rescue. reunite. rehome. rethink.
  • Share to Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Print

The Cat Whisperer

Sometimes the front counter seems so busy and so rife with left-behind animals that it’s easy to forget about all the quiet compassion that resonates in a community. In Oregon, a man disabled by a series of strokes brings that compassion into his local shelter to help the animals who are most in need of a little love. The shy, the frightened, the reactive, the disaffected cats—they all calm down at the hands of Johnnie Hillsbery.

Sometimes the front counter seems so busy and so rife with left-behind animals that it’s easy to forget about all the quiet compassion that resonates in a community. In Oregon, a man disabled by a series of strokes brings that compassion into his local shelter to help the animals who are most in need of a little love. The shy, the frightened, the reactive, the disaffected cats—they all calm down at the hands of Johnnie Hillsbery.

© Bob Keefer
When it comes to cats, Johnnie Hillsbery far prefers the tough cases: the hissers, the growlers, the scratchers, and the biters. For his part, he whispers sweet nothings in their ears.

Hillsbery, 56, is a volunteer at Greenhill Humane Society near Eugene, Oregon. Fully disabled due to a back injury and a series of strokes, Hillsbery just showed up at the shelter one day four years ago and started “loving on the cats,” as he puts it—especially the shy, abandoned, and abused animals whom no one else could get close to.

Within six months staff members noticed that the troubled cats Hillsbery was spending his free time with weren’t so shy and frightened of people any longer. In fact, the genial, soft-spoken man had an unusual ability to take even the most withdrawn and reactive animals and gentle them down into adoptable pets.

Last year Hillsbery spent more than 1,000 hours at the cattery, almost all of them calming troubled cats.

“I just go up to them and if they don’t want to be held then I sit down beside them and start petting on them and stuff,” says Hillsbery, a former maintenance man at the local education service district. “I talk to them real softly. That kind of thing.” For his efforts, Hillsbery has been bitten three times and scratched more times than he can count.

That’s never stopped him.

“When they get to a point, I just back off and come back a little bit later,” he says. “The thing that I do a lot of the time, I stand or sit right at their cage and whisper to them real softly. I don’t make any fast movement, just real [slowly] move my hand toward them. And then when they don’t act so aggressive, I get a little closer and continue talking to them in a whisper.”

Hillsbery doesn’t think he has any magical powers with cats. He’s just very patient and calm and has plenty of time to offer. In fact, he says, he’s sometimes got an advantage over the regular shelter staff.

“A lot of those cats, the staff was the first people they saw there. They cleaned their ears and gave them shots. So the staff were the bad guys. They’d say, ‘Hey, I can’t do nothing with this cat.’ I’d walk in and open the cage and the cat would be just fine.”

Hillsbery lives in Eugene with his wife, Leithra, and their five companion animals—four cats and a dog, all of whom are adopted. The most recent addition to the Hillsbery household showed up at Greenhill last November while they were both volunteering there for an open house.

The kitten, no more than three weeks old, was found starving, flea-bitten, and exhausted. Leithra washed, dried, and carefully dropper-fed the tiny ball of fur right there in the Greenhill lobby before taking it home for round-the-clock nursing. A little girl thought up a name, and the cat, now growing healthily, is still called Strawberry Fluffums.

This cat whisperer always offers the same message to the troubled animals he meets.

“I just tell them they are good cats,” Hillsbery says. “I tell them that I love them. I tell them that they’re pretty. Because, you know, I’ve never seen an ugly animal.”

A feature writer for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, Bob Keefer is a cat admirer. His freelance photography has also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, Birds of Oregon, and other regional publications.

 

Powered by Convio
nonprofit software