Cinder's Legacy

BY Pam Shaouy

 

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I was beyond devastated when I took Cinder, my petite 6½ pound black smoke Persian, to the vet for her final visit. She was one month shy of her seventh birthday. Diagnosed with intestinal lymphoma four months earlier, chemotherapy initially helped, but then caused her to lose her appetite and rapidly lose the precious little weight she had. I decided to stop chemotherapy and put her on prednisolone, which kept her eating and in good spirits until her body began to fail.

My previous cats lived to their late teens. When they passed, I at least found some comfort knowing they lived long lives full of love. But Cinder's illness and death blind sided me. This wasn't supposed to happen – not to me, not to one of my dearly loved and cared for cats! And especially not to this happy, silly little clown who had so much zest for life!

The Rescue

Cinder was my first adult rescue cat. One of thirty-some cats rescued from severe neglect, she was two years old, four pounds, bowlegged and sprouting a warble pore when I adopted her.

She both stole my heart and impressed me the moment I saw her at Good Mews Animal Foundation. Despite everything she had been through, she remained composed and dignified. Her owl-like eyes were offset by too-big ears and large horn tufts, giving her an irresistibly charming but comical look that was truly indicative of her personality.

Cinder quickly earned the nickname of “monkey.” She would race into a room and comically hop straight up in the air, land on her rear feet only, and then hop straight up again. Cinder's unique “prancing” was her way of saying, “Come on, let's play!” The only things missing from her theatrical performance were a top hat and cane!

Obsessed with buttons and dials, she figured out how to activate the speaker phone. She deliberately first “pawed on” the giant speaker phone button on the phone base, and then pawed the smaller numbered buttons, excited to hear their broadcasted beeps. Many nights I was awakened from my sleep by the sound of the phone operator's message, “If you'd like to place a call, please hang up and try again,” booming from another room.

My little monkey cat also insisted on swatting the dials on the stovetop, dish washer, clothes washer, clothes dryer and assorted light switches and electronics. I wondered how I would ever again leave my home with peace of mind!

Attracted to loud noises, Cinder ran toward them instead of away. When I turned on the clothes washer, she immediately jumped on it and not only swatted the dials, but stuck half her arm under the hand grip of the lid, trying with all her little might to flip open the lid of the running washer. She figured out how to stretch and reach the thermostat on the wall, lowering the temperature by 20 degrees one winter day. And she “stole” toys from other rooms and hoarded them in the kitchen. Oh, I could go on about her “criminal” activities!

I studied Cinder to try to understand her mechanically-inclined behavior. I noticed that in much the same way Eddie the dog sat and stared at Frasier in the television comedy, Cinder attentively stared at my hands when I used appliances, following their every move. I really believe she processed the cause and effect of my hand motions and tried to imitate them. Talk about “monkey see, monkey do”! I was just grateful my little girl didn't have opposable thumbs.

Making Friends

One day, I brought Cinder to work. I was in my cubicle, typing away, when the door to the Writer's Block flew open. It was Donna – stone faced, tough as nails, no nonsense Donna. “Oh, no,” I thought as I braced for a certain glare of disapproval and reprimand as she stopped in front of my cube and stared at Cinder with surprise.

“Oh, my gosh! You little whittle, cutie whootie pie. What's your name, pretty whutty?” Donna gushed as she smiled from ear to ear. Everyone within earshot fell silent at this never before seen – or heard – side of Donna.

And that was the magic of Cinder... dispelling everyone's notions about all cats being nervous by regally sitting on the ledge of my cubicle wall, eagerly greeting Donna and everyone else who entered with her huge owl eyes… and melting the hardest hearts.

The Drive

But now... this indomitable little spirit was gone.

The Saturday after losing Cinder, my husband, Bill, and I decided to take an hour's drive to Noah's Ark – a wonderful sanctuary that allows abused animals and children to bond and heal together. It was the perfect place to be outdoors in nature, be reflective and pay homage to Cinder.

But our visit to Noah's Ark was not to be. Stuck for an hour in interstate traffic that barely inched forward, we reluctantly turned back. We never learned why traffic was at such a standstill that day. There were no alerts on the radio or signs of an accident or road construction ahead.

Still wanting to be outdoors, we decided to go to the botanical gardens, but missed a critical turn that meant we would have to backtrack in the very traffic we just left. Remembering that my husband had never been to Zoo Atlanta, I suggested we go there. The traffic gods were finally gracious and we had an uneventful drive to the Zoo.

The Zoo

Touring the zoo, we eventually found ourselves at the gorilla exhibit. We chatted with a keeper who told us all about the impressive cognitive skills of primates. She told us that the Zoo was teaming with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience to build a touchscreen computer monitor into an artificial tree in the orangutan's outdoor habitat. While in the tree, the orangutans could play computer games – that's right, computer games – and guests could watch! The computer tree would also allow scientists to collect data about the orangutans' cognitive abilities to aid conservation efforts.

But, the Zoo was still looking for someone to help them with the computer software end of things. They needed someone to design computer games that would be fun for orangutans to play and people to watch, as well as pertinent to research goals. The Zoo also wanted to create outdoor kiosks that guests could use at the orangutan habitat to learn more about the Zoo's orangutans and the threats to their natural rainforest habitat that may soon cause their extinction.

The Connection

As our conversation with the keeper ended, I couldn't help but marvel at how smart animals are… orangutans with computer skills... and, of course, my own little mechanically-inclined monkey cat. And the Zoo's plans for the computer tree were especially intriguing, as my husband works for IBM and I provide writing services to the company as a vendor. As we walked away, I found myself saying, “We should get IBM involved.” Bill and I looked at each other… and a mission was born.

We left Zoo Atlanta that day with an offer that, at the very least, we would personally help them with the computer end of things and would also ask some IBM colleagues to help. Bill and I privately wondered if it was possible to get IBM's official support.

A Partnership

At work, the response was incredible. Regardless of busy schedules, every coworker we asked wanted to volunteer and be part of this unique project… even colleagues from across the country and Canada. It's remarkable how anything involving animals inspires so many people! And Bill diligently campaigned our volunteer team's efforts up the IBM chain of command until we established a local, but official, IBM /Zoo Atlanta partnership!

We officially teamed with the dedicated, wonderful people at Zoo Atlanta and designed the computer games for the orangutans and the educational kiosks for the human guests. And in addition to employee time, IBM donated the state-of-the-art kiosks.

Project Cinder

Our project had a logical working name, like “the orangutan kiosk project.” But at home, Bill and I referred to the project as “Project Cinder.” Every time Bill encountered a positive development in the daunting process of gaining IBM's official support, we marveled, “It's Cinder sprinkling fairy dust.” Other times, when hearing yet more good project news, we'd simply look at each other and exclaim, “Cinder!”

Cinder's Legacy

The Orangutan Learning Tree launched in April, 2007 to worldwide press. Good Morning America ran a segment on it that left Diane Sawyer marveling about the orangutans' abilities. Jay Leno joked about it in his opening monologue. As I sat on my couch watching news coverage, I had both goose bumps and tears in my eyes. My little monkey cat should have been sitting on the couch curled against me, but the spot next to me was empty.

Working on the project helped me to begin to heal. At a time when I was grieving and mad at the world that such a loving little creature who had already suffered terribly at the start of her life had to suffer again at its end, I was able to help something positive come from something so heartbreaking. I was able to work with like-minded people who “get it.” I was able to meet these incredible creatures called orangutans. And rather than focus on her death, I was able to appreciate Cinder's own amazing kitty cognitive skills more than ever.

It was losing Cinder that took us on the detoured road trip that put us in the right place at the right time to be part of this unique experience. Although my little monkey cat left this world way too soon, Project Cinder lives on. Now, we're developing “about gorillas” kiosks that guests will be able to use at Zoo Atlanta's gorilla habitat. Yep, it's Cinder sprinkling fairy dust again!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pam Shaouy is a Telly award-winning video scriptwriter who lives in Georgia with her husband, two Persian and two domestic shorthair cats -- all adopted from rescue groups. She is a lifelong cat owner with a passion for Persians.

When Pam is not writing scripts or pampering her kitties, she volunteers her writing services for Zoo Atlanta and her veterinarian, cares for a small group of altered feral cats and paints pastel animal portraits.

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