How Artists are like Shelter Cats

For some time, I’ve volunteered on Fridays at the local no-kill cat shelter, from which I’ve adopted several cats over the years. I’m the socializer, which is a fancy term for lady-who-pets-and-plays-with-cats-while-not-actually-having-to-clean-anything.

 In the course of my weekly hour with the ten cats at the local Petsmart, I learn a lot about their individual personalities. Each is as unique as a person’s, no matter what cat-haters like to think.

Plenty of people walk by, read the cats’ placards, and tap the glass (which sounds like a series of explosions on the other side, by the way). But only a fraction of these shoppers will come to the adoption hours, which are held every Wednesday and Sunday.

When I arrive on Friday, some of the kitties have “I’ve been adopted; almost home!” signs over their placards, or, as often is the case, nothing has changed. It’s made me realize that there are a lot of similarities between artists, all people with goals and dreams, and these cats waiting in cages for what could be a month, a year, or the rest of their lives.

If you’re a professional actor like me, you’re quite familiar with the feeling—waiting, waiting, waiting for SOMEONE to notice you, then for SOMEONE to give you a chance (take you out of your cage), and then for SOMEONE to pay your adoption fee and take you home. Or cast you, as the case may be for us. For the rest of humanity, that waiting might be for their soulmate to make an entrance on the stage of life, or for that dream job to hire them, or publisher to acknowledge their submission with something more than a rejection letter.

Fortunately for the cats, they aren’t emotionally devastated by rejection the same way we are, and hopefully they’ll only experience the purgatory of the shelter once in their lives. Fortunately for us, our purgatory of waiting for the next gig doesn’t involve cages behind Plexiglas. Did I mention that tapping on the glass sounds like a sledgehammer on your eardrums?

The reasons some cats get adopted and others don’t is a mystery to me. Some reasons are obvious—our adorable Blake is a sweet, gentle boy, but he’s also 11 and solid black. He might be waiting for the rest of his life. Statistics show that black cats have an uphill battle in the adoption world, not only fighting superstition, but the obvious fact that the white cat will catch your eye sooner if you’re scanning a room of ten cats. Female cats are often quirky, territorial, and need one-cat-only households. “Diablo” waited for eons to be adopted; as soon as his name was changed by the adoption facility, he found a home. As in the world of performers, one’s age, color, appearance, gender, and even name can be the deciding factor between a yes and a no.

To take the analogy even further, many cats cope with these realities the same way performers or other artists do. I might have just lost you there, but bear with me.

You can usually tell who the new cats at the shelter are, all perky and playful and with better odds of getting adopted, it seems, partly because of their attitudes, but especially if they are younger than 3. In my albeit limited experience, the majority of adopters want kittens. I’ve known a few youngster actors not unlike these cats—fiery and confident and naïve, but perfect for the CW and for playing the much-needed teenager. Older actors shake their heads and sound like Mr. Miyagi as they mutter, “Beginner’s luck.” If you don’t know who Mr. Miyagi is, odds are high that you are perfect for the CW.

Very frequently, I see the cats who are clearly great pets, but really, really don’t like being at the shelter. Take Indira for example. I’m partial to longhairs and she was GORGEOUS – black and white and with big green eyes that could melt you. I saw her picture online and had to meet her. I cooed sweet nothings at her and picked her up in my arms, convinced that we were meant to be. (We have established that I am a crazy cat lady.) And then she hissed at me and growled to underline her point. Okaaaay. No adoption happening there. As I got to know her better over successive weeks, I realized that she was actually a good kitty who purred when I pet her; she just hated being in a cage and it tarnished her whole personality. Her coat was oily and unkempt from her depression and anxiety. She had an ear infection and growled and snapped every time you reached for her because she assumed you just wanted to administer medicine.

But despite her crankiness when being put back in her cage, you’d see glimmers of the companion she could be. She’d open the storage cabinet and find a catnip toy to nuzzle every time I let her out. While the other cats found their cat tree perches, played, or got into trouble, she’d sit alone by the glass entry door and stare out longingly. (And, of course, growl at any cat that got too close to her.) I felt terrible for her; there was no reason why such a gorgeous animal shouldn’t have been adopted sooner, but she was inadvertently perpetuating the very situation she hated most. You can’t tell a cat that; cats don’t know any better. We do. Yet how often are we guilty of similar behavior, becoming bitter and jaded when life doesn’t give us what we want, blind to the fact that we’re getting in our own way?

Indira’s story, fortunately, has a happy ending. On the day I saw her placard announcing she’d be “going home” in two days, I noticed a lady lingering outside the glass door, which Indira was characteristically behind. The woman seemed fixated on the cat and would not go away. She cooed and waved to Indira, and Indira purred and looked back at her and rolled around like an angel. I had never before witnessed this amazingly adorable behavior in Indira and felt compelled to give the nice lady the bad news that she’d just been adopted.

“I know,” the sweet-faced woman replied with a smile. “I’m adopting her.” Turned out that this lady was her future Mom, coming by to see Indira through the glass every day until the paperwork was clear. How could the cat have known? Either they were fated lovers in a past life or Indy was psychic.

She’s the rare one, though. I meet PMS-ing cats all the time that love you one minute and are crabby and peevish the next. “You’re going home on Sunday, kid,” I snap, “so stop pouting!” Naturally, they have no way of knowing that their trials are coming to an end. Neither do we. How often do we put ourselves through unnecessary anguish and stress simply because we don’t see the big break that’s a week away?

Another factor that’s a huge player in adoption consideration is how well the cat gets along with dogs, kids, and particularly other cats. This one is always an issue for our territorial female cats. They love people, they nuzzle you, they purr. But let them all out together and they hiss at any cat that looks at them sideways. I’ll play with one innocent cat whose pouncing around startles another cat who hisses, and then the latter cat’s sudden movement triggers another’s growl, etc., etc. It’s like high school. I can often tell a cat’s gender by her feline interactions, and it’s her antisocial tendencies that prolong her stay in “purgatory.” How many fellow artists do we know like that? Great by themselves, wonderful to the client or buyer, but get them around other competing artists and the claws come out. At least the felines do it to each other’s faces. How often are we envious or belittling of another’s success? Who’s to say that saying “no” to that aspect of the universe’s abundance isn’t keeping good things from coming our way?

A similar truth struck me this week as I greeted Salvador. Salvador has been at the shelter as long as I have; I have no idea how many months or even years he’d been there previously. He is solid black (one strike) and a “senior” at age 7 (two strikes). His personality is calm and unflappable. I’ve noted, however, that the entire time I’m there, he doesn’t interact with the others. He sits in the same spot and doesn’t play, doesn’t react to being pet, and doesn’t even take interest in his treats. Today, he didn’t even come out of his cage. If you don’t believe cats feel depression and despair, you haven’t met Salvador.

I try to get the best photos possible of the cats for the shelter website and Facebook page. To make them as appealing as possible, I photograph the cats showing bright, attentive eyes and at their very best. I had to give up with Salvador. After minutes of cooing at him, whistling, doing everything I could think of to get him to look at the camera, I just had to sigh. “You need to try a little, buddy,” I told him, wishing he could understand. Something makes me believe that even if he did understand me, he is beyond even trying to be adopted, much less hoping. How many people do you know like that?

Much of this is probably old news to you. There are countless books, articles, blogs, videos, and more with titles like “What Actors Do Wrong,” or “10 Reasons Your Novel Was Rejected.” You might read those and pat yourself on the back that you’ve carefully avoided all the amateur pitfalls, but then end up even more confused and frustrated. You’ve done everything right, kept your craft honed, carefully marketed yourself, and nurtured those professional networks, but the success promised in the self-help section remains elusive. Why are you still at point “D” when you want to be at point “Z”? What good can you do in the world when you’re stuck in the same place you were five years ago? At that point, you wonder if it’s really just a numbers game, dependent on luck and other factors out of your control.

I wonder about such things when visiting the little girl who’s quickly become a favorite at Petsmart. A diminutive “torty” of tan, white, and black, Shiloh is a beautiful eight-year-old and adorably kitten-sized. She makes cute “mews” when she sees me arrive, climbs onto my shoulder when I open her cage, and immediately begins purring. She’ll play with the spirit of a kitten, is gentle toward the other cats, and loves nothing more than to be in your arms and carry on a conversation when you talk to her. She doesn’t hiss or growl, has no health problems, loves people, never scratches or bites, and goes back into her cage without complaint. All in all, there is absolutely nothing I can say against her. If we were not already at our household cat limit, I would take her home in a heartbeat, as would other volunteers, I imagine.

Why do no potential adopters seem to appreciate what I see in her? Why can no visitor tell that she’s head and shoulders above the rest as a loving companion? She’s been waiting for too long and deserves a home that appreciates her as much as she adores her human caregivers. It’s not fair and it doesn’t make sense. She’s the only cat I look forward to seeing every week, the one who warms my heart when she purrs against my shoulder and “mews” back when I ask how she’s doing. When the others get into tussles or hiss at me, she always makes me feel appreciated and as if what I’m doing is truly worthwhile.

How many talented, incredible people have brightened your life, but the world seems to continually ignore their contributions?

I pondered this sad reality as I put Shiloh back in her cage today and closed the latch. As I looked into her sparkling green eyes and wondered why she was still there week after week, the thought struck me—Maybe she was there just for me, to bring sunshine into my day, if only for a few moments.

About the Author

Lorrisa’s latest work, running April 11-26: https://youtu.be/p6VUjptvG7E See highlights from Zenobia the Musical: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qq8UqXMRKVA http://www.imdb.me/lorrisajulianus

Lorrisa Julianus (aka The Crazy Cat Lady)

Lorrisa’s acting credits include guest star roles on The Bold & the Beautiful, Chicago PD, feature films, and principal motion capture for WB’s DC Comics videogame, Injustice: Gods Among Us, the Mortal Kombat franchise, and The Lord of the Rings Online. She graduated with a Screenwriting B.A. from Columbia College Chicago as their youngest graduate at age 17, and was first published by an imprint of play-publisher Samuel French Inc. in 2002. In 2013, she premiered her original epic musical Zenobia, and this spring marks the world premiere of her stage drama Made of Stars.

Promo for Lorrisa’s latest work, running April 11-26: https://youtu.be/p6VUjptvG7E

You can find her on Twitter @LorrisaJulianus, at http://www.imdb.me/lorrisajulianus, and her gallery art is viewable on Facebook at “The Art of Lorrisa Julianus, ‘Embrace the Night.’

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