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Cat socializing helps ease pets through trauma

MIDDLEBURY — Sitting cross-legged on the floor in one of the “Meet and Greet” rooms at Homeward Bound: The Humane Society of Addison County, Victoria Blewer entertained one of the center’s newest arrivals at the humane society’s Boardman Street headquarters: a muscular, jet-black male cat named Nero.
Nero had been in the shelter for only a few days but had already made a name for himself as a resident escape artist by popping open the door of his cat condo with his paw, making his way downstairs to where the food is kept, tearing open the corner of a bag and enjoying a midnight snack. He had done this twice.
But as he settled into his temporary home in the Meet and Greet room with Blewer, Nero was clearly curious about his new surroundings, first investigating every corner and climbing up chairs to peer out of the windows on three sides of the room. Next, tentatively at first and then more eagerly, he nuzzled Blewer’s knees and elbows. As he did this, she talked to him in a lilting, singsong tone.
When animals arrive at the county’s humane society, now known as Homeward Bound, they are welcomed by a team of 109 volunteers. Those volunteers fulfill a multitude of roles, interacting with and walking the animals, staffing the front desk, managing special events, maintaining the building and even serving on the board of directors.
Blewer is part of a team that manages a fluctuating number of cats. Right now, Homeward Bound is home to about 35 cats of all types, colorings and personalities.
Blewer has volunteered at the Humane Society since 2008 and spends three hours every Tuesday afternoon in her role as “cat socializer,” helping the residents be as comfortable and well-adjusted as possible as long they stay and keeping them accustomed to human contact and other cats. Blewer divides her time each Tuesday among individual cats and the senior cats and kittens; each of those age groups has its own “community room.”
The cats have their own personalities, and Blewer can identify many of them. Elf can have some attitude, but prefers playing to cuddling; she described Phillip as a “lover boy” who enjoys being held; ET is 13, but hardly acts her age; while Jamie is vocal, but is still hesitant to leave the condo.
Having been around these cats and many others, Blewer monitors their development through their stay and can determine which cats will get along with other pets or people.
“Some are trembling when you put your hand in the cage,” she said. “This can be a stressful place for them, but you know they’re going to be fine. And then when those cats get adopted it’s the best feeling ever.”
Having spent so much time around the cats, Blewer says she can tell which are likely to be adopted quickly. 
“There are some cats that come in here and you know they’re going to be adopted right away,” she said. “Some are Mister Personality, and some are really beautiful.”
But others have to wait longer. Some people are hesitant to adopt black cats, a stigma Brewer says still persists. Older cats are particularly difficult to place. Some have been surrendered multiple times. 
Blewer used to keep a log of cats that had been at the shelter for extended periods of time and estimated the list grew to about 100 names. When each was adopted, she’d check off the name.
Now, when she arrives to start her shift, she goes straight to a bulletin board to see who has been adopted.
Blewer is able to fit her volunteering between her work as a fulltime photographer, shooting in black and white film and then hand-coloring the prints. She lives in Lincoln with her husband, novelist Chris Bohjalian. Blewer says their household fits firmly within the “cat people” camp. At their peak, they had six cats, three of which came from the shelter. They currently have five, three of which are humane society adoptees.
Even with so much time around them, Blewer is actually allergic to cats. She was diagnosed when she was eight, but fortunately is able to manage her allergy with modern medicine. As a lifelong cat owner, volunteering with animals was an obvious choice.
“I have never seen a flea here,” she said. “It’s a well-oiled machine, and they know what they’re doing.”
Jessica Danyow, executive director for Homeward Bound, says volunteers have been involved with the organization since its inception. The group includes past animal adopters, families with children and college students. Without them, Danyow says, the organization’s reach in Addison County would be limited.
“We wouldn’t have half the community impact that we’re able to have,” she said. “There are only 10 people that work here altogether, and the majority of them are working with the animals all day. So (without the volunteers) we wouldn’t be able to get out in the community for presentations and events.”
Over the summer, the shelter will look for foster-care volunteers to house animals and provide extra socialization or care. Homeward Bound is also recruiting volunteers for the Adoption Ambassador Program, where volunteers will take animals out and about in the community and promote them as adoptable animals. Program volunteers who take care of cats will promote them from home by posting photos and videos on social media.
“The idea is that if you see something from across one of your social media feeds about a great cat that’s looking for a home, that cat is going to reach a lot more people than if he’s waiting in a kennel for someone to come in actively looking for a cat,” Danyow said.
The shelter is also allowing volunteers as young as 10 to participate with a parent.
Victoria Blewer’s cats used to find her. Now she says thanks to wider spaying and neutering programs she has to go to the shelter, an experience she says is rewarding.
“People ask me how I’m able to go there and not get depressed,” she said. “My feeling is these are the lucky cats because they’re being taken care of and being fed. They’re warm in the winter, and they’re going to find homes.”

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