Eight weeks ago, as described in “First Day of Forever,” I adopted two elderly cats. Although they’d lived in separate cages at the shelter and were put in separate carriers for the drive to my house, I was under the impression that I was rescuing a “bonded pair.” When they got to my house, I opened their carrier doors, and the short-haired calico then called “Lizzy” crept into the other cat’s little carrier, and they crouched there, side by side, peering at me with large, frightened, feline eyes. Seeing Lizzy purring, presumably to comfort herself and her friend, I thought, “They’ll be all right.”
Five minutes later, as they started to explore my house, they became antagonistic. One hid under the big gray couch for the first night, and the other went beneath the beige loveseat. On Sunday the short-haired calico, Lizzy, began to appear on top of the couches and then came into my bedroom. She was lying on my bed by the end of that day. Lizzy soon let me touch her and groom her. I don’t think she’d ever been brushed before; a lot of fur came out at first, and she seemed puzzled by the brushing though not opposed to it. Her fur – a lovely mixture of black and reddish-brown patches against bright white– became polished and smooth.
She soon proved to be the purringest cat I’d ever met, with a variety of purrs from baby kitten to Harley to helicopter. Lizzy started purring spontaneously, even when I wasn’t touching her; she purred as she slept. At night she’d snuggle up in my hair, or under my left arm, and purr us both to sleep.
I wanted to rename both cats. For shy, long-haired, gray-and-white Lilly, my mother suggested “Billie,” which we both liked (my mother and I, I mean: Lilly evidenced no opinion on this or any other matter: she remained hidden in the lining of the loveseat). “Silly” didn’t suit her, and “Frilly” would suit only a certain kind of female lizard. For the other cat, Lizzy, “Dizzy” or “Busy” were obvious choices to go with “Billie,” but Lizzy wasn’t dizzy or busy. Eleven years old and slightly overweight, she spent most of the day sleeping and purring.
One nap time, I was thinking of names for the cat that was drowsing above my skull, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I had her name in my head, probably dreamt there by the cat herself: Mitzi.
Lilly, the long-haired calico, whom I remembered as beautiful but who remained out of sight under the loveseat, became “Milly.” Distressed that she would not come out, I’d post my worries on Facebook, or discuss the matter with friends, and get back well-meaning, thoughtful replies. “She’s been hiding all night?” someone said at first. “My cat did that, too. Then she was fine.” After it had been a few nights, two people told me of a cat who’d hidden for a whole week.
On day four, I felt that Milly had been hiding long enough. One afternoon, I cautiously tipped back the loveseat, making sure not to trap any paws or a tail. I thought to slowly, gently lift Milly into an embrace and hold her, talking to her to introduce her to her new life. I reached gently for her and she screamed and ripped deep stripes in my forearm. Yowling, she tore off to the other room and disappeared. As I bathed my wounds with hot water, soap, and rubbing alcohol, I decided not to disturb her again.
The next day, after more searching than I would have thought possible in this tiny house, I found Milly. There’s only one closet in my house, and it’s packed with clothes, shoes, sheets, and blankets; I had looked there several times before I finally spotted her on top of a green L.L. Bean quilt-bag, underneath the long, hanging trousers. I part the coat hangers, spoke encouraging words, and then moved the trousers back into place and left her alone.
Late that evening, as Mitzi and I were reading on the bed, Milly crept silently out of the closet, heading towards the food, water, and litter box. Mitzi leapt off the bed, hissing at her, and chased her into the living room and under the loveseat. There she remained.
As the weeks went on, my friend Carol told me of a cat who’d refused to emerge for a full month, but then “came and joined the family.” At the one-month point, where I was still lying on the floor to pet my new cat, and when she was starting to come close to the edge of the couch to eat from my hand at dinnertime, my friend Theresa told me of a cat who’d taken a full year to get used to living with her. A year!
It’s now been eight weeks and one day, and I have never seen Milly emerge in daylight. I spend many hours lying on my side, reaching under the couch and into the lining, to pet and stroke her. Often my hair gets in the cat food.
At first she kept so far away from me that the only way I even knew she was in the lining was by a small, aversive movement. Over the weeks, I began propping up the loveseat on books and magazines, adding a few centimeters every few days, so that now the front is about eight inches off the ground. I also ripped the lining, so that now it’s like a cloth cave instead of a box.
Short of calling a pet psychic — $60 for 30 minutes, and in my experience they just tell me things I already know or hope are true — I’ve done everything possible to help the cats get along. I’ve given them separate beds, food and water, and litter trays; I’ve traded bedding, so they could get used to each other’s scents; I’ve tried different “therapeutic” aromatherapy and drops from Petco. Nothing has made any perceptible difference, except that moments after I plugged in the diffuser that emits the scent of a lactating mother cat, Mitzi peed on my bed.
I kept asking people how long it might take for two acrimonious cats to come to a peaceable arrangement (In the last weeks, the Republican zealot faction has shown no signs of ceasing the bullying of the Senate…). My friend Mark Hanks, a vet & Sun reader, said he’d give cats two months to settle in.
And then, as we approached the 7-week mark, and the hissing and spitting at night was getting worse, I noticed that Mitzi was licking at a sore spot on her abdomen. Thinking it was just a “hot spot,” I made a vet appointment.
Note: when I adopted these cats, although I was happy to save their lives, I said to everyone that I could not and would not prolong those lives if either animal required expensive medical treatment. In my current circumstances (broke in the USA!) I can barely pay for minimal health care for myself, let alone manage cancer or other difficult conditions in elderly cats that I’d only just adopted.
So, after just seven weeks of ownership, and about 10 minutes and $111 dollars after we arrived at the clinic, the vet diagnosed a probable tumor. He gave Mitzi an antibiotic shot and gave me ointment to apply to the red, inflamed area around her nipple. A few days later, though superficial sore had healed, it seemed clear that there was a tumor.
I had no friends available to adopt Mitzi and I could not bear returning her to a shelter, where she would languish in a cage and then be put down. I asked the vet about the cost of the surgery (about $375 if he just removed the tumor; much more to do some needed dental work as well). I then told him my unhappy circumstances and asked how much it would be to have the cat put down.
Brusquely, he said he would not put down a “potentially healthy” cat, and that if I couldn’t get the surgery done, I should take Mitzi to “a no-kill shelter.” Maybe he’s never before met anyone who had an animal they could not afford to buy surgery for. This is a rich island, and most people probably would agree with him that the removal of the tumor was a “small” operation. I could see his side of it: to him, it was 15 minutes of his time: to me, it was a month’s earnings.
I explained to him what I understand happens to no-kill shelters (as I learnt after reading the Nathan Winograd interview in The Sun, and talking to various animal-care professionals at shelters in this area). The no-kill shelters either fill up and stop taking animals, or they take in animals and send them elsewhere to be killed. If I took Mitzi to the Bishop Animal Shelter in Bradenton, as I had done with a feral cat a few months ago, she’d be locked in a cage, tested for leukaemia, and then taken to a different facility to be put down.
The vet seemed shocked by this information. “What about the Cat Depot?” he said, naming a no-kill shelter in Sarasota. I said, as respectfully as I could, that although I loved the idea of no-kill shelters, I was not going to take my cat somewhere just to be taken elsewhere to be killed. No one was going to adopt an 11-year-old cat in need of surgery, and she’d be put down after days or a week of misery. The vet again said that it was a “small” surgery, and that I should get it done.
I then was in a difficult and distressing situation. In trying adopting what I’d thought was a bonded pair of doomed elderly animals, I’d ended up with two apparent enemies, one of whom was bullying the other and had a tumor. My theoretical, simple-sounding, sensible plan to “have put to sleep” a cat whose medical bills were beyond my reach would be impossible if my vet refused to assist.
In despair, I looked in the “Pet Pages” and found a two-page ad for a vet who would come to the house to perform euthanasia. Although expensive, it seemed like the best option to end Mitzi’s suffering. I called the vet — Robin Hughes – and told her the story. She listened quietly, and I was glad to have someone who seemed not to judge me. She gave me “kudos” for adopting elderly cats, and she said she knew what it was like to be unemployed and have trouble with bills.
After I’d gotten to the part of the story where the vet refused to euthanize a nearly healthy cat, Robin made an “mm-hmm” noise, as if she agreed. I was worried that she, too, would think me cruel or irresponsible for my decision. But she didn’t. She asked if the vet had done blood work. “Is the cat otherwise healthy?” she asked. I said yes, adding how nice Mitzi is, how intelligent, and how pretty. “She’d be very adoptable,” I said, “but no one wants old cats.” On the other end of the line, Robin mmm-hmm’d again.
Then she asked, “Do you know about the Cat Depot?” I didn’t even have a chance to say how I figured they would be turning away animals, because she went on to say that she was the vet there, and she would speak to the manager about Mitzi the next day.
Twenty-four hours later, I got a call to say that Mitzi had been “accepted into the program” at the Cat Depot, which, I knew by then, was like getting a child into an exclusive private school. By looking up Cat Depot online, I’d learnt that it’s a state-of-the-art cattery. When I read that, I thought, “The state of WHAT art?” But now I know — the art of housing cats, and these people are experts!
I’ll never know why Robin Hughes listened so kindly to my story about Mitzi, nor what motivated her to encourage the manager to make a space for my cat, ahead of the more than 200 animals on the waiting list. But I will always be grateful.
I was given an appointment for Sunday, to bring in the cat and surrender her. If she tested negative for leukaemia and HIV, she’d be admitted, and begin the process of getting adopted. Calicoes went more quickly than some other kinds of cats, Robin said, and I began to hope that Mitzi might be okay. Maybe, although I had failed her, someone else could give her a good home.
Every time I looked at Mitzi, I felt relief as well as sadness. I liked her so much, especially considering that I’d had her less than two months. In that time, she’d gone from being a scared, noncommittal, rough-coated little creature with a cough to a sleek, happy, confident animal who stood up , tail erect and waggling, when I came into a room. She’d expressed a clear liking for the Zoom Groom (a purple rubber brush that massages the cat) and an equally strong distaste for the red grooming glove (which picks up hair via static electricity). Although she clearly had been taught not to go on any furniture (except beds and couches), I was able to teach her – with many Whisker Lickin’ chicken & cheese treats – to take her first steps onto my desk, and to look out the window. This cat had lived indoors for eleven years, and she showed no inclination to seek out sunlight or even look outdoors. But after a few weeks, she had begun gazing outside, and lately to pay rapt attention to passing birds and creeping lizards.
Unlike any cat I’d ever known, Mitzi would reach up to my nose for a sniff, as cats do to each other, and when I was grooming her, she’d purr and reach down to my arm and nuzzle and lick me, to show her appreciation. I thought that she was very intelligent.
But she continued to harass and bully Milly. But I still didn’t have any peace about the decision to abandon my responsibility. I had not slept at all well for several days, instead lying awake and petting her, worrying.
I talked to my friend Joan H. about the situation, telling her that I’d failed Mitzi. She sympathized, but she said in her view, I’d succeeded in saving the cats’ lives, and I was going to act as a conduit to get Mitzi to her next owner: that made me feel better.
I also told my friend Sy Safransky about how terrible I felt, and he said – I think – that it was because I was aware of the suffering of the animals, and my self-recrimination was a form of ego, because I wanted to be the one to control and prevent the suffering. At the time, I understood what he meant, but later, trying to explain to Ann D., I couldn’t get quite clear on it. One of the vows of a Buddhist, and the only religious vow I’ve ever believed in, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings. As a human who wants to alleviate suffering of animals, and as an ethical vegetarian, how could I accept that any animals, let alone my own pets, would suffer at my hands? Sy helped me to see that this was my ego causing me more distress, but I’m still trying to understand how I can try to alleviate suffering without ego attachment.
I spent Sunday morning composing Mitzi’s biography, which I packed along with Mitzi’s food, bedding, and treats and some other donations for the Cat Depot. I spent a long time grooming her, making sure that her coat and her skin were in top condition for the next people to see her – hoping they’d admire, enjoy, and want to adopt her.
She knew the cat-carrier when I brought it into the bedroom, and, sadly, her last ten minutes in my home were spent horribly, with me trying to trick/catch her and her evading me, till I finally grabbed her from the back of the closet and dropped her into the upended carrier, where she curled into a ball and started crying. She cried most of the way to Sarasota.
I cried, too. I thought about the nature of suffering, and how little of it I let myself feel. Sy said something about how we all are surrounded by suffering, whether or not we let ourselves be aware of it. I’d thought that, because I listen to the BBC news and read The Sun, I was aware of human pain and suffering globally. And yet, feeling the sadness of my cat, I realized that I usually block out nearly all the suffering around me.
Mitzi is just one, very lucky, very privileged pet animal, who in her life in the USA has suffered far less than many human beings endure daily. So far as I know, she’s never been hungry or thirsty or neglected or abused. If she died, it would be quickly and humanely; if she lived, she’d always have food and attention and stimulation. She’s not suffering very much, relative even to that of the animals living on the city streets we were then driving through.
My cat’s unease and discomfort at being trapped in a carpeted carrier in an air-conditioned car would count as less than a trillion of all the suffering of all the creatures on earth, if such feelings were measurable. If it were possible to weigh Mitzi’s misery on a scale, it wouldn’t even nudge the needle.
Yet I cried because she was crying, and I could feel her sadness and fear. Empathetic grief made me so sad and distracted that I could barely drive.
But Mitzi cried less as we drove south. The sun shone into the carrier, and she had her head in the light; at first I thought she was enjoying the warmth, but then I saw she was panting. I turned up the AC to mid-winter temperatures, but I think the panting was from fear. I talked in my most soothing voice, using the words I hoped she’d recognize: “Mitzi, good girl, Mitzi, you’re a good girl, you’re going to be okay.” I told her how sorry I was, how I hoped I was doing the right thing, how I couldn’t cope with both her medical needs and Milly’s shyness. But she didn’t seem to hear me, and even if she could, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Nothing I could do would help.
Before going into the Cat Depot, I composed myself, remembering what my mother and friends had said: that this was the best option. Mitzi would have her best chance at a real “forever home” by coming here.
And still, when I put the carrier on the desk and the lady in reception asked me if we were there for shots, I started crying again and couldn’t speak. I just shook my head: No, not there for shots. She said, softly, “For adoption?” and I nodded a slow yes.
She called the vet tech, whom I gathered from the receptionist’s end of the phone conversation was not expecting us. I waited, petting Mitzi, who was terrified, crouching wide-eyed at the far end of her carrier.
After ten minutes, a young, smiling brunette woman in teal scrubs came out and greeted us cheerfully. I followed her into the exam room. A English-accented man, a volunteer, came and carried Mitzi’s carrier for me. He talked to the cat, but although he was speaking kindly, I thought that his loud, masculine, and unknown voice would scare her.
Andie and another female volunteer petted and soothed Mitzi, asking me about her. Mitzi, amazingly, didn’t fight them; she seemed relatively calm. Andie asked about the tumor. She felt and looked at the blue-black spot under Mitzi’s nipple and said that although she couldn’t make a diagnosis, as she’s not a vet, she didn’t seem to feel a very big tumor.
I was glad to hear it, and I repeated what I’d told Robin and the director, Constance – that if by chance Mitzi did not have a tumor, I’d like to have her back. I’d then continue to try to get her and Milly to leave peaceably together. It wasn’t just the surgery, and it wasn’t just the fact of their fighting – it was the combination of the two factors that made me unable to keep Mitzi. I was crying off and on, and trying to get them to read the biography I’d brought, and asking questions, and probably babbling in my distress. I repeated myself a lot. I asked if I could, for sure, get Mitzi back if she didn’t require surgery.
“Oh, sure,” Andie said. And then, she said the words that would change everything: “Or if we do remove the tumor, you might be able to adopt her back.”
It wasn’t up to her to make the decisions, she said, but it was not uncommon or unheard of for a cat to come in, get surgery and be prepared for adoption, and then for the person who’d brought the animal in to be called and offered the first chance to adopt.
I started crying harder, feeling relief and hope like a small warm cloud around me. For the second time in a week, I felt not just lucky but blessed: that I would be able to have Mitzi back at home, well and whole, with only the socialization problem to deal with, seemed miraculous.
The volunteer and I held Mitzi as the vet tech took blood and did an exam; in between the vet’s attentions, the volunteer held Mitzi to her chest, wrapped up in a towel. Mitzi’s eyes were open, but she was no longer staring around in terror; with the gray towel wrapped close around her head like a babushka, she seemed to feel safe.
Bobby, the big English man who’d brought Mitzi in, offered me a tour of the facility, which I was glad to see. It’s the best animal shelter I’ve ever seen. Purpose-built four years ago, it has (yes) state-of-the-art ventilation, natural light, and super-clean, comfortable enclosures for groups of up to nine cats. Each “pod” is the size of a small bedroom, furnished with specially designed, color-co-ordinated, soft furnishings. The litter boxes, out of sight underneath a bench, have a separate ventilation & fan system from the rest of the building. The air was as fresh as if we were outdoors, although considerably cooler. In each of a half-dozen offices where the staff work, one “special needs” cat lived, with its own bedding and toys, and its own private person there at least 40 hours a week.
At the Cat Depot, there are about 125 cats there at any time. Last year, they found homes for nearly 900 cats and they hope to place 1000 this year. About half of those cats, the ones who’ve been there the longest, have access to the outdoors in the form of small, wire-fenced patios, where the cats can lie in the sun or the shade anytime they want. They’re all fed Science Diet, plus wet food and treats, and volunteers come daily to play with, read to, brush and pet the cats. Each pod has a television (!) playing soft sounds (all the same channel, human voices and nature sounds) and showing a video of a warm fire in a fireplace! There are toys, cushions, play spaces, scratching posts, climbing pillars, and lots of cubbyholes, padded benches and bed-boxes.
Now, the furnishings and so on were lovely – what other animal shelter has matching cushions in every room, or has different rooms in different earth colors? (When I put Mitzi in the cage where she’d spend the night, I got to pick between soft orange, blue, or green.) But what impressed me most was that, with the exception of one cat awaiting surgery, every cat I saw – over 100 – looked calm and peaceful. Not one was mewing or appeared to be in distress – not even the “pudgy pod” where the cats are all on diets!
In the pods were people playing with the cats with feather dusters and laser lights, reading to the cats (Dewey is a big hit; all the books seemed to be cat-themed), petting them, and generally giving the cats great attention. One woman, Donna, was speaking sweetly to and brushing a long-haired black and white cat. I asked her if she might pet my cat later, and she not only promised to do so but came back with me later to meet Mitzi and hear her story and start getting to know her. Donna even knew how to blink at a cat — both eyes, slowly — which is a feline signal of comfort.
Bobby, the man who showed me around, assured me that he knew how I felt and promised that they’d take wonderful care of Mitzi. He told me about his own – blind! – cat, from that shelter, who now has a great life. He said his wife would be in the next day to pet Mitzi specially. I ended up hugging him, and Donna, and wanting to hug everyone else, too – but the vet tech and the director, Shelley, were by then engaged with a set of kittens that had just come in.
As sad as I was to have to leave Mitzi anywhere other than home, I could not have imagined a better outcome than this – at least not short of a private home. I feel beyond lucky that, as Joan says, my good intention for Mitzi has had this result – and more than anything I feel grateful to the good people of the Cat Depot. I have already emailed them offering to join as a volunteer on their grant-writing committee; I have already decided where the bulk of my contributions this year will go.
And now, finally, I can turn my attention to the other cat whom I offered, and promised, a “forever home.”