Lex Hinkley says this is only the beginning for her and her cat Tuna.
Blue. That’s what caught my eye as I passed the room. It wasn’t like the other rooms I’d been shown at the animal shelter. These kennels were tucked away, almost out of sight. The cats in them cowered, pressing themselves far away from the kennel doors as I got closer. But the vibrant blue of one cat’s eyes cut through the gloom.
It was January 2017—only the start of the new semester, but the stress of nursing school was already getting to me. I have generalized anxiety disorder and suffer panic attacks. It’s something I manage with therapy and medication, but with all the tests, labs, clinical practice hours and late nights studying, I felt overwhelmed.
Animals had been a great comfort to me while I was growing up, so I decided to visit the humane society near school and volunteer. I spent some time playing with the puppies, then thought I should take a look at the cats, even though I wasn’t much of a cat person. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel a connection with any of them. Until I saw those blue eyes…
This cat was small—still a kitten, really. She was striking, with cream-colored fur dusted with ash-gray markings. And those piercing blue eyes. “Why are these cats separated from the others?” I asked the shelter staffer who had been showing me around.
“These are the feral cats,” she said. “We don’t really recommend that volunteers visit with them. They’re not too friendly.”
“What about the kittens?”
“We try to adopt them out before they turn five months old.”
The information card clipped to the cat’s kennel had her age on it. She was five months old. Five months and three days, in fact. “What happens after five months?” I asked. “Some end up working on farms as mousers, but the rest…” She hesitated. “We need to make room for new animals.” She was avoiding saying it outright, but I knew what that meant. The cats that couldn’t be adopted would be put down.
“How much longer do they have left?”
“Until Thursday,” she said.
The whole time we’d been talking, the kitten had been curled up in the back of the kennel, watching me with her wide and wary blue eyes. I couldn’t imagine what she’d been through. She had survived several months outdoors, in what was shaping up to be one of the coldest Colorado winters in years. She was obviously a fighter. It didn’t seem right that it would all end for her in three days. Unless…
But I hadn’t come here to adopt a pet! I lived in an apartment with two roommates. Between school and working as a photographer, I had a packed schedule. Did I even have time for a cat? Still, I couldn’t walk away from this kitten. I asked if I could spend some one-on-one time with her. The staffer agreed and let me use the visitation room. The kitten kept her distance. I could tell she was terrified, but even so, she started purring loudly.
I was done for. I filled out the paperwork to adopt her right then and there. I called my roommates from the car, my new pet in a carrier on the passenger seat. They didn’t mind, but they made it clear that the cat was my responsibility.
The thing is, I’d never had a cat before, never mind a feral cat. I didn’t know the first thing about cat care. The shelter had given me some cat food, but I had nothing else. I stopped by a pet store on the way home to pick up some essentials. The most important thing, one of the shelter staffers had told me, was slowly acclimating her to life indoors. I read up on how to socialize a feral kitten.
I confined her to the bathroom at first. Then my bedroom. Then I gave her free rein of the apartment. She also needed to get used to human touch—and me. So every day, after I came home from class, I would bundle her in a blanket so she couldn’t scratch me or run away, and I’d hold her in my lap. I spent hours doing this. I had to prove to her that I wouldn’t hurt her. Day by day, she got more relaxed around me. I felt calm in her presence too. There was something about focusing on her that quieted my anxiety.
There was one big problem: The cat—I hadn’t decided on a name yet—wasn’t eating. I’d had her for a week and she hadn’t had more than a few bites of wet food. She totally turned her nose up at dry food. I was sure it was stress, but I didn’t know what else I could do.
One night, I ordered takeout sushi from my usual place. As soon as I sat down to eat my tuna roll, the cat came running up. She parked herself right next to me, her ears perked, her blue eyes shining and fixed on my food. I’d never seen her act like this.
Here goes nothing, I thought, holding out a piece of sushi. She gobbled it. I gave her another piece. Same thing. The cat ate almost the entire roll and walked away with a full belly and a new name: Tuna.
The more comfortable she got, the more Tuna’s personality shone through. She was the most animated sitting on the windowsill, watching the squirrels outside. Since I’d gotten her she hadn’t meowed once, but in those moments, she would chirp. Clearly, Tuna wanted to go outside. So I bought an extra small dog harness and a leash.
Like getting her to trust me, getting her used to wearing the harness was slow going. Adding the leash made things worse. But gradually she learned to accept both and walk around the apartment on leash. The day arrived when I finally took her outside. It had snowed and Tuna was fascinated. She pounced and played and galloped through the snow. Then I heard it. Her first meow.
That’s when everything else clicked.
I love hiking. It really lowers stress. But it was something I’d done on my own. I didn’t have a hiking buddy until Tuna came along. At first, she rode on my shoulders, but soon enough she was trotting along beside me. She loved being outdoors as much as I did. So it only made sense that when I went camping in Moab, Utah, Tuna came with me. We’ve been on more than 20 camping trips since.
Tuna has turned out to be more than just a camping buddy. One day the anxiety I was feeling about my medical-surgical nursing final boiled over. I don’t know if she picked up on the change in my breathing or my accelerated heart rate, but Tuna knew something was wrong. She climbed into my lap and let out a high-pitched purr. It was as if she was telling me, “You’ll be okay, Lex. You’re not alone.” Then she nuzzled my face until I calmed down.
Before I adopted Tuna, I had been talking to my therapist about getting an emotional support animal. This cat was the right one for the job. She can sense when I’m struggling, and she’ll come immediately to offer me comfort.
She’s also helped me go places I might never have gone on my own. I’ve always had a terrible fear of flying. The few times I’d had to take an airplane, I’d needed prescription medication to get through the flight. But with Tuna by my side, I’m able to fly just fine. Together, we’ve traveled to 17 national parks and three countries. And our adventures are only just beginning.
I do believe it was fate that we met that winter day at the shelter. I was at very low point in my life. Trembling in the back of the kennel, Tuna was in a dark place too. What we needed to find the light was each other.
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