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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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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The Utility Animal

In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

To sleep, perchance to dream

Simon's CatAye, there’s the rub. To sleep in, one weekend morning, when there are no pressures for meetings, work, deadlines. To roll away from the soft light that filters through the blinds and enjoy that delicious moment of closing your eyes and drifting back into a dream. Covers pulled up, the street quiet outside the widow, the furnace gently wheezing its warm air into the room; nothing is better in the world.

But of course, there are others with different ideas. The real masters of the house brook no laziness, have no interest in our needs, in how much wine we drank the night before, how late we stayed up reading, how tough and demanding the week was. They have their schedule and we are slaves to it.

Sophie wants to be walked and fed. She nuzzles the covers, pushing at them with her nose, insistent. I reach out a hand, get a half-hearted pat, hoping it will appease her, then pull my arm back in. No, not sufficient. Her nose pokes under the covers, wet and cold on the flesh of my arm.

Abby, the little black cat, who spends the night curled into the crook of my knees, is on a dresser, standing on her back legs, frantically pawing at herself in the mirror. The irksome pat-pat-pat of her tiny pads like an annoying drum solo in the otherwise quiet room.

Diego, the orange tom, managed to walk into the bedroom with a thumping gait when at all other times he is as silent and lithe as a tiger on the hunt. He jumps onto the bed like a sack of cement, and begins howling. He walks on and over sleeping bodies, ignoring our ineffective shrugs to move him off.

Up onto the bedside cabinets he travels, flicking pens, glasses and bookmarks onto the floor with a callous swipe of his large paws. Clink and clatter on the floor as they fall. When that fails to get attention, he returns, hunches over the sleeper, and boldly taps my face with a paw – its claws not quite retracted.

Sensing a change, perhaps in that rhythmic shift in our breathing from sleep to awake, the other two cats come into the bedroom. Tippy chases a toy mouse around, sounding remarkably like a stampeding herd of wildebeest.

Cleo paws at a lower dresser drawer, one she can open if she works at it, and starts dragging socks onto the floor so she can create a nest space to rest in. This attracts the others and there’s a brief scuffle. She and Diego exchange slapping blows of irritation. They sound like prizefighters slapping a speed bag. A few hisses like a steam train starting its journey, then they part to return to their primary goal of getting us up.

Sophie paces restlessly, the click of her toenails as loud as a tapdancer’s cleats. She moves from my side to Susan’s, then back.

A toy finds its way to the top of the stairs, and is launched down them, crashing and banging until it hits the floor below, somehow transformed from a tiny plush mouse into a grandfather clock as it tumbles. A cat races loudly after, in pursuit.

Diego walks across the headboard, balancing on the wood, miaowing loudly like an army drill sergeant waking his troops. Sometimes a foot slips and stumps down heavily on a pillow, beside a weary head. Or on it. Back and forth, back and forth.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0ffwDYo00Q]

Whatever possessed us to invite so many animals into our home? Slaves to punishment, I suppose.

I open an eye. 6:44. I watch the clock until the little digital readout says 6:45, knowing that any more time in bed is impossible. “Tea?” murmurs a sleepy Susan.

“Yes,” I agree, and throw off the covers and sit up. Sophie dances happily. The cats skitter out of the room and are almost downstairs by the time I’ve got to my feet. Behind me, Susan slips on a bathrobe to joins me in the morning feeding ritual.

Perhaps I can grab a nap – a catnap? – later in the day and enjoy that sweet bliss of sleep for a few more minutes.