Emily the Foster Cat
The rise and fall of a wannabe cat foster mom
I stood in my closet doorway, fingering the soft fabric of a favorite t-shirt. It was warm for early December and if not for the smoke from the bonfire my husband was starting, I would have opened a window. Friends would arrive soon and I needed to get dressed.
The light blue shirt brought out my eyes, and I’d already received compliments on the graphics as well: four cartoon cat faces and the single word “ADOPT!”
I had ordered the shirt from a shop that donates to animal shelters, and it often gave me an excuse to tell people that I was someone with a conscience and a cause. For the past year, I’d been a volunteer for Cat Adoption and Rescue Efforts in Richmond, Virginia. Every other Friday after work, I visited CARE’s adoption center inside a big-box pet supply store. I made sure the cats had food and water, I let them out of their cages for exercise, and I cleaned. After no more than a couple hours each visit, I returned home to apologize to my own cats – Oliva and Padron – for cheating on them. I felt good about my volunteer work.
Actually, I had started to become smug about my involvement with the shelter. If a monk had told me he was going to pick up a kitten from a breeder after his 18-hour shift at the soup kitchen, I’d have sniffed haughtily and told him that not only had I adopted my two cats from a pound but that I also volunteered for a rescue organization. That’s how narrow-minded I’d become in my perceived altruism.
But not on this night, when my recent failure made it seem my own shirt was taunting me. The cartoon cat with the black and white face looked like Emily, so I chose another shirt.
Like many love stories, ours began in June. Emily and I met not in a sun-dappled field but in the cramped, fluorescent-lit adoption center. This petite black tuxedo cat with green eyes was special. She chatted with me like we’d known each other forever, and she scooped wet food with her paw like it was her spoon. Every time I saw her, my heart somersaulted as I was excited to see her and saddened that she had not found a home.
“You should foster,” one of the foster caregivers said while we were discussing another cat’s pending adoption. “You’d be good at it.”
I had my doubts. When CARE held a foster training a few weeks later, I attended with the caveat that I was not committing. By the end of the hour, I was disappointed in myself for becoming even more doubtful. I didn’t want to take time off work to take sick kittens to the vet, and I didn’t want my house to become infested with fleas from some street cat.
“I’m too busy,” I said.
A few days later, the foster caregivers proposed a counter offer. They suggested I take one of the older cats for a short time. Emily, for example, could use a break after being in the adoption center for so long. I was thrilled at the thought of bringing Emily home.
I converted my second-floor craft room into a sanctuary for Emily. I cleared a table by the window and covered it with a blanket so she could watch the outside world and soak up the sun in plush comfort. Every time I slipped in and closed the door behind me, she met me with almost desperate chatter and physical contact. She couldn’t seem to get enough of me. She kneaded and paced, purring and leaning into my hands for more affection. Within days, my husband and I started talking about adoption.
“We’re keeping this cat, aren’t we?” my husband said with a knowing smile.
“I’m just fostering her,” I insisted even though we both seemed to know better.
Soon, we let Emily explore the rest of the house. Padron patiently followed Emily from room to room until he got used to the idea of the strange new creature, then he relaxed and befriended her. But Oliva, we were appalled to discover, was a bully.
Our plump lap cat of uncertain middle age has never been the athletic type. She’s happy to nap all night and day – preferably while someone scratches her ears – and only get up to eat or do her business. But when she spotted Emily, it was like a switch flipped in her brain. We’d never seen Oliva run as fast as when she was chasing Emily out of a room.
Instead of assimilating into our domestic routines, Emily crept along the fringes, always on the lookout. At any moment if Emily crept into Oliva’s peripheral vision, our formerly sedentary cat would spring to action, chasing the small newcomer upstairs and onto a table or the cat tree in our bedroom. With her tail puffed up twice its normal size, Oliva sat and waited, daring Emily to come down. I watched cat behavior programs and tried to think like a cat so I could remedy the situation. We hoped it would get better with time, but it got worse.
One morning, we awoke before dawn to the clamor of an epic catfight. Groping in the dark for my glasses, I tried to make sense of the horrible screams. The bedroom floor was covered in tufts of Padron’s fur. Whether he was in the wrong place at the wrong time or had been trying to protect Emily, I don’t know. All three cats appeared physically unharmed but I had to wonder about their psychological states.
We started to talk about returning Emily to the adoption center.
It’s for her own good, we told ourselves. She deserves better than to be bullied. I’d said I would give her a break from the store and that’s what I’d done, but Emily’s so-called vacation was starting to feel like a disaster. Oliva and Padron were stressed and I had to put them first, even if that meant kicking Emily to the curb.
And yet, I felt unable to let go of the sweet creature who chattered at me and lead me to her favorite toy each day when I got home from work. I worried that we had become her family. I was nearly convinced that the way she purred when I ran my hands over her silky little frame was her way of telling me she loved me and never wanted me to let her go. No, love is a strong word, I told myself. Emily doesn’t love me and I don’t love her. With time, though, I knew I would.
My internal battles and the feline power struggles continued. Every day, I declared I should bring Emily back. Each time, my husband agreed and in the next breath suggested things might improve. We were paralyzed. Finally, like ripping off a Band-Aid, I notified my volunteer coordinator of the day and time when I’d be dropping Emily off.
On a Wednesday morning before work, I lured Emily into a soft carrier and zipped the door closed against her wriggling backside. Her cries pierced my heart as I finished getting ready. She rocked the carrier, trying to claw her way out. I begged forgiveness and tried to console her as I drove.
Once inside, I didn’t play with Emily or snuggle her. I could not bear a drawn-out goodbye. I locked her in a cage, left a note, and blinked back tears as I exited the store. Sitting in my parked car, I made ugly sobbing noises and allowed the tears to flow in the hope that I’d get the unexpected anguish out of my system before I had to appear fresh-faced at work. But I was still struggling to appear normal when I made a beeline to my desk. I should have called in sick, I thought. I was shocked at how hard I was grieving for Emily, a temporary houseguest who was alive and well and would surely have a home soon.
That’s why, the next evening as I considered what to wear, I ruled out that soft blue t-shirt with the cartoon cats that could prompt questions. I had nothing to brag about. All I had was failure and heartbreak.
The following week, I nervously anticipated my regularly scheduled evening at the adoption center. I knew it was impossible to know how Emily felt, but I tried. Would she be excited to see me or angry with me for having left her? Would she think I’d come to take her home again? Did she think she belonged with me?
I went straight to Emily’s cage. The other cats could wait while Emily and I had our emotional reunion. I babbled my apologies and told her I’d missed her but I’d come back to play with her. But the eager, affectionate girl I’d recently known seemed to have been replaced by an aloof replica. This subdued version of Emily went through the motions of eating and allowing me to pet her but she did not lean into me or circle back for more. She did not sit on my lap. Emily silently returned to her cage and turned her back. I had not prepared myself for apathy.
“Emily, don’t you remember me?” I sniffled. Her resignation felt like a slap, but I knew better than to make her behavior about me. For six weeks, Emily had a home. She ran, played, and sprawled in patches of sunlight. And I had taken it from her.
Three weeks later, my husband shared my joy when I gave the news that Emily had been adopted. Padron acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about and Oliva ignored me. I’ve signed up to attend another training session, but I’m done fostering. I’m just going to sit in.
Lisa Ploch Swope is a freelance writer, blogger, and Minor League player at ComedySportz® Richmond. Follow on Twitter @LisaPloch or email email@example.com.
Cat Adoption and Rescue Efforts, Inc. (C.A.R.E.) is an all-volunteer, non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization dedicated to the rehabilitation, care and adoption of cats and kittens rescued from euthanizing animal shelters in Richmond, Virginia, and surrounding areas. Learn more about becoming a foster by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.