Ollie and pet rescue

The new Ollie having milkWe are suckers for the face of a cat at the window, a hungry cat, a cold cat, a lost cat, a cat someone has abandoned to fend for themselves and is doing a poor job of it. The pleading eyes, the rough coat, the quiet shiver in the rain or the cold. How can you turn away from that and still call yourself human?

Ollie, our latest addition to our household, was one of those faces, quite recently. We had seen him in the neighbourhood for a few weeks, getting thinner each time we caught a glimpse. We asked neighbours and no one recognized him, or thought we were seeing another stray – a feral black cat nicknamed Buddy. It wasn’t, we knew that right away.

This cat wasn’t feral. Although timid, he would let you approach – slowly, talking calmly – or would approach you if you sat very still and spoke to him. Then he was affectionate and sometimes even a bit vocal. Clearly he had been a household cat at some time. He would sometimes show up on the back deck, looking inside, very evidently lost and hungry. A long nose, lovely face that reminded us of a former cat we had loved for many, many years: Ollie. Our heartstrings were being tugged.

Coincidentally, I recently began reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, by Steven Kotler. It deals with dog rescue, human-canine relations, the meaning of life and the meaning of compassion to our core beings. Cats and dogs have a different relationship with humans, but the core ethical and moral questions remain the same, regardless of which you rescue (or which you refuse to help). It’s a bigger issue than just one animal, or even one species.

Kotler helped remind me that we have a responsibility that is greater than what or who we are. More than to one another, more than just to our species: we have a responsibility towards all life. Our own life is about making moral and ethical choices. And there was one staring at us through the patio door. No matter how we chose, there would be consequences.

We debated what to do. Adopt or call the humane society? The Georgian Triangle Humane Society is a great place run by wonderful, caring people, but they already have a shelter full of unwanted cats and dogs, of pets people got tired of, or whose circumstances changed. Why burden them more with another? We both accept that we, as compassionate humans, have a responsibility to other species, so why fight the inevitable?

But, our common sense argued, what about the other two cats? The dog? How will they handle a newcomer? Can we afford another cat, what with the food and the vet bills and our reduced seniors’ income? What if he proves aggressive? Or has an illness that requires treatment? Will he spray or claw furniture or even use the litter boxes? What if he’s trouble?

Altruism comes with a price. Taking care of strays – especially sick or troubled ones or strays of unknown provenance – can be both emotionally and physically draining, not to mention expensive. We’ve spent more on medical care for our cats and dogs than on ourselves (well, that’s in part thanks to universal healthcare that allows us not to sink into debt over our own maintenance). They get regular care, the best food and are treated not as property but as co-voyageurs on our life’s trip.
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The last walk

Sophie and Bella in the snow“You have to go to the pound. They have a Sheltie there.” Susan called me from work, her voice urgent. One of her clients had told her a Sheltie – Shetland Sheepdog – had been picked up by Animal Control and was in the pound, on Stewart Road about to come up for adoption. She added, “I already have a name for her.”

This was in the late spring of 2008. It had been a couple of years since we had a dog and she knew I missed having one. We had had some great dogs in the past, including a purebred blue merle Sheltie called Wellington. Wellie for short. A beautiful, well mannered, smart and affectionate dog. Robust, working dog type of Sheltie, not one of those overbred scrawny things you see around too often. Wellie was lovely, but died of cancer too soon. It broke our hearts.

But we’d also had some bad luck.The two most recent dogs – a Papillon named Katy and a Corgi named Topper – had been neurotic and difficult. While Katy – a former breeding dog we got at age 6 or 7 – was merely timid. Topper was crazy. Severe separation anxiety made him destroy everything in his presence if we weren’t there to oversee his every minute. Katy lived out her natural life with us, loved for all her strangeness. Topper we had to return to the breeder after a frustrating year trying every tactic and therapy: he chewed up one couch, one chair, one pillow, one pair of shoes, one baseboard, too many. I didn’t think Susan would ever allow us to get another after that.

So we just had cats. I love my cats, but I missed having a dog underfoot, interacting with me. Susan knew it. I missed the companionship, the walks, the unquestioning loyalty and affection of a dog. She liked dogs, but prefers cats, and didn’t really want another dog. Yet she knew how much it meant to me. Her call came as a delightful surprise.

I left the store and drove over to the pound. There she was: a beautiful, tri-colour dog. Long hair, great ruff. Not a Sheltie, though. Close, but too big for one, even for the likes of Wellie. Maybe part. Too small for a Collie. More likely a mix. Calm, a little scared, but she let me check her out, just sat and watched me every moment. Patient. An adult, apparently a mother at least once. I liked her, but it’s not the sort of decision you make alone.

Sophie, Nov. 2008The dog, I was told, had been abandoned, right here in town. The family who owned her moved, and left her tied to a tree. A couple of days later, neighbours called animal control. She was in a kennel with another dog – a bigger, playful, somewhat loopy Shepherd cross who wanted my attention and kept pushing in between us. But I only had eyes for the Sheltie cross. She was beautiful.

I arranged for the officer to hold her until the evening when Susan could join me. As soon as she saw the dog, Susan was in love with her. Sophie, she called her. We never regretted it for a moment after.
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Goodbye, Cleo

CleoCleo was an accidental member of the family. Twelve to fifteen years ago – long enough that the exact date is hazy in my mind – she came to us. Well, she was delivered, actually. And yesterday she left us.

One late winter day, back then, I was at home, getting ready to go to the shop, when a woman from the Georgian Bay Animal Rescue group showed up with a carrying case. We are in desperate need of some foster homes, she said. Short term, just until we find a more permanent home. It’s just one cat. She won’t be any bother. Can you help us?

What could I say but yes? We’ve always been a sucker for cats, and usually had three or four in the house – and had seen as many as seven living with us. All foster care, rescues, strays or adoptions.

Cleo, as we later called her, was a stumpy, compact little black female. She had been found up on Blue Mountain, under a porch, freezing in the snow and ice that bitterly cold winter. She had had a litter of kittens, which had all died in the cold. She was feral, but they had spayed her, vaccinated her. She was just a little shy, the woman added.

Little shy? She was terrified of humans. She darted out of the crate into the basement where she vanished. I didn’t even get a good look at her. We didn’t see her for weeks. We had other cats, and two dogs, so we couldn’t be sure if she was even eating the food we put out every day.

Finally, we started to get worried. A feral cat wouldn’t be house-smart, and might find her way into a wall, or somewhere she couldn’t escape. We were pretty sure she’d never even seen stairs before our home. Where was she?

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