It was a truly horrific story: A Windsor Locks, Connecticut, man was charged with killing seven cats in a gruesome and sadistic manner. (Warning: Do not visit this link unless you have a very strong stomach.) And worse yet, the man had access to those cats, all of whom were rescues, because a family allowed their daughter’s fiance to live at their house.
When we cat lovers and rescuers hear a story like this, we hug our own cats a little tighter and swear to do everything in our power to protect the cats that have been entrusted to us with their well-being.
The thing is, the more of these stories we hear, the more likely we are to get caught up in fear, and possibly even come to mistrust anyone who expresses an interest in adopting the cats in our care. But that way lies danger: The less you trust people to be decent human beings, the less likely it is that you’ll allow anyone to adopt your cats out. And if you cross too far over that line, you may go from rescuer to hoarder.
So what can you do to keep your fear in check and still keep your charges safe?
I recently read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, a well-known security consultant to celebrities and business leaders. This guy has protected people from stalkers, serial killers, sociopaths, rapists, murders, abusive spouses, and all manner of human scum, and he wrote this book to share the lessons he learned with the general public. Here are some of the lessons I took from that book, which can be applied not just to our personal lives but in our lives as rescuers as well.
Fear has allowed us as a species to survive for millennia, and it can be a source of wisdom. But if we are inherently fearful due to past trauma, innate anxiety, or whatever, our "fear circuits" get overloaded and we can react in one of two ways: Either we go into denial and ignore our intuitive danger signals or we become so fearful that fear overwhelms intuition and we start feeling that everything is dangerous. Ironically, this second state can put us just as much at risk as denial because we’re not seeing legitimate danger signals due to all the fear-static in our heads.
But what are those intuitive signals that something’s not right, and how do we distinguish them from fear-based mind chatter?
Here are the messengers of intuition, as de Becker calls them: Nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, humor (usually "gallows humor" or black humor), wonder, anxiety, curiosity, hunches or gut feelings, doubt, suspicion, hesitation, apprehension and outright fear.
But how do you know it’s your gut talking instead of your irrational fear?
First, my experience has been that gut feelings are instant, whereas irrational fear-based thoughts may seem instant but they’re really not. It takes a level of self-awareness to distinguish instant from not-quite-instant, though, so ask yourself a few other questions:
Cats and dogs provide a great gut check because they usually don’t come front-loaded with our neuroses and traumas. If the pets like the person, the odds are that they’re okay.
Or are they being evasive or filling the conversation with questions to you about your rescue, your life, etc., and not allowing any space for you to question them?
If so, that’s a potential warning sign. As a rescuer, you have a built-in reason not to adopt a cat out instantly: the reference check. The reference check will also allow you some time to think about what made you uncomfortable so you can think through it.
Don’t be afraid to say no, and say no as often as the person needs to hear it. Politeness be damned; when safety (yours or your cats’) is at stake, you can be as freaking rude as you need to be.
But don’t be afraid to say yes, either. For every murderous psychopath, there are thousands of wonderful people and families that would love to provide a loving forever home to the cats in your care.
How have you coped with the fear of leaving a cat in your care with a bad person? Have you had a gut instinct about a potential adopter, pet sitter or visitor to your home that turned out to be right — or wrong? How have you learned to work constructively with your fear to balance the need to find homes for cats with the need to find safe homes for those cats? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.