Cat Infiltrates Canine Airport Therapy Squad

Denver International Airport, Denver, Colorado.

Therapy cat Xeli always seems to know when she’s needed. So, when she starts tugging on her leash, her handlers follow the cat to an older couple hunched miserably over their chairs at one of Denver International Airport’s concourses. Their return flight was cancelled, and they’ve logged countless hours trying to get back home.  

Volunteers Nathan and Laine (last names omitted for privacy) ask the duo if they’d like to hold the cat. The travellers’ faces light up instantly and Xeli bounds onto their laps and curls into a ball. The couple start reminiscing about their own pet who resembled the tabby. By the time the trio leaves, the travellers are smiling.  “Visiting with Xeli was the highlight of our day,” they say.  

Xeli Airport Cat

These kinds of transformations are par for the course for members of the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS;
flydenver.com/cats). Despite the acronym, the team consists of 94 dogs and one cat—Xeli. The program, founded in 2015, offers stress relief to travellers overwhelmed by the airport’s hustle and bustle, missed or late flights, or the scrutiny at security, says Volunteer Program Manager Karla Grahn. By the time voyagers reach the boarding areas, they’re ready for the soothing snuggles and distraction of the therapy teams. “They take you out of your headspace,” says Grahn, “and put a smile on your face.”   

Xeli has always done that. Her “sweet nature” was evident to Nathan and Laine from the moment they glimpsed the purring kitten at a Petsmart adoption event. After bringing her home, the couple quickly realized that Xeli could charm even their most feline-resistant friends. A friend told Laine, “I’m not really a cat person, but Xeli’s pretty cool.” That’s when the couple began to see Xeli’s potential as a therapy animal.  

Not every cat is cut out for the role. A potential therapy cat must have a mellow disposition and enjoy interacting with people, says Grahn. Prospective animals have to be certified by a recognized national agency who puts them through a gauntlet of simulated real-life situations, including loud noises and nearby dogs. Cats who prove their mettle undergo a more specific evaluation at the airport, where they’re shepherded through security, taken up escalators, and ride the trains. “There’s just a whole bunch of activity going on,” says Grahn. “We want to make sure it’s a good fit.”  

Xeli - Airport Cat

Xeli passed both tests with flying colours. After a stint visiting Alzheimers patients, she was welcomed as the first feline to break into Denver airport’s CATS program. The couple and their cat volunteer once a month for two hours at a time.

Some travellers don’t know what to make of the tabby and her handlers, dressed in matching blue plaid vests. “Some people give us weird looks,” says Laine. Others offer money. A few have even tried to adopt the cat.   

“We own her,” the volunteers clarify. “We’re here so that people who might be a little anxious can have some kitty cuddles.” 

Many passengers need exactly that. After getting permission, the handlers allow Xeli to jump on their suitcases or lounge on their laps. While snuggling with the cat, travellers often reminisce about a pet from their past, or the one they’ve left at home. Being able to hold a cat is comforting, says Laine. Many snap selfies. All are grateful. “This totally made my day,” they often tell the handlers.     

Xeli Airport Cat Nathan, Laine, and their therapy cat Xeli volunteer at the Denver International Airport easing traveller anxiety.

 

Xeli has a ‘trading card’ that provides added entertainment. Every CATS participant boasts its own card proving its therapy animal status and sporting fun facts such as its hometown, favourite treat, and pet peeve. (Xeli hates having her teeth brushed). Laine and Nathan dispense Xeli’s cards to flyers, who use them as bookmarks or tuck them away for their kids. The airport employees are especially stoked to score the lone cat’s card on their way to amassing the complete collection. “It’s like the rare Pokemon card,” says Grahn. 

Xeli gets as much out of these visits as the flyers or the airport staff. The program has extended the cat’s fan base and earned her limitless cuddles. Xeli basks in the limelight. “She loves attention,” says Laine. 

This article originally appeared in the award-winning Modern Cat magazine. Subscribe today!

 

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