Ewing resident Georgia Arvanitis, vice president of the township-based EASEL Animal Rescue League, holds one of the cats in the shelter. (Staff photo by Nicole Viviano.)

For the past two years EASEL Animal Rescue League—a no kill shelter in Ewing—has been implementing a new feline behavior training program which has helped it successfully adopt out cats that would have otherwise been looked over.

The Cat Pawsitive training initiative started by The Jackson Galaxy Project, was founded by TV star Jackson Galaxy from his hit Animal Planet show My Cat From Hell.

The project started in 2014 along with greatergood.org, a public nonprofit, and was created with the understanding that animal shelters are often an overwhelming environment, especially for already frightened animals.

Georgia Arvanitis, vice president of the EASEL board, says that a major benefit of the program is assisting staff and volunteers in building good connections with the animals.

“It helps them feel positive about the animals because they understand that they’re helping to reduce the stress,” she says. “From the animals’ perspective, it reinforces good behavior.”

EASEL continues to further its mission to decrease the number of euthanized animals in the county with Cat Pawsitive and Cat Pawsitive Pro, which is an advanced version of the program for cats who need a more comprehensive approach.

Hamilton resident Lois Martin receives a high-five from a cat at the EASEL Animal Rescue League shelter in Ewing.

The initiative has successfully transformed cats that come to the shelter into confident, adoptable pets, thanks to the dedicated staff and volunteers that have gone through training.

Arvanitis, a Ewing resident of more than 20 years, got involved with EASEL in 2008 as a volunteer, joined the board in 2011 and became vice president in 2015. She says she has watched the Cat Pawsitive and CPP programs help shy, scared and aggressive cats grow into happy, healthy pets.

“The most important thing is how much it connects the volunteers and staff with the cats and then the cats with potential adopters,” Arvanitis says. “It really has made a very big difference. The impact here is all about getting pets into a good home. This project is one of the best ways I’ve seen to help us do that.”

EASEL’s small yet impactful staff, made up of six paid employees, along with several volunteers, were trained in the Cat Pawsitive and CPP programs over the last two years.

The shelter first joined the Cat Pawsitive program in fall 2018 after being selected from a pool of applicants through a greatergood.org grant. EASEL then involved its staff and volunteers in the provided training.

The program is a series of webinars that instruct new trainers on how to use a clicker to help train the cat, how to read the cat’s body face language, in addition to other subtleties. As a result, the staff and volunteers are now able to stimulate the cats both mentally and physically, while also increasing their activity level at the shelter each day.

Training sessions—held three to four times a week by different trainers—constantly reinforce good behavior, which makes the cat more approachable and adoptable, and discourages aggressive behavior.

In early 2019, EASEL was selected for the CPP. As part of the program, staff and volunteers went through intensive advanced training and learning modules, and a feline behavior expert from the JGP was assigned to their group for five months.

The goals of the program, as laid out on the JGP website, is to maintain and improve cat adoptability, increase adoption numbers, decrease length of stay, help improve a cat’s mental, physical and emotional health and to show potential adopters how great each cat can be.

By enriching the cat’s environment behaviorally and physically, the program has graduated and adopted out all its participating felines at EASEL.

Upon enrolling in the CPP program in 2019, EASEL became one of 10 participating shelters in the United States, and the only one in New Jersey at the time.

Last year, the shelter took in 882 cats and kittens and was able to adopt out 682. Strays, lost pets, transfers from other shelters and feral cats are all included in the shelter’s intake.

Aside from the adoption statistic, the remaining 200 cats were reclaimed by their owners, or they took part in the Trap-Neuter-Return program, under which feral cats were neutered, ear-tipped, vaccinated and re-released into their colony where their caretaker can continue to tend to them.

EASEL volunteer and CPP trainer, Beth Briegel has a history of fundraising for different organizations, and has always been one to find ways to volunteer her time.

She decided about eight years ago to find a way to help that was more hands-on.

Briegel, who has always been an animal lover (she owns three cats and a dog at home), decided to give EASEL a try, and years later it appears to have stuck. The Ewing resident of nearly 15 years found herself not only in a more hands-on volunteering opportunity but decided to change her career in the same direction.

Briegel previously worked in a corporate environment, performing data analysis and sitting in front of a computer all day. Last year she decided she needed a change. She took non-credit courses in Mercer County Community College’s continuing education veterinary assistant program.

Now she’s a veterinary technician working part-time at EASEL and part-time at another shelter in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

During CPP training, Briegel would go in a couple times a week to work with cats. It’s been over a year since her that training, and she says that the things she learned have helped tremendously with her veterinary duties at the shelter.

Before, the cats would scurry away from her because they remembered she was part of the shelter’s medical personnel. Now the little tips and tricks she learned help keep the cats more relaxed when she is treating them.

The overall benefit, she says, was bringing shy cats out of their shells and to the front of the cage for adopters to see.

The training for CPP required multiple trainers to work with multiple cats, which allowed her to be exposed to a myriad of feline personalities.

“Instead of just going in and petting and playing, you played with a purpose,” Briegel says.

Before when volunteers would come in to socialize the cats, there wasn’t much more than that. Now the socializing process has a productive side, she says.

Briegel says she has seen the cats in Cat Pawsitive become superstars. The team effort and structured program were two reasons why it worked so well for EASEL, Briegel says.

Lois Martin, a retired teacher from Crockett Middle School in Hamilton, took an active leadership role in EASEL’s involvement with the Cat Pawsitive program.

For over 30 years Martin has lived in Hamilton and got involved with EASEL five years ago. Upon retirement, she started reaching out around town to see what feline volunteer opportunities they had.

Having five cats of her own, she knew that she wanted to help at EASEL.

Martin took on the role of team lead for both rounds of Cat Pawsitive training. She put her organizational skills to work, by forming meetings with the groups of trainers to go over the Cat Pawsitive process. She diligently managed the communication and updates between EASEL, GreaterGood.org and the JGP.

EASEL was selected to partake in the CPP program partly due to its thorough and timely submissions and logs. An important part of the training was tracking progress on each cat. This includes behavioral journals, a cat’s background information, how long it has been at the shelter, and if it got adopted.

Martin stated that in the first group for both the Cat Pawsitive and later CPP programs, all the participating cats were eventually adopted. Both programs had about 15 cats in each of their their first-round groups.

By focusing on the scared and unresponsive cats, they were able to help felines that were huddled in corners to come out and comfortably engage with people.

“Seeing the change that it made in the personality, when you have a cat that is withdrawn, scared, aggressive, frightened, all of that and seeing the change being made, it was very rewarding for all of the volunteers to see the positive results in that kind of a program,” Martin says. “So that was the reward for us. To see the change in the cats and eventually see them getting adopted.”

Martin says that if these cats didn’t go through the program, then some might not have been adopted.

Martin’s says one of her favorite cases involved a very aggressive cat named Dolly Parton. Coming to EASEL from a kill shelter, the cat had an attitude. She would swat and try to bite people.

Through the Cat Pawsitive training, Dolly Parton started to come around and ended up transforming into a wonderful pet. Since then, she has been adopted and has proven to be one of the best cats the owner has had, Martin says.

* * *

EASEL might be using Jackson Galaxy’s methods, but the shelter has its very own cat whisperer.

Lawrence Township resident Bo Hitchcock was a frequent visitor to the shelter following his retirement in 2015 from the Lawrence Township Public Schools, where he was director of facilities for 30 years.

Hitchcock, who comes into the shelter about four days a week, originally got involved by joining EASEL’s Saturday dog walking program and fostering animals. For about a year, he would do just that, along with going into the cat rooms and interacting with them.

He was looking for a soothing influence. After years of being on-call, 24 hours a day for his job, and volunteering as a fireman and for the first aid squad, it took nearly three decades for Hitchcock to realize it was time to change gears in his life.

Hitchcock, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, found a way to ease his condition while still giving back.

“I wanted to be with animals because animals would calm me down,” Hitchcock says. “So we’ve both gotten something out of it.”

When walking and fostering dogs became too much to handle, Hitchcock gravitated to the cats. With the unique status of being a socializer, Hitchcock would go around to try and help the felines by spending time with them, and giving them treats and attention to get them comfortable around people.

Hitchcock says that he was selected to go through the Cat Pawsitive program and now implements its methods and has learned to recognize behaviors and body language in the cats he tends.

Part of the program involves a daily log so other volunteers and staff can stay up to date on each cat’s progress. This process was one that Hitchcock had already started himself and continues to do, by writing out his own index cards.

He leaves his notes on the cages where more troubled cats are kept, so that he can recall what he’s worked on with them and let other volunteers and staff know the same. One example was for a cat that he wrote was “very friendly, purrs, walks with a little bit of a stagger…head butts my hand, needs work on being picked up.”

“I can’t remember what I did with each cat, but other people use it as a guide for what’s going on,” Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock’s cards, which have personality traits and progress scribbled on them, can be seen on many of the cages around the shelter. They help inform others about the felines and easily identify the ones who need more work.

Hitchcock prefers to use treats to the clicker, both of which are used in the Cat Pawsitive programs, but insists that love is the main reward for a cat’s good behavior.

“I just use time and patience,” he says.

Hitchcock will visit a cat that’s having problems three to four times on days he visits. Talking softly while moving slowly around these special cases, he allows the cat to show him what it’s comfortable with.

By being attentive to a cat’s reaction to his presence, he interprets what the feline is ready for.

“I’m amazed at some of the turn arounds I get from just working with a cat for 10 minutes for 10 days,” Hitchcock says. “That’s not a very long time to work with an animal, to train them.”

Hitchcock dedicates his time and patience to the harder cases that come into EASEL. Cats who are frozen in fear, or who won’t allow a person to pet them, are his specialty.

“It’s about the cats,” Hitchcock says. “The biggest reward for me is to have a cat get turned around and become an adoptable cat.”