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On Cats, Catastrophe, and Caregivers

I feel guilty for allowing a pet to die, but not as guilty as certain national leaders should feel. Here’s the story.

In 2009, after due deliberation, we adopted two shelter kittens, almost identical twins named Robby and Renee. We did so because our daughter, then 9, was begging for a cat. Primed by the YA book series Warriors, whose protagonists are all cats, she’d been volunteering at a nearby cat shelter housing about fifty cats at any given time. There, she fell in love with Robby, then a six weeks old kitten, and lobbied us relentlessly to adopt him. We acquiesced, only to be told by his keeper that it needed to be a twofer; Robby’s twin sister Renee had to accompany him or the deal was off.

A shelter volunteer had scooped up their mother from an alleyway right after she’d delivered three kittens. None of them were in great shape, but the shelter sent them to a vet for treatment and immunizations. I don’t know the fates of the mother and her other son, but I do know that the shelter’s dozens of felines found another home after their caregiver succumbed to Covid-19 in 2020. Rest in peace, Eva. You saved a lot of lives.

And so, we took on two barely-weaned white American Short-hair kittens. For a few days they wouldn’t venture out of the clothes closet where we bedded them before deigning to accept our stewardship and steal our hearts.

They are about two years old here. Robby is on the right. Renee’s eyes are green, but he had one green and one blue eye that the flash turned into a traffic signal.

The shelter lady duly cautioned us that our pets might be with us for two decades or more. As much as I adored them, it was clear that their upkeep would be like paying into an annuity that never matures.

The adoption wasn’t easy for my wife, who grew up in a culture where cats stayed outside, and did not want cat hair littering the house. Our apartment’s layout made segregating the kitties impossible, but when we moved to a larger one, they were confined to our daughter’s room upstairs. That was fine until she went to college a few years later. After she left, I started sleeping upstairs so the cats would at least have overnight company.

Retiring upstairs wasn’t a problem for me or my wife (I tend to snore obtrusively), and I got to bond with Robby and Renee. But then, last year, we bought a house and had to establish new ground rules for our pets. Our lack of interior doors meant that the only place where we could isolate them was our semi-finished basement. That didn’t seem right to do, so we agreed to have them eat and poop down there and wander around the main floor, but not into the second floor bedrooms.

And that’s how it went. Of course, our daughter missed them, but couldn’t claim them while away at school. And so, in our peaceable kingdom, our pets settled in and gracefully aged in cat years over the next fifteen months.

But that changed. Starting around this past October, Robby started rejecting whatever variety of food I proffered. He had some bad teeth that may have made it painful for him to eat, but he even stopped lapping up gravy and broth. As his hunger strike progressed, he lost a lot of weight to the point of emaciation. He started keeping to himself, occasionally seeking me out, but never seemed to complain or appear to be in pain. Eventually, he could only drag himself around, and on the morning of November 13th, after spending the night under a blanket on a chair cushion, he didn’t wake up.

The next day, I placed his thin little body in a compostable bag and buried it in a flower bed with an engraved stone marker. It’s hard to tell if his twin sister is upset, but she is keeping close to me. Robby was our first pet to die in the fifteen years since losing Cheddar and Stilton, our two gerbils. And while I tried to ease Robby’s passing, how I handled it haunts me.

I had a tough choice, and hope I won’t be blamed for not taking Robby to the vet as soon as I noticed he was losing weight. He had recently been there for antibiotics for an abscessed tooth. That seemed to do the trick, but then he lost his appetite. I did not want him to take more tests or undergo anesthesia for an extraction or whatever the vet might want to do. Should I authorize heroic measures costing a thousand dollars or more that might buy a few more weeks or months of time for him? For better or worse, I decided not, and now bear the consequences. At least Renee seems well, for which I am thankful, though she too seems to mourn. She keeps close to me now after watching through the window as I interred her brother. She’s very smart, and may want to know where cats go after they die.

All that said, my sadness pales next to this mother’s grief in Gaza, found in the NY Times:

Now that I know what it feels like to hold a loved one in a body bag, I can’t even imagine it happening thousands of times over in the hellscape that Gaza has become at Israel’s merciless hands. I would tell you my feelings about the politicians who conduct and support this genocide, but this is a family newsletter.

Thousands of people are sheltering at Al-Shifa [hospital]. People who evacuated from the north or lost their homes in airstrikes flocked to the hospital to try and seek safety. There are people everywhere—no hygiene, no water to drink, no food. They lost their homes. They haven’t been able to bathe for 24 days. It’s a health catastrophe.

~ Mohammad Hawajreh, a Palestinian nurse from Gaza

And especially wrenching for caregivers, helpless to help. As I did last month, let me suggest giving what you can to Doctors without Borders, who are on the ground in Gaza and other conflict zones. While you’re at it, sign petitions from Amnesty International, Oxfam, or Moveon, for example, plus as many others as you can find.

Residents of Gaza own pets too. Imagine what has become of them. Some have been found feeding on their owner’s remains. What a way for them and civilization to go.

You can find this and previous Perfidy Press Provocations in our newsletter archive. Should you see any you like, please consider forwarding them to people who might like to subscribe, and thanks.

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