Posts Tagged ‘animals’

2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 2

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

I wrote earlier of losing our ancient calico cat, Nikita, in June this year. Sadly, we’ve now lost a second ancient calico cat.

We’re not sure how old Nala was. Lisa found her at a shelter-cum-clinic nearby, where she took foster cats to be spayed or neutered before being adopted. Nala — that’s the name she’d been surrendered under — was scheduled to be put down… because she was considered too old to be adopted. According to the shelter, she was eleven years old, and nobody wanted a cat that old.

(That was seven years ago! And frankly, we think the shelter’s records were off by a year or two. She could very well have been older.)

There was no way Lisa could allow this cat to be killed simply for being eleven years old. We had a very good track record at placing older cats in good homes, so Lisa filled out the paperwork and had her transferred into our care. Not long afterwards, we found a home for her with a woman who seemed perfectly sane and stable. We figured that was that.

A few months later, we got a call from the local Animal Control office. A cat had been abandoned in a carrier at the side of the road. It was Nala. When we got her back, she was all skin and bones: we thought at first that she’d been starved before being abandoned, but we soon found out what had really happened. Nala had developed a thyroid condition, and had started losing weight in a frightening manner. Her owner had panicked, but had been afraid to contact us or the local shelter. She’d left the cat on the roadside about a quarter-mile from the shelter, hoping that someone would come along and find it.

Once we got her back, we were determined that nobody would ever abandon her again. We held onto her; we got her treatment… which meant for almost a year she was living in quarantine in our bathroom. I donned rubber gloves twice a day and gave her medicine that would have seriously screwed with my metabolism if I’d ever got it on my bare skin. Eventually we contributed over a thousand dollars to getting her the radiation therapy that would stabilize her condition. And cranky though she always was, and though she would continue to have health issues for the rest of her long, long life, she became our cat de facto.

Nala started going downhill late in 2010. We thought she was about to die in November of that year, but she bounced back miraculously. For two years, she wobbled back and forth from death’s door — you know how cats are about doors: you can imagine her standing on the threshold, rubbing up against the jamb, while the Grim Reaper shouts, “Are you coming in, or aren’t you?!”

Each time she fell ill, it looked as though she couldn’t possibly recover. But then she’d spring back to life in vibrant, kitteny health, and stay well for quite a while. And with each passing year, she got sweeter and sweeter. She’d always been a good kitty in her way: demanding, yes, and irritable — it used to take a whole shift of staff at the vet’s to draw blood from her — but you expect that sort of thing with a calico. She mellowed as she aged, and seemed really to be enjoying her last years (during the times when she wasn’t actually ill).

But recently the troughs had been deeper, and the peaks of her recovery less pronounced. Her bad periods were coming more frequently, and it would take a longer for her medication to bring her out of them. The vet had warned us her body would not last much longer: her poor kidneys had shrunk to the size of raisins, and it was frankly a miracle that she’d made it as long as she had. Who even knew exactly how old she was? She was at least 17, but then again Nikita, our other ancient calico, had been 17 when she died… and up until the end she’d looked far more robust than Nala. From the look of her eyes, the vet guessed Nala could have been as old as 20 (though for my part, I suspect that when she was a kitten, dinosaurs ruled the earth).

And then we realized the end had come. Even with a cat who’d come back from the edge of doom so many times, the moment arrives when you know there will be no recovery. For Nala, that moment came abruptly. First she refused food; then she refused even water. Soon she lost the ability to stand, or even support herself. After that, nothing helped — not antibiotics, not subcutaneous fluids, not syringe-feeding; and about three days later, it was time.

And now she is gone.

I thought it might be easier to grieve when you’ve had a little practice. After all, we’ve expected Nala to die so many times that I suppose our first reaction’s been shock that it actually happened. Here’s one thing, though, that complicates matters: her special care and feeding had become a huge part of our daily routine. Now that that’s gone, everything’s changed. Habit is waiting to remind us of her, for a long time to come. A month from now, I’ll still get up early to grind a can of food with water — soft mush for the aging cat who’s gone now. I’ll realize with a shock I’m using one of her special bowls for something else. I’ll expect her to curl up with me in the night, or come to visit me while I work, as she often did, and I’ll reach out to give her her expected scratches… and it will be somebody else, and suddenly I’ll remember.

And the other thing? Old as she was, decrepit as she became, you could always see the kitten behind her eyes… up until the moment she died. It seems impossible that she should be gone. And we will miss her terribly.


2012: A Bad Year for Calicos, Part 1

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

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.


Kitty 3, Braineater 0

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Twelve years ago, we had two puppies who were less than a year old. When they went through their chewy stage, among the things they destroyed was my pristine Mattel Rodan from 1979 — they tore it to tiny vinyl shreds, really. I was surprised at how thoroughly they pulverized it. I learned a tough lesson: as long as I had animals, I just couldn’t have nice things.

I remembered that this evening, as I went to look for one of my prized possessions: a press packet for the movie Green Slime. It was an original set of promotional materials for the movie from 1968. Precisely one newspaper ad had been clipped out of the back page; evidently the movie had a very limited run at that particular theater. My plan was to scan or photograph some of the pages to go with my podcast about the movie.

I found the press kit, all right… along with the press kit for Hannah, Queen of the Vampires and my enormous 6-foot by 4-foot French poster for Lucio Fulci’s 7 Note in Nero. They had been knocked off their shelf (probably a year ago), dragged to the back of the closet behind the shelf, and shredded to make a nest for my weird little goblin cat. There’s barely a piece left of any of them that’s more than two inches long and a half an inch wide (The kitty also got the sheet music for the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto… but as I haven’t touched the instrument in 25 years, that’s not such a big deal).

I’m not as mad as I thought I’d be. After all, I’ve been in this situation before… many times. Nine years ago, someone — possibly the same cat — unerringly chose some of my favorite books off the shelf and turned them to confetti. My complete annotated collection of M.R. James ghost stories was one volume I lost. Also, I was about to write a lengthy comparison between the 1944 Ray Milland film The Uninvited (often described as the first serious ghost story in Hollywood history) and its source novel, Dorothy Macardle’s “Uneasy Freehold”; but somebody shredded the book before I got started writing. I haven’t found a replacement copy since.

The thing is, this particular kitty, who has spent most of the last 14 years hiding in a shadowy corner — Lisa calls her “the troll” — has in the last couple of years decided to become a house cat. She’s always been fond of me, if not my belongings… and now she likes to come into my room while I’m working and visit. She’ll sit on my lap and rest her greying chin on my hand as I move the mouse. She’d sit there all day, if I let her. How could I stay mad at anything that cute? And in the end, who needs “nice” when you have a cat?

I’m going to keep telling myself that, because it’s just occurred to me that I can no longer find my Seventh Voyage of Sinbad re-release poster, and some of those fragments in the closet look awfully thick…