2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 1

Nearly 17 years ago, my wife Lisa took in a little kitten. It was a tiny pale-calico cat — “stone-washed,” she called her — abandoned in a collar that was too tight for her. She was a hissing, spitting little ball of resentment. Nobody was ever going to adopt this cat, Lisa thought. Nobody was going to want this semi-feral creature; she’d languish in the shelter for a couple of weeks, perhaps, and then be euthanized with the other unadoptables. And that just didn’t seem right. The kitten was way too young to be subjected to that kind of fate.

So she took the little creature home… figuring that even if the kitten never got over her dislike of humans — even if she stayed a little monster for the rest of her life — at least she’d have a safe place to live, and regular meals, and someone to take care of her. At least she’d still be alive. It wasn’t her fault that, in her month or two of existence, she’d learned that human beings were cruel and unreliable creatures.

But a funny thing happened when Lisa brought the kitten home. As soon as she arrived, the kitty calmed down. And from that moment on, she became the cat she’d be for the rest of her life: a calm, even-tempered, patient and loving animal. She turned into Nikita… named after the main character in the movie La Femme Nikita, who was taken off death row and given a second chance as an assassin. The name seemed appropriate, somehow.

Of course, Lisa wasn’t my wife then. In fact, we hadn’t even met. We ran into each other a month or so later. By that time, one of her criteria for figuring out if I was good boyfriend potential was… whether or not Nikita liked me. She did. What I thought of Nikita wasn’t quite as important, but for what it’s worth, I liked her, too… in spite of her flat Massachusetts accent — Myaaahh! — and the fact her meow sounded a little like a foghorn.

At the time, Lisa was living with her brother, who had a big hundred-pound Labrador retriever. Little Nikita had that dog terrified. It’s not that she’d do anything to hurt him — in all the years we had her, we never saw her be mean to anyone or anything. No: once the dog got a gentle swipe of Nikita’s paw, all she needed to do was look at him, and the dog immediately knew he’d been outmatched. Much later, when we had dogs of our own — a 110-pound lab mix and a 70-pound Vizsla — they, too, instinctively understood that Nikita was Head Dog, and was not to be challenged (even at the end of her life, when she would go to sleep on the stairs with barely the energy to climb all the way up or down, our surviving dog would sit at the bottom of the stairs and woof for our help getting past her).

Eventually, Lisa moved down from Massachusetts to New Jersey, where I lived. In the middle of the night, we drove with two cats down I-95 (Lisa’s older cat Zeus got out of his carrier and spent about half of the drive walking around on the back of our seats). What we didn’t realize at the time was that we weren’t just bringing two cats. Nikita was pregnant.

At the time, there was a great deal more controversy about when a kitten could be spayed or neutered. Since then, early-age spay/neuter has become much more common, and the research on its long-term effects has been much more conclusive. But we were woefully ignorant of the whole issue, and by the time we’d even thought of getting Nikita altered, the decision was taken out of our hands. We had no desire to abort her kittens. We figured we’d try to keep them if we could.

One day in early August we came home from work, and Nikita wasn’t there at the door to welcome us. We cast knowing glances at one another: this could only mean one thing…

A quick search revealed Nikita curled up in our bedroom closet, with four tiny creatures nursing from her: one orange boy, a calico girl, and two grey-and-white females. Lisa was particularly happy to see the orange kitten, since she’d lost an orange cat the year before and missed him terribly.

The orange kitten was the first to die.

We were horrified. Being terribly inexperienced at that point, we’d had no idea about how to care for a kitten; but we weren’t completely stupid. We knew Nikita was producing milk; we’d even had them all to the vet only the day before, and he’d given them a clean bill of health. The little calico girl died the day after her brother. It was agony, not knowing what to do, or what we might have done to prevent their deaths; so we determined that from then on, we would learn all we could about cat care.

Nikita’s two remaining kittens, Sage and Mircalla, lived, and grew to be beautiful long-haired cats. They inherited their mother’s sweet temperament, as well as her foghorn voice. It was because of them that we first got involved in animal rescue: we started volunteering for cat and ferret rescues, and we learned as much as we could about basic home veterinary care and responsible pet ownership.

In the years since then, several hundred foster animals have passed through our care. Some of them have been in urgent need of medical help; some of them have frankly needed psychiatric help. We’ve learned enough to have achieved some very dramatic results. We’ve brought seriously ill cats, many of whom had been written off by the vets, back from the brink of death. We’ve found good homes for animals slated for euthanasia in other shelters, because they were considered too old, or too cranky, or too difficult to treat. We’ve arranged and hosted low-cost spay/neuter clinics, the first of their kind in our area.

And all because of Nikita.

Unfortunately — as we might have expected — her kittens Sage and Mircalla had congenital health problems. Sage died of lymphoma three days before her seventh birthday. Mircalla died of the same thing when she was 11. Immediately after Sage died, something happened to her mother and sister: Mircalla started going to the end of our driveway and sitting, waiting, as though she were expecting her sister to return. And both cats’ voices changed. It was very noticeable: their meows, so gruff and deep, changed octaves. The change lasted for almost a year. I have never realized that cats could mourn — their natures seem to suggest otherwise — but Nikita’s and Mircalla’s behavior after Sage’s death suggested they might.

After Mircalla died, Nikita “adopted” a foster cat we were looking after. She was a wild cat who’d been found living on the beach nearby (though she took very well to living in a house, and even taught herself to use the human toilet!). Nikita seemed to sense she needed a surrogate mommy, so even though the wild cat was full-grown, she let her curl up with her; she’d even groom her, the way a mother cat takes care of her own kitten. Eventually the wild cat decided she was secure enough that she didn’t need to depend on Nikita, though the two stayed close as long as we had her.

Nikita started to fade in mid-2011. Treatment worked for a while, but as time went on it became clear that Nikita wasn’t going to last much longer. When she began her final deterioration, it came fast. One Thursday afternoon, she collapsed while trying to use the litterbox. We kept a vigil over her as she lapsed in and out of consciousness. Just when we thought she was finally slipping away, she’d shake her head, stagger to her feet, and make her unsteady way toward the litterbox to pee. She didn’t always make it, though we did our best to help her along. But even semi-conscious, she remained conscientious, and she would not compromise her dignity by losing control of her bladder. There’s nothing particularly funny about watching someone or something you love go into a final decline — but trust vivid, unsentimental Nikita to find the closest possible thing.

She died at 8:50 on a Sunday morning in early June, 2012. We were with her. She was home, where she belonged, just over the room where her kittens were born, in almost the same spot where her daughter Sage passed away some 9 years ago. I still see her out of the corner of my eye, and I still expect to hear her foghorn meow demanding that her water bowl be refilled. Because of her, hundreds of cats that might not have lived had a chance to thrive. Because of her, thousands of unwanted kittens were never born. It’s not a bad legacy.

But 17 years are just not enough.

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One Response to 2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 1

  1. The Rev. says:

    Why did I read this? I knew it’d end up breaking my heart. Still, a very sweet, wonderful story, and that picture! Our older cat likes to lie in that position, as well, although his paws are usually tucked up under his chin.

    All right, since I’m masochistic, on to part two…

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