Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Real Victims

I've been reading the sad stories of rich people who put all their eggs in the Madoff basket and lost everything. I'm sorry for anyone whose world falls apart but from what I've read most of these folk have family and friends to help deal with the pain of their loss. These are well-connected folk who will get back on their feet soon.

There are other, less fortunate victims in these hard times, who never had money to invest in hedge funds, but who are paying the price for human greed, and are left with no resources at all. One of these unfortunates came to stay with us for a few days last week and her plight has left me heartbroken at the human capacity to inflict pain and suffering on the innocent.

One morning I noticed we had a visitor in the back yard who had taken up residence in the gazebo. Our other cats steered clear of her, which was unusual, Any intruder is usually greeted with curiosity and a few warning growls from the males: "You can stay but follow the rules".

This visiting little homeless cat curled up on the old wool flokati rug I'd thrown on one of the wicker chairs and slept there for hours. Occasionally I would look out and the chair would be empty and I figured I might not see her again. We live in the city, near a crossroads, in a neighborhood with its own share of foreclosures. The free-roaming domestic animal population has always fluctuated. At the end of the school year, when students move on, when summer heat raises temperatures to 115 and above, when renters leave their apartments, when people lose their foreclosed homes, all these factors contribute to the steady parade of lost and abandoned animals that show up regularly here.

Bewildered, these poor creatures seek shelter from the passing traffic and harsh weather. In summer, water is a must, in winter, shelter is sought from the biting cold at night. All animals seek these basic needs. One year, a few days after Easter, as we turned up our street I spotted a little white rabbit nibbling on the strip of grass that lines the sidewalk. She calmly adopted us and became the much loved Bunnygirl. Her habits of eating carpet and chewing through the spines of our record albums and anything else within reach of her razor sharp teeth were all overlooked due to her magisterial temperament. When she gently rested her head on your foot for a nap all was right in her world.

I keep a heat lamp and a small space heater on the gazebo to keep off the night chill. In the morning our guest was still curled up in her chair so I thought I'd get a closer look. I didn't want to upset her as stray cats are very wary. They don't like to check in at the desk, you might say. From a few feet away I could see her looking at me with steady gaze, not fearful, but a bit wary. I left food and water on a nearby table and told her she was welcome to help herself. We left food in another sheltered area for the other cats, so there wouldn't be a contest over resources. It looked like homeless kitty just wanted to rest, and she seemed grateful to be left in peace.

I never saw her actually get in and out of the chair. Sometimes she would be gone, probably for a bathroom break. While refilling her water dish I noticed odd yellow smudges on the rug where she'd been sleeping and an unpleasant,unfamiliar tangy smell. I started to suspect something was wrong but nothing prepared me for what I found the next time I saw her.

She had stretched out on her side near her food, and flies were buzzing about her. The smell I'd noticed before was coming from a wound oozing with pale yellow pus. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. Bits of bark and dirt were mixed in with the pus. It was the worst injury I'd ever seen. I flashed back on how she had been favoring this side, always sleeping against it to keep it covered, and how painful that must have been. She trusted me to take a closer look. I got q-tips and warm water and tried to clean the wound, constantly brushing away the flies. I thought she might snap at me but she just lay there as I tried to soak up the noxious fluid seeping from her shoulder.

I learned that you can do this, that you can suspend your impulse to vomit, that you block out the horrible smell, that you can hold back your tears, that you can focus on the one thing you have to do, to try to aid a creature in pain. But I could see it was hopeless. The depth of the wound was hidden by matted fur that fused together in ropes. We gently lifted her into a basket and started dialing local vets and animal hospitals until we found one open on Saturday.

The vet who examined her said this was an old injury that had abscessed and on top of that it was likely that homeless kitty had feline leukemia, which is contagious to other unvaccinated cats. A likely scenario was that her former owner had abandoned her, unprepared to deal with this costly heartbreak, financially or emotionally. They might like to know how brave she was, how even in her demolished condition she sought out and found love, that she was cared for until the end, she never lost her dignity, never cried at her loss, but with the great stoicism of cats, she carried on.

Even with much expensive care it was unlikely she would survive as the wound was already totally necrotic, hence the smell. If she hadn't found us she would have died a slow agonizing death, alone and cold. She trusted us to do the right thing for her and I hope we did. With great reluctance we decided to let her go, knowing the vet would help her pass away peacefully.

It seems unlikely to me that she had run away in her condition. There were no "lost cat" signs posted in the neighborhood. Almost all our neighbors have dogs who produce an unending chorus of barks and howls, unlikely places to seek shelter by an injured feline. I suspect she ended up here because she had nowhere else to go. She had a sustained injury that had been neglected for some time, so it's difficult to imagine a caring home. There is no way to know.

There have been many stories in the press of animals abandoned in foreclosed homes. It's wrong and tragic and it makes me feel that there must be a better way to handle this whole situation, because this is starting to feel like we are living in a war zone, with total chaos, and no one wanting to be accountable. These innocent creatures have allowed themselves to become dependent on us, and so they need us to be responsible for them. Their owners need to man up and do the right thing.

It's nice that our leaders are adopting puppies and I won't be cynical and say they are just for photo ops. But if they really want to make a difference, let them adopt one of the animals that have lost the only life they knew due to foreclosure of their family's home. Lead the way by encouraging people to be brave and take their pets to a shelter where at least the poor animals won't be wandering the streets, alone, cold, and vulnerable to predators. The mean streets are no place for pets.

And for those humans who have lost great wealth, stop whining. Show a little dignity. If a poor wounded little cat with no home of her own can do that much, so can you.

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