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A Durham Moment: ‘They’re not property. They’re family members.’

Three pounds of white and black fluff rests on Megan’s chest. Her pink nose hides until she turns around, ears raised, and opens her eyes, revealing dilated pupils. The kitten, Sharlyne, licks the volunteer’s hand and then puts her head back down, shy from the attention she has drawn in the past few minutes. While the lap kitten enjoys her relaxing cuddles, her best friend, Sunni, plays with a piece of tape on their crate. Some visitors notice the small orange shorthair, tiny enough to fit into cupped hands. “Look how precious!” one says with a smile. 

It’s early Sunday afternoon at Petco in southern Durham, where Independent Animal Rescue (IAR) is hosting its weekly cat adoption event. Sharlyne and Sunni are three-month-old kittens who need a home. Events like these give the kittens exposure beyond adoption pages on the website. But despite how cute the pair are, there are currently no applications to adopt them.

“Sunni got an application yesterday, but it was someone who was only interested in a single kitten — and IAR does not allow single kitten adoptions,” says Jamie, a woman with curly blonde hair who has volunteered with the organization since September. Without a playmate, kittens in their first six months of life typically don’t learn socialization skills. For that reason, kittens under six months must be adopted with another kitten or into a household with a cat under two years old. 

Jamie is fostering two cats: Anna and Charlie, a mother-son duo. Anna, a gray, green-eyed beauty, is at Sunday’s event to “represent the family,” as her son is attention-shy. Just as for Sharlyne and Sunni, there are currently no applications to adopt Anna or Charlie. However, unlike two playful kittens, they are harder to place because they’re older. Anna is 12 years old, and Charlie is 11. 

Anna, perched in her crate near the store entrance, looks around, pondering the people coming in. Aside from her lack of jumpiness, she doesn’t look like an older cat at first glance. Her coat hasn’t thinned, her eyes are still bright. Many people approach her and give her belly scratches or rub her head. She closes her eyes when petted: a cat’s sign of trust.

Anna and Charlie were previously in a family with dogs. However, when the pandemic broke out, the family realized how scared the two cats were of the dogs. They decided to give the cats to a family friend. The cats then spent time at the Cat Tales Cat Cafe, an adoption cafe in Chapel Hill where the animals get to roam free, and were fostered for a few weeks through IAR before coming to stay with Jamie in May.

Next to Anna’s crate lies Jocelyn, a gray cat with one working eye. Her left eye is recessed and pink from an injury. A woman in a flowy paisley sundress pets the one-year-old cat.

“What happened to her?” she asks Jamie. Jocelyn was injured before coming to the organization, Jamie explains, likely from a rock falling off a car. Though her eyes don’t look like those of the other cats, she still sees fine and doesn’t let her injury bother her, Jamie says. The woman massages Jocelyn’s back, and the cat lifts her tail and butt, her favorite place to get scratched.

Perhaps the most popular cats at the event are a litter of two-pound, two-month-old kittens: Pascal, Pearl, Petal, Petunia and Pochi. Their mother, a one-year-old tan and black-striped domestic shorthair named Penny, sits comfortably in the crate next to them. 

Petunia, gray and white, green-eyed and fluffy, with beautiful fur and long whiskers, is highly admired by event visitors. Pearl looks like a younger version of her mother, with ears as large as her face. Petal, less fluffy and with no white patches, cuddles with Pascal, a black kitten, at the back of the crate. Near the front, Pochi, a friendly, inquisitive black cat, nestles next to Petunia and Pearl.

Kate, her brown hair scrunched into a bun, is fostering all six of the cats. She also has two cats of her own at home.

“It’s the best part of my day to go [home to see the cats]….” Kate says. “It gives you kind of a purpose — it did for me. I battled with depression and anxiety all the time. And so that was the big reason I started fostering. 

“In Boston, I hated where I was living. I wasn’t happy with my job. So I started fostering, and it made me feel so much better that I was able to start looking for a new job, and then I moved down here. And then now that I’ve decided to do it again, it really just — it just makes you so happy.”

There are 16 cats at Sunday’s event. A few more lie in crate displays on the wall of the event space, where they will stay for a few weeks to get more exposure with Petco customers. Not every cat at the meet-and-greet is fostered by the volunteers who organized it. Through a program called Advocat, volunteers can bring other volunteers’ foster cats so more animals can attend the event. 

That’s how Sharlyne and Sunni came to the event; same with Watson and Sissy. Carla, a volunteer in blue jeans and a green IAR T-shirt, puts colorful breakaway collars with faux flowers on the black cats — Sissy, Watson, Dahlia and Daphne.

“People are still superstitious about black cats,” Carla says. “And then, when they don’t move, you don’t see them. So they have the perfect camouflage. Unless you put a dollop of color in the form of a necklace on them, then they are hiding in plain sight.”

Even with more color, fewer people visit the older black cats than visit the kittens. Carla does her best to charm the visitors, introducing them to as many of the black cats as she can and talking about them in a passionate, loving tone

She’s fostering Dahlia and Daphne, as well as a gray 11-month-old cat named Argo. In total, she has nine cats at home, each with its own room. Once the cats feel at home, they begin to love their caretaker — making it hard to say goodbye when adoption day finally comes, Carla says.

“You have to tell yourself they’re moving on, and you’re not going to be able to foster if you don’t let them go,” she says. 

It’s currently not peak adoption season — that comes in early winter. Still, hosting adoption events throughout the year makes a huge difference, Carla says. Potential volunteers learn about the organization, the fostering program and the adoption process. And maybe, after attending an event, visitors can also spread the word about animals that need a home.

Carla looks tenderly at the cats she’s fostering.

“They’re not property,” she says. “They’re family members.”

Above: Visitors check out kittens Sharlyne and Sunni at a recent cat adoption event. Photos by Ana Young—The 9th Street Journal.