We 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.
When we moved here, in 1990, we brought seven cats, three dogs and one ferret. I had worked at the Toronto Humane Society for a couple of years, and been a volunteer there for about the same time before that. I often brought my work home – cats and dogs that were difficult, not easily adopted. Litters of kittens with respiratory illness. Pregnant females. And we took in some neighbourhood stray cats, too. And for a while I ran a ferret shelter from our basement because most area pounds weren’t taking them in and simply killed (‘euthanized”) them.
We’d found homes for many animals we took in, but not all. Some stayed with us – like those we moved here with. It made for a hectic, crowded, busy house, but we loved them all. And they loved us back. Anyone who thinks dogs and cats are incapable of deeply felt emotions, or can’t empathize with human emotions, is deluding themselves.
I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, and an even softer one for animal rescue. I was once told I suffered from too much compassion for animals, but if so it’s an affliction I proudly bear. And so does Susan. We have taken in many troubled, difficult animals over the years and done our best for them. Two years ago, our little cat, Cleo, had passed away – a feral cat who had been brought in as a temporary foster care animal and had been with us more than a dozen years.
Around 2000, a black cat – part Burmese, and huge (>20 lbs) – showed up at our door looking for food and company. Long, classic nose and a handsome face. We took him in and called him Ollie. He was smart, gentle, aloof sometimes, but a lovely gentleman who stayed with us for another dozen or so years until as he aged in comfort and affection. We had around five cats at the time. Ollie ignored them and moved in.
Over the years since, our herd thinned, mostly from old age after a long, comfortable life. We adopted others – stray cats who appeared at our door with sad eyes. We got dogs from the pound and later the shelter. But by the beginning of 2017, we were down to two cats and two dogs, all rescues. That thinned even more this spring, when our beloved Sophie – a beautiful, gentle and loving Sheltie cross – got an untreatable, incurable cancer at age 13 and we had to have her put to sleep. So one dog (Bella, a seven-year-old Jack Russel cross from the GTHS), and two cats, both about 12 years old, both adopted from the GTHS around a decade ago.
It seemed a comfortable mix. We would take all three out with us to sit on the front porch in summer evenings (the cats on leashes, since they never go outdoors except on a leash), while we read and had our glass of wine. Everything thing was in balance, it seemed. Harmony was achieved.
Until the black cat showed up. Damn, Chaos ruled again. The nights were getting colder, the coyotes roamed the dark streets, and raccoons and skunks live nearby. We couldn’t let him struggle in that dangerous environment. Neither one of us is capable of turning our back on an animal in need, let alone harm one. That’s one of the main reasons neither of us eats mammals. They deserve better.
We got the cat – unnamed at that stage – in through a bit of trickery (look! food! just inside the door… come in and get it…!), and let him go in the house, closed the door. He immediately went downstairs and hid, crammed into a little space under the stairs, unsure what had just happened to him. We left him alone, and within a few hours, he was wandering around the basement, checking out the space. He didn’t like the other cats, though and there was hissing and growling in their presence, but no fights. He hunkered down in the dark and stayed out of sight.
The next day, we found his hiding place, coaxed him out with more food, and took him to the vet for shots, deworming and a checkup (no microchip found). Somewhere around three or four years old, in reasonably good health, considering. He was calm and patient while the vet prodded and poked and stuck needles in him. Not even a little hiss. So it seemed he was used to humans, and maybe even vet visits. He didn’t even struggle when we put him back into the kennel cab for the trip home.
He looks so very much like the old Ollie we took in, many years ago. So much so they might be close relatives. Long nose, black fur that shows a rich, chocolate brown in the sunlight, long canine teeth and big bones. And he has a similar temperament: calm, a little aloof, but not unfriendly. Very Burmese. We just had to call him Ollie again.
He has found a place to sleep on one of my tool cases, on a lower shelf, and has spent a lot of his time there, even though it isn’t the most comfortable (he hasn’t discovered any of the numerous cat beds littered around the house or our own bed…). He allows us to come and talk, and to pet him. And sometimes he uncurls and enjoys the touch of our hands, showing so with a soft purr. I suspect he will soon move upstairs, but we’re letting him take his own time to do so.
So whatthehell, he was ours. Or rather, he was part of the family, since cats don’t have owners, but servants and groomers. We shrugged and opened a bottle of wine to drink to his health. Taking in strays, showing compassion to the less fortunate, and taking responsibility for doing good even when you’re not at fault for the bad is what people ought to do. It’s what mature people do.
Every day he’s been a little bolder, coming upstairs now and then into the kitchen, sometimes settling down on the floor of the laundry room, and always waiting at the top of the stairs at meal times (he still eats everything in a rush, but that will change once he realizes the food is always going to come). There’s a bit more meat on his bones, too. He talks a bit, and likes to get a head rub, and while he still hisses at the cats and dog, it seems a lot less aggressive, and more like the formal need to just say he wants to be alone.
I’m sure that by next spring, he’ll be beside us on the front deck when we return to our porch chairs after the long winter. We already have the leash for him.
Altruism may have its costs, but it also has its rewards and in the long run, they outweigh the rest. Seeing Ollie join us in the kitchen, even if only briefly, warms our hearts. Knowing that when winter comes, he won’t be freezing under some tree, but will be warm and safe, does too. And the day when he comes up and climbs onto my lap for some attention will make it all worthwhile. We did the right thing.