Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It Takes a Village...

In which we read of Booty the Cat and his rise to Lordly status; a terrible tragedy is narrowly averted, but happy endings ensue.

It's a joyful thing to see when friends reunite. Yesterday, as temperatures inched toward 40 degrees F, life was not so bad if you happen to be a feral cat in a particular managed colony. All souls are accounted for. In fact, if you were to peer into the back yard about feeding time, you would have seen happy cats decorating the deck and its environs, draped elegantly over the railing or loafing in any available patch of sun. The deck is dry and free from snow; the sun is shining with benign intent. The water bowl is full and unfrozen, the kitty kibbles are piled high in generous helpings. Raven, a big neutered male, black as jet or ebony or a raven's wing, hears me putting out the kibbles. He leaps to the top of the chain link fence, then saunters into my yard. He approaches the deck, tail held straight up in the air. This is the signal to all and sundry that he is a happy cat, and is happy to greet the group he approaches.

The other two males, elderly Handsome and Skitter the Scrappy, glance up from their gnoshing, each flicking a yellow tail in greeting, and get back to the serious catly business of kibble munching. Nala, a small, very shy, smoke coloured female, dashes out from under the deck and launches herself toward Raven. Her tail is high and perky, communicating her delight. Nala and Raven are the very best of friends, always overjoyed to greet each other. They rub their bodies against each other, then approach the deck together, shoulders touching, erect tails twined together. It's a picture perfect moment, if only I were a better photographer. It's a joyful thing to see when friends reunite.

As I sit at my desk on Tuesday, writing this, I am somewhat dismayed to see flakes halfheartedly falling yet again from a depressingly gray sky. Yesterday, though, the weather was almost balmy. The desktop weather widget, creeping toward 40, caused my hopes to rise. "If this weather holds until the weekend," I thought to myself, "I may get out and start on the spring yardwork!" Now there's a thought. There's a great deal of clean up to do this spring; the earlier I can get started on it the better for everyone.

During the spring and fall, it's my habit to spend four to five hours a day "working" in the yard. I'm convinced it's the best and cheapest therapy available. Sunshine and the green of growing things, toes wiggling in the lawn, a contented colony of cats dozing in the sun, following me around, offering advice in their feline manner. The oppressive heat and humidity of July and August may drive me inside, but spring and fall are times of delight. I'm reminded of a garden plaque from my childhood. It hung in the perfectly manicured, very elegant back garden of one of my aunts. Her home was just down the river a bit, in Memphis. My yard is a wilder, more woodland place, but the poetry applies to my wild space as well:

"The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon,
the Song of the Birds for Mirth;
One is nearer God's Heart in a Garden
than anywhere else on Earth."

It was one day last spring, as the days grew hotter and more humid, slipping toward the steamy somnambulance that is St. Louis in the summertime. I was sitting barefoot in the lawn, a bucket of garden tools next to me. I had spent the morning cutting back the wild clematis that, if left unchecked, will devour everything in its path. A huge pile of the stuff lay in front of me, and I was cutting away at it with my clippers, hacking it into smallish bits for the compost pile. If you don't cut it up, not even the compost pile can handle it. It's a mindless and a happy chore, barefoot in the shade on a late spring day full of birdsong. One can reach almost a meditative state at times. Miss Kitty, ever curious and companionabe, loafed in the lawn alongside, just out of arm's reach, assisting the project by her presence.

It was Miss Kitty, who jumped up and dove under the deck in obvious alarm, that brought me out of  reverie. I looked up; a long haird, scruffy looking sort of man had rounded the corner of my house and was in the back yard, walking toward me. My heart pounded a little faster; I scrambled to my feet. I shoved my right hand into my jean pockets, feeling for the pepper spray.

Three years previously, the spousal unit and I had been robbed at gunpoint in our own yard; it had been twilight and we had been coming home from a dinner out. As we entered our back gate, a young man came up to the fence,  asked if we had the time; the next thing we knew, a companion had appeared with a gun pointed at us, shouting and threatening.

No one had been hurt, though the men were never caught and charged. None of the neighbors had heard a thing, and we had not been able to pick the men from pages and pages of photographs brought over by concerned detectives for us to look at. It had taken a long time before I was comfortable being in the back yard, exposed, and even now, four years later, an unrecognized person in the alley causes me to watch, cell phone in one hand, pepper spray in the other, holding my breath, until they pass. I watched the man walking toward me, in tattered jeans and flannel workshirt, my heart in my mouth.

It took me a minute to subdue the adreneline, to hear and understand what he was saying. He introduced himself; he was the building manager, the super, for an apartment complex at the corner of our block. Our neighbor across the street had suggested he talk to me, had thought I might could help.

"Steve said you do work with the cats," he said. I began to understand. I relaxed my death grip on the pepper spray, extended my hand, introduced myself. We shook hands.

His name we will say was George (a small fiction); he was impeccably polite, and he was obviously in some distress. It took a few minutes for me to understand, but the story that came out was this: A young couple lived in his building, and were having to move. He didn't say why, but I gathered the problems, like so many these days, were financial. They were so young; the place to which they were moving would not allow them to have pets, and they had a cat. He was a good cat, George told me. A really good cat. He didn't deserve to be turned over to the humane society or to a shelter; didn't deserve to be put down. The girl, she was in a state over Booty, George said. Gosh, he hated to see such a good cat put down. "Everyone loves Booty," he told me, choking a little on the words. George told them Booty could stay in the apartment for a few days, until it was ready to be cleaned and rented, and maybe they could find someone to take Booty, to give him a home. The young couple had been back at the apartment earlier that morning, to finish moving out, to feed and water Booty. The girl, her name was Kelly, had sat in the floor holding her cat, weeping. No one they knew would take him.

It was looking like Booty would get the boot.

Now, people think that women gossip, but the old man gossip network is every bit as alive, healthy, and effective as the old woman network. Occasionally communication takes place between these networks, and occasionally to good effect. The old men of the block were, it seems, of the agreed opinion that it would just be a terrible thing for such a good cat as Booty to have his short life ended. They had mulled this over, shaking their heads. They had come to a conclusion. Talk to the cat lady. Maybe she could help.

And so it was that George and I found ourselves in my shady backyard, that bright day in late spring, taking counsel together as to how we were going to save Booty's life.

I'm not ashamed to say that tears came to my eyes; fear had been replaced with something far more noble. I was struck by the knowledge that somehow, we had become a community, a village, we few odd ducks here in our little cul de sac. We spoke and waved to each other in the mornings and evenings; we struggled to get to know each other, to be friendly. And now, and NOW, we had the opportunity to help each other. And someone had mustered up the gumption to ask.

I promised to help. I asked about the time frame: how long did I have to rally my forces, shake my network, see what we could find? Well, there wasn't much. Booty was getting the boot today. Could I please take him?

My heart leapt back up into my throat. My initial response: no, I need more time. I can't take him myself; we are full. The City allows four pets, and four housecats is what we have. I needed more time.

There are times when one must do what is right, regardless of what is legal. The law under the Nazis, demanding the denouncement of Jews, was not right. I looked into the concerned eyes of the man who had come to me for help, on behalf of a creature who could not help himself. I sent up a small, quick, desperate prayer, and made the call.

Of course, I told him. Bring Booty over. We would find him a home, and he could visit in my laundry room for a few days until we did.

It is, as I said earlier, a joyful thing to see when friends reunite. It rips at the heart to see them parted. A very polite, very subdued young couple knocked at my door later that day, and were introduced by George as Booty's family. The young man looked heartsick. Agony scarred the face of the young woman; she struggled to choke back her tears.

Booty was in a cat carrier, and he was a beautiful baby, a juvenile cat, maybe six months old, with tuxedo markings. They had brought a bag with all of his belongings: kitty box, litter and scoop, food bowl and water bowl, a bag of food. His big, round eyes looked out of the carrier, confused.

The young woman, Kelly, could have been anywhere from seventeen to twenty-five. I'm not normally a demonstrative person, but I have children; I have daughters, and a son. My heart broke to see the heartbreak there in her face; I set the cat carrier on the ground and took her in my arms.

"I will," I promised her, "find him a good home." I held her at arm's length, looked into her eyes. "I promise." Oh, God, I prayed silently, help me to keep this promise! She nodded, sobbing; the young man shook my hand, thanked me for my help. I looked into his eyes as well, mustered every ounce of  my force of will. "It will be alright," I promised again.

And then they were gone. Oh God, I thought, what have I gotten myself in for? Homeless cats are not so easy to place.

Treasure and Rikki, Simba and Sasha and I got Booty set up in the laundry room, his own litter box, his food and water. I shooed my cats back into the main house, wanting Booty to have as stress free of a stay as possible. I cuddled and comforted him. He was a sweet and affectionate cat, and eventually settled down on a pile of towels to nap. I called the spousal unit and confessed the situation. One of the reasons I love this man so dearly is that he just takes this sort of thing in stride.

"Don't worry," he told me. "We'll find him a home." However, the spousal unit DID insist on changing Booty's name. Booty, he insisted, was an undignified name for a cat. It just wouldn't do; we would call him Boots. I laughed, but agreed. Then I went to work shaking that network with a vengeance.

We each lobbied Facebook; I posted to our neighborhood list. We posted pleas to every list we read, and still no help came. It is terribly, terribly difficult to place a cat. Not because people don't love cats, most of us do, but because there are so many of them, so many cats. This is why it is so desperately, desperately important to spay/neuter our animals, the animals who depend on us. Booty, now called Boots, had himself originally been rescued from a shelter, one unwanted kitten in an unwanted litter of kittens.

Three days passed; things were not looking good. And then one night, I was able to catch one of the other caregivers for the feral colony, a woman I didn't know too well, who sometimes took the evening feeding shift. I believe she's a cousin of the regular evening caregiver. I caught her and told her the story of Boots. Asked her to shake her network, too. As Boots, sitting in the laundry room window, watched us talk, she promised she would send out the word.

A day later, the call came. Someone would take Boots. We made plans to meet.

Her name is Laura, and although we had never yet met face to face, I knew of her. She is a real life hero, in my opinion. Laura used to live across the alley from me, though sadly, we never met while we were neighbors. Laura is responsible, along with her friend Tara, for getting the cats trapped and neutered, the cats in the feral colony we care for. The program is called Trap Neuter Return, or TNR. Laura and Tara are two of the myriad volunteers throughout the country who, at their own expense, pursue the program. This colony has not produced kittens in over five years. It is a stable colony, with committed caregivers. The individuals in the colony will live out their lives in humane conditions, producing no more kittens, and keeping the neighborhood free of rats and other disease carrying vermin. It turned out that Laura had a spot open for a cat. I was delighted that Boots was going to go to such a good home.

She came to my house to collect Boots, and I was thrilled to meet her, and saddened slightly we had not managed to meet each other during the five or so years we had actually been across-the-alley neighbors. We've kept in touch, and are even as I write working on a TNR project for a colony in a nearby neighborhood. Laura is, as I said, a real hero, ready to assist the helpless, with her time and her money and her soul. She is, to me, a modern inspiration.

And what of Boots, who had twice now, narrowly escaped euthanasia? He has been neutered and renamed,vaccinated and licensed, and lives happily as the only male cat in a household with three females, who dote on him. His name now is Lord Byron, and I understand from Laura that he is fat and sassy and a great talker.

I have been able to pass along this information via George the building manager to Kelly, she who was Lord Byron's human mother when his name was Booty. So the village pulled together to save a life. I cannot think but that this is a good thing. That it is village life as it is meant to be.

And so, at least for the part of the tale which concerns Lord Byron, we can say with satisfaction: they all lived happily every after.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats and philosophy. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


  1. That one made me want to cry when they brought you the cat. I've had to give away dogs a few times in adulthood, and hated it. These past few years scared me about keeping up with my dogs and fingers crossed, I get to keep taking care of them as they take care of me and my needs.....

  2. I have been the finder of homes several times, and it it hurts to take them in, and hurts worse when you let them go. I have 7 cats, all rescues and all altered, and I couldn't imagine having to give up any of them.
    We need more heroes like you,

  3. Mazel and a Brocha! Excellent work, as I would expect from you on this type of situation.

  4. @ Robin: I, too, have had a situation where circumstances brought me to a place where I had to surrender a dearly, DEARLY beloved pet. It was during a divorce; fortunately, Bruce (the dog) had come to love the man I was leaving, so I knew they would love and take care of each other, but talk about sorrow beyond telling. :-/ I understand. And I liked what you said, about hoping to be able to take care of the pets as they continue to minister to our needs. I hope we all, all of society, I mean, would recognize the very VERY valuable role pets play in the lives of the humans they live with. But we will keep spreading the word, woman. There are many people of good heart out there. We just have to speak up and help one another as we can. *hugs*!

  5. @ Malcolm: You're the hero here, my man. Seven rescues, good for you! And everybody altered? Good job. Feeding time in your kitchen must be a sight to see. But, on those cold, January nights, seven cats on the blanket with you must make for toasty toes. :-D Cheers to you!

  6. @joceanne: ha! Welcome! Thank you for the kind words. *hugs and snugs*!