How Instagram’s “Explore” Feature Helped A Lost Kitty Get Home

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I‘ve been amazed before by the power of social networks like Instagram to connect, but never like this. As some of you know, I met one of the people I admire the most, my brainshare and closest friend, Jamillah, on Twitter during the 2008 Presidential elections, and made a special connection with my boy Chris Luckhardt in Canada – we connected through our shared love of longhaired tuxedocat angels when we met on Instagram.

I treasure the amazing people I have in my life, never further away than my pocket, thanks to smartphones and social media. But in all of the “wow this is amazing” I’ve experienced through social, I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by how algorithms and the connections they forge can change lives.

Birdie-FirstFinding Birdie

I was on Facebook on August 15, when this enchanting photo popped up in my feed. The post read:

Hi, my name is Birdie! I’m a peaceful older girl looking for a home. The vet thinks I’m between 8-9 years old. My foster mom found me on the side of the road malnourished and dehydrated. She thought I was dead at first, but I wasn’t ready to give up! I am a fighter! After three weeks in the hospital, I’m very much alive and looking for a loving home.

I’ve never met a person I didn’t like. I love any kind of petting and brushing. I will make biscuits to show you that I love the attention. I am de-clawed so I need to be an indoor cat only. I mostly enjoy relaxing in my donut bed and sleeping in sunny spots. I am a Siamese mix, with deep blue eyes that will melt your heart! I am also very talkative which is typical for Siamese. I’m still on a special dietary regimen to help me bulk up, but when I’m back to my fighting weight I will likely need to be switched to a kidney-friendly food due to my age. I’m not a frisky kitten, but I have lots of unconditional love to give so please consider an older model!

And of course I was in tears. I have a soft spot for my own Siamese, Pixel, and I miss chatting with my vocal Chicken, and I need a kitty who wants to be held. Chicken was always ready to be held, and sometimes stealth-sneaked into my lap, moving so slowly that I didn’t even notice she was melting down onto my legs. So I wrote:

I saw the post about Birdie on Facebook and wanted to inquire…She sounds like what I’m looking for:

We have 3 declawed, indoor-only kittehs over the age of 7, and a very placid dog who gives them lots of space. One of our kittehs is a talky Siamese, which drew me to Birdie. A few months ago we lost my companion kitty of fifteen years, and I am looking for someone who will cuddle and want pettinz and be my lap baby. Birdie can help heal me and I can help heal her.

The only problem is we’re going out of town for a week, like right now. I don’t want to take her before we leave town, just to leave her alone in our house with stranger cats, but I would love to meet her after we get back from vacation if she’s not already spoken for. Like alot. Let me know – C

Of course there were thousands of likes and shares and comments (2,275 likes, and 3,358 shares, 398 comments at this writing). Many people said they’d emailed and were “driving down today to get her”, which of course, was discouraging. Paws replied to my email and said that there was already someone scheduled to meet her, but please do check back. Also discouraging (to my mission at least, not at all for the shelter animals) was the Empty The Shelters Day the very next weekend in Dallas, while we would be out of town. I was certain she would not be available any longer, but felt I had to do my part and at least put my name on the list.

Hope!

We went out of town, and I vowed to myself to check back. One evening while relaxing on the beach, I got an email:

Are you still interested in Birdie? She is still available! Please fill out the application on our website www.pawsinthecity.org. After you have filled out the application we can put you in contact with her foster family.

I didn’t waste any time:

I have filled out the application – we’re not back in Dallas until next week but I am more than happy to get this process underway 😀 YAY!

I had tears streaming down my cheeks. Against all seeming odds, THOUSANDS of people wanting her to find a home, she would be mine. I would get her and be able to heal her where I couldn’t heal my Chicken. I would get a second chance. Now in “adopt mode” I was tempted to drop the vacation, go home, collect my cat, but the application and vetting process takes a few days and we’d already paid for the rental. We heard from the foster mother, and agreed to meet on Tuesday after we returned. I started going through my list of kitty names. I’d liked Birdie, but wanted to change it for her, give her a new life with us and a fresh start with a new name. (Oddly, it was very difficult to call her by another name the night we brought her home. She was already Birdie to me.)

Bringing Birdie Home

I posted a semi-private status to a bunch of friends on Facebook, not wanting to get my hopes up too high, but wanting to share my joy, also – the girl I wanted was probably My First Birdie Piccoming home to mama!!! I would have a cuddle bug again!! KITTAYYYYYYY!!!

Tuesday evening we collected Birdie at her foster mama’s house, and brought her home. Sam and Marc are amazing foster parents, and care deeply about animals – I heard Sam’s story about scooping the half-dead Birdie off the blazing sidewalk to bring her to a respectful end because that was no way to die. She said Birdie’s made faint but insistent chirps, evidence that she was struggling to survive. They brought Birdie to the vet’s office where she works and started to resuscitate her. I am so grateful to Sam for stopping, for not ignoring her, and for saving this sweet little baby, selfishly, for me.

For a minimum of stress to this fragile girl in our home, we decided to keep her isolated in in the spare bathroom, at least until she decided she wanted to go out, even if it took a week or more. We would also do the careful weeks-long dance of introducing the pets in tiny smell-sight-contact steps, to save every kitty a bunch of grief and stress. We wanted this to work.

The Instagram Connection

And so the Instagram (IG) posting began. Most of my IG friends are friends through pets; I’d built my IG relationships on cats and dogs – some art, photography, and MINIs – but mostly our shared love of pets. I’d loved friends’ pets I’d only met on IG and cried like a baby when they died. You feel like you really get the personality of the animal, and almost always the person. I’ve never met anybody IRL that I’d known online for a while that wasn’t largely the person I thought they were. Especially if this friend posts candid videos.

I’ve made lifelong friends with people on Instagram that I’d found just because they had a Siamese and I had a Siamese (wassup @sweetspork) – these furry threads and hashtags somehow connected us. So it was only natural for me to post Birdie on Instagram – we’d decided to call her Tesla, with a special #teslathetoastedmarshmallow hashtag because WHY NOT SHE IS DELICIOUS.

I stayed up late cuddling her and petting her and thinking about her. I’d lost a lot of love recently and very much wanted to give the excess to her. I shared my love for her with my pet-loving friends, and they shared their love back in likes and comments. That was what I think pushed her to the Explore page for one very special person.

The Post

I went to my phone to find the instructions on how to pay the fee; we’d picked her up from foster care, and we could go to the website and pay. Then I saw this message on my lock screen:

“Do you have an email! I believe this is my girlfriends cat!! I am not lying. I can direct send you pictures. We lost her in the July. Please message me back. My email is ✿✿✿✿✿✿@gmail.com. She has had her since she was little. Her name is Mimi. Please please contact me. We miss her so much.”

BULLSHIT.

and NO.

I was in the middle of the work day, couldn’t handle this immediately, but the messages kept coming. They commented in quick succession on all of my Birdie pictures and it started to seem a little creepy, the same types of messages appearing on every Birdie picture and video I had posted, very spam-like. He mentioned me on a few pictures of a cat on different Instagram accounts that I had never seen before. I didn’t want to look, but I did, and it looked very very very much like Birdie.

Is this a joke, this has to be a horrible joke. Go away, dude. Why are you torturing me. How did you find me. We don’t know each other, or even have mutual friends. It seemed impossible that he would suddenly find my photo. Impossible.

I’d signed a contract with full knowledge of the responsibility I was shouldering, not 18 hours before this. explicitly stating that I would never give her away, and here these random people are asking me to give her to them.

Then the tweets. I took some time between meetings and work emails and craziness to forward this to Paws, to ask what I should do. They never adopt out pets without doing “due diligence” and the legal amount of checking required by law to confirm that the animal is legally eligible for adoption. This I knew. I’d signed a contract with full knowledge of the responsibility I was shouldering, not 18 hours before this. explicitly stating that I would never give her away, and here these random people are asking me to give her to them. I’d heard the story about finding Birdie on the side of the road and how horrible she looked. That she was at death’s doorstep, covered in fleas and starving. But a fighter. My Chicken fought until the very very very very end and…

Then the email. He’d googled me and found my email on my professional portfolio site and sent me the same plea. I felt weirded out and overwhelmed, without any way of proving he is who he says he is, under this barrage of increasingly intense messages from multiple accounts, and I didn’t want to give up my new baby, and I’m AT WORK.

Note: I was not in a frame of mind to respond rationally to these events, I knew that, and I know that he probably kept trying to contact me because he wasn’t getting any response. This week, even, it was reinforced heavily that the internet is not a safe place for ladies, and I don’t feed the trolls, but this guy wasn’t really a troll. I’ve been stalked and harassed and had to take extreme measures to hide my identity, and this felt like that experience did. Now that I’m out of the middle of it, I see this. He was a dude who wanted very much to get the kitty to her family and would do whatever he could think of to do it, and he had no idea how it had been perceived.

Decision Point

I messaged multiple friends and they confirmed what I really did, already, know – that cat in the photos was my Birdie. Mimi, actually. A 17 year old cat that belonged to someone else. I emailed with the foster mother and discussed what I knew was the right course but I didn’t want to do, not at all.

"Imma miss Birdie. I’m saving the name Tesla for the next rescue - it's a great cat name, and Birdie/Mimi already has one..."

“Imma miss Birdie. I’m saving the name Tesla for the next rescue – it’s a great cat name, and Birdie/Mimi already has one…”

I knew I’d have to hand her over to these poor people. Imagine if my Chicken had gone missing. I’ve lost childhood pets outdoors, one to a car engine, one to who knows what, and the agony of not knowing what happened to Big Kitty never really goes away. I couldn’t do that to them, now that they knew she was out there. I held out an ever-dwindling hope that this was a joke; implausible as that was, what was happening was equally implausible.

But my new baby Birdie…

I decided that sitting at my desk with tears streaming down my face wasn’t the most professional way to work. I had to go home and talk myself into the decision I knew was right. It felt like losing my Chicken all over again. The drive home from work, knowing I had to give her up, the constant refrain of “no, no, no, no” in my head.

But what convinced me finally is Birdie. Knowing that she is 17, and had lived her whole life with them, that she should spend the rest of her probably short life there. At her own home. In her own bed. I called my mom and talked it out, saying the words to someone I love, hearing that I was right, hating every second of it.

I gave up and talked myself into commenting. If this is true, he’s someone who loves someone who loves Birdie. And Birdie should go home.

@dallas_auto I’m getting in touch with the rescue organization to find our what procedures we should follow – I signed a contract that states that I cannot give her away to anybody *but* the rescue organization, and that contract is legally binding. Also, I understand your passion, but you’re kind of scaring me. I’m doing the best I can to get this resolved, so please bear with me. cc @evanmcclay

We delivered Birdie to the foster mom’s home at around 9 that night, so that Paws could deliver her to her family, if everything checked out. I couldn’t take any more back and forth, and if I had to give her up, I would do it sooner rather than later. I still held a sliver of hope that this wasn’t actually happening, but I also knew that it really was.

Silver Linings

Like with Chicken, losing Birdie was sad for my friends, too, but we all console ourselves with a few facts:

  • Birdie is home, with her family, where she belongs.
  • The family, who so obviously loves her, has her back home.
  • The rescuer and I both were operating as agents to get Birdie home. Her kindness, and the kindness of the veterinarian’s office that resuscitated her, and the volunteers at Paws – we all did good. Whatever powers and energies or whatever that you believe in wanted Birdie to go home. We were the right agents to get her there.
  • There are countless amazing homeless pets out there who desperately need homes. Millions of pets are put to death because there is nobody able to find them or love them. I can do my tiny part this year and bring one more home.

Maybe I am the lucky one after all, to help two little souls find a home in one year.

With A Little Help From My Friends

My friends and fellow cat lovers helped Birdie get home, too. Without their likes and comments and continuous support, her photo never would have risen to the Explore algorithm’s attention, and the incredible coincidence by which @dallas_auto found Mimi’s photo would never have happened.

Adopt!

I try not to judge too harshly people who buy pets, let me say that first. But I want to reiterate that every one of my pets, oohed and awwwed at on Instagram or Facebook or Flickr or Twitter, were shelter or rescue animals. Please at least look for your babies at rescue orgs like Paws In The City and your local animal shelters and rescues.

Like Kona, who we found through Petfinder and the North Texas German Shepherd Rescue, and my seemingly-purebred Siamese, Pixel, whom we practically ordered off a menu from the kind ladies sitting with cats at PetSmart on an adoption weekend. (Yes, I’d like one sealpoint Siamese under eight months of age? Thanks, see you next week!)

Shelter and rescue, even breed-specific rescue pets, are not always behaviorally defective, but often abandoned because of owners’ life circumstances, financial situation, or inability to care for the animal. And trust me, the right one is out there for you.

And soon, again, for me. And you’ll certainly see them on Instagram. Look me up, and thanks for listening. XOXO

3 Responses

  1. Cam Swegman

    Life is often hard. Doing what’s right is often hard. Your pain is definitely someone else’s gain, right now. I love you for being someone who does the right thing when, especially lately, all I see on the news is a lot of people doing the wrong thing. I love you for being able to feel compassion in spite of your own pain. I love you for your unselfishness. Thank you for letting me call you friend. Thank you for making the world better. I’m sorry for your loss, Colleen.

  2. Weintribe

    You did good, C. I can’t imagine the roller coaster this was for you, but you did a damn fine thing.

    • Colleen Lin

      Thank you, hon. Like I was telling a friend on Facebook, I’m still convincing myself that it even happened. It *was* the right thing, though, I know that.