Odie, a four-pound tuxedo cat with white paws that looked like socks, seemed to think he was a dog.
When I sat at my home desk for college classes on Zoom, he would spring onto my knees, standing on his hind legs so he could lick my face, much like a dog would. Odie was fascinated by his image on camera and stuck his small nose near the screen to sniff for another cat. My classmates were first confused, then delighted as a wall of white whiskers covered the screen. After carefully inspecting his own reflection, Odie would curl up to sleep on the warm laptop charger.
While others rushed out to get a puppy during the pandemic, my family fostered cats. The five of us—plus a 50-pound dog—were quarantining in a four-bedroom apartment in Bethesda. My two older sisters and I were finishing our college semesters online and my parents had switched to working from home, so every room became a makeshift office. Though we didn’t have room to foster a puppy, I still thought we needed another pet.
I contacted Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, a local nonprofit that finds homes for dogs and cats living in high-kill shelters. Foster homes care for dogs or cats until they get adopted, a process that can take from less than a week to more than a month. The process helps the animals get used to people and allows the organization to rescue animals even if it doesn’t have anyone ready to adopt them, according to its website.
My parents, two noted cat haters, took some convincing to let me foster. My dad spends nearly all of his spare time taking care of our 14-year-old labradoodle, Trixie. He feared a cat would scratch her nose or steer our time and affection away from her. My mom was more direct. “I don’t trust cats,” she said. “They slink around. Why do you want a pet that doesn’t like you?”
It’s a common misconception that adult cats are mean, says Ashley Roberts, Lucky Dog’s program manager for adoptions, fosters and transports. “I think it’s a really big surprise when people rescue this cat and expect them to be feral and expect them to bite them, and then they’re just like, I just want you to pet me and give me lots of food,” Roberts says.
Our first foster, 1-year-old Zara, acted just as Roberts described. Zara had jade-green eyes and tawny fur, and came to us with her ribs jutting out. She had been living on the street and had just weaned a litter. Zara slept most of the day and ate faster than I could fill her dish. She would brush against my legs and loudly meow until I gave her more kibble.
We were most concerned about how she would interact with Trixie. Roberts says people tend to buy into the “fight like cats and dogs” cliché, expecting that the two species cannot get along. But with proper integration and breaks, dogs and cats can bond, she says.
Luckily for us, Trixie spends most of her days snoozing in a fleece bed on the dining room floor. Because of her age, she refuses to stand unless someone dangles food over her. Trixie has a fearsome bark, but quivers uncontrollably anytime she sees a housefly.
When Zara first came downstairs from my bedroom, the two were wary of each other. Trixie slowly walked over to sniff Zara’s nose. Soon Zara and Trixie curled up for a nap together. Odie, our final foster, was Trixie’s favorite. I would thumb the tags on Trixie’s collar so Odie would move toward the chiming sound. When inspecting each new foster, Trixie was the happiest I’d seen her and her whole body would wiggle with the force of her tail-wagging.
Each of the four cats had distinctive personalities. Flicka weighed just 2 pounds but sneezed with fantastic strength. And then there was Tad, the mischievous and intrepid cat with leopard spots. Only a few months old, he would climb up lamps and onto their shades or scuttle along the underside of my mattress like the insect Gregor in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
I begged my parents to keep each cat but knew I couldn’t adopt them because I was returning to Yale in early February. As each one left for its forever home, I slipped its favorite toy into the carrier—a bouncy ball with a bell inside for Zara and a small plush mouse with a woven turquoise tail for Odie.
I missed our foster cats when I arrived back on campus and started Zoom classes. But when I found one of the plush mouse toys that Odie had apparently hidden in my backpack, I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered the camera-loving cat who thought he was a dog.