My cat is a snuggling therapy cat and hunter in one. Her name Keko means ‘blessed and lucky one’ in Japanese. She was blessed and I was blessed. And we were both lucky to find each other. She was a stray from Animal Rescue Foundation, and they had found her on a rural road on the outskirts of London, literally ‘skin and bones’ as the saying goes. I still have the photos of her when she first came to me, her ribcage so obvious it is hard to believe she was ever like that. I still remember how quickly she made herself at home in my apartment those 6 or 7 years ago. And how the first night while I was playing with her, suddenly from one second to the next, she went from leaping for the ball to being fully asleep.
Keko and I had a difficult relationship for a while. I love her a lot, but because she was never socialized by her mama (she was 6 months old when they rescued her and they are not sure how young she was when separated from her mother), she doesn’t know how to use her words (almost never meows) and to let me know she needed something, she would either sink her claws into my ankles and/or bite me. And those bites hurt! Once she broke skin through my sweatshirt. When she wanted something, she told me. Clearly. As much as I loved her and was gentle with her, she didn’t seem to be learning to return the gentleness.
Twice before I adopted Keko, we tried to rehouse her. She welcomed herself into other foster homes by hissing and biting the other cats. She was so scared and traumatized that she demonstrated aggression to let them know her strength before she ever had a chance to make a friend. (She reminded me of a few people I knew.) As soon as the placement broke down, they would bring her back to my place and Keko would instantly jump on a chair, curl up and happily make herself at home. By the third time, she made her message clear. She wanted me to keep her.
Every time I thought about re-housing Keko, I also thought about friendships I had made at Sanctuary London and in other places with folks who were vulnerable and scared. How often did they respond to a well-meaning person with anger or defensiveness or mistrust because they didn’t want to set themselves up to get hurt again? They were so used to being ‘on their own’ that it seemed easier that way. Relationships were scary, daunting, and came with many struggles of their own. Those friends loved me without any judgement or expectation, and it was what they deserved in return. Love was in the process, I learned, not the end result.
Today Keko is still with me. I live in a community house where in friendship I support those living there who struggle with anxiety, depression, poverty, loneliness, and/or other struggles. They may have experienced trauma in their past, or lived in shelters, or come from other countries, or had other broken experiences or suffering that took away their chance to live in a stable, healthy home. Our home aims to be that. A healthy family and community space where we can build trust and rapport and relationship, and journey through the struggles of life together.
And Keko is right in the middle of building that sense of home, the same cat that came from years of biting and aggression and now loves and cuddles and sits on the lap of the visitor, the one with tears, and the one who feels lonely. She curls up, rubs her cheek against, and loves. Many times our friends and visitors have referred to her as a therapy cat. And sometimes Keko looks at me almost as if to check in and say ‘I’m doing good, right?” Yes you are.
What changed Keko? Mostly it was the chance to go outside. Now that we live in a house with a yard, Keko gets to spend hours outside every day. She comes to eat and say hello, and spends nights curled up with us, but mostly in the good weather, she wants to be outside, enjoying the fresh air and hunting for spiders, bugs, and mice. And watching the squirrels and birds and pretend-chasing them. She is so happy to have her freedom as we all are, and happy to come and be with us when she’s had enough time and space to chase out all of her hunting and playing energies.
And when she is tired out from playing and hunting, and she comes inside for an afternoon or dusk catnap, all curled up and warm with her head tucked inside her paws, I know that her peace in that sleep is what we all need. A place where we can be free to be who we are and were made to be, to be ourselves with all of our unique energies, dreams, and needs, and then a place to rest and nap comfortably, where the struggles of life go away, and we can be safe and trust that we are finally home.