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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New Orleans: ARNO Feline Enrichment

It’s early in the morning, before anyone else is up and about at Animal Rescue New Orleans. Jackie, the kennel manager, gave me a key the previous evening so that I could collect three cats that I would be transporting to the Wags and Whiskers rescue in Middle Tennessee. All three have delightful personalities and will have a much easier time finding homes out of New Orleans.

Flicking on the lights in the office, all of the familiar feline faces perk up. I have made a difference here, small perhaps, but many of these cats are different than they were when I first arrived. They move to the front of their cages, ears cupped forward, “What do you have for us today?” They seem to ask.

On the walls above the cats are cheerful posters that another volunteer (a first grade teacher) had lettered and illustrated. They provide guidelines for the ARNO Feline Enrichment program.

When I arrived at ARNO two weeks ago, Robin, the shelter director took me into her office. “I know that our conditions here are not ideal. I hope you understand that we are doing the best we can.”

“I’m not here to judge, just to help however I can.”

“I really do want the best for our cats—if you have any ideas for how we can improve things for them, please let me know.” She was in earnest. “There are no egos here, just a lot of work and good will.”

I spent my first few days cleaning cages, feeding cats and observing. Many of the cats rarely lifted their heads or acknowledged me as I moved around them. Living in cages is a standard arrangement for cats in most shelters. Some shelters overcome the issues of depression by maintaining a cageless environment, which can have its own challenges, but cages are the most common arrangement—and the cats get bored, and that boredom leads to depression.

ARNO was doing an excellent job feeding, medicating and keeping the cats in sanitary conditions—but unlike the dogs who at least get walked a few times a day, most of the cats only received occasionally stroking or a passerby would wiggle their fingers in the cage for some of the younger cats.

My first action was to order some appropriate toys from my favorite vendors. The Cat Dancers (basically a wire with bits of cardboard on the end, see ) were the perfect toy for caged cats, because they are very inexpensive (especially because the company has special pricing for shelters), and it is easy to poke the flimsy wire into the cage and bounce the end about. The cats LOVED it—essentially, it’s like a cricket or little fly had just happened upon their cage. The erratic motion caught the attention of all the cats in the room when I introduced the first Cat Dancer—suddenly something was happening!

People often overlook a cat’s need to hunt. We are so caught up in feeding them and giving them cozy places to sleep that we forget that they are supposed to spend 8 hours a day awake: exploring, hunting, grooming, eating and playing.

I purchased Cat Dancers for every cage; we taped the cat’s names onto the wire to help prevent the spread of any germs. The morning that the Dancers arrived, 20 high school students from Michigan were volunteering—the front cat room sprang to life as each student engaged a cat in play.

Another great toy for the caged cats is called Da Bird (a fishing pole type toy with a special swivel before the feathered bob—when it is lassoed over head it looks and sounds like a real bird, see I purchased several of these for the different cat rooms and instructed the volunteers to spend 10 minutes whirling the toy around prior to providing the cats with their daily wet food.

According to Temple Grandin, in her book “Animals in Translation”, studies show that the part of the brain formerly referred to as the ‘pleasure center’ is actually a seeking circuit. In other words, for all animals (including humans) anticipation is the most pleasurable state of mind. The brain of an animal lights up with activity when it is anticipating food, the behaviors of anticipation are happy and excited, once the food actually arrives, the thrill is over. (This explains the phenomena of shop-a-holics—as it is the anticipation that provides the rush, rather than the actual acquisition.)

By whirling and plopping and playing with Da Bird before mealtime, the cats get stimulated on two fronts. First, their hunting instincts are triggered, I was asked if it isn’t mean to ‘tease’ the cats like that since Da Bird is outside the cage, but I reminded everyone that cats are not aerobic hunters, most of their hunting time is spent stalking—so this experience very much approximates the real experience of hunting (on the other hand, the cats are having physical interaction with the Cat Dancers so that urge is also being satisfied.) The routine of this ‘hunt’ before feeding also stimulates their seeking circuit and helps build up the anticipation of the wet food meal. 10 minutes isn’t a lot but it is an easily doable piece of the enrichment program.

The key to the ARNO enrichment plan working was that it had to be 1) inexpensive 2) not time consuming 3) easy to communicate.

The posters on the wall explained the use of Da Bird and the Cat Dancers. They also explained a schedule of self-starting toys to introduce to the cage each day.

Here is the key to ARNO Feline Enrichment: Novelty and Motion. Motion is exciting for cats—thus the Cat Dancer bouncing and Da Bird fluttering. When I first arrived at ARNO several of the cages had a strand of Mardi gras beads hanging from the top of the cage, occasionally a stuffed animal or a ping pong ball graced the floor of the cage. Most looked like they were long time residence of the cage and the cats were ignoring them.

Novelty is interesting—it is interesting to all animals. Yes, cats don’t like change, but they do like variety in their hunting experiences. So I put together this schedule:

Pipe Cleaners: Attach three pipe cleaners together, and then wind them around a finger so that they form a bouncy spiral. Attach one end to the top of the cage, so they hang down for batting around. Also wind a single piper cleaner around your finger and toss into the cage.

Feathers: Twist part of the pipe cleaners from Monday around a couple of feathers so that there are feathers hanging down in the cage, and attached to the loose pipe cleaner also.

Mardi gras Beads: Remove any left over feathers and discard. Attach a strand or two of plastic Mardi gras beads to the hanging pipe cleaners (be sure the strand is cut so that it is not longer a loop.)

Treat Balls: Remove all pipe cleaners and Mardi gras beads from the cage (discard the pipe cleaners. Wash and disinfect the Mardi gras beads for reuse next week.) Using the really cheap plastic Easter eggs (the ones that pop open easily), drop a few highly desirable cat treats inside the egg, then close it and toss it into the cage.

Catnip Pompoms and Corks: Remove the plastic eggs from the cages (wash and disinfect for reuse next week) be sure that the Pompom balls and Corks have been marinated in good potent catnip (add a little more to the container if necessary.) Toss a couple of pompoms and a wine cork into the cage.

Paper Bags and ping pong balls: Remove the pompoms to be washed and disinfected and dried for reuse next week (if possible), discard the wine corks. Fold the top of a paper bag back so that it holds the bag in an open position. Toss a ping pong ball into the bag and place in cage. Be sure to remove any extra beds to make room for play.

Empty toilet paper and paper towel rolls: Discard yesterday’s paper bags and remove and wash the Ping-Pong balls for reuse next week. Toss an empty toilet paper roll and an empty paper towel roll into the cage.

Each day the former items were removed and replaced with the new items. Some cats would engage with their toys throughout the day, others would spend 5 to 15 minutes investigating the objects and then ignore them for the rest of the day. But the vast majority of cats were interested—even if only briefly. Combining these items with the Action of the interactive toys began to bring the place to life.

The program is self-reinforcing, because all of the regular volunteers and the staff noted the positive changes in the cats—some of which were quite remarkable. Like Nunny, the ginger tabby with a terrible skin condition. Day after day he slept in his hammock, ignoring the world around him; he recoiled when anyone tried to pat him, looking scared and miserable. But several days of play turned his little personality around. He loved batting at the Cat Dancer and the pipe cleaners in his cage. Even when another cat was playing, he would jump out of his hammock to watch.

I reminded everyone that it was okay to skip an occasional day—when there aren’t enough volunteers to do the enrichment, it can wait for the next day. It is important that the regiment not be too strict, because there are days when there aren’t enough people to do the extras. But Robin, Anastasia and Jackie all committed to making ARNO feline enrichment continue to happen, even after I left.

The last addition to the program was the ARNO Kitty-Cat Playground (where the ARNO cats play.) The ARNO staff had built a secure enclosure within the warehouse. Robin’s vision is that eventually it will contain several pens of seven cats each, where volunteers can enter and play with the cats (which can be awkward when the cats are in small cages.) In the interim, there are several cat cages in that enclosure. I gathered up all the random scratching posts and other cat structures that had been donated to ARNO. Jackie provided a nice large rug. I scattered the structures about, then let six cats out of their cats (locking the gate to the enclosure). We played for hours with the pole toys, cats jumping onto structures, scratching at the posts, leaping and bounding after Da Bird. I tried to make the space comfortable and inviting so that volunteers would be drawn to spend some time there, playing with the cats.

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