Adopters see shy black cat for the rare pearl she is

Lisette the cat in a kennel lying on a colorful matt
What does a shy, middle-aged, jet-black female cat in Los Angeles have in common with a Tahitian pearl? More than you might think.
By Lindsay Hutton

1. For a mature mollusk to make a pearl, it first needs an irritant, like a grain of sand.

About six years after Lisette was adopted, she was returned to the Best Friends Lifesaving Center, located in the L.A. neighborhood of Mission Hills. When she arrived, her quiet, calm bearing seemed as complete as the darkness of her raven fur.

“There was no outward sign of stress,” says Natalie Culbreth, senior coordinator of lifesaving and care. Lisette lounged, clearly relaxed, in her cubby — no wide eyes, no tense posture. She responded warmly to attention from the team.

But she had a problem: peeing outside of the litter box. Why she was doing this was a mystery, at least at first. But Natalie had a theory: What if simply being in a place with so many new sounds and smells (not to mention fellow cats) was the cause? If true, perhaps some time in a foster home might help.

[Cat Scared of Strangers: How to Calm Anxious Cats]

Natalie secured a foster home with a family that was onboard and ready to help test the theory. Sure enough, the litter box issues stopped. Foster volunteers noted that she was affectionate and playful, yet she seemed anxious about another cat in the foster home. But since they were kept separated, Lisette was free to be herself.

After a few months (around Christmas time), Lisette came back to the lifesaving center and when she did, her litter box issues did, too. But now caregivers understood the cause. The company of other cats — to her — was that grain of sand.

Still, for shy Lisette, being at the lifesaving center made sense. There, she'd have a chance to meet more people and, ultimately, get adopted.

Much-loved, shy cat a volunteer favorite

2. The next part of pearl making, after the grain of sand is deposited, is waiting.

During the holiday season, Natalie and the team worked to get Lisette adopted, hoping she’d have a home by the new year. They recommended her to potential adopters, telling them how cuddly and good-natured she was. And they weren’t the only ones championing Lisette. Volunteers constantly talked her up and encouraged potential adopters to spend some time with her. Everyone was waiting for her to get noticed.

The potential adopters who did interact with Lisette were surprised. Natalie describes her as feeling like luxurious velvet. After petting her, people would exclaim, “She’s so soft!” And her personality was velvety, too. She was richly loving, deeply gentle. But she kept getting passed over because of her age, her color, being timid amid more gregarious cats or kittens and, of course, the litter box issue.

Each day, Natalie carved out as much time as she could to visit. “I loved Lisette,” Natalie says, “She was such a sweet cat.” The extra attention caused Lisette to radiate love and seek out petting. Still, no one chose to adopt her.

[Foster volunteer steps in for a shy cat]

Once again, Lisette came back to foster care, this time for another three months. And again, the litter box issues stopped. When she finally returned to the center, the team faced a conundrum: how to keep her in front of people (and get her adopted) without stressing her out. Thinking that a change of scenery might help, they moved her across town to the NKLA Pet Adoption Center, operated by Best Friends in west Los Angeles, hoping the move would do the trick.

Photo courtesy of Octavia Rhim

To her adopters, Lisette is a pearl

3. Tahitian pearls are generally dark in color. A pure black one is rare. You have to be someone who knows how such a pearl is made, someone who’s keeping a lookout waiting for that pearl to be realized, and then be the someone who gets one.

Octavia Rhim and her partner, Adrian, immediately recognized Lisette for the rare jewel she is. Both are cat lovers and had cared for cats before deciding to live together. Now they felt it was the right time to adopt as a couple. A friend of theirs recommended they look at Best Friends, so they checked out the NKLA Pet Adoption Center in west Los Angeles, which was close to their residence.

The plan was to adopt a black adult female. The reason: Octavia’s first cat (a black tuxedo girl named Bella, who still lives with her family on the East Coast), had completely changed Octavia’s perspective on cats. Before Bella, cats were strange, sneaky, slightly frightening creatures she didn’t like. But over time, she developed a deep love for Bella, and the memory of her caused them to look for another like her.

When they saw Lisette’s picture online, they first called Best Friends to make sure she was still available. She was, and she didn’t have to wait long. Octavia and Adrian were there in a flash. Lisette had only been at the NKLA center for three hours before Octavia and Adrian made the adoption official. They named renamed her Pearl.

In her new home, the world is Pearl’s oyster

4. No two pearls are the same.

Octavia and Adrian were not bothered by the fact that it might take Pearl some time to adjust and open up in her new home. “Shyness doesn’t bother me,” Octavia says. “I’m a shy person.”

They were encouraged by the way Pearl initially responded to them. She was shy, yes, but she was also very receptive to attention and affection. At first, the sound of neighbors coming up the stairs, a loud car passing by in the street or the clatter of dishes being washed (any sound that Pearl wasn’t familiar with) would send her into hiding. She dashed into her cocoon-shaped bed, a place where she felt safe.

[Couple goes the distance to adopt shy cat]

Little by little, Pearl acclimated to the new sounds and features of her environment, including her gurgling cat water fountain and a creaky ceiling fan. Perceptive and intelligent, Pearl pays close attention to Octavia and Adrian’s suggestions. When Octavia points to something, Pearl’s bright eyes follow. Suggestions for toys and how to play with them are also well-received. For example, when they bought her a cat tree and she wasn’t sure what it was for, they placed her on it repeatedly. It wasn’t long before she realized that this was her favorite new spot to hang out.

Lately, Pearl hasn’t had any issues using her litter box, and she’s turned out to be more affectionate and playful than Octavia and Adrian expected. Each morning, a game with the feather teaser (her favorite toy) is a must. Sometimes late at night, they hear her zooming through the apartment. When she meows while Octavia is working and doesn’t get a response, she leaps onto the desk for attention. “She likes to be acknowledged and she likes to be petted — a lot,” Octavia says.

That she is a shy and deeply loving cat — a velvety black pearl — hasn’t changed a bit. The only difference is that two people finally noticed and adopted her.

Natalie keeps a picture of Pearl up on her wall of memories, which reminds her of those cats she’s been moved by the most. When she looks at Pearl, she remembers how important it is to take the time to get to know the quiet animals, the ones at the back of the kennel who are frightened or shy.

Octavia knew that Pearl wouldn’t be Bella. Pearl is Pearl (though she also answers to her nicknames, Pearly or Noodle). It’s all part of the beauty, says Octavia. All cats are different, with preferences and unique personalities. The joy is in getting to know them as the individuals they are.

Photo courtesy of Octavia Rhim

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