In his 19 years on earth, my cat Raymond saw me through a painful divorce, an ecstatic remarriage to my husband, Karl, and the wondrous birth of our son, Leo. Raymond was one of the few constants in my life, and losing him four years ago was upending. When at last we were over our heartache and in the market to bring home a new little furball, the coronavirus pandemic was just breaking.
And with it came the swift sunset of adoptable kittens. The Saturday before the world shut down, we took a trip to the Humane Rescue Alliance adoption center on Oglethorpe Street NW in the District. I was prepared to enter a jungle of screeches and yelps and cage after cage of Margaret Keane big-eyed ragamuffins. Instead, we were led into a spotless room holding exactly three grown cats: one that had already been adopted, one with a sign on its cage warning of anti-social behavior, and one that was eating its litter. Instead of a crowd of kids and parents talking in little cat voices, we were alone. It was an inauspicious start and a unanimous decision to keep looking. “Just keep checking our website,” a volunteer said as we headed for the door. “It’s almost kitten season.”
Great, we thought. Surely there’d soon be a bumper crop of springtime babies to select a new pet from. Except, there wasn’t. We were soon to find out to what lengths our feline love would take us. Since society locked down, it turns out, people have been buying and adopting pets en masse. “Everyone is at home now and can spend some quality time with a new animal,” says Katie O’Hare, an adoption coordinator with Lucky Dog Animal Rescue in Arlington, Va. “Since socializing a kitten or a puppy is so important, now that everyone is home from work and school, it feels like this is the perfect time.” O’Hare tells me that Lucky Dog has adopted out 742 animals since March 16 — four times as many adoptions as in the same period in 2019.
With the obsessiveness of a pandemic hand washer, I checked the new arrivals on such sites as humanerescuealliance.org, petfinder.com, luckydoganimalrescue.org and kingstreetcats.org. I thought of it as Match.com but for cats. There was Chicken Nugget, a Siamese the color of bread crumbs; Fiesta, a squat tabby with a disdainful look; and Mona, the visible tip of her tongue lending a look of concentration. These adult cats were all available, all sweet-faced and worthy. I was fine with adopting one, but Karl was holding out for a kitten. Let’s face it: Kittens are more fun than a full-grown cat, especially for an 8-year-old like our son.
But on that front, it would not be a lie to say that I would have had an easier time scoring tickets to “Hamilton.” For weeks, I experienced a news crawl of kittens — Cooper, Samuel, Flicker — only to learn from their “fosters” that the kittens had adoptions pending. With rescue shelters and pet stores shuttered, strays were going straight to people who had volunteered to care for them temporarily in their homes until a permanent match was found. In normal times, this could be days or even weeks. But now it was more like hours.
After missing out on yet another kitten, this one named Cupid, I emailed his foster, Rivka Gates. “We’ve been so patient and it’s just so competitive,” I e-sobbed. “I feel like I’m trying to buy a baby on the black market.”
Gates was sympathetic. “I see how you’d feel that way. I’m pretty stunned by the attention myself,” she replied. Photos of Cupid and his litter mates had posted online at 10 that morning, and in a matter of minutes, “I’ve had three dozen requests,” she said, while assuring me that there would be other kittens.
And so, you’ll be happy to learn, there were. Before the pandemic lockdown, Leo and I had been frequent visitors to Georgetown’s Crumbs & Whiskers Kitten Lounge, a faux-fur-strewn place where, for $35, you can play with adoptable kittens for 70 minutes. (The chain, which also has a location in Los Angeles, offers 15- and 30-minute “experiences” as well.) At the time, we were window shopping, really, but I still decided to get preapproved for adoption, mortgage-like. If a kitten became available, we could pounce.
Phone interviews with volunteers from Lucky Dog Animal Rescue (responsible for Crumbs & Whiskers adoptions) ensued, a home visit via FaceTime was scheduled (Did we have window screens? Where did we keep our plants?) and, finally, adoption approval was granted. And because of my happy foresight, I eventually began to receive weekly emails earmarked just for us VIPs. At first, they came with photos of cats. But then, around April, the kittens started to trickle in. On tax day, I received an email showing four kittens, litter mates from a shelter in North Carolina (Lucky Dog partners with shelters as far away as Georgia and Texas), including Todd, now known as Benny, an 8-week-old gray-and-white tabby with peach-colored ears.
We agreed to take ownership, sight unseen (and pay $170 for deworming, vaccines and delivery to Washington), straight off the transport van, earning preferential treatment by making it possible to skip the foster step. After eight hours in a vehicle teeming with other dogs and cats, it’s a lot easier on the animals to go straight into what is known in the adoption biz as their “forever homes.” Lucky Dog’s O’Hare tells me later that in the first week of May, all but 20 of 150 dogs and cats arriving on the vans were adopted on the spot.
Three days after we got the email, we drove to a parking lot in Shirlington and waited for the transport van’s 3 p.m. arrival. “This feels like a drug deal,” joked Karl. As it turned out, Benny has been better than any kind of pharmaceutical. In these troubled times, when we’re all looking for ways to numb the pain or pep up the sameness of our days, Benny is the perfect fix.
Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.