Sunday, May 23, 2010

Like humans, cats suffer psychological traumas as well as physical ones. And like humans, these psychological injuries often are not as easily quantified as physical illnesses are. Tests reveal whether a cat has FIV or feline leukemia. High temperatures signal an infection. Bite wounds and broken bones are obvious.

But what do we know about the terrors a cat has faced on the streets? About his heartbreak and confusion at being dumped by owners he thought were his forever family? Or about how freezing temperatures and the constant struggle for food affect his spirit, even if his body survives?

Gabriel, a beautiful and gentle orange tabby, is physically healthy, despite his time as a stray. His eyes and ears are clear, his fur well groomed and chamois-soft, his appetite good. But his initial fearful posture, hypervigilance, and strong desire to hide told me that living on the streets was far from a neutral experience for him. Gabriel must have seen and heard many things from his broken window in the abandoned house where he was rescued. But few of them probably instructed him on the goodness of humans or the fairness of life.

No one, of course, can take away Gabriel's past traumas. But we who now know this special cat can help him heal and move on. We can replace negative past memories with new experiences, ones that reach that part of Gabriel's heart that once loved humans and wants to again. And that part of his heart is there, even though no medical test or instrument can measure it.

How do I know? I know because after days of avoiding me and shutting down from all physical touch, Gabriel bumped his head into my outstretched hand two mornings ago. "Give me a few rubs," his simple action said. "I'm beginning to remember how much enjoy that." And then he closed his eyes to savor the experience.

I know because after days of taking no interest in playing with me while I romped with his companion cat, Gabriel suddenly stood up from his corner, stretched his legs, and jumped down to join us. To see him transform from a huddled pile of orange fur to a bounding, pouncing, chirping bird chaser made my eyes fill with tears.

I knew then that his spirit remains intact. Which means that his willingness to love and trust will follow.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Routine, but far from boring

Sirius and I lately have been thinking about routine. If ever a creature loved routine, of course, it's a feline. And although my easily bored human nature resists sameness, I am slowly understanding the comfort that routine can provide.

Like all great feline-human pairs, Sirius and I have developed our own routine. It is ours alone. We have created it together; neither of us imposes it on the other. We set our routine in motion each day. We follow it until we decide to create a new one. We know what to expect and when to expect it, and the resulting rhythm strengthens our relationship.

Sirius knows to be at his door ready for breakfast around 9. After eating, the tuxedo boy waits on the couch for me to return with his fresh water. He knows that what follows the water is our morning chat, where I tell him what I'm doing that day, and he purrs enthusiastically in response. (If only everyone had such a supportive listener. The global effect likely would be profound.) He dozes for the next couple of hours, but waits again by his door around 2. This is when the feather toy comes out, and he is practically delirious by the time I enter the room. Just before dinner, Sirius and I lie down for a quick nap. And at 11, I read my newspaper with him curled next to me. Simple actions, but they anchor our days.

Far from fanning boredom, our daily rituals spark moments of happy anticipation. The sameness of the actions are spared monotony by the sameness of the joy we experience--yesterday, today, and, we hope, tomorrow.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Now's a good time

When I need a dose of sanity, do you know where I go? I go to Sirius's room.

Sirius is my gratitude role model. I may enter his room feeling frayed from the pull of everyday challenges, but by the time I leave, my breathing has evened out, my thoughts have stilled, my longing for what I don't have has evaporated. And to think I've been paying a therapist for years!

How does this transformation happen? Usually it starts when I spot his ragged left ear. How that torn flesh, ripped like a piece of paper, must have hurt for weeks afterwards. Next I rub his scarred nose, injured in the same fight perhaps, but more likely in another. For surely Sirius was forced into many unwelcome battles during his time on the streets. Unneutered males rarely tolerate the presence of other cats in their territory, and Sirius, the former housecat, would have discovered his error too late.

In one of these brawls, Sirius was bitten by an FIV cat. Somewhere, then, beneath his soft black and white fur, lies the scar that changed his future.

But Sirius does not know this. What he knows is that he spends his days in a warm, comfortable room. He knows that he never wants anymore for healthy food or clean water. He knows that the "mice" he catches now are for sport only, not for dinner. And he knows that many times a day a loving stranger visits. Sometimes she drags toys underneath his quilted blanket or sends colorful foil balls scuttling across the room. Other times she lies on the couch and invites the giant tuxedo boy to stretch himself out, full-body, on her chest. And when he does, she strokes his face and whiskers, knowing that his eyes will close with pleasure and his purrs will make his body, and hers, vibrate.

Sirius has forgotten his past suffering; any future suffering remains unknown. He is grateful now. Not an hour ago. Not tomorrow. Now.

And from him, I take away the lesson.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hello, Goodbye

"Hello," I say as I greet Sirius, the latest Calliope cat. But as I lean down to stroke his upturned face, another word flashes through my mind. "Goodbye."

Like Starlight, Sirius is FIV positive. But his story is a happier one. He was rescued before life on the streets drained too much of his strength; his health is good. As proof, I need only catch the sight of his round belly swinging ever so slightly as he runs over to greet me. He shows every sign of living up to his name as the brightest star in the night sky. "I have many years ahead," his shining eyes communicate. "Now feed me!"

As Sirius and I cuddle on the couch, again I think of Starlight. But my thoughts are no longer sad ones. They do not whisper to me about the past; they navigate around what could have been. They speak instead about the future: a future working with other passionate rescuers, opening up my heart to animals that need me, and making peace with the knowledge that in every hello lives a goodbye.

I will someday say goodbye to Sirius too. Mixed with my excitement over his finding his forever home will be the same pocket of sadness that accompanies all goodbyes. I'll shuffle around his empty room feeling slightly lost and disoriented. I'll want to call his new family an hour after he's left to ask how he's adjusting. I'll remember other beloved people or animals I've said goodbye to, perhaps railing against the unfairness of not being able to control when or how those goodbyes unfolded. And I'll have an hour or two when I decide that hellos are not worth the goodbyes. Opening up my heart knowing that loss will follow is for fools, I'll convince myself.

Soon after that, another animal will need me. The cycle will repeat. I will become a fool filled with joy and purpose who knows that the antidote for goodbye sickness is a new hello.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's in a name?

Starlight is a Calliope Cat.

But Starlight is gone now, his suffering over. "Starlight was, but is no more." Wouldn't this be more correct, then? Your sixth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Stickler, would probably say yes. "Present tense is used to describe actions or events that are occurring now," you recall her droning, as Billy O'Sullivan did impersonations from the back row.

Rules may guide grammarians, but they often blur or disappear altogether for those of us rescuing homeless animals. Rarely do we have time for rigid rules or fancy protocols or preconceived notions about the future when a cat like Starlight comes to our attention. A declawed senior who eventually tested positive for FIV, Starlight was dumped just as winter was setting in. With coyotes active at night, a terrified and ill Starlight made his way to a nearby home, where a loving person cared for him until Calliope Rescue could foster him.

Starlight spent the last three weeks of his life warm and safe and loved. He ate what he could, rolled over for tummy rubs, and purred at the gentle strokes his now-relaxed face received from his foster mom. They napped together in the afternoons and snuggled every evening while she read the newspaper. Every small gesture he made while in her company signaled his gratitude. And when he was ready to leave what he believed was his forever home, he stopped eating. Although it broke the heart of every rescuer who had met him, we all knew he trusted us enough to understand what to do next.

Starlight's story is the story of every homeless animal who suffers and every rescuer who tries to help. He teaches us many things, even now.

Starlight is a Calliope Cat.