I joke that our shelter is like the 1980’s classic sitcom Cheers. Our volunteer group is 350 strong, filled with a cast of colorful characters, and the Cheers opening theme “Everybody knows your name” applies to the regulars. Meet two from our Cat Adoption floor, Benny and Susan.
Benny has lived a few lives, much like the cats he watches over at the SPCA. He spent four years in the Navy as an air traffic controller, sold Armani and Hugo Boss suits, then found a career in the hotel, restaurant and bar business. This included a stint as assistant manager at the Phoenix at Nepenthe in Big Sur and bartender at Rocky Point Restaurant, just south of Carmel. Like the bartender from Billy Joel’s Piano Man, “quick with a joke or a light of your smoke” applies to Benny.
Benny invested well and retired early and that was good for us and the animals. He began volunteering with the SPCA four years ago just to “get out of the house” and he found much more than that. He spends four or five hours in our cat adoption wing every Monday and Wednesday. Sam “Mayday” Malone’s charm with Cliff Clavin’s gift of gab. That’s Benny.
“I’m a people person,” he says. “Especially the kids. Love seeing smiles on their faces and making people smile.”
Susan, a Salinas native, is celebrating her seven-year voluntunteer-iversary this month. Match.com has nothing on her! Our resident cat expert knows the shy ones, the cats who act more like dogs, the “couch potatoes” and lap cats, and those who will need extra time and patience from adopters when settling into their new home. Once she learns about a potential adopter’s interests, it’s game on and only a matter of time before the happy adopter leaves our center.
“I listen to their stories and their needs,” is how Susan describes her magic. She grew up with both dogs and cats, and, as an adult, spent three-plus decades as an educator, including many years as Soledad Middle School’s principal and vice-principal. Her professional background surprises no one who meets her. She can flash a look behind her glasses that reminds us of that one teacher we had who never left the test answers on her desk and always stayed a step ahead of students, thwarting would-be shenanigans of the Bennys in her world.
A passing comment with Benny about one cat can easily slip into a 10-minute conversation that flits in different directions and leaves you wondering where you started but glad you shared the time. Susan, on the other paw, uses her words sparingly. He rides high on life and gesticulates, she’s even and deliberate. Where he’s an affable blend of Sam and Cliff, she has barmaid Carla’s moxie and Diane’s intellect.
I knew of Benny — everyone here knows Benny — but didn’t get to really know him until last December. He asked to meet one-on-one. An adopter had sent us a kind note singling out Benny’s help. This both touched him, but made him uncomfortable; he stressed that the entire SPCA team — from the person who cleans the restrooms to medical staff — helps create positive experiences and asked if I could relay this important message to staff. I agreed and we shook hands to end the meeting.
Benny and Susan rarely walk the cat condo floor together, covering different volunteer days and shifts. Susan spends four days per week, six hours per day, including busy weekend days, arriving an hour before we open to the public. Her husband, semi-retired, says if she’s happy, he’s happy. He wasn’t always a cat person, but has warmed up to them, including their three feline companions. We like him!
The best part of Susan’s day is making the match and seeing cats go to loving, permanent homes. Adopters often let us know her instincts and intuitions were spot on. One recently approached her at CVS to thank her in person.
The SPCA adheres to a simple philosophy: make it easy for pets to go into good homes. The days of adoption applications and interrogations are long gone. We have conversations with adopters and welcome different styles and personalities among our staff and volunteers. There are the “Benny” people in the world and “Susan” people, some who connect with both personalities and others who prefer a different flavor.
Our two volunteer cat specialists roll differently, but have more in common than not. They’re here for the animals and they are all about making wonderful connections and lasting, loving matches between people and pets. Cheers to that!