Emory on MREs—One Cat’s Story of Survival and Stardom

New Orleans was very much a frontier town in the early days after Hurricane Katrina. Not to say that it isn’t still in many ways, nearly 3 years later. But when Brenda and I returned at the beginning of the fourth week we easily saw why the general public was still not allowed into the city limits. Downed live oaks and power lines, and sundry debris scattered the landscape. Then there was the general lawlessness with sounds of gunfire being common just days before.

But we did have some sense of safety, what with squads of heavily armed soldiers—toting automatic weapons and grenade launchers—sharing the streets with first responder relief workers and a dramatically decreased local police force. Luckily, the latter had support from parish, state, and federal law enforcementand—and even Israeli Special Forces guarding the gated Audubon Place neighborhood—establishing our own military state. So it was with door machine gunners in circling helicopters and low-flying C-130 cargo planes passing overhead every hour or so, that we lived our tentative life.

Brenda had her week-long stay at the hospital during this first 7 days of our return. Being an ICU critical care nurse, she was required to stay at the hospital during the entire week. This left just Angelo, his daughter Julie, and I in the neighborhood. It was great fun. He and I used chain saws to dismember fallen trees, and I rode high in the scoop of his front-end loader for the taller reaches. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the safest practice since most of the area’s hospitals were still shut down. Yet we cleared and cleaned up our neighborhood, getting back to some semblance of normalcy for our own safety and mental well-being.

One rare phenomenon was the presence of numerous dogs and cats wandering the streets. Many owners left a couple days’ food and water for them, thinking they’ll return from evacuation within a day as we’ve all done time after time over the years. It was a strange sight, indeed—these former pets, many with collars, roaming the streets wide-eyed with looks of confusion. Their emotions seemed to be a mix of trepidation of strangers and need for companionship—and food.

None really came near Angelo and me as we worked except for a mackerel tabby cat we called Jenny. Angelo called her Li’l Momma because she was pretty large in the mid region, leading us to believe she was pregnant. We first saw her following the National Guardsmen as they patrolled up and down the streets, but eventually she started hanging around us since we proved to be a steady source of food. She was friendly enough, as long as you didn’t try to pick her up, touch her belly or legs, or anything else other than to pet her head. She was a biter; not piercing or malicious—just a warning to stop doing whatever you’re doing.

Fast Forward a Few Months

As people slowly returned to the city, our neighborhood became more fully populated with those who were ever going to return. Jenny was still roaming the streets so Brenda and I decide to adopt her, knowing that animals stand a far better chance living indoors than outside, and figuring that her kittens would have a better chance of survival if not born on the streets. It wasn’t difficult coaxing her into a carrier for a trip to the vet. But I was going to let them deal with the biting issue.

The vet had a number of good bits of information for us. First, Jenny was virus-free. While she did need to be de-wormed, she generally was healthy. Next, she’d already been fixed. Finally, we were told that she wasn’t pregnant—that this was impossible since she actually was a he. Who knew? Now we had to change her name. Remembering that he probably had lived the weeks and weeks after the storm on MREs provided by our urban warfare troops, I decided an appropriate name would be Emory.

Like many in the neighborhood Emory had quite a story of survival so I wrote about him for my friend, Terri’s, website crazyforkitties.com. Then, months later I started getting what I thought were a series of spam emails. I recognized neither the subject line nor the sender and promptly deleted. The next day I got a couple more from the same sender, Shawn—this time with “We love Emory too!” in the subject line. Okay, that’s my new cat’s name, so I viewed the message without opening it.

The email was from the casting director for a film production company in Los Angeles. They’d been told about my article by a talent scout for a new reality series they were developing, and The Story of Emory was exactly the type of tale they were seeking. Eventually, Shawn and I talked on the phone and he told me how interested everyone was to shoot one of three segments for their pilot episode at our house.

The company, Black & White TV, was putting together a pilot for a new show called Housecat Housecall. The concept is that a celebrity veterinarian from Australia comes to your home to help a cat’s owners deal with specific issues. In our case, the production company loved the idea of a cat having survived Hurricane Katrina and being adopted, and that the owners were trying to help it assimilate into a new, domestic environment. It was akin to grabbing a wild squirrel off a tree trunk and saying, “Okay, you’re now going to be an indoor squirrel.”

Purina pet foods was sponsoring the project, and the executive producers agreed that this was the perfect story of survival and compassion, and a great opportunity to help two owners cure—or at least to better deal with—their pet’s problems.

Emory Issues

Emory had a number of issues to address. First, there was the biting problem. He wouldn’t let me touch his paws, much less clip his claws. And a bath was out of the question. Next, he had the bad habit of clawing the floor rugs and some of the furniture. We’d never had that problem with any of our other cats and didn’t quite know how to deal with it, especially since scratching boards and posts didn’t interest him. But the worst problem was that he urinated on newspaper next to the litter box instead of in the litter box. Bowel movements were where they were supposed to be, but urine still flowed everywhere but inside the box.

He had another issue that fascinated the producers but which I never really considered a problem. Emory loved to shower with us. Yep, within seconds of hearing our twin 6-inch showerheads start flowing, Emory would bolt from wherever he was through the master bedroom and into the shower stall. Once inside, he’d simply walk around and lick himself where the water hit him. After a few weeks of this I made it clear to him that, while Brenda had no problem with such behavior, I, on the other hand, felt there’s something not right about showering with a cat.

Thinking that he simply was thirsty, I tried a couple different water fountains, rationalizing that he probably preferred drinking from flowing water sources than a water bowl. But he looked at the devices with fear and loathing—probably because of the vibrations and sound of the pump motor. Instead, when we weren’t showering and he was thirsty, he’d stretch upward toward the kitchen sink and look over his shoulder at us to pick him up (the only time he’d allow it) to drink from the faucet. Well, this was another practice I discouraged but that Brenda felt was harmless, as long as we kept the countertops wiped down after he finished.

After a few weeks of more production details, contracts, and releases, Brenda and I agreed to let the film crew into our home to shoot their segment. We had to ensure they understood that any damage they caused could potentially be expensive to them since you can’t just go to Lowe’s or Home Depot to replace parts of a 100-plus-year-old house. Such accouterments normally come from specialty salvage and restoration supply shops and can be costly.

We received assurances that the production company was fully insured, and scheduled the shoot. The crew arrived on a Friday, checked into their hotel downtown, and told me that they’d like to send the field producer and cameraman to our house that night to meet us and to give me a camera with the hopes that I might be able to shoot some footage of Emory in the shower. They’d had trouble in the past with pets not cooperating once a full film crew was in place and they wanted to cover all bases.

During negotiations I’d let them know that my MFA work was in television video and film production, so they trusted me with their equipment and to pick up some decent shots in case they couldn’t get Emory to perform on cue. So field director Rob and the cameraman came over Friday evening to meet Brenda and me, to give me a camera, and to tell me what sort of shots they needed. They said they’d return the next morning with the star veterinarian and the rest of the crew.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday morning the crew started arriving. First, there were the two directors, a cameraman, an audio technician, a video assist computer guy, and a production assistant. Then, the hair and makeup women arrived and asked Brenda and I where we lived. We said, “Uh, we live here.” They thought our home was a set, probably because the renovator did such a good job on the turn-of-century structure. After setting them up in our guest bathroom, the PA made a run to Whole Foods Market for craft services. This was set up in my office, where the computer guy and other crew stayed to be away from Emory to avoid upsetting him.

Finally, the star of the series showed up and went straight to hair and makeup. While she was primped, Rob interviewed Brenda and me in the living room, asking us to tell our story of Emory for various sound bites and footage. Once the star was done, she came out and introduced herself to us as Katrina. No, this wasn’t a poor joke. Nonetheless, the irony was unsettling, in a humorous way. Nonetheless, we told her that due to recent circumstances don’t be offended when we refused to say her name—opting for “Dr. K” instead.

Now it was time to get to work. We first started with some establishing shots of Dr. Katrina walking up to our house and knocking on the door. We did this four or five times from the outside, then reshot it several times from inside the house for cutaways. Next, we performed a number of scenes with Dr. K. asking us about Emory’s problems, and giving us advice on how to address them.

For instance, she suggested we give Emory regular tap water instead of filtered or spring water. He evidently grew up on the chlorinated stuff and nothing else would do. Also, she told us that, although it’s common practice to put water next to food, she recommend “hiding” small bowls of water throughout the house since cats actually like to find their drink—and usually away from their food. We did this for a while, and it worked—for a while. But he still preferred water from the sink and shower.

Regarding his bathroom issues, the good doctor suggested that we use Yesterday’s News brand litter since he seems to have a propensity for newspaper. And sure enough, he never goes anywhere but in the litter box now. The clawing problem was cured by a simple cardboard scratching board. He liked it more than the scratching post, the hanging scratching board, and the scratching pad we’d tried. He simply wanted cardboard—or, again, "paper."

Dr. K. couldn’t help with the biting problem, though. Indeed, she wouldn’t even touch his paws to examine his claws. And when Rob tried—against my suggestion—I had to fetch the Betadine for his wounds. Emory got his point across in about have a second.

On the final day of shooting, the crew came back for some pickup shots. In the process, I encouraged them to take a “devastation tour” of some of the 80 percent of the city that’s still destroyed. “Have you seen the film Deja Vu?” I asked. I told them that they could see the destruction shown in the movie up close and personal. “Plus, I can take you to the place where I volunteer to help feed the dogs and cats who were left behind by owners who never returned—the animals that weren’t as fortunate as Emory to have been adopted. They were intrigued with Animal Rescue New Orleans, their work, and their volunteers. I suggested that we take a ride out to their facilities, then get a volunteer to take us to a feeding station in the now-infamous Lower 9th Ward.

The Angels

At ARNO, the crew was fascinated with the collection of friendly and beautiful cats and dogs. I explained that many people come just to walk the dogs and play with the cats to keep them socialized, although there are many not-so-pleasant tasks such as cleaning cages. But their medical needs are taken care of here and at local veterinarian hospitals. I encouraged them to get some ARNO footage and some sound bites from the two-person staff and from some of the volunteers.

I noticed a woman loading 100-pound bags of cat food, jugs of water, and traps for the TNR (trap, neuter, release) program into her van. I suggested that the cameraman get such footage, and he promptly asked the woman to unload, then reload, her car for the shots. Afterwards, she ended up agreeing to let us follow her to a feed station.

At the feed station, ARNO Shelter Director Robin Beaulieu and I walked from the street to the destroyed home while I asked her questions about ARNO, and about the status of the tens of thousands of abandoned and stray dogs and cats still roaming the streets and making it on their own. As the cameraman and boom microphone audio guy followed us, heavy equipment machinery destroyed a shed behind the house. The house was next, but we’d be gone.

Once the Housecat Housecall field crew felt they had enough material, they thanked Brenda and I for the experience and the tour, and wished us well before heading back to the airport. Months later they let me know that the piece was finished and that they were able to include an additional 45 seconds of supplemental material to include our ARNO and devastation tour. They also had the star talk for another 10 seconds about pet adoptions—the only episode to include such a plea. Hopefully, this will serve to educate others about the state of affairs of the animal world in the New Orleans area.

Update: The silence is broken! After having been sworn to secrecy (and a non-disclosure agreement) for the past year, I just got notification that I can let the cat out of the bag--so to speak. The first episode of Housecat Housecall--the one with Brenda, Emory, and me--is airing the first week of June. This pilot was shot in three locations--Los Angeles, Houston, and New Orleans--and featured three families with cats with issues. And we were the New Orleans family. Here are the details:

What: Pilot episode of "Housecat Housecall"
Date: Saturday, June 7, 2008 (then every Saturday for six more episodes)
Time: 8 a.m. Central (re-airing on Sundays at 6 a.m.)
Network: Discovery Channel

Program: Animal Planet