Nine people sat in the large activities room in East Amherst's Montgomery Park Retirement Community on a bright, snowy Friday, chatting softly and waiting for their guests.
The guests were cats Jasmine and Tux, crouched calmly in small cases carried by Mary Ann Kiera, a volunteer with Second Chance Sheltering Network. One at a time, Kiera let the cats out, clipped light fabric leashes to their harnesses and carried them over to the waiting group.
Tux, a big, placid black-and-white 2-year-old with tuxedo markings, settled down comfortably on the lap of Phyllis Wicks. Jasmine, a curious, slim 11-year-old with gray and white markings, looked around alertly as she stood on the lap of Rose Zeiner, arching her back while being petted.
As people cuddled the cats, talk turned to other pets of long ago. Alex Kurtz, who accompanied his wife Lillian, recalled a white cat they once had, who had one blue eye and one green eye. "That was a long time ago," he said, and his wife nodded.
"I always had dogs, never cats," said Bill Beesing, as he accepted a languid Tux onto his lap. "I didn't like cats. But my daughter likes them, so I got to know them. They have a lot of different personalities."
"I was raised with dogs, so when I first got cats, I didn't think anything about training them to walk on a leash," says Kiera, an Amherst resident whose two cats often visit nursing homes and retirement communities. Jasmine has been visiting the elderly, children and the ill for six years. "Jazzy was an unusual cat to begin with," says Kiera. "She was good with people, good with kids, a good therapy kitty. You want them laid back, playful but not overly playful. The ones that are bouncing off walls are interested in play, not in people."
Tux's parents were feral cats, roaming in the area around the University at Buffalo's North Campus in Amherst, where pet cats are often abandoned by students after the semester ends, Kiera says. She trapped Tux's mother and siblings for medical treatment, including spaying and neutering to prevent the feral cat colony from growing in size. Because they were true ferals, reacting with fear and aggression when approached by people, they could not be kept as pets. "Those that are good, we can socialize," she says. "Those that aren't we just release."
Kiera thought her work with that litter of cats was done. "Then one day this little black and white thing shows up in my yard," says Kiera. "I didn't even know he existed."
Tux, not as wild as his feral siblings, weighed just 2 pounds at about 4 months of age and had various wounds that needed surgery. "Anything that was routine for other cats was an issue for him," says Kiera, including complications from neutering. He needed four months of foster care in her home, during which she realized, "I couldn't part with Tux."
While she was still fostering Tux, Kiera taught him to respond to his name, walk on a leash, go calmly into the cat carrier and have a bath once a month. "I do this with all the cats I foster," says Kiera. "I work with them going in and out of the carrier, for example, so they don't associate it with something bad, like going to the vet." By the time she formally adopted him at nine months, he was ready to be a therapy cat.
"For a lot of seniors, this is a vital part of the day," said Kara Fuller, enrichment coordinator at Montgomery Park, as Jasmine stood on the lap of Anne Forte, green eyes wide and alert to all the people in the room. "They may love animals and no longer be able to have one, not be able to clean the cat litter box or walk the dog. But this is their chance to reconnect with that part of their lives."
Tux snuggled into every lap he occupied. Settled onto Mary Morris' lap, he propped his chin on the arm of her chair, the very picture of contentment. "One day I held him for half an hour," she said. Laughter rippled around the group as they imagined holding the chunky 14-pound cat for half an hour.
"Jasmine has a lot to say," Kiera observed as Verna Ellis reached over to scratch her behind the ear as she was held by Dolores Agro.
Tux also works in the "Not Cool to be Cruel" program of the Second Chance Sheltering Network, a kindness program for youngsters ages 5 to 8. The short program educates youngsters that all animals have feelings and should not be harmed or frightened.
Not every cat enjoys visiting people. Kiera has another cat at home named Lola, "the traditional scaredy cat," who would not enjoy therapy work. But Tux and Jasmine, whether purring contentedly on a lap or snuggling close for a head scratch, seemed as happy to visit as the seniors were to see them.
Second Chance Sheltering Network in Spring Brook offers animals for adoption, coordinates a low-cost spay and neuter program, and sends volunteers with the "Not Cool to be Cruel" program to speak to groups of children. Its website is www.secondchanceshelteringnetwork.com.