positive reinforcement and consent: pt 1

I have a confession to make.

I rescued a feral kitten a few days ago. But I did not do this solely to help this kitten.

That was the primary motivation…

I have begun contacting rescue organizations to help the other stray cats/kittens in that location, and will go try to catch the rest if I can’t find anyone who can send people out there, but- there were a few other reasons I decided to take this little one in.

One is my kitten Sisi- a playmate would be good for her, even if the situation does not end up a permanent one (I am intending to find a home for this little one, once he/she gets a little healthier and more comfortable around humans).

I was hoping Pico, my older cat, would play with Sisi, but he’s kind of a grumpy old man (even though he’s only just now 12 months old).

I am also using this little one as a real world test case for my theories on how to heal trauma.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to experiment on animals.

But what about with them?

The issue of consent is crucial here- but how can we assess consent through such language barriers as that which arise when we are interacting with people who are not human?

I believe that language actually creates problems in discerning consent, as opposed to clarifying the issue.

Humans lie. To themselves, to others. Intentionally, and not. Maliciously, and not.

We all know that ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes’.

At least, most of us do.

I think?

In case anyone does not-

I said ‘yes’ throughout my life almost more frequently when it was disingenuous, than otherwise.

I said yes because I wanted to please, or because doing something I’d rather not was preferable to me, easier- than saying no.

Sexual encounters are obviously the major ones, as far as single-event trauma goes.

It was actually harder on my soul when I said yes, than when I’ve been physically forced.

Those times, the times I gave in- I blamed myself.

That didn’t help with anything, only internalized the kinds of self-blame that led to further destructive behaviors.

But the non-sexual occasions have probably had a bigger impact on my dysfunctionality, over time.

Though much more mild in impact at the time, things like giving people rides when I’d rather not, staying at gatherings when I’d rather leave, acting in certain ways out of some perceived pressure to do so- they are so much more numerous that the effect, I believe, far outweighs that of the smaller number of events I’ve experienced that were of a sexual nature.


I have been thinking of pressure as the dark matter of social interactions.

An immensely powerful force, yet one that is both invisible and poorly understood.

Yeah, I ascribe to the belief that pressure is a thing our minds manufacture.

But this does not reduce responsibility, in my mind, to avoid pressuring people as much as possible.

Until we have all better learned how to say ‘no’ with our words when we are not comfortable with something, I think it’s pretty essential that we all get better at interpreting consent nonverbally.

This is a thing which I believe we can learn from interacting with people of many species, beyond just with humans.


Ah! After a particularly successful play time with the rescue, I now know his gender!

I feel pretty good that he is feeling comfortable enough to expose his belly when we play.

(This will make this post easier to write, without having to dodge the pronoun issue.)

Learning how to communicate nonverbally is basically learning how to speak a whole family of languages- if you don’t limit yourself to communicating solely with humans.

There are some broader cues that, from my experience, can be applied to cats, dogs and humans. I have only made an effort to actively work towards developing my nonverbal communication skills within the past year or so- beginning with a macaw named Sarge that I’ve spoken about elsewhere.

So my sample size is pretty limited, and I’m definitely open to the idea that the things I’m about to describe can not actually be utilized as broadly as I’ve claimed.

If I did not suspect otherwise, though, I would not be writing this right now.

The main ones that I’ve begun using, cross-species- are the physiological indicators of fear.

Flinching, wincing, backing away.

I feel like we tend to dismiss the startle response as insignificant, but I’m not so sure this is advisable.

The thing that made me change how I think of the startle response was the aftermath of the abusive relationship I was in.

I only started seriously considering the idea that I may have had PTSD after realizing that my startle response had heightened drastically after each major incident, and gradually increased in severity over time even sans major incident.

And it went away again, eventually, each time I spent long enough away from him.

At the present time, I am almost never startled- it happens, but very infrequently.

But this makes me think back to pretty much the rest of my entire life, and how easily startled I was. Nothing like when I was with my ex, but still significantly more often than I am now.


I feel like we have a tendency, broadly- to tell ourselves things like:
“Well, I’m not the reason this person is scared. They’re just traumatized, it makes sense they’re jumpy.”

The thing is- after I’d left my ex, the things startling me didn’t have anything to do with the root of the trauma. But when people got too close to me, physically- and didn’t back off when I asked them to… They kind of became part of the ongoing trauma.

Even if I didn’t intend them to, even if I knew they were coming from a good place.

Trauma is weird like that.

I feel like it might be a concept related to that whole ‘the resources know not from whence they come’ thing I’ve been discussing.

Even if the root of another’s trauma has nothing to do with you, you will exacerbate it if you are not patient, and gentle- and astute in your translations of nonverbal cues. If you exacerbate it, it will become transferred to you to some degree.

Using this little kitten I rescued as an example- I have tried to do my best to figure out what things he doesn’t want to do are really necessary for me to force him into doing.

Like, I had to get him out of my car after picking him up originally, because it was 108F outside and I couldn’t leave my car running the whole day. It wasn’t physically safe to leave him there.

I did try to do this as patiently as possible, to avoid hurting him.

Since then, though- I have moved him a bare handful of times, and then as quickly/gently as possible.

I decided it wasn’t worth finding out his gender before today- because what does it help him for me to know what gender he is? That’s for me, not him.

I have done my best to give him safe, dark spaces, and when he hides under my dresser, I make sure he has food and then I let him hide.

With Sisi, it was the opposite. She clearly was far more traumatized by being alone than having a human around, so I spent the first week after adopting her just letting her sleep on my chest.

This guy, even when he’s hiding, I spend as much time as I can spare- just sitting a few feet away from him, talking to him in a soothing voice, and reaching over to stroke his back every so often.

If he pulls back from my hand as I slowly reach towards him, I slowly pull it back.


Feral kittens are still kittens. They are babies.

Two days ago, this little guy was a cartoon Tasmanian devil. All teeth and claws, flying everywhere.

Yet when I carried him into the house, I could feel his terror. His heart beat so fast, pounding.

This is a baby that has already known starvation, and real terror. The residents told me that his mom hadn’t had enough milk. She could do nothing for him.

I have spent most of my time the past several days, actively trying to heal his fear and trauma-

And today, he played with my hand, and he didn’t use his claws.

That’s all it took to get this far- a few days.

But I think the effects of consent are integral to this healing process.

If I’d tried to, say – pull him out from under my dresser, to give him food or something.

He would have had no way of knowing my good intentions.

All he would know is that he’s afraid, and that I’m the one causing that fear.



I spent three years living on the street in Los Angeles. I came out of that, changed. This is my story.

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