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They rescued each other

Photograph by Jose Guadalupe Villalobos Jr.

Photograph of John Gaul and his friend Ari by Jose Guadalupe Villalobos Jr.


IT’S BEEN A YEAR since neighborhood resident John Gaul went looking for a friend and adopted a feisty feline from a cat rescue group, Give Me Shelter. But the dapper octogenarian still gets stopped on the bus, in the grocery store or pushing his walker down Fillmore and asked by friends and even total strangers: “How’s the cat?”

Gaul basks in the attention, and is always happy to give details on how he and Ari the cat have given one another new life.

“We’re just ‘it’ for one another,” he says. “That unhappy shelter cat became a happy house cat. And I’m not waking up alone. I need something that needs me. She does. And it works beautifully. She’s the best companion I could have — and I think she feels that way about me, too.”

Gaul got a star turn last fall as the featured speaker at Give Me Shelter’s annual fundraiser. His speech, “How to Adopt a Difficult Cat” — delivered with gusto and without notes — included a limerick written especially for the occasion. He hopes to do more speaking on the topic.

Ari, too, has been transformed — into a loving creature. She now purrs as she sleeps beside him in bed at night, her head near his face, “looking rather like a meatloaf,” he says. She often lies down in front of the door when he gets ready to leave their apartment, until he reassures her he’ll come right back.

When Ari took up residence, Gaul’s first act was to ask his caretaker to put her cage away where she wouldn’t see it. “Confinement would not be in her life,” he says.

But before their friendship became fully forged, the two had some work to do on each other.

“She had to learn to like people — anybody at all,” says Gaul.

This was a bit easier than it sounds, as he quickly learned that the way to Ari’s heart was directly through her stomach. He put out her favorite wet food in her preferred flavors of salmon, tuna or turkey — never beef — warmed a bit in the microwave. As she ate, he would also warm her to the human touch, gently petting her from the top of the head to the base of her tail. She had let it known early on that she didn’t like her tail touched.

These days, Ari meows regularly to demand petting sessions — tail included — and often jumps on Gaul’s lap and affectionately nibbles his beard.

Then there was the matter of grooming.

“I was sitting one day early on doing a crossword puzzle when I noticed Ari had started to resemble a ratty old coat from a thrift store,” he says. Unlike most cats, who innately seem to be fastidious, Ari did not bother to groom herself. So Gaul tried to do it for her with a grooming brush. The first try didn’t go over well. She scratched him, drawing blood.

“I said, ‘Old girl, you’re not going to get away with this,’ ” he says, and brushed her completely. After a proper interval of feline pouting in the closet just to emphasize who was in charge, Ari emerged a changed cat. “Now, she grooms herself,” he says. “In fact, her new motto is: ‘When in doubt, wash.’ ”

The two also had to learn how to play together.

Gaul first tried to tempt Ari with a button on a string; she gave it one desultory swat. Other toys seemed to annoy her. She actively hated the wand with the feathers on the end.

“I had to learn her definition of play,” Gaul says. “She was going to teach me.”

His first lesson came one day as he was getting ready to floss his teeth, poised at the bathroom mirror. Ari hopped into the tub, peeked out, then took off across the apartment like a shot. Turns out, her favorite game is hide and seek. “Her play is very physical — more like a tiger in the jungle. What fun to learn,” Gaul says.

“I’m assuming shelter cats have had little time or attention from people, so you have to observe them and draw them out from fearfulness to feeling safe,” he says.

The story of the adoption seemed like a relatively innocuous feel-good tale when it ran in the New Fillmore. But it rocked many readers by tapping into pet politics, highlighting the fact that animal shelters and rescue organizations such as Animal Care and Control, Pets Unlimited and Give Me Shelter sometimes work at jealous cross-purposes, competing for supporters and donations, and that some refuse to adopt to older people who might not outlive their pets.

It also evoked some online responses that seemed fueled mostly by mean-spiritedness, such as this one: “A great match for a seemingly articulate and dapper man who is pretty much just another SRO-living semi-homeless guy who won’t be able to afford vet care in the future or will die in a few years, leaving the cat to be placed back in ACC again, furthering its fear and distrust.”

Gaul says he wasn’t bothered by the naysayers, who were far outnumbered by the wellwishers. But that posting did give him pause.

“The old man will just die soon anyway? That comment tells more about the writer than it does about me,” he says. Gaul emphasizes that Lana Bajsel, the founder of Give Me Shelter, has assured him the organization will cover any vet costs Ari might incur. And should Gaul, who will be 88 in November, predecease the cat, who’s 5ish, Give Me Shelter has promised to “rehome” her.

“Old people need companionship,” he says. “And so do rescue cats.”

EARLIER: “The old man and the cat