Qichen Zhang, Nori & Panda

XJ8A1908aWhen I moved to Brooklyn in 2013, I struggled with my mental health when adapting to life here. It took almost a year to get myself in a better headspace with therapy and self-care. About a year after moving to Brooklyn, my then boyfriend and I wandered into Animal Haven in SoHo one weekend, “just to look.” It’s hysterical to me now that we thought it would be easy to turn away from so many cute animals looking for homes, but we were just that naive. I first walked into a room with a lot of skittish cats who were really sweet, but still very nervous around humans. The second room I entered was where I saw her. Nori was sleeping peacefully in a small hammock hanging inside a cage. When the attendant opened the cage door, she drowsily moved around, peered up with her big emerald eyes, and yawned with the cutest little chirrup. She was only 8 weeks old. We picked her up gently and cradled her, and she promptly fell back asleep while holding my forearm. The deal was done. I applied to adopt her immediately, and two days later, I took her home with me.XJ8A2006a

I adopted Panda from Brooklyn Animal Action after I saw a photo of him on Instagram in November 2018, advertising that he was up for adoption. The headline for his adoption flyer said, “SWEET GUY WHO HAS BEEN THROUGH HELL”. Based on Panda’s circumstances, we have reason to believe he was dumped on the streets early in life. I responded immediately. It was a very spontaneous decision to adopt him.

As for Nori and Panda’s relationship, I can tell you that they don’t love each other, but they tolerate each other’s company as a means of staving off boredom. They play sometimes, but honestly, Nori bullies Panda more than befriends him.

I didn’t consciously choose to adopt my cats because I thought it would improve my mental health, but they have definitely played an enormous role in helping me learn how to manage it in a very positive way. Even though they can be aloof and particular at times, they’re ultimately extremely thankful to have food, water, warm blankets to nap on, and a safe place to be themselves. My therapist always encouraged me to practice gratitude daily in order to find meaning in my life. Don’t you think cats are THE quintessential role models for that?

Nori is a total diva—the Mariah Carey of cats. She is very standoffish at first and acts really tough like she doesn’t need anyone. She always hides between my arm and torso, and she’ll take a quick nap with her face in my armpit, her front paws doing the same arm hug as when I first picked her up. She’s one of the most elegant cats I’ve ever met. She never knocks anything off the dining table even though I leave it a total mess sometimes!

One of Nori’s tried-and-true methods in any new apartment has been finding the one window with the most delightful breeze so she can lie down on her side and bask in the gentle wind. My mom calls her a term of endearment in Chinese: “lao tai.” This phrase roughly translates to an “old grandma” who is retired, languishes about, and just wants to relax. It’s so befitting of Nori because she really loves to enjoy the breeze, any of the sunspots in my apartment, and generally indulge in a good life.XJ8A1846aWhen Panda was found living in a feral cat colony, they quickly realized he was not feral because he was so friendly. They found him with a chicken bone stuck in the roof of his mouth, and BAA had to get him extensive surgery in order to extract the bone, as well as 95% of his teeth. He also needed eye surgery because his eyelashes were genetically ingrown and poking him in the eye, causing him chronic eye infections. And here’s the kicker—Panda had oddly deformed ears, resembling the “cauliflower ears” that some wrestlers get from repeated physical trauma and injury to ears. His health issues have run the utter gamut. The positive side of all this? Panda perpetually looks like an adorable, oversized guinea pig. And he is one of the sweetest cats anyone will ever meet. I would characterize him as the furry land-bound version of Dory from “Finding Nemo”. He’s so clumsy, sweet, kind-hearted, and absent-minded. He chases his own tail almost every day, and acts super confused that he isn’t able to capture “the prey.” Panda greets new visitors as if he’s known them forever and if they sit on the couch he jumps on them immediately because he loves getting pets from ANYONE. Panda is truly thirsty for pets, I can’t put it more subtly than that.XJ8A2028aThe absolute funniest part about the two of them is that Nori, although being five pounds lighter than Panda (that’s like 50 pounds in human size), will always try to provoke him despite his immense girth. She’s always on the attack in terms of batting him with a paw, and can never resist sniffing his butt when he walks by. But the minute he fights back, she acts shocked, like she didn’t do anything wrong, and rolls around on her back with her four peets in the air. Little sister syndrome, much?

A couple of years ago, I got a tattoo of Nori on my arm from Kelli Kikcio (@kellikikcio). After I adopted Panda, I didn’t want to be playing favorites with my fur-children, so I got one of Panda right next to Nori, by Kat from Black Iris Tattoo in Greenpoint (@katnoirink). I find the juxtaposition very funny because Nori is sitting in a cautious but open pose, whereas Panda is yawning and simultaneously playfully pawing at her. I think it perfectly encapsulates their personalities and their relationship.

I love both of these furry comedians so much. They have brought so much joy to my life just by being themselves. As I get older, I’ve become much more appreciative of animals in general. I think they teach people so much about what it means to be resilient, curious, funny, and loving.

Qichen Zhang has worked in product for media, music, and tech companies in New York for the past 6 years. She lives in Brooklyn. Her favorite activities include going to the Brooklyn Public Library, attending different book readings, exploring art classes, and binge-watching “Schitt’s Creek” with her two cats. To keep up with Nori and Panda’s antics, you can follow @norinoire.


Photographer based in Brooklyn, NY.

2 thoughts on “Qichen Zhang, Nori & Panda

  1. Nori and Panda at least tolerate each other. Mine keep hissing at each other. The cat I used to have used to let the smaller cat eat first, though, and let her sleep with her white head on his black butt all night when she was sick. Yet, they fought, too. He liked to play rough, and she was a princess who wouldn’t put up with it.

    Pets can help people who struggle with mental problems. I’ve read that online a lot. I also have problems with obsessive compulsive disorder, insomnia, general anxiety, social anxiety, and probably Asperger syndrome. Like you, I didn’t get the cats to help me overcome my problems. I took a sick kitten off the streets, and then the other two leapt in because they smelled the cats’ food, and I live first floor, ground level. They were hungry, so I let them make my house their home. However, they do give me some kind of peace of mind.

    Beautiful cats you’ve got. Such strong colors and expressive eyes.

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