On May 12, 2019, film director Nicole Russin-McFarland adopted Sheila, a Siamese cat in need of TLC, at PetSmart. Nicole is sharing Sheila’s rehabilitation story promoting awareness of “giving everyone a chance, including the least outgoing rescue cats at the shelter.”

How did you meet Sheila?

The local humane society had placed Sheila up for adoption at a PetSmart with the help of PetSmart Charities. She had previously been returned after a day and a half by adopters the past week who didn’t want to work with her. Sheila didn’t let them touch her.

Her previous price was much more; Sheila was available at the actual animal shelter prior to my adopting her. With being labeled hard to adopt more or less, she was now up for adoption for $20 and on display at PetSmart. At this low of a price for a purebred lilac Siamese cat, everyone told me Sheila was at risk of either further abuse or heading straight to a lab. I told the other cats they were getting a new 1 year old baby sister and headed to PetSmart that same night to meet her right before the store closed. I met her half an hour before closing. Right as they were about to close the register, I was filing adoption paperwork. Sheila was incredibly skittish, and as expected, not receptive to being touched by anyone. Sheila was picked up the next morning. The staff told me I had to wait for her, and I am convinced it was because they didn’t want her returned again. When I was in the meet and greet area, Sheila didn’t want anything to do with me. She hid in a corner until she ran away back into the adoptable animal area. Usually, cats love attention and play time. Sheila couldn’t stand humans. Everyone was always interested in her because she is this luxurious, gorgeous purebred cat until they learned how fearful she was.

Why didn’t Sheila want to be touched?

I was told she was a breeder’s cat. Sheila had kittens right before her adoption and for some reason, was given to the shelter system with a DIY botched home spay attempt. The vets gave her a final real, professional spay surgery. Sheila probably never had socialization with the breeder. She existed like a vending machine product to sell beautiful purebred kittens. Her behavior made people believe nobody had ever touched her, probably, Sheila spent her life caged, so the sight of human hands frightened her, and the botched surgery worsened it. Sheila was never a bad cat.

The previous owners were impatient because she wouldn’t let them touch her stomach for icing her healing, or tickle her head. Therefore, Sheila was trashed like a problem cat back to the shelter. Nobody wanted to adopt her. I was warned by people, “Meet her for five minutes to see if you still want this cat.” Do this. Do that. “To see if you still like her.” As if she were impossible to adopt. Sheila was 1 year old at the time. She is now 2 years old. Truthfully, I understand why people had little faith in Sheila if someone returned her after a short time with a list of complaints. Everyone was doing their best because they probably didn’t want her returned again.

What did Sheila do when you adopted her?

She looked terrified being placed into a cat carrier by the PetSmart manager. Sheila within the carrier was in a shopping cart as I walked around getting new things for her. A child told me about his love of Siamese cats as his dad paid for things. Sheila attracted lots of attention in her carrier. Everyone wanted a look. Somehow, this was her first baby step into recovery. Sheila’s eyes became less frightened the more someone peeked at her in the shopping cart.

Once home, Sheila hid in her new pink cat bed house for a full week. I couldn’t talk to her. We had lots of free and discounted things with the PetSmart coupon book, and one item was that house. PetSmart goes out of their way helping animal rescue be affordable by giving pet adopters as much free stuff possibly given. Thank you, PetSmart.

I tickled Sheila’s forehead with a fingertip every so often when she was alone in her house. She didn’t seem to like it, but she didn’t have a place to go. Sheila seemed afraid to be herself, fearful if she made the wrong move, as if I might hit her. Of course, I wasn’t going to harm Sheila, but she seemed like she worried about someone harming her all the time from little touches. She was only leaving her house bed to use the litter box, eat, and drink water.

After a week, Sheila ventured out into looking at things. She was running away from me all the time back into the house and slowly walked far away but eyeing me. She did this for a very long time.

Has her scar healed?

Yes, mainly with time and because the fur has grown back. You don’t notice a thing. Sheila was so malnourished it was scary and now is a healthy, fluffy, soft cat with a good weight.

Does Sheila use toys in her social rehabilitation?

Toys were, and are, the biggest help. Sheila has a very soft bunny toy. I laid it out on some faux fleece pet blankets for her to take a look. The fluffy fur attracted her to taking a peek. From there, she gained plenty of catnip toys with different textures to see what she responded to. After a week of staring at the toys, she started pawing them and kicking the tiny toy rubber balls made for cats. When I played with the toys, Sheila thought talking to me was safe. She sniffed my hands whenever I played with the tiny mint green bunny and her fish shapes.

That led to her exploring strings and toy mice tails. We upgraded that to teaching her about cat wheels with balls inside and the Friskies Cat Fishing game made for the iPhone/iPad. The game’s objective is the cat’s paw catches koi in a pond. The cat touches the koi for three rounds and starts again if the human player clicks begin. Sheila’s play style is very gentle.

Sheila and I play regularly on a daily basis to ensure her recovery does not relapse. She gets a little more attention than the other cats because of her abuse history.

Has Sheila improved more?

After we explored the toys for a month, Sheila began a new trick: rolling. She rolls like a rolling pin over her cat blankets. She was gifted a Pusheen blanket and absolutely loves that and her round Pusheen bed. She thinks rolling is an impressive skill. I tell her how awesome she is.

Around this time, Sheila was introduced to learning about scratching posts. She got mad when I tried putting her paws on the post. I had to scratch the post like a cat and convince her how fun it was. Days later, Sheila scratched her post, and she does everyday now. She had ignored the scratching post when she moved in, so it left the room until she had more experience with toys.

Soon, Sheila started allowing me to touch her fur from head to the tail. It helped that I would slowly introduce her to being touched when we played with her toys. At this time, she was afraid of the two other girl cats, so Sheila was isolated in part of the house to feel safe. She had lots of cat things around: a carpet condo, toys, blankets, food, water, a human bed, a bathroom, a desk, so much to explore. I began tickling her toes and playing with her feet. Sheila is a very small cat. She probably never had room to grow with her situation. I don’t mind. Her small build is very cute.

Months later, Sheila surprised me when she sat on my lap. She fell asleep. I posted about this on Twitter as her example of how far abused cats can go. Every single day from that night to now, Sheila has to sit on laps or people’s backs. If you are on a bed on your side, she sits on your side. Sheila falls asleep about 20 minutes after sitting on a human. If you don’t move, you get a nice hot stone back massage. Something about it soothes her. She rubs on my legs all the time. Shoes are a big time hobby for her. Sheila loves leaving her scent on them!

Everything is perfect with her, with the exception of needing her to be picked up. Sheila is developing that skill. She practices with me touching her stomach and tickling her. I can lift her for one second before she kicks hysterically and runs away. Being picked up is a big deal because if ever there is an emergency, I need to pick her up right into a cat carrier. Sheila is a strong abuse survivor; I expect her to be picked up happily in time.

What is your story about Jürgen Meow the kitten helping Sheila, and Sheila helping him?

Jürgen Meow is a kitten a stranger abandoned in a box one day at my home on November 1, 2019. I couldn’t tell if it had been a man or a woman. The person covered his or her face with a hoodie and ran away in shame. The kitten, who I called Meow because I didn’t know if I had a new baby boy or baby girl, ran into the backyard. He wouldn’t let me catch him for two months but he lived out there in a cat condo I bought him, smothering it with catnip for him not to run away. On the evening of December 25, 2019, after weeks of play time at the door, I scooped up the growing kitten and plopped him inside. He was scared, inside a bathroom. His new name became Jürgen Meow, named celebrating the very talented Jürgen Klinsmann. I had not had a boy cat in decades.

Sheila was consistently afraid of everything and still somewhat was after some improvements. I made the decision to make Jürgen Meow her roommate because he suffered from similar self esteem issues. At first, Sheila hissed all day. This decreased into a slight “‘mmmrrrr” and they began playing. Jürgen Meow never once was mean to her. He didn’t notice anything.

He is now 1 year old and this huge cat. Sheila is his role model. He copies everything she does. If she eats, he eats. He didn’t have any older cats showing him how to be a cat. Sheila does that. Neither one was very active until they met each other. They box all day long now, play with their wheels, and chase their catnip toys. When they wear out, they sit together at the window. He has helped Sheila relate to cats like I had to help her relate to humans. With a total of four cats now in the household, Sheila needed to acquaint herself with cats or risk never being accepted by the other two, Gisele and Noele, who are a bit like mean girls to animals they don’t know. Everything is right on track now for Sheila to be a fully rehabilitated cat.

Do you recommend abused cats for adoption?

Of course! Abused cats become the most loving cats ever. They appreciate what you do for them. You know once they open up, abused cats like Sheila love you unconditionally because they wouldn’t be themselves for anyone. They trust you. That feels so good. Helping someone else is an experience money cannot buy. You read that thinking something cynical. Really, it is. Love comes in all forms. An abused cat overcoming his or her past to love you is as pure as love gets and worth all the time invested in helping that pet. I probably gained a million self care points feeling better in this whole process of helping Sheila.

Sheila stands with her spine upright. She looks at people and cats in the eyes. Isla the dog is afraid of her for some reason with her fear of cats, and that’s OK because Sheila sniffs the dog and thinks frightening her is funny. She teams up with Jürgen Meow all the time sniffing and meowing at the dog. When Misha the puppy was alive, he was dying of cancer, poor guy, he was so young and tiny, but used to talk to Sheila and smell her like a furry toy. He was never mean to her a day in his life. Misha had an issue chasing the other cats like a goofball, but with Sheila, he was so caring for her. It seems other pets sense when someone has been through hard times.

The long running story in this household with how everyone is a rescue pet, with the exception of Jürgen Meow who was an abandoned kitten without a microchip who I fell in love with and kept, everyone is a fairy tale princess or prince. I tell them these silly things. None of them knew they were royals bound for great things because like Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, fairy tales don’t start with perfect lives. Soon, they had magical intervention from wizards and fairy godmothers, learned they were royals, and moved into their new castle.

Sheila is always referred to as “The PetSmart Princess” because of her adoption story. The previous adopters who returned her after one day and one morning are wicked villains who wanted to overthrow her kingdom, stealing her gold and catnip. But a wizard intervened for her to go to PetSmart and be adopted.

If anyone loves Sheila as much as I do, you are welcome to follow them on @russincats. We’re getting to the point where unfortunately, we cannot follow everyone back as we always do because so many people want to know what the cats are doing. Instagram won’t let us follow anyone else because we are at the 7,500 friends limit. A good problem to have! I can’t believe so many people out there share my enthusiasm for these cute rescue cats of mine doing their daily feline stuff!