Spring 2011 Magazine

Cat Chat

Bill Nelson: Cat Whisperer

By Nancy Marano

Tiny paws reach through the bars to touch a knee or hand. This is followed by a furry body rubbing against the bars and food dish. No meows are necessary just body language. Please notice me. I want to be next. Aurora, Peaches, Silver Mist, Kirby, Mara, Beckham and so many others. All want attention. All want love.

Bill Nelson gives them all attention in their turn. He calmly goes from enclosure to enclosure petting the cats, talking to them and giving them love. He is The Cat Whisperer of Lucky Paws Pet Adoption Center (Click here for further information on Lucky Paws).

Nelson has performed this labor of love every afternoon for almost three years. If he is home in Albuquerque, his afternoon is spent at Lucky Paws petting cats. He's lived in eight states doing a variety of jobs from teaching history in a college to working with Head Start and people with learning disabilities. But, when it came time to retire, the Land of Enchantment lured him back.

Growing up, Nelson had the usual assortment of animals. As an adult, he developed severe allergies to animals, which was difficult for him since he loved animals. About three years ago he accidentally learned his animal allergies were no longer a problem.

"I was visiting in North Carolina when a cat showed up crying," Nelson said. "There was nothing to do but take it in and help it. I thought I'd be in trouble but I wasn't. I tried again with other animals and the allergies definitely seemed to be gone. "

When he came back to Albuquerque, he immediately volunteered at Lucky Paws. "I walked in and said, 'I want to pet cats.' They were happy about that and I've been here ever since," Nelson said.

Each cat gets about ten minutes of attention from Nelson. He opens the cage door, talks with the cat and begins the petting ritual. Most of the cats purr and rub against him. The idea is to keep them happy and socialize them as much as possible. Occasionally he will brush a cat but he doesn't do nails. "I don't want to hurt them," he said.

"The cats we get here have been at the large shelter for an indeterminate amount of time. They haven't been adopted because no one has recognized how lovely they are. We've had some cats here for three or four months before the right person comes along and adopts them," Nelson said. "But, if they get to us, they usually find a home."

The return rate at Lucky Paws is about 10%. "If an adopter decides to return one of our animals, it must be taken to the Eastside or Westside shelter first. People at the main shelters let us know when they get one of ours returned and we retrieve it. The sooner we get our animal out of the main shelter and back here, the better," Nelson said.

The one thing Nelson believes would make his life at the shelter easier is if more people spayed and neutered their cats. "Some of these guys have been hanging around shelters for months and they don't all make it," he said. "Basically, they don't make it because they are competing with kittens. It doesn't mean the kittens are all going to have a happy time either because five years down the road they might be in a shelter competing with kittens and find themselves on the wrong end of the competition. Life isn't fair and a lot of it is based on luck - just like with humans. But, if there were fewer animals in general, there would be more happy endings."

On occasion Nelson goes beyond his "petting cats" job description. "We had a cat here named Titan. He was returned the first time he was adopted. Then he was adopted a second time to a man who lived in Gallup. We got a call from the man saying the cat wasn't working out for him. We couldn't leave him way out in Gallup so I met the man in Grants, picked up the cat and brought him back here. I thought his name gave the wrong impression of his personality so we changed it to Timmy. The third time he was adopted he didn't come back."

Success stories like this are the good moments of working at Lucky Paws. "Taking a cat who is shy and withdrawn, working with it until it blossoms and then having it adopted is the best. It is a wonderful memory," he said.

"I wish I could coach these cats on interview skills," he said. "I want to tell them, 'Pretend you aren't shy for the interview,' or 'You like to bite a little once in a while? Wait a couple of weeks until everyone is in love with you. Then you can give a little bite once in a while and they won't mind.' But they just do whatever they're going to do."

After all these years, Nelson has classified different types of cat bites. There is the:

1. 'Let's play rough' bite, which often breaks the skin
2. Love bite, which almost never breaks the skin
3. 'I've been petted enough for now' bite which usually doesn't break the skin
4. Serious 'I really don't like you' bite, which always breaks the skin

Cats usually give a warning before they give any of these bites so a person has time to stop petting and move their hand away.

"We try to match cats with the right people," Nelson said. "We hope people are honest about what they want in a cat. This makes it easier to find the right cat for them. During the holidays a mother came in with her eight-year-old son. She wanted a sweet, mellow cat but her son wanted a playful, energetic cat. We got him a 10-month-old cat who was all energy and wanted nothing to do with a lap. Another wanted a cat that got along with other cats. We found her a cat, too."

When asked why he invests so much of his time in petting cats, he replied, "I like what I do here. I like cats. I like petting them. They are beautiful to look at and I like their style. I find cats loveable and it makes me feel good when I leave here."

Nelson did adopt one cat from Lucky Paws, although he says it's difficult not to take them all. "I took Lou home because he was having severe health problems and I didn't want him to die here. Once I got him home, he recovered and I've had him several years. We don't know how old he is. He's spoiled; he swaggers and does things to aggravate me. He lets me know that he's the king and I'm his man servant. He's a very demanding cat but I'm glad I have him. I took him home thinking I was going to provide hospice care, but, as it turns out, I think Lou and I will be checking into the senior rest home together."

All the Lucky Paws' cats hope that is a long way in the future.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by a cat named Sammy. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America. Currently she is waiting to see who the new cat or cats in her life will be.

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