Wolfie strikes a pose before the guests arrive.
"You wouldn't think it would take a lot to put a cat party together, but it did," Elena tells me, as she races around her apartment making last minute preparations for her cat Wolfie's 20th birthday celebration. I offer to help, as I have arrived "fashionably" early in hopes of capturing some candid shots of the kitty, before she is overwhelmed by the influx of guests.
The night before the party, Elena had a talk with Wolfie, pleading with her to be more sociable. It seems to have worked, because the feline, who is 97 in human years, is working it for the camera ("You're going to be famous on the internet!" I tell her excitedly). As Elena astutely points out, Wolfie is older than Betty White, and just like the comic legend, is getting more attention as she ages.
Elena's friend Olivia arrives a few minutes later, and also marvels at the shift in Wolfie's attitude. "She hid for her 10th birthday party," she admits, as I'm crouched down on the floor snapping pictures of the birthday cat. Olivia has known Elena for 15 years, and says that Wolfie was much shyer in her youth.
Wolfie as a kitten.
Wolfie aka Wolfina Espina was found in a cardboard box on Main Street in El Segundo, California, in 1992. Elena, who had never had a cat before, remembers, "She stuck to me like glue, and I couldn't give her away." The grey tabby adopted her manly "Wolfman" moniker due to her uncanny resemblance to Lon Chaney, and some initial confusion as to whether "she" was a "he". Elena takes great pleasure in recounting the tale of the fateful vet visit, where the doctor proclaimed, "That's no Wolfman, it's a Wolfwoman!" This is the same vet who also told the new kitten owner that the typical life expectancy of a cat was 12 years, max. "Once that birthday came, I expected her to fall over," she says with a laugh.
Elena proudly gives Wolfie a squeeze.
The guests begin to trickle in, and they are a combination of longtime friends and neighbors, many of whom are meeting for the first time. They also include Elena's two cousins, who made an impressive eight hour drive from San Francisco to be part of Wolfie's special day. Elena tells me that she had fun telling everyone about the party, and it's clear that she is thrilled to see the group coming together to celebrate the life of her extraordinary cat.
Wolfie's neighbor Matthew shares a special moment with the birthday girl.
During the course of lunch, which consists of a generous spread of sandwiches, salads, and Elena's famous punch, I sit with some of the guests and ask them to describe Wolfie and Elena's relationship. Scott, a neighbor and one of Wolfie's longtime cat-sitters, tells me that they have a tight bond that is like that of a mother and child. Adam, also a neighbor and cat-sitter, describes it as "undying love," while Elena's cousin, Margaret, sums it up best by crossing her fingers together tightly.
When asked the same question, Elena responds, "She is my furry child." And indeed, she has done just as much for Wolfie as any human would do for their own flesh and blood.
Everyone was excited to wear the colorful hats Fancy Feast provided for the celebration.
In one amazing example, Elena recounts the time she relocated to Las Vegas for work. The pair traded in their sleepy El Segundo apartment for a high rise in Sin City.
"She hated it!" Elena remembers. "She missed the ocean breeze, and told me every day that she wanted to go back home." So they did. By a simple twist of fate, the same apartment they had left behind had become vacant. However, there was still the matter of Elena's job to consider. For three years, Wolfie would be cared for by cat-sitters during the week in El Segundo, while Elena would commute back and forth to Las Vegas by plane. "I'd leave at 4:30 a.m. on Monday and be back by 3 p.m. on Friday to spend the weekend with her," she says. "She finally got her dream of having her own place by the ocean!"
Sandra and Elena getting ready to serve some of the delicious desserts, including Wolfie's cat-shaped birthday cake.
After lunch, Wolfie indulges in some Fancy Feast before the human desserts start coming out. The centerpiece of the party is Elena's delicious cat-shaped birthday cake, covered in vanilla frosting and decorated with Twizzlers. Another highlight is the kitty cake balls, made by her neighbor Adam's girlfriend, Jena. The creatively decorated treats have been artfully arranged in large, pink balls of yarn, and elicit an excited response from the crowd.
Jena, pictured with Adam, Wolfie, and Elena, created cat-inspired cake pops for the party.
Being a Los Angeles native, it should come as no surprise that Wolfie has brushed whiskers with fame. Several years ago when Elena went to pick her up from having her teeth cleaned, she ran into screen legend Elizabeth Taylor, who was waiting outside in her car to pick up her own pets. Elena took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce her beloved cat to the Hollywood icon, and after hearing Wolfie's story about being found in a cardboard box, the "Cleopatra" star famously responded, "That's a true rags to riches story!"
Eating Fancy Feast is a daily ritual for the 20-year-old cat.
Elena credits Wolfie's longevity to the consistent diet she has maintained over the past twenty years. She eats three cans of Fancy Feast a day (her favorite flavors are Cod, Sole and Shrimp, and Chunky Chicken), along with dry food, and a serving of 2% milk (while most cats are believed to be lactose intolerant, this hasn't been a problem for Wolfie). She is not allowed to have any table scraps.
She also finds it important to keep the senior cat both mentally and physically stimulated. In recent years, Wolfie started meowing incessantly, so Elena took her to a cat psychologist to find out what was bothering her. After a battery of tests, the doctor diagnosed her with a classic case of "cat boredom." To cure the malady, the pair changed their daily routine to include a game of hide and seek, a round of throw the toy and come back ("Not fetch, because she doesn't bring the toy back," Elena quips), and 10 minutes a day of looking out the window and pointing to birds. The meowing stopped.
I finally get my moment to cuddle with the guest of honor!
A twenty year relationship with anyone, human or feline, is bound to be filled with memorable moments, but I asked Elena if she could pick one fondest memory from their two decades together. She paused for a moment to think, before recalling the time they went to visit her parents. Elena had not grown up with cats, and her mother, who recently passed away, wasn't exactly a cat lover. However, by the end of the visit, the two could be found napping together, with Wolfie snuggled up in her lap. "She has a way of winning your heart," Elena beams. "She took the harshest cat critic, and made her a fan."
From L to R: Olivia, Sandra, Elena, Margaret, and Melissa show off their goodie bags.
As the goodie bags are handed out and the party begins to wind down, birthday wishes abound. Guests tell me that they hope the cat will enjoy "20 more years," "unlimited Fancy Feast," and the chance to live out at least one more of her nine lives. Wolfie, who has been such a good sport throughout the whole affair, is now off napping peacefully in a corner. As Elena finally takes a moment to sit down and relax, I ask her what she thinks Wolfie's secret to a long life is.
After an eventful afternoon, Wolfie settles in for a nap.
"She finds me funny, and gets a big laugh out of me every day," Elena says. "We have a lot of laughter, love, and she gets plenty of attention. She really doesn't have any stress. She lives a carefree life by the beach, with neighbors who are ready to come take care of her at the drop of a hat -- and who know what flavor of Fancy Feast she likes!"
I ask Elena if she has ever had another cat, but she emphasizes that Wolfie is her "first and only."
"You won't get another cat after she is gone?" I ask.
"There will never be another Wolfie."