By Kathleen S. Kirk
(Warning: Warm and cuddly PSA in anecdotal form to follow.)
I’m going to tell you a story about someone very important to me. This person is my personal assistant, my dear friend, my late-night footwarmer, and sometimes my garbage disposal. And no, I’m not talking about my boyfriend.
I’m talking about my cat, who, by serendipitous accident came into my life and made herself at home. She was a shelter cat, precisely the kind of animal that World Spay Day spotlights. Wonderful companions like her are euthanized daily because of overcrowding in shelters.
But I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. I know I have. So allow me to just tell you about the amazing cat in my life, the product of a shelter, and how we all came to be.
It was only four months ago that I found myself adopted by a cat. But it wasn’t just any cat I was adopted by a beautiful kitten named Britta, who looked to be, by all outward appearances,a perfectly normal little girl.
Her owner, a college student, had adopted her from the local Petco just months earlier with no prior cat experience. Actually, she had no prior animal experience of any kind, and now she was moving into an apartment that was not pet-friendly and poor little Britta needed to go.
As luck would have it, she came to me. She ran headlong into my life when my boyfriend and I went to visit her apartment as potential lease transfer candidates. My boyfriend was on crutches at the time and the kitten spent the entire visit running pell-mell into them, nearly knocking him off-balance.
I’d had cats in my childhood, but they were all older strays plucked from the yard to spend their days lounging in the sun atop fleecy beds. Most of them were well-behaved and perfectly content with this new life. This cat was clearly pure kitten and rambunctious as… well, me. But Britta was facing more shelter time, or, worse, only shelter time, if we didn’t take her.
Less than a month later, in the eleventh hour, she was ours, a terrified-looking beauty with a tinkly bell around her neck. I repeat, it was only supposed to be temporary, but I suppose the permanence began when I decided her name had to be changed.
The shelter had named her Brie, and her first owner had changed it to Britta, after an airhead character on the television show Community. I was not having this, as she was a very analytical, intelligent cat who deserved a much better name. She was promptly renamed Hannele (HAN-el-lay), the austere Finnish version of Hannah, after an artist friend in Finland.
My Militantly Nerdy Boyfriend Alex and I both thought it would be a simple fostering and it would be really easy to find her a loving, permanent home. But after a few days, it was very clear that Hannele had problems that made adopting her out cruel for the time being.
Firstly, and at the time most critically, she had chronic, severe diarrhea that I could not stop and was especially dangerous at her age. Secondly, it looked like her veterinary history had been forged, starting with partially altered reports of an attempted spaying when she only weighed a pound.
Furthermore, her anxiety was profound and, after a childhood of mostly outgoing, affectionate, well-adjusted cats, I found it heartbreaking. Her previous owner had proudly classified her as “incredibly independent,” but she had a hard time handling being alone in the apartment.
I took off the stupid bell. It helped immensely.
Less than a week into it, I selected a vet and trepidatiously took Hannele in for an appointment. After extensive blood tests, which all came back clean, it was determined that the poor thing was suffering from a severe food sensitivity, partially caused by her previous owner feeding her “whatever was on sale”, and some kind of PTSD variant.
By this point, it was an understatement to say I was angry. I was furious. And it only got worse from there.
A routine vaccination two months ago proved her to be a vaccine reactor, which means her immune system is such that she can have a severe, potentially fatal reaction to her regular shots if not appropriately treated. This also means that when she was vaccinated in the shelter, she likely had a reaction and either nobody was paying enough attention to her to notice or nobody cared enough to do anything about it.
I began to understand her anxiety and trust issues.
As she’s gotten older, she’s become more affectionate. She spends a portion of each night asleep in the crook of my knee and wakes me up when it’s time for her breakfast by licking my nose. She lays close during the day when I’m working, periodically requesting affection and/or treats with a loud, throaty meow.
She and Alex have a surprisingly special bond. After a childhood of mice, he didn’t expect to bond so thoroughly with the her. One morning, she came crying, dancing from foot to foot in front of him. It was a new behavior for her, but one I immediately recognized.
“Is she okay?” he asked worriedly. “Is she sick? What should I do?”
“That’s normal. That’s a trust behavior. She’s waiting for you to follow her,” I said. “She’ll take you to exactly what’s wrong and yell at you, telling you exactly how to fix it.”
Alex followed her, and soon I heard her yowling at him in the kitchen. My suspicions were confirmed when Alex said, “Here you go, here’s more water. That’s a good girl. Thank you for telling me.” After that, if he was home, she went to him with her demands, as well as frequent cuddle requests which were happily obliged with all manner of baby-talk.
We discussed the possibility of keeping her permanently several times, but we weren’t sure. She had too many problems for me to be comfortable adopting her out, but Alex wasn’t so sure if she could be ours forever, as Hannele was proving to be very expensive.
The moment that truly cemented her permanence with us was one chilly November evening. I was still trying to get Hannele used to a harness and leash so she didn’t have to be crated for the vet or travel. We were on a short errand in the car to dump recyclables, so I put her in her harness and zipped her into my coat with me.
Back then, I was still under the delusion I could actually get her to eventually be okay with and enjoy “walkies,” because we had a beautiful lake nearby and I figured walking it together to see the duckies would be a lovely bonding experience for us.
We got out of the car at the recycling dumpsters. Hannele saw them and began howling and shaking like I had never heard before. She clung to me and wailed, her whole body violently trembling, burying her head under the collar of my coat.
“I think she thinks we’re going to put her in there,” I said, hurriedly rushing back into the car and Alex joined me. Hannele cried and cried until she was panting. Alex drove away so she couldn’t see the dumpsters anymore.
I just held her. I was crying, livid at whoever had damaged this poor cat like this. Alex kept saying gently, “No, no, Hannele, it’s okay. No, dumpsters are not for kitties. You are always coming home with us. You’re our forever kitty. You’ve found your forever family. We are never giving you up, ever.”
Eventually the howling stopped and the trip back the apartment was rather quiet, punctuated only by the shallow, hysterical breathing of the cat.
Finally, I said, “I take it this means we’re permanently keeping this cat?”