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Opinion: What my cat taught me about life after Covid

Opinion by Will Ripley

Taipei (CNN) — In the heart of southern Taiwan’s woods, cat rescuers found a tiny kitten all alone fending for himself. No mother or siblings around. I was on assignment in the Middle East when a volunteer sent me his picture.

He was a wild eyed little furball with orange and white tiger stripes and big perky ears, his mouth wide-open in the middle of a loud meow. My heart melted, and I instantly knew he was the one. I told friends I was going to name him Nova, because to me, he looks like a bright, shining new star. It was love at first sight.

I had decided to rescue a cat just a few days earlier, and the volunteer kindly agreed to hold onto Nova for about a week, giving me time to return home, procure the necessary cat supplies and pick him up.

I’ve always considered myself a dog person, and I raised puppies before, but this would be my first foray with a feline companion.

Little did I know, I would be in for a bumpy, wonderful ride. When Nova entered my home for the first time on a Sunday evening in September, his trepidation mirrored my own reluctance to face the world in recent years.

He sought refuge beneath the couch, reminding me of my own retreat into solitude during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. I used to consider myself a social butterfly, but in recent years I have stayed far away from the once-familiar realms of gyms, restaurants and bustling shopping malls.

Welcoming a furry companion was popular during the pandemic. As people sought solace and companionship in the confines of their homes, animal shelters across the globe experienced a heart-warming influx of adoptions. The sense of uncertainty and isolation nudged many towards the idea of embracing a four-legged friend.

The figures painted a heartening picture – shelters emptied, adoption rates skyrocketed, and families found joy in the presence of newfound furry members.

Yet, as the world tentatively opened up again, a disheartening trend emerged. Many people, once drawn to the idea of pet ownership during the solace of lockdown, found themselves unprepared for the commitment it entailed once life regained its bustling pace. A staggering number of pets were returned to shelters or abandoned, as their owners were unable to navigate the shift back to normalcy alongside their furry friends.

I’ll never know Nova’s origin story. Did he run away from a loving family and somehow end up lost in the woods? Was he born in the wild and left alone to fend for himself when his mother and siblings either died or abandoned him? Did his owner grow weary of Nova’s incessant meowing and chaotic energy and kick him to the curb?

As I was writing this, Nova knocked my laptop off the couch when I stepped away to get a glass of water. I was momentarily frustrated when I heard the latest loud “BANG” echo through my house – in this case, the sound of my laptop hitting the hardwood floor. But guess what? My laptop still works. So here I am, still writing, with an exasperated smile on my face and gratitude in my heart. He’s a little tornado. And I love him more for it.

Many others grew weary of the burden of pet ownership when their normal lives resumed, but I guess I’m the exception. The resumption of ‘regular life’ was exactly when I needed Nova’s companionship the most. Turns out, I was still stuck in lockdown mode as the rest of the planet began to reopen its doors.

Nova’s cautious emergence from hiding under my couch that first day paralleled my own tentative steps back into the real world. His fearless exploration of every corner of my home reflected a bravery I yearned to emulate. In his beautiful ginger fur, I found a symbol of bold resilience. In his relentless curiosity, a beacon of hope.

Cats, like Nova, possess a unique intelligence and agility. Their ability to adapt to new environments is remarkable. Nova’s audacious forays into uncharted territories around my house echoed the adaptability innate to feline creatures. His playful nature, coupled with the occasional chaos of overturned items, taught me the beauty of embracing life’s unpredictability.

When I joined CNN a decade ago, I embraced the adventure. I moved to Tokyo, sight unseen, and travelled to dozens of countries on assignment — from Pyongyang, North Korea to Havana, Cuba. I was always exploring and learning valuable lessons from every new experience, whether it was frightening or fantastic.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed everything for me. I used to feel restless being alone at home, always yearning for the next big trip. But spending months locked in quarantine as I covered the pandemic across the Indo Pacific region, taught me to relish my alone time perhaps a little too much.

I began to enjoy the solitude and, in fact, crave it. Social activities that used to energize me now felt like they drained my batteries completely. I spent long hours and days and weeks and months alone. Sure, I was lonely, but I didn’t know how to break myself out of it. I stopped posting about my personal life on social media. I kept to myself and told myself I preferred it that way.

Looking back, I was lying to myself. But I didn’t want to change because I was afraid. I’ll admit, I had some very dark moments where I questioned my place in the world.

When the wind blows, it creates an eerie howling sound in my house that made me feel even more alone, especially on bitter cold nights and grey rainy days. I began to fill the silence with music. I began buying plants to breathe some life into the emptiness that surrounded me. But somehow, it just wasn’t enough.

Now, my home is filled with other noises. Nova’s incessant meows have inspired me to rediscover my own voice. His vocal nature contrasted my own self-imposed silence on social media. I talk about the news for a living, but I didn’t do much talking the rest of the time.

As I returned home each day to Nova’s enthusiastic and loud greetings, I rediscovered the power of communication and sharing beyond the confines of work-related updates. I bonded with friends and colleagues, laughing as we shared stories about our crazy cats. “It’s just a phase, he’s a kitten, he’ll outgrow it,” they often tell me. Part of me hopes he will stay young and naughty forever, messiness and all.

Feline companions like Nova possess a remarkable capacity for companionship and understanding. He served as a catalyst for my gradual emergence from self-doubt and isolation. My job as a CNN correspondent had become a veil behind which I concealed my deeper struggles. Nova, however, dismantled my self-imposed barriers, encouraging me to embrace life beyond titles and achievements.

The American Psychiatric Association conducted a survey revealing 86% of pet owners feel their animals positively impact their mental health, citing benefits like stress reduction, companionship and unconditional love. Dog and cat owners equally attest to these benefits – though cat owners highlight companionship more, while dog owners mention increased physical activity. In my case, I experienced both.

In his whirlwind existence, Nova teaches me invaluable lessons every day. My lovely, loving and loud little cat symbolizes the rebuilding process I underwent. Like tidying up after his playful chaos, I learned to gather up the scattered fragments of my life and place them in sturdier, more meaningful configurations.

In the end, Nova was more than a rescue cat found alone in the woods; he was a catalyst for my personal transformation. His spirited existence breathed life into my world, infusing it with newfound enthusiasm and resilience.

Nova, with his unwavering courage and indomitable spirit, became the embodiment of the life I once prayed for – that I am now living. His tiny frame seems to carry immense wisdom, lessons that reshaped my existence.

Through his eyes, I learned that life’s challenges are not obstacles – but opportunities for growth and reinvention.

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