By Diane Toomey, ARLB volunteer
Some came to play. Others came to observe. Still others came to chill out. And then there were the cats…..
The feline playgroup, held weekly at the League’s Boston branch, attracts a lot of people participants. And who wouldn’t want to watch animals having loads of fun? Playgroups for dogs have been going on at the shelter for some time now. But cat playgroup is relatively new. Every Monday afternoon an area of the adoption center turns into a living version of the game, How-Many-Cats-Can-You-Find-In-This-Picture? There’s one leaping for a feather toy. Two more are making a dash for a laser pointer. And two more still are standing on their hind legs, practicing a skill that appears to be a cross between patty cake and boxing. And just when you think you’ve found all the cats… Look up, and you’ll spot one lounging in the windowsill above your head.
Presiding over this controlled chaos is long-time volunteer Michelle Gelnaw, who chooses the cats who might enjoy the group. “I think what a lot of people don’t get about cats is that they can be really social. A lot of people think they’re solitary and comfortable by themselves. But the playgroup shows that they enjoy the comfort and fun of other cats.”
Some of the cats have never met a fellow feline they didn’t like. These animals quickly become playgroup stars. Or a more apt description might be feline cruise directors, urging vacationers to chase that toy mouse just one more time. Other cats take time to warm up to the group. Michelle, assisted by fellow volunteer Liz Pashley, slowly introduces each new cat. “We try to follow their leads. If some are shy, we hold them on our laps. If one seems nervous, we put down food. We play with them using a laser pointer or feather toy. It’s a slow process. We don’t just throw them in.”
Michelle says a maximum of ten cats at any given time seems to work best. While the cats get a break from their cages, staff gets to learn about an animal’s compatibility with other cats. Caitlin Berkery, Animal Care and Adoption Supervisor, says many people come to the shelter looking for a companion cat. “We’ve always said they should base their choice on personality. So we try to gauge that through time spent in a visiting room with the cat. But sometimes that can only give you so much information. You don’t see how the cat is with another cat. So playgroup gives us a better sense of that.”
At the end of one recent playgroup session, each cat had staked out a spot to sleep it off. For Michelle Gelnaw, this is the most difficult part of playgroup. How come? Because, she says, “It’s time to put the cats back into their cages.” At least until next week.