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Lizzy, in jail at the shelter, August 23 or so 2013

When is the moment when the lives of a person and an adopted pet come together? Is it when we find the animal at the shelter, when we bring the pet home, or when we first start looking for one?

I’ve been thinking of getting a cat since I moved into this house, last November. Nic and I fostered two kittens last spring, but owning a pet forever is a big responsibility, especially since I travel often.

A few weeks ago, though, I dreamt of an orange, long-haired cat and woke up feeling that he was my next cat. I spent many hours online, looking up animal shelters and Persian and Himalayan-cat rescues. I emailed enquires about cats in different states; I found a long-haired male called Dasher as close as Sarasota. And then, I found a beautiful orange Persian in a Tampa shelter, called French Fry. She was female, and prettier than the cat in my dreams, but I wanted her.

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I called the Hillsborough County Animal Services, and learned that French Fry had a microchip, so they’d have to try to contact the owner, who’d have ten days to claim the cat.

Over the next few days, I hoped to adopt FF even as I Googled my way around the southeast, looking at other long-haired orange cats in need of a home. Dasher in Sarasota was male, and orange, like the cat in my dream, and he was available. I could have gone on indefinitely, looking up cats on the Internet, thinking about adopting, waiting for more dreams, but I received the September Sun and started reading the interview, “Inhumane,” with No-Kill advocate Nathan Winograd.

After reading half of it, I went to my computer to write a letter to the editor, to say that I didn’t care whether animals were adopted out to risky homes or humanely put down: what mattered to me was that we end animal suffering. But I didn’t even start the letter. When I sat down at my computer, I Googled the Hillsborough Animal Shelter and called them again.

French Fry had five more days before he’d be available for adoption. The officer I spoke to told me to come in and put in my application in person. It takes 90 minutes to get to the Hillsborough County animal shelter, and I arrived about 6.30 p.m., half an hour before the shelter closed. They had just taken an application from someone else to adopt for French Fry, about 20 minutes before I arrived.

I was shocked. How could the cat of my dreams have been taken away from me? In a daze, I said that I’d like to see him anyway, and have a look at the other cats.

I respect and appreciate the work of the Hillsborough Animal Services, but every time I interacted with a staff member, the staffer had to ask two or three other people for information: how to operate the computer, how to get information on an animal, how to let me see an animal. To be fair, the shelter is inundated with animals. One man, Alex, told me they get between 50 and 100 animals a day. Of the cats, 80% are put down. Of the lucky 20% that get homes, nearly all are kittens. Virtually 100% of the older cats that come in are euthanized.

I found my way past the rooms of cute kittens and big dogs to the older cats. But I couldn’t find French Fry, so I asked a girl in blue scrubs for help. She, Barbara, wasn’t a staffer but a cat-lover there to rescue a cat that would otherwise be put down. She showed me French Fry, and then she showed me all the oldest cats in several rooms. There was a big brown cat that turned to look at me, which she said was astonishing, since it had had its face in the corner since it came in. A longhaired, small, black-and-white cat was lying limp and unresponsive in a cage. There was a lovely Russian blue I might have adopted to please Nicole, but it hissed violently.

And then Barbara took me to a long-haired gray/white/tabby cat whose face reminded me of my Puffy, my childhood cat. There was a similarly colored, short-haired cat in the next cage. Reading their cage-tags, we realized that they’d been “surrendered” together – that meant the owner had dropped them off. Why they’d been put in separate cages, I have no idea. I said, “I could adopt those cats.”

Barbara told me that old cats at that shelter got very little time. Sometimes “owner surrendered” cats were put down right away; she thought the two calicoes would be put down in a day or two if I didn’t put in an application to adopt them. Out at the service desk I filled in the paperwork to adopt the cats that I’d never touched or even seen in clear light.

The next day I woke up a dawn, worried about cats. I felt guilty about rushing into the application in for the calicoes. And Dasher, in Sarasota, still needed a home. I put a call for advice on Facebook and got lots of it. The most common advice was that I should take all three cats: the two I’d “made a commitment” to as well as the orange one I’d dreamt of. Cousin Baby said that the dream had led me to the shelter to adopt the other two cats. Margie said I didn’t choose my human friends based on their color, so why would I pick cats that way? Colin said I could have three cats if I tried.

Most of the people advocating my owning three cats have never seen my house: I live, work, and play in 688 square feet. I didn’t know if any of these cats would ever venture outdoors.

On Saturday, I drove 30 miles south to Sarasota’s animal shelter to meet Dasher. My dream cat, maybe, Dasher, in SarasotaHe wasn’t the same as the cat in my dream – he’s unfortunately had a “lion cut” — and he wasn’t especially friendly. Furthermore, he was comfortable and safe: the shelter is spacious, clean, and bright. Cats  can curl up in a private niche, snooze in the sun, or play with other kitties. None is killed; they’re kept till they’re adopted or taken by a rescue group. I stayed about half an hour, but I left feeling that Dasher’s life was going to be okay without me, and mine without him.

Up at the shelter in Hillsborough (50 miles north) an hour or so later, I explained that I’d rushed into the adoption and I was starting to doubt my choice. Then a man at the next desk told me I couldn’t see those cats, because they were in “la-la land.” They’d just had surgery, he said, and were anesthetized.

Tearing up, I said, “I’ve driven up here from Anna Maria Island twice in 24 hours, and I haven’t been able to touch the cats I’m adopting. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing.”

As I stood there, trying not to cry, the female worker recalled that those cats had not had surgery. They’d already been spayed when they were surrendered, so they’d simply been checked by the vet. They hadn’t been anesthetized, and it was fine for me to see them.

I thanked her, feeling stunned, while the man put a call over the intercom for a “meet and greet” in cat room four, to get someone to let me pet the cats.

Three times, I was told to walk back to the room where “my” cats were to wait for someone who would come and open Lilly’s and Lizzy’s cages. Three times, I trudged back to the cat room and found no one there, waited a while, and then went back up front to find someone else to put in another call over the loudspeaker. On the fourth try, a kind, tired-looking African-American woman called Kathy met me in the back rooms and opened Lilly’s cage.

Lilly is the prettier of the two cats — long-haired, gray and white and tabby, with a funny cream-colored dot on her forehead just like Puffy. I no longer have her “jail picture,” unfortunately. She shrank away to the back of her cage, but when I gently pulled her out, she settled into my lap, and I knew I would be adopting her, along with Lizzy.

And about an hour later, I did just that.

The man who did the final paperwork and took my money – cats were on sale! Just $20 apiece! – looked up the cats’ records and licenses and found that they both were probably at least 11 years old, maybe 12. They were given up because the owner had to go into a nursing home.

Because the carriers are so small, the cats were put into separate carriers for the trip home. We stacked one cage atop the other in the front seat of my car, and seat-belted them in. Lizzy (the shorthaired calico) cried a little, but after a while (in the nice, quiet Prius!) both cats calmed down. They both stopped sitting in a hunched ball and lay flat, maybe so they could feel in the sun coming through the openings in their cages.

For my cats’ first night in their forever home, I took both carriers into the smallest room in my house, a large, all-tile bathroom with two windows, much bigger than the cages they’ve been in for the last several days. The place is airy and clean, and stacked with towels and rugs and comfy places for cats to sit. They could get used to that one room first, I thought, so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

I set the cages side by side and opened the doors. Neither cat moved and both ducked away from my hand when I reached in, so I stepped outside the bathroom to get up a litter box and bowls of water and food. I left the carrier doors open so the cats could come out and stretch their legs and start getting acquainted with their new home.

When I returned five minutes later, neither cat was out exploring. But Lizzy had left her cage and gone in to be with Lilly. They crouched in the tiny carrier, side by side, staring out at me. Lizzy was purring a little, comforting and warming up her friend. They were going to be okay.