Stephanie Merlin started volunteering at Pet Alliance in March 2013 in the Orlando Shelter’s Cat Room. Her interest in helping cats combined with her experience working with shelter cats led her to develop her cat behavior business, The Fulfilled Feline. Learn more about Stephanie’s journey as a Pet Alliance Kitty Cuddler below.
Pet Alliance: How did you find out about Pet Alliance and why did you decide to become a volunteer?
Stephanie: Pet Alliance was just down the street from where I used to live so I knew about it from passing by it regularly. A very difficult event happened in my life in February 2013, which left me dealing with some challenging anxiety and depression. It was this experience that propelled me to begin volunteering. I wanted to channel those negative feelings and emotions into something positive, meaningful, and rewarding. Volunteering with cats was a natural choice as I’ve always loved and connected well with animals. Volunteering helped heal me tremendously. It is an awesome added benefit that in the process of helping myself, I was helping cats too.
P: Tell us how your volunteering turned into you starting your business The Fulfilled Feline.
S: I did not go into volunteering with any inkling my passion for working with cats would turn into a career path. Cats are unique and sensitive animals and I saw a lot of myself in them. They are also a little bit misunderstood and there is not as much mainstream knowledge available on their welfare and behavior as there is for dogs. I became passionate about the quirks of cats through volunteering and working with thousands of different cats with varying personalities. It was these experiences that led me to realize that there is a real need for more people working in feline behavior. There are countless people who are living with cats with behavioral issues that are not aware that there is help out there. There are also countless cats who are relinquished or abandoned due to behavioral issues that can be helped. My time volunteering helped me uncover a passion of mine, as well as provided me an excellent foundation to get a certification in feline behavior. I am now able to guide cat guardians to better understand and help their cats with behavior issues.
P: What do you enjoy the most about volunteering?
S: There are many things, but two stand out the most. First, the minute a scared and fearful cat slowly relaxes as I’m gently talking to them or singing them a silly song I made up. I know at that moment that I comforted that cat and they feel safe. Making a connection with an animal is so meaningful to me. Second, I absolutely love training new volunteers to understand and appreciate cat behavior. It is such a joy to me to see volunteers equally enthusiastic and passionate about feline welfare as myself. The more people I can get on board, the better we can serve cats presently and in the future. That is worth its weight in gold!
P: Is there any particular cat or adoption that stands out in your memory as being especially meaningful or memorable?
S: There was a cat in our shelter recently named Aimi who was blind and deaf. What I loved about her is she gave me the opportunity to look at a cat from a different perspective. Socialization and enrichment are vital in a shelter environment, but with a blind and deaf cat, they navigate the world a little differently. A lot of our enrichment was just not cutting it for Aimi, so I had to think outside the box. I found a pet product called the LickiMat which is mostly marketed to dogs. It’s a silicone placemat with grooves and crevices you put wet food in and an animal has to really lick and work to the get the food out. I brought one in for Aimi and she absolutely loved it. She was able to channel her energy into a positive and rewarding experience with this enrichment activity that catered to the senses she relies on most, smell and taste. Seeing confidence in a cat like Aimi with her LickiMat was such a memorable moment for me. She was happy, comfortable, and enriched and was adopted shortly afterward.
P: If you could tell someone who was thinking about becoming a volunteer one thing that is great about volunteering at PAGO, what would it be?
S: No matter what you did that day, whether it was petting an animal, taking a dog for a walk, folding towels, cleaning a litter box, helping adopt a dog or a cat – you made a positive difference in an animal’s life. It doesn’t matter how small the task, you helped improve the welfare of an animal by volunteering. You don’t need to be an animal superhero to make a difference. Additionally, you get to work with some incredible people who share similar values and interests. I’ve made some wonderful lifelong friends at PAGO. Orlando isn’t my hometown, but PAGO has become my Orlando home and family.
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