The man in the nursing home sat in his wheelchair.
He didn't look very old sitting there in his straw hat and colorful shirt but there was definitely something wrong.
He seemed locked in his own world.
Until Cristina Coffin of Largo placed Shadow, her 4-year-old black and white cat, on the unresponsive man's lap.
Wow. It was as if someone turned on his switch.
He smiled so big that it crinkled his eyes in the corners as he petted the cat gingerly, sort of drumming his fingers with their long yellowing nails on the cat's back.
The man — the nurse said his name was John and he was 64 years old but privacy laws prevented her from providing any other information — looked from one face to the next at the people standing around him. John doesn't speak but he was mouthing words to us.
All the while, Shadow just sat there on his lap. It didn't look like the most comfortable place for a cat — she looked as if she could slip off any minute — but she didn't seem to mind her precarious perch or the constant strumming across her back.
Cristina told John she couldn't hear what he was trying to tell her and, as she began to bend down to get closer to him, he spoke.
"En ... joy," he said beaming.
This little furry creature with a high degree of tolerance moved a man, normally unresponsive and without speech, to talk.
It was Shadow's tryout day to be a Project PUP volunteer and it seemed she passed with flying colors.
Project PUP (which stands for Pets Uplifting People) is a volunteer organization that provides pet visits to residents of nursing homes and health care facilities in the Tampa Bay area. The organization will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
The group's president, Karen Tappan, was among those standing around when John came to life.
"This is why we do it," Karen said. She was choked up watching him even though it has been 20 years since she started volunteering with the group.
In those 20 years, she said, she has screened between 300 and 400 animals to be pet volunteers — and most of them pass, she said.
She was screening 21 more potential volunteers when we caught up with her on a recent Saturday. People bring their dogs and cats to the Palm Garden Assisted Living Facility in Largo the second Saturday of odd-numbered months to see if the animals are suited to bringing comfort and joy to the elderly and the sick.
Sharon Davis of Clearwater sat in a chair against the wall with her Pomeranian Peaches. Davis is no stranger to making sick people happy. She dresses as a clown — and Peaches has a clown suit, too — to cheer hospice patients.
Waiting in line to sign up was a couple with two beautiful white Samoyeds, Kona, 4, and Tuch-Ka, 18 months. Georgann and LaWayne Wyatt of Riverview have had two other Samoyeds and a rabbit in the program.
"The first time we went into a nursing home in Brandon, there was a man in a wheelchair who had never smiled. He smiled at the dogs," Georgann said.
Luke Strominger is a 15-year-old student at Palm Harbor University High from Oldsmar who hopes to be a doctor someday. He and his mom, Gina, brought their unknown breed rescue dog, Roxy, to the screening. Roxy seemed a little confused but that's usually the way it goes, Karen said. It just takes a couple of times for them to get into the routine of being a "working dog."
Cristina had to eventually take Shadow, who had been living under a car in an apartment complex before being rescued by Friends of Strays and adopted by Cristina, off John's lap but it's a pretty good bet that she won't be able to stay away long.
Much of this issue contains stories of people saving animals. In fact, many Project PUP dogs are rescues themselves.
But when you think about it, animals really do save us as much as we save them.
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.