getting a pet. But it’s too much to explain, and I’m still confused about why I would pay a pet deposit before getting a pet. I made clear when I walked in that I wasn’t planning to adopt that day, but that I had just started investigating and I’d want to bring my husband to see a cat before we adopted it. I mumble something.

The interview completed, the older lady explained that they didn’t have any kittens at the moment, but that I could go look at some of the cats they did have.

Then, my awkwardness kicked into overdrive. I said the number one thing you should probably avoid saying when you are trying to adopt a cat. I described myself as “not a cat person” and said I might wait to look at the cats until my husband was with me.

But since I was there I went into two of the rooms where several adult cats were sleeping or lounging. I exchanged stares with one for about 20 seconds, but I didn’t try to touch any of them. I’m not in the habit of petting cats unless they throw themselves at me. I just don’t think they want me to touch them. Why impose?

I hurried out with a falsely bright “thank you.” The older volunteer said, “We have you on file.” I believe it was a warning.

If we go back to that organization my husband will have to take the lead. He can fill out the survey and do the interview, and I’ll wear a hat and sunglasses and hope they don’t make the connection between our last names.


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