It’s 3 a.m. and I’ve got a greyhound head in my lap, a cat curled up on my feet, and another one snoring softly nearby. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? There is reality, and then there is the perception of reality.
About four and a half years ago my husband and I were walking out to the car after a very long, achy day in the yard. We were starving and going out for an early dinner, hoping to fade away into that blissful state achieved after too much work and too much food. At the bottom of our front stairs I looked across the driveway at a small black pile of fur. This was new. We have animals, the aforementioned greyhound (who is not small) and many cats (even a black one or two), but this pile was new and very small. Rushing over, I found two tiny black kitties, no more than four or so weeks old. They were so covered in the tiny stickers I call Velcro stickers that I couldn’t even pick them up without grinding the stickers into their skin. The tiny one mewed and curled up in my hand while the larger one hissed and spit and fought. I gave my husband quick instructions to go buy kitty formula and bottles while I sat down to try to figure out how to de-sticker the kitties and see if they were otherwise sick or wounded.
Other than the massive amount of stickers and feisty attitude of the larger kitten, they seemed okay, just small. The larger one did not like being apart from the smaller, so as long as they touched, I figured I could keep my fingers. Kitty formula arrived and they both chowed. The larger one bit the end of the nipple off the bottle it was so hungry, so I poured the food in a bowl and let it lap it up. The smaller one needed some encouragement but managed a few ounces and then curled up next to its sibling in a towel lined box. I named then Laurel and Hardy.
Two days later, out on the back porch, I discovered kitty number three. At first I thought one of the kitties had gotten out, but when I went back in the house they were both still in their box. Over the course of the next few days I had intermittent sightings of the third cat, so I left out formula and kitty food, hoping the adult cats wouldn’t chow down and leave this third baby with nothing. Three cats, all the same age, we knew someone had dumped them on our property. Sadly, this wasn’t an unusual occurrence for us. We live near a fairly busy street and the part of our property that edges the street looks wild. I’ve actually seen people stop their car, pick up an animal, and leave it in amongst the trees and bushes. Not a good choice and this is why I now feed around twenty creatures a day.
It took a few days to get all the stickers out, and we determined that Laurel and Hardy were both girls. So Laurel stayed Laurel, but Hardy became Olivia. They were both black with little bits of white and utterly adorable. Olivia was almost double Laurel’s size, but we figured we could plump them both up in no time. The third kitty was an almost perfect twin of Laurel except for a perfect circle of white fur around the upper part of her left rear leg. It looked just like a garter and so we called her Gigi or Garter Girl. She never overcame her traumatic beginning, it took her almost two years to trust us enough to come in the house, let alone let us touch her.
A couple of weeks after the kitties showed up, Laurel wasn’t putting on the weight, so off to the vet we went. It didn’t take her long to find out why—both girls were positive for feline leukemia. This, we reasoned, was why they were dumped. We had to assume they were all positive and now they had at least exposed every other cat in our area to the virus. I was devastated. Western medicine can’t do anything, but our vet was also educated in herbal and Eastern medicines, so we decided to try a mushroom extract to see if we could boost their immune systems and get them stabilized. It worked for Olivia, Laurel died in my arms a few weeks later.
Two years after rescuing the girls, we were finally able to catch Garter Girl in a trap and get her in to get fixed. She had survived and grown up into a beautiful cat, and had finally decided we were safe enough that she would come in at night a crawl under our bed to sleep. Her most endearing feature, besides her perfect garter, was her snoring. Soft and rhythmic, it was a comfort to me that she could relax enough to sleep soundly and safely.
This is where things get interesting: when we took her in to get fixed the vet found a series of green dots tattooed on her belly. Garter Girl and her sisters had actually been with some kind of rescue, one that had taken the time to mark her but not fix her, most likely because she was still too young. The conclusion we reached was some group had the kitties, found out the health status of at least two, and a series of unfortunate decisions were made that ended up with them dumped in my yard. Laurel’s death was hard, but the added layer of information made me mad. Someone had endangered every cat in my area because they couldn’t either make the choice to try to save the animals or home them with someone who would care for them or, worse of all, put them down.
I hate euthanasia. I hate having to make that decision; I will fight the grim reaper with every fiber of my being until I know that I won’t win. Some people can make this decision easily, and I’ve done it in the past, but I’ve always regretted it. I fought for Laurel, and when the time came, I held her until she was at peace. Death is part of life, I will outlive every one of my animals and I’ve learned to accept it. My vet understands my feelings, and the few times I’ve called her and told her I need her help she’s right there. She knows how hard it was for me to get to that point. I’ve taken on care of animals that I know will die. I figure everyone deserves to know they are loved and if that means my job is to love them and let them go then that’s what I will do.
Dinner in our house is a busy affair—at any given time there are three or four cats and a dog swirling around my feet. One night the “kids” were all there: Olivia, Stuart, Chunk, Clyde, Garter Girl, and a new one, Max. Garter Girl had been spending a lot more time in the house and I reached out to pet her for the first time and … I nearly dropped my plate. All I could feel was bones. She looked okay, the perception of reality, but she was essentially a fur coat draped over a skeleton. I was stunned. She let me pet her, she let me feel her sides, and then she took a piece of chicken off my plate. I nearly started to cry, but instead called my vet and discussed trying to bring her in. We decided that whatever was going on had been going on a while and the trauma of catching and caging her, having to sedate her to run tests just might kill her. We decided to try feeding her five times a day and seeing if she couldn’t eat because of something physical or if she had been kept from food by the others. She ate, slowly, but she could eat.
Three weeks … the standard time if something is going to turn around is three weeks. Since I leave for work at 6:15 in the morning, I would feed the cats wet food at 6 and then go. My daughter would feed her several more times during the day and I’d get her to eat another time or two after I got home. On the twentieth day Garter Girl came into the kitchen, ate, and then stretched out on the floor. I leaned down to pet her and she purred for me. It was the first time I’d ever heard her purr. I went to work feeling like we were about to turn a corner. At 4:00, as I was leaving work, my husband texted me that she couldn’t walk. He had scooped her up in a towel and put her in a basket. I got home, took one look at her and knew her battle was almost over. I held her for three hours and she died in my arms. The next day my daughter took her to the vet to find out what happened, but tests were inconclusive.
Some weeks later, Clyde didn’t look well. We took him in and he is now positive for leukemia. We had our answer. Garter Girl died from leukemia, like her sister. Clyde was a rescue eighteen months ago, he lost his three siblings to fleas when he was about six weeks old. We saved him with multiple blood transfusions but his system never fully recovered. I fought for him three times, now I’m fighting again, hoping between milk thistle and the mushroom extract we can stabilize him enough for his system to fight the virus. He lost weight but has stabilized, he is fighting a secondary eye infection right now, but he is curled up at my feet and sleeping soundly. My choice is to do the best I can, to love him until he needs to go whether that is next week or next month or in a few years.
Someone else made a series of choices that has challenged me mentally, physically, and financially. If they had asked me if I would take the cats, I may very well have said yes. Maybe. But they didn’t. The good news is Olivia is still doing very well, and everyone else is fat and happy. Yes, there is a vaccine but its effectiveness is questionable, it causes an interesting and rare cancer and, in our case, is like closing the barn door after the horse. Feline leukemia is a virus and our systems fight virus’s every day. The best we can hope for is to keep everyone strong. I am sad that someone in the business of helping animals did what they did; some days it makes me angry. I’m sad that these creatures had to suffer, but I do know that I gave them a very good life while I could. They didn’t die alone and they didn’t die unloved and they will never be forgotten.