Cats Emerge from Their Hidey Caves and Get Adopted Quickly at Orange County Animal Services

By Yasaar Nakchbendi of Chirpy Cats  

For staff at Orange County Animal Services (OCAS), one of the most gratifying successes to come out of the Cat Pawsitive Pro (CPP) program was earning a frightened cat’s trust. Once the cats were able to overcome this barrier through interactive training with CPP, they gained confidence. The staff was pleasantly surprised to see many of their shy cats turn into outgoing attention seekers! This has naturally led to an upturn in adoption rates, and the team couldn’t be happier at the outcome.

Now that the CPP program has ended, Team Leader and Veterinary Health Care Manager Jasmine Johnson feels they have a solid foundation for a fresh and rewarding enrichment program for cats. She notes, “It helped to increase enrichment and allowed the cats to come around to be more adoptable.”

Team Leader and Animal Care Supervisor Tiani Schifano reiterates there is no uncertainty that the cats’ one-on-one CPP training with staff members and associating them with good things, whether pets or treats, was a huge contributor in getting cats out the shelter door and into their forever homes! “We’ve provided more enrichment to cats while helping them become more adoptable,” she states.

She reflects on her favorite story about Kamala, the reactive cat we saw in the mid-semester article. She made a complete turnabout and went from a likely candidate for their barn cat program to making “soft eyes” after they enrolled her in CPP training.

“Once we began clicker training with her, it was like she understood we were there just to offer her good and happy things. Before Cat Pawsitive Pro, I would have never imagined such a reactive cat becoming someone’s house pet!” exclaims Tiani.

Kamala, now renamed Gigi, is doing remarkably well in her new home. Her adopter reports she has oodles of energy and still loves getting pets!

Another cat originally designated to serve as a barn cat was Blake, but destiny had other ideas for him. This once shy and fearful cat couldn’t hide his love of treats, and he found himself enrolled in CPP, and ultimately, into a new home!

Anna Gachechiladze, team member and animal care technician, shares Blake’s story. “Blake came in as part of a group of outdoor cats and was presenting as pretty feral for the first couple months he was here. He still was shy and terrified of touch and was slated to be a barn cat. But I found he clearly liked treats, so I requested that he be put into Cat Pawsitive [Pro].”

Once enrolled in CPP, it was clear that Blake was not a feral cat.

Anna says, “About two days after beginning Cat Pawsitive [Pro] with Blake, he started to accept and lean into pets. Sometimes the pets were so good he began drooling. We worked on luring and shaping with him to help him gain confidence. After four months in our system, Blake was adopted!”

Trainer-Mentor Tabitha Kucera reports on Blake’s extraordinary progress. “There were so many amazing cats with OCAS including Kamala, Mia, Enyo, Rio, and Blake. Blake came to OCAS as part of a trapped colony. When first arriving, Blake was very fearful. After a few weeks with CPP, he started meowing and seeking attention, but wanted nothing to do with pets. We continued to work with Blake, and he was soliciting attention and pets from others within a week!”

Some cats, like Sisu, just needed a slight push in the right direction to make them shine even brighter. Sisu was shy at first but quickly showed her love of petting by “making biscuits.”

Animal Care Technician Scarlett Lucas recalls an anecdote about Sisu. “She was the first cat we got to do a high-five, and honestly she did it all on her own. While I think she would have been adopted anyway because of her loving nature, I think her Cat Pawsitive [Pro] training definitely allowed her to get adopted quicker. She was here about two months before getting adopted.”

Scarlett adds, “The best successes for me were the cats that needed to get used to petting or attention. We had quite a few cats that just needed to get over that initial ‘hands are scary’ barrier and then they were total loving machines. Blake was one instance of that. Also, cats like Enyo who got overstimulated easily and learned to calm down some.”

It was especially rewarding for staff and volunteers to see cats go from recoiling in their “hidey caves” to trusting humans.

Team member and volunteer Gene Casale says, “They spend less time in a corner or an enclosed space hiding at the slightest sound. Cats that can’t be seen won’t get adopted.” And plenty of the CPP graduates were not only seen but snagged some happy humans in their forever homes.

Harold Gore, team member and animal care technician, highlights the plight of surrendered cats that find it difficult to deal with their strange shelter environment. He stresses that the program helped pave the way to their forever homes.

“Cannot be touched” is a phrase thrown around often when staff and volunteers describe the “hands-off” cats they encounter. Scarlett describes her “ah-ha” moment the first time she could touch Mia, and that is when she knew CPP works!

“The first time Mia, one of our shyer cats, actually let me pet her was a big one. She was part of the “hands are scary” club. However, when I pet her for the first time, I realized that there was hope. Mia would not be just another cat we couldn’t touch. She could find a home, she could have the chance to be loved. And it made me feel proud that I had a part in doing that.”

Anna recalls a similar moment about being able to break down the “do not touch” barrier with Kamala. “After my first Cat Pawsitive [Pro] session with her, I could get some very rewarding head scratches, and she only continued to blossom from there.”

Some behaviors they trained the cats to perform are eye contact, touching objects with the nose, roll over, going to a mat, jumping through a hoop, spin, and some head bumps. But Tiani asserts it’s not just about performing tricks.

“Watching Mia go from hiding in her ‘hidey cave’ when you come into the room to become alert and ready for training when she saw you was the ah-ha moment for me. It made me realize that this program REALLY works on helping cats, not just making them performers, but associating humans with positive things.”

Reflecting on the various cat personalities from Sisu the avid biscuit maker to Blake the shy-guy-turned attention seeker, Team Leader Jasmine says she has “gained a new appreciation for the importance of enrichment and how it can really turn a cat’s behavior around despite the environment staying the same.” She looks forward to passing on the knowledge gained through the program to other volunteers and staff and to continuing training.

Tiani acknowledges animal sheltering can be stressful, but seeing the staff so engaged and celebrating their daily “wins” throughout the program was outright joy.

“The Cat Pawsitive Pro program gives the shelter cat population, which might be overlooked because of their limited ability to socialize or connect with humans [in the shelter environment], a chance to live a fulfilled life and bring joy to others. With Cat Pawsitive Pro, our team is now equipped to provide the proper training and positive reinforcement to enrich the lives of the cats and make them more desirable for adoption,” says Director Vicki Jones.

Want to keep up with news about the lifesaving work of The Jackson Galaxy Project’s Cat Pawsitive Pro initiative? Follow us on Facebook at The Jackson Galaxy Project. You can learn more about Cat Pawsitive Pro and support our work at The Jackson Galaxy Project is a Signature Program of Greater Good Charities.