My Favorite Feral, and My EnlightenmentPosted: October 16, 2010
“I caught this little gray kitten,” my niece was saying, a little breathless. “I have her in a box, she kind of has diarrhea, but she’s okay. We can’t keep her, can you come and get her?” Jennifer knew I’d move the earth to rescue a cat and didn’t need to ask twice.
It was September, 1987, and my niece had tracked me down at my mother’s house where I was probably doing some sort of work on a Sunday; my father had recently moved to a nursing home and while he’d been ill I’d taken over caring for the house. I was also trying to convince my mother to adopt one of my rescued foster cats now that she was alone in the house. I’d gladly give up cleaning the gutters or whatever I was doing to see a new kitty, and perhaps this could be the kitty my mother would adopt.
I was met at the door of my sister’s house by two excited girls, my niece, Jennifer, then 14, and her little sister Lindsey, then 5—what children don’t like to feel they’ve done good by rescuing a lost animal? My sister was out for a few hours so the girls were taking care of the kitten, but each of them already had a cat and they knew that was the limit for the household.
They took me to the box where they’d stashed the kitten, and a tiny gray wisp with matted fur looked up at me with a tired expression in green eyes. I didn’t see or smell diarrhea, but my niece told me something clear had been coming out of its butt now and then, and the kitten hadn’t really eaten anything.
I picked the kitten up and it fit easily in two cupped hands, wavering unsteadily but without reacting to my handling, the expression unchanged. Jennifer and Lindsey had weighed the kitten on their mother’s postal scale, and she came in at 14 ounces.
I hadn’t rescued too many kitties yet, and to my untrained eye the kitten looked fine, just tired, and I was glad not to be fighting with a raging demon as could often be the case.
The feral colonies at Kane Hospital
Jennifer told me she’d seen this kitten around the neighborhood on her paper route for at least the past month and tried to catch her, but the kitten kept escaping across the street to the old nursing home, now closed.
This had been the original Kane Hospital, a multi-story facility providing nursing care for severely handicapped and elderly patients. It was in a suburban neighborhood on the top of a hill surrounded on three sides by steep wooded slopes, and around that by developed neighborhoods—the perfect recipe for welcoming a feral cat colony. The building obviously provided food services along with housing which meant dumpsters with food scraps, and employees who would see the cats sneak onto the grounds from the surrounding woods and would feed them, as anyone would seeing a stray cat.
For some reason this kitten had decided to visit the neighborhood across the street. Perhaps it had been someone’s kitten and gotten lost, or perhaps it had followed one of the owned or stray cats that lived in the neighborhood and may have visited or joined one of the colonies at the home.
Tangled in grass by a puddle…hence the name
In any case, that day had been rainy with lots of puddles left behind, wet grass and weeds and damp piles of leaves. Jennifer said she had chased the kitten one more time and it had gotten tangled in tall wet grass at the edge of the hospital property, fallen and nearly landed in a puddle, but the kitten didn’t get up again, just laid there. She was afraid it had died, but it was still breathing when she got to it, and didn’t fight when she picked it up and carried it home.
A cursory glance at the kitten’s hind end showed no trace of stool and no smell, but what looked like boy’s parts on the kitten’s emaciated frame. A closer look at the rest of the kitten’s tiny body revealed loose fur and bones, no apparent muscle or fat, and that tired, aged expression suddenly looked strangely wise. I pronounced the kitten a boy and named him “Moses” for his gray fur, the wisdom in his eyes, and the fact that he’d gotten tangled in some reeds by a puddle. Naming rescued cats can often be a hasty activity, whatever comes to mind for any reason will often become the name, and so it was in this case.
Still having work to do at my mother’s house, I took the kitten and the box back there. We had roasted chicken so I set him on the kitchen floor and attempted to feed him little bits of chicken, which he weakly chewed and swallowed, swaying back and forth, sometimes falling over. Small amounts of clear liquid were seeping out of his butt, and his expression was fading. Though I had hopes of getting him into a good condition and convincing my mother to keep him, I knew this condition wasn’t good so I got him comfortable, finished what I was doing, and took him home.
Distemper, I was thinking, though he hadn’t vomited, but it was the only thing I knew at the time and I’d seen many bedraggled kittens who turned out to have the illness and died. He went immediately into the bathroom, door tightly closed; I had four other cats at the time and though they had their shots it was best not to expose them to whatever the kitten might have. My regular veterinarian was closed, and although they offered an emergency service I decided just to observe the kitten to see if he survived the night, then decide what to do with him.
The Natural Cat, and my first steps into really caring for my cats
All I had was dry food, and not very good food at that. Oh, the days prior to the enlightenment, but this kitten would open the door for me to a new way of caring for cats. I had just finished reading The Natural Cat by Anitra Frazier and Norma Eckroate, that original version published in 1981, learning all about feline diets, health issues and behavior from an entirely new perspective, but one I’d been looking for. The book reinforced my ideal that cats weren’t just indoor-outdoor disposable/replaceable pets with food and healthcare optional but viable objects of love and affection deserving the best home we could offer any animal companion. At work I was the crazy cat lady so I just kept quiet about my cats, but at home they were becoming increasingly important in my life, inspirations for art and writing, their beauty and affection filling my thoughts, and I was ready to move forward to a new level of living with cats.
I got some canned food, running off to a pet store for Science Diet which had been mentioned in the book and was all that was available then in higher quality canned food. I also cooked up a chicken, and hand fed both to the quiet little kitten along with a few droppers of water. Moses lived through the night and though he stayed curled in his towel-filled box the next day he seemed more alert. He had had some difficulty passing stool so I massaged his hips until he went; mild diarrhea began after that, but it didn’t seem to upset him.
Monday morning I was able to make an appointment for him for that night after work. He was still quiet and listless when I got home and packed him in the carrier, and while I thought he looked great the veterinarian (there were several at this practice) had a skeptical look on his face when I handed Moses to him.
He looked Moses over—to my surprise “he” was a “she”, those protruding pelvic bones were what I thought were little testicles and her fur was so matted I couldn’t see much else. Saying the kitten was a little weak he advised me to take her home and keep her comfortable and “when she feels better”, bring her back for her shots. She didn’t apparently have any illnesses, no signs of distemper or anything, she was just very weak. Feed her and make sure she drank water, he said.
I could do that, so, Natural Cat in hand, I got baby food, more Science Diet, and cooked up a little meal for Moses that seemed appropriate for “recovery”. I also got a case of Science Diet for my other cats. I wasn’t quite ready for the raw diet yet, or to cook meals for them.
A distinct change in personality
Moses seemed stronger each day and the food disappeared, and though I had to teach her about the litterbox she was a quick learner. We were getting along fine, which was why I was shocked on Wednesday morning when she looked up at me as usual when I went into the bathroom, but her expression changed to pure horror and she scurried behind the toilet, hissing. I couldn’t get my hands on her and just had to put out her food, take my shower and go to work. She hid every time I came into the room, no longer hissing but obviously terrified and only a week or two of patiently sitting in there reading helped her finally emerge while I was in there, but only to run past me to her protected box from which she eyed me warily. This was confusing—I’d only seen kittens grow friendlier!
Soon I deemed her well enough to return to the vet, thinking I’d lose the little trust I’d gained by stuffing her into a carrier and into the car and exposing her to more strangers and shots and other handling, but I felt she needed an exam and her shots. I still considered her a foster, not one of my household, and she needed to be ready to adopt, whenever that would be.
Nearly starved to death?
There were no dramatics at the vet, she just closed her eyes and tried to climb into corners and armpits. The veterinarian was the same as before and looked a little surprised. “You mean she survived?” he asked.
“Well…sure,” I answered confused. What had he expected?
“She appeared to be in the final stages of starvation when you brought her in,” he said. He explained the clear mucous she was emitting at first meant she hadn’t had anything but maybe water in her intestines for a week, maybe more, and her body had begun to shut down. Even with food and water she didn’t have much of a chance of survival because her body might not turn around and begin to function normally again. He knew I rescued and fostered cats and felt the kitten’s best chances were just to go home and be carefully fed and cared for, as he knew I’d do.
I had no idea she’d been so close to death. I was a little angry he hadn’t told me, but perhaps it would only have frightened me.
Even though she weighed about two pounds by that time, he noted that she was a little older than I’d thought, probably four or five months judging by the development of her bones and really needed to gain some weight.
First nutrition, then socialization
More lessons for me to learn. No other cat I’d rescued had ever taken this long to acclimate to its new surroundings and I was tempted to pick her up and handle her to get her used to it, chase her out of her room to play and explore the rest of the house, act like a “normal” cat. Something about her, something in her expression, told me just to be patient, let her work it out. Only years later did I learn the specifics of feral cats, but long before that Moses taught me to let the kitty figure it out first.
The bathroom was inconvenient, though, so after that visit to the vet I moved her to the spare bedroom, transferring all her stuff then gently picking up her box and setting it down in the corner of the room. I used the room for crafts at the time, and while I did spend time in there I also worked a lot of hours and had five other cats to care for when I came home, plus my mother’s house and my father to visit on the weekend. Things would be different today when I work at home and can spend more time with fosters, but for the first few months Moses spent most of her time under the day bed when I was in there, just under the dust ruffle watching me, and very quiet. Eventually she would come out to eat, and finally came out to brazenly sit and look at me but trying to touch her frightened her, and I would rather die than frighten her.
I began leaving the door open when I was in there, and then when I was upstairs, and eventually the other cats wandered in and they could now meet the little soul they’d been smelling on me and under the door. At least I could see that she continued to grow and was much less fearful than she had been, though I thought I’d never be able to touch her again.
Another foster joins us
The following April a stray and very pregnant kitty wandered down my sidewalk singing pleasantly on a cold night. Aside from the bathroom, my only room for fostering was Moses’ room, as I had come to call it, and it was difficult to keep my other cats from running into the bathroom with me.
Moses had explored the upstairs and sometimes come downstairs even coming to the kitchen for mealtime, and had found a safe harbor in Stanley. I would sometimes see them walking together, Moses cuddling against his side for safety. It might be time to take a chance and see if she had managed to acquaint herself with the house and the household.
She was not in her room so I closed the door, went outside and picked up the mama kitty and carried her upstairs (purring), and installed her in the spare bedroom. Moses was a little frightened when she found her door was closed, but as it turned out she had mingled with the rest of the household enough that she followed their habits of showing up at mealtime and even eventually coming into the bedroom.
The Velveteen Kitty
We did make friends, Moses and I, though she was 12 before she sat on my lap, and I could never pet her with both hands, only one at a time. Long before she trusted me enough to pet her, I was besotted with her shy and gentle personality, and as long as I didn’t make any attempt to pick her up or entrap her in any way, or any loud noises or fast moves, she would sit near me purring and blinking at me happily. I nearly cried with happiness when she did this. With her thick gray fur and sweet personality—“If she was any sweeter, she’d melt,” I always said—I called her The Velveteen Kitty.
When other people entered the house, she sidled off behind something and seemed to disappear. If she was frightened and couldn’t hide she rolled up in a ball and hid her face but never ran away. And she was absolutely silent, only after several years giving a little “silent meow” but only talking slightly to herself late at night when she would play alone with a bizzy ball downstairs.
A slight disability
I initially thought she was simply too wary or frightened to run and play like other kittens, but I also noticed that sometimes her hind legs wobbled. She could jump short distances but certainly not like the others, and she never ran but only trotted and went up and down the steps like a bunny. But when her hind legs didn’t seem to catch up to the rest of her body I asked the veterinarian about it and had her X-rayed. Her legs had seemed to quit developing at some point, the joint not completed and working properly, the bones smaller than they should be, the muscles undeveloped. Whether this was from prenatal or post-natal nutrition, a genetic condition or all of the above no one could know. Though she couldn’t run and play, and could only sit or lie down and only do a partial cat stretch, she never let this get in her way of enjoying her day.
When glucosamine/condroiton supplements became available I gave her the pills for about a month. It made no difference in her ability, and while she tolerated the pill she gave me one of her very direct looks and headed for a spot of sunshine, or asked to be allowed into her outside areas so she could soak in the sunshine. This was her preferred therapy.
Any animal born and raised with the conditions Moses met in her first few months, then left with the resulting physical and emotional challenges, has all due right to complain, act out or simply give up. But aside from a certain stubbornness, none of these was in her repertoire. I have never met a gentler, quieter, more peaceful soul than Moses, the shy feral kitten and timid adult who became the safe harbor for other frightened kittens I’ve fostered through the years.
And I certainly learned to let the kitty figure it out for themselves and not force my attentions on them. I’ve trapped and rescued many ferals and frightened strays since Moses, and I’m ever glad this patient, gentle soul came first to teach me how it works.
My little garden sprite
In her later years she was the spirit of my garden, her main goal to find the sunniest spot on some nice, warm bricks and have a really good nap as birds, voles and other creatures went about their daily habits to her sleepy disregard. She quit running when strangers arrived as her hearing and eyesight began to fail in her later teens and she simply wasn’t as aware of them. She made it to her nineteenth year, accepting all of her physical limitations but enjoying life no less than some other cats who race around the house, beg for attention and steal food.
She simply suffered from old age, but had no specific condition. I was surprised—after her beginnings I had expected her to be frail through her life, but as organs began to fail and it was obvious there was nothing I could do but keep her comfortable, my veterinarian reminded me that she lived through her early experience largely on her own inner strength and that was how she had gotten to be 19. She still had that strength and faced her own weakening condition resolutely. The only time in her life she ever made a real meow was the day she literally told me it was time; lying with her back to me, unusual enough, she lifted her head and let out one long, loud meow that raised my hackles and left me with gooseflesh, but I clearly knew what it meant.
Poetry Inspired by Moses
After staying up all night at an emergency clinic one night in January, I had to leave her at another veterinarian for the next day to get her fully stabilized after a bout of congestive heart failure. She’s tough as a rock and, to everyone’s surprise, persisted and recovered. Sitting in the veterinarian’s office waiting to pick her up I could not stop the tears, knowing what I would face. Suffering from an excess of emotions myself, something that’s only slowed me down but never killed me, I had to do something creative or completely burst into tears while…
At the Vet’s, Waiting for Moses
I remembered a moment earlier in the day
even through the fear and pain of your impending death:
in that moment when I reached out to you
and you firmly rubbed your face against my hand,
nuzzled your nose between my finger and thumb
and lifted your chin for me to scratch underneath,
eyes squinting at me, whiskers curved forward, nose crumpled;
you, reassuring me.
The look in your eyes wipes the tears from my face
and I can, for the moment,
spontaneously smile and love you completely as of old,
above our grief.
I was lucky enough to be out in the woods a day or two after we realized it was the final challenge for Moses and she would not have long to live. Assisting a living being through the last course of its life is never easy to watch or to act upon, especially with an animal who doesn’t communicate as we do. Reading the signs and simply performing palliative care can be more difficult than critical care, but with a big dose of love in both directions it is bearable. I wrote the poem below, except for the last two stanzas, when I knew I’d be facing this realization, and only prayed for the strength and wisdom to do the right thing by Moses. I wrote the last two stanzas while sitting up with her the night before I knew I’d have her put to sleep, when I felt I could sum up what we had done.
Things I Found in the Woods
Tiny rivulets of water released from thawing soil
flowing beneath last year’s debris, trickling and gurgling down hills
hurrying before the freeze returns.
A cup-shaped fungus holding a tablespoon of snowmelt
for a song sparrow to sip, giving early practice to its vernal melody
for the time when spring arrives in earnest.
Ferns, newly-green, draped on hillsides,
fluttering like garlands in the caressing, mild breeze
eager to gather a little nourishment to last the rest of the winter.
Fallen trees blanketed with bright green moss,
thick and lush already in the brief January thaw
filling a span of life in but a few days.
Four young white-tailed deer, capricious as the gusts,
feeling the flush of their first spring as adults
even though this intoxicating weather is fleeting.
An understanding of the normal cycles of birth and rebirth,
but also the confidence to grasp the moment for what it offers
even at the risk of pain and loss when the natural season returns.
A fraction of your dignity in accepting the end of your cycle in this existence,
and the courage to accompany and assist you with strength borne of love
as you transition from this beautiful world into the next.
Dusk in the Woods
Shortly after that I began one of my most soulful paintings, “Dusk in the Woods”. My precious Moses was nearing her end as I worked on it, me all through the night at my easel, her at my feet, every day losing a little more physical control as, at 19, her body just began giving out. I needed a project as big as this to bear the process of her loss, and in turn my strength and calm as I worked helped Moses.
I will always connect this painting with her, and those late nights when I disappeared into this scene in order to paint it from memory. There is more symbolism about the season and time of day than I can list here to associate with loss and rebirth, the cycles and seasons.
Meeting Deb Chebatoris and Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation
Losing Moses was when I first met this wonderful person and business. I had Moses cremated as I do all my cats. As she cremated Moses Deb called, explaining that she didn’t want me to think she was crazy and that she didn’t see visions in things, but Moses’ cremains—the bones left after the flesh has burned away—just glowed and were radiant white, and were the most beautiful cremation she’s ever seen. She waited a bit to process the bones, or grind them up, because she wanted to look at them, and she wasn’t sure about calling me for fear I’d think she was a little loose. I was glad she called. I always knew that Moses was beautiful from the inside out, I just didn’t know it was literal.
My little feral kitty
They all teach me lessons, and hers was one of peace and patience in the face of all that happens; with love, everything works out right.
…and if you’ve read the story, yes, I think she was loved enough to be real…