Ares - the Power of Choice (or Trusting Your Crazy Ideas)
I have a post card I bought years ago while I was at a seminar about canine behavior. It reads, "Trust your crazy ideas." I keep it in my desk and look at it often. I also have a candle holder that reminds me to "Believe When It's Beyond Reason to Believe" in my office. I keep it where I see it daily.
Those reminders were fresh in my mind the day I was introduced to Ares. As the story goes, Ares was carried into a shelter by a Good Samaritan who claimed to have found him on the street. This was no scraggly-looking stray. He was a very healthy 18 pound orange male tabby. I can't imagine that he had been "stray" for long.
As is regular procedure, he was placed in a carrier so he could safely be transported through the shelter. He was placed on "the rack" where he was waiting to be medically evaluated. During that waiting period is when, as the story was told to me, "the shit hit the fan." Sounds came from this feline that were other-worldly. Humans were terrified of him. Thus began his stray-wait period at the shelter.
He was placed into a large cage where he was given a very large litter pan, medium dog-sized bowls filled with food and water - so large that they wouldn't have to open that cage door for fear of their own safety for several days. His cage had towels covering the door so no one could see in and he couldn't see out. It was here that Ares and I first laid eyes and ears on each other. A veterinary technician told me his story and that now they had no idea what to do with him. Apparently he had scared everyone so badly with his vocalizations that even volunteers with advanced training in feline behavior were afraid to walk into the room where he was housed. Staff had to do something since they had not scanned for a microchip or done any basic husbandry (vaccines, nail trim, etc) to date. But what to do with such a fearsome feline?
Robin, the vet tech knew that I was always up for a challenge. She is an incredibly caring technician who always tries to look creatively at behaviorally challenged individuals. I took the walk with her to the stray cat ward, all the while listening to the story as she knew it up to that date and time. As we entered the room, the screaming commenced. We didn't retreat. We removed the towels covering the cage door. The sounds continued...but what I saw was a cat huddled in the back of his cage, ears flattened against his head, pupils dilated, front feet tucked in underneath him on the bed he'd been given. I saw a cat so afraid for his own life that he was using what he believed could be his last breath to keep danger (humans) at bay. I slowly opened the cage door and made eye contact with him. In that moment, I had my crazy idea.
I closed the door and looked at my friend who had introduced me to this vocally gifted individual. After a very long and awkward pause I said to her, "I think I can fix this. I am seeing all defensive behaviors. Am I crazy?" Like any good friend does, she replied, "Yes, but we already knew that." In that moment I knew I had to trust my crazy idea. I had to believe beyond reason. We made a plan to sedate him, give him vaccines, check his sexual status (turns out he was previously neutered), microchip him and trim his nails. Then, we recovered him in a plastic medium dog crate. Next stop...my place in foster care.
I had to think long and hard about this individual who was now in my care. I knew that no one believed in me...and even more so they didn't believe in this cat. After all, this was a pretty severe situation. We were fighting a war with several fronts...both together against the non-believers, with one another, and within ourselves. I thought it fitting to give him the name of the God of War...Ares.
I spent the first few days just watching him and the evidence he left from his adventures in my office while I was not there. He clearly was NOT interested in a human dictating the relationship between he and I. I needed to find a way to connect with him. I needed to find a way to make him believe in me (even if beyond reason) in a positive way.
I knew that reaching for him inside the dog kennel in which he stayed while I was in the room was the worst choice I could make. I needed to interact with him at a distance. I used a wand toy with a long fabric string to create what turned out to be a life-line to him in a sea of fear and skepticism. I gently tossed it into his kennel and waited. He reached out and touched the life-line. At that moment I knew that he and I were in this together.
A few more days passed while he and I danced together through the movement of the fabric on that toy. He pawed at it, grabbed it with his mouth, held it between his paws. All the while I never crossed the barrier into his kennel with my hands. I gave him a reason to believe, even if beyond reason to do so, that i would not violate that trust. It was his choice to make.
Knowing that he enjoyed his kibble I took a risk. I believed that it was time to push our relationship to a new level. I started pairing my entrance to the office with access to kibble. I began tossing a piece or two into his kennel. He ate them...and then looked at me. I tossed a few more. He ate them. I put my hand up to his kennel, but not inside it, and allowed a few pieces to fall from my hand. I withdrew and let him approach to eat them. The force field at the front of the kennel - the line neither he nor I had crossed...yet...was weakening.
We did this a few more days. Then, the power of choice broke down all barriers between us. I entered my office and out of the carrier came this gorgeous god of a cat (remember he was named after a mythological god) meowing at me. An inviting, curious, questioning meow. It was the sound of a cat who had ceased battling against me and was ready to now battle with me to prove all the naysayers wrong.
When I sat down in front of him, he retreated into his kennel. So, we started where we left off, but this time I put my hand into his kennel with kibble and waited. He watched me; I watched him. I let the kibble fall from my hand. Then, just when I had a moment of disappointment, he left the kibble inside his kennel and walked outside of it, rubbing into my hand. He made a choice, the choice to dare to believe in something different than the fear that had gripped him so tightly that it previously pushed him to defend his life with aggressive behavior. I'm pretty sure I cried a little in that moment as I was so touched by his bravery.
Ares and I both are happy that I believed in my own crazy ideas that fateful day. We also thank Robin for playing matchmaker. I thank Ares for daring to believe when it was beyond reason to believe in me. Most importantly, we both allowed each other the Power of Choice that created a relationship with a strong foundation of respect. I'm pretty confident Ares and I wouldn't choose to be any other way.