Working full time with cats

Nestled in the sprawling red rocks of southern Utah, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is more than a refuge for homeless pets. It’s a place where transformations happen every day.

No matter where animals came from, what happened in their pasts or what challenges they face, from the moment they arrive at the Sanctuary they receive all the medical care, TLC and training they need to help them feel comfortable and happy in their home between homes.

Levi Myers, a caregiver at Cat World, is one of the first people to greet newly arriving cats at Best Friends. In the following, he shares what it’s like to welcome cats, comfort them and send them further along their paths to living happily ever after.

Levi snuggling a brown tabby cat

Welcome to Cat World

I’ve been a cat caregiver at Best Friends for just over five years now. I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of cats, all with different personalities and needs, in all the areas at Cat World. Recently, I became the primary caregiver for Hope House, Cat World’s intake and admissions building.

It has been a drastic change for me, as now I only get to know the cats from their arrival until their quarantine period is over and they move on to other areas of Cat World. At Hope House, cats are separated from each other during their quarantine period of seven to 10 days. There are six rooms, most with great big windows through which the cats can see the world. My job is to work with the medical team to make sure the cats are healthy, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and that they have no illnesses that could be transmitted to other cats before they move to another area of Cat World until they get adopted. But perhaps the most important part of my job is to make them as comfortable as possible.

An average day for me (beyond feeding and cleaning), is getting to know each cat as an individual and, most important of all, letting them know that it’s all going to be OK. Upon arrival, most cats are nervous. Their entire world has shifted and they don’t quite know what to make of it. My role is to give them everything they need to be comfortable. I try to figure out what they may want that will lower their stress level during the transition. It could be toys, a special food, grooming sessions or simply petting them as much as they want. In many cases in those first few days, they just want space. So, I give them a few slow blinks (a sign of comfort and trust for felines) and some comforting words. And I let them be.

For me, the most rewarding element of my work is seeing the transformation in a cat from shy or fearful to outgoing and comfortable. It is usually a slow process, but when you finally see it, there really is no better feeling. All your care, concern and hard work pays off, because the cats’ lives will be forever changed. They are safe here, and they will get everything they need to find homes.

How to help a shy cat

Alleviating stress in cats

During their stay at Hope House, cats get medical care that includes vaccines, spay/neuter surgery, a microchip, tests for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia (FeLV) and exams to address any health concerns that we can start treatment on immediately. It’s a difficult time for the cats, since there are so many unfamiliar experiences, but I try to be their rock as much as I can. One thing the cats constantly remind me of is their amazing resiliency and ability to show trust to a stranger.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for the cats, but showing empathy takes practice and is a true skill. My constant goal is to spend time with each cat and feel what it is that he or she is going through, with the intention of alleviating as much stress as I can. I get to know these cats pretty well in a short time, and I use that knowledge to help make suggestions for which areas in Cat World they may thrive the most in. Having worked in all the areas at one point or another, I have a pretty good feel for the dynamics of each room, but those dynamics change over time, so I rely on my fellow caregivers to make the final call.

Caregiver Levi Myers playing with five black cats in Cat World

Fresh starts for two cats

I adore coming to work every day because it’s a constant challenge. No two cats are alike, and each one leaves a mark. I see and hear a lot of stories of heartache and sadness regarding how these cats arrived in my care. While I try to use that knowledge to avoid anything that may trigger a painful memory for the cat, I ultimately want them to have a completely fresh start.

For example, I recently met a cat who had been found in a dumpster along with a puppy. After being rescued, both he and the puppy came to Best Friends and are doing well. Dunkaroo, as the cat was named, is an incredibly affectionate and cuddly young male tabby. Almost immediately, he was full of purrs and head butts despite all he had been through. He seemed completely unfazed by his prior predicament and was instantly trusting of all new people.

Then there is Benito, a big 15-year-old gray-and-white cat who had lived with a person his whole life, but suddenly found himself homeless after the gentleman passed away. These are the cases that really get me as I can’t help but think of how cats in their senior years must completely readjust to life. Often there is a mourning phase, and some cats can develop serious medical problems while they are grieving. That was my instant concern for Benito, though he quickly surprised me. He loves to eat anything and everything, really enjoys one-on-one time with people and seems to be both aware of his situation and accepting of it. He and I spent many moments looking out the window together.

I know that, at his age, it may be challenging to find him a home, but he will be adored for as long as he is here. Sometimes, all you can do for animals is let them know they are still loved and they will still be cared for.

Caregiver Levi Myers sitting in a chair and cuddling Slader, a brown longhair tabby cat

Helping cats go from shelters to new homes

Recently, I picked up a group of seven cats from a rural shelter a few hours away to bring them to the Sanctuary. Visiting shelters is a blessing in my eyes, as it reminds us of why we do what we do and how we are helping the country move toward no-kill by 2025. The shelter where I picked up these seven cats is working very hard to get to no-kill. After a round trip of five hours, I returned to Hope House with seven new feline faces. These seven were the kind I love to bring in. All of them were friendly and basically perfect in every way, but had become homeless for various reasons. It wouldn’t be difficult to find them new homes, as they’d be a good fit for just about anyone wanting to adopt a cat.

Well, just 10 days from the day I brought them in, Best Friends just so happened to have a transport leaving for Cat Adoption Team (CAT), a Best Friends Network partner near Portland, Oregon. Those 10 days were filled with snuggles and health checks, and five of the seven were able to head straight to Oregon where they will likely be adopted in a very short time. The other two are still here while we deal with a few health issues. They are doing wonderfully and will likely go to the next adoption event or transport.

I love these kind of shelter pulls and transports because these are cats who could have easily been overlooked through no fault of their own, but instead they will all be happily adopted. I’m sure of it!

Cat World caregiver Levi Myers cradling a black cat in his arms

Compassion for rescued cats

Every cat I meet has a story and, while some are not so happy, it’s how you choose to help them move forward that matters. They don’t always understand why they are here or what your intentions are, but they understand compassion. Compassion is the key to building bridges with people and animals alike. We all understand it and we can all feel comfort because of it.

To me, the day cats arrive at Best Friends is the first day of a great adventure, and it’s my responsibility to give them as many tools as I can to make it a positive one. To be the beginning of a positive change for even one animal is extremely rewarding, and I’m lucky to be that for many. There is always the “saying goodbye” part of my work — when cats move on to different areas or get adopted. But letting go happens in all of animal welfare, and though it’s never easy, you do find a way to open your heart anew. When a cat leaves my care, I always take a moment to remind myself that I’ve done all I can for him or her, and I look forward to helping the next cat who comes my way.

How you can make a difference for cats

Cat World caregiver Levi Myers lying down on the floor with a very happy cat lying on his chest

Photos by Molly Wald and Best Friends staff