Friday, 4 January 2013

Crazy Cat Person

Years ago I was a pet cynic. I found them nice but irrelevant. We always had animals in the house when I was a kid, cats, dogs and even pet rats, but when I got my own place I began to find the responsibility off-putting. I recall telling my mom, who loved her cats, that they were nice enough but in a post-apocalyptic starvation scenario, I wouldn't hesitate to eat them. Heartless but sensible (and potentially tasty).

My Hollywood-esque kitty epiphany didn't come til a few years ago when I found myself working from home more frequently, and consequently a bit lonely. In a fit of social conscience, I decided that a good way of getting company would be to foster a homeless cat. Fostering is great because there's no commitment beyond the daily feeding, litter-cleaning and socialising. Everything is paid for by the shelter (in this case the amazing Celia Hammond Animal Trust, more about them later), and you look after the cat until a new permanent home is found. Perfect! I called, and someone came round to assess my home and make sure I'm a decent person. I didn't mention my nuclear fallout dinner plans, obviously.

A few weeks later, the day before Christmas eve 2009, the phone rang. It was the shelter, with an emergency foster cat. Could they bring her the same day? She was a sixteen-year-old who hated other cats and was desperately unhappy at the shelter. Her owners had bought a puppy and the cat (named Jasmine at the time) was upset, so the owners ditched her. They had also, somehow, cruelly had her declawed at some point in her life, despite it being rightly illegal in the UK. So, Jasmine was delivered to me, meowing her head off in her carry case. I set it down on the lounge floor, opened the door, and she shot out, did a sniff-circuit of the room, then jumped on my lap, looked up at me and started to purr expectantly.

Mrs Cat

That was the Hollywood movie moment. The Jim Carrey epiphany. The Ricky Gervais realisation. Boom, heart explodes. Jasmine was home, she trusted me, and all the responsibility of nurturing and protecting this stupid little poo-bag with a brain the size of a walnut was mine. Within a week the thought of some potential new owner taking her and not attending to her every need or whim stung like a jellyfish, so after a brief chat with my partner, I called the shelter and asked to keep her. We changed her name to Mrs Cat, and she took over our lives.

She was old, desperate for attention constantly, and happy. After almost two years of luxury retirement, aged eighteen, she developed cancer, kidney failure and anaemia, and was put to sleep by the vet in our home on her favourite blanket. Dan and I cried for days. There's no shame in that. She was a constant joy in our lives, every single day, and we were gutted to lose her. 

It was only two weeks until I said "Dan, there's a cat-sized hole in the house". There was. Here's the thing: when people die, you can't replace them. You cannot, because they're unique, indescribably complex. Cats are also unique, but also all the same. What you enjoy about one cat can be replaced by another. A cute little meowy furry beastie sniffing at your shoelaces. Mrs Cat had quirks that I haven't seen in other cats, but there's a pool of behaviours that all cats take from, and what you miss *can* be replaced, to a point. What I missed wasn't just Mrs Cat, it was the whole lifestyle of being a cat owner. I, we, missed having a cat. Any cat. And that's fixable. Plus we both had guilt about having space and resources spare. We decided to pop over to the Celia Hammond shelter to see what cats they had. We thought that we could take two, and that we wanted to base our choice on need. Older cats, black cats, disabled or long-term ill cats are the hardest to home, so we'd offer our resources to cats like that. We didn't want young pretty cats because they're easy to home.

On the shelter's website were two broken cats; one with a missing leg, the other with mobility issues. Ugly, adorable, heartbreaking. We had this pair in mind when we turned up to the shelter, but were told by Celia Hammond herself that they had just that morning been rehomed. She's a formidable figure, compelling, clearly obsessed, and very very lovely. We sat down together for a grilling. How often was someone home? What sort of windows did we have? Could we afford vet fees? I felt like we were being scrutinised by a social worker. "Yes", she seemed satisfied. "I have a pair of cats who have special requirements. Come and see some photos". Celia took us to her office to tell us the story of Saffron and Cardamom.

These two cats were probably mother and daughter, being about six months apart in age. Their owner had moved out and left them, and a neighbour called the shelter after about a week. The cats had spent their whole lives (the oldest being about 18 months) living in the attic, climbing up and down the ladder. I have no idea what sort of life it was, but they were poorly socialised and poorly fed.

The older cat, Saffron, was found hiding behind a fireplace by builders and was taken to the shelter. The neighbour was adamant that there was a second cat but the builders denied it, and needed to get on with their work. This included removing the ladder to the attic. The shelter had a look and found kitty poops amongst the fibreglass, so installed a cat trap and infrared camera. They also left food outside the trap, so at the least Cardamom would be able to eat if she was scared of the trap. And scared she was. It took a whole week before she ventured in, a week being apart from her mom. If you knew how bonded they are, the thought would break your heart. It makes me cry often, as does the knowledge that if Celia hadn't persevered and insisted on the camera, this tiny little fluffball would simply have starved to death.

Curious about the camera noise
Finally enters the trap!

Celia showed us the photos and told the story, and before we'd even seen the cats we were in tears and knew we'd take them. They weren't the disabled, older kitties we had in mind. In fact they're so beautiful I feel guilty. But they were traumatised and needed a very patient resourceful home and we were determined to give one to them.

Glued together in the shelter
Cardamom's nose was scratched to heck, presumably from digging around in fibreglass for food, and she was petrified. She clung to Saffron, a more bonded pair than I've ever seen, but they let us stroke them in their shelter cage. And so we brought them home in a taxi and waited.

Shelter kitties. Instant love.
It took them two hours to venture outside the carry case, clinging to each other. We built a little kitty village of boxes in the bedroom so they would have a small safe enclosed space to explore. Celia had given us strict instructions about how to deal with traumatised cats, so when they decided to creep into the wardrobe and set up home on a towel shelf, we let them. They stayed there for weeks, creeping out to eat or use the litter at night. They let me stroke them if they were together, but if they were alone they were scared and hissy.

First day at home, wardrobe hiding.
Patience, food and toys are great healers though. Their first foray into normal socialising was when I dangled a feather toy into the wardrobe and Saffron grabbed it. After a few days they were venturing out of the wardrobe like mini Aslans and happily playing with me. Their individual personalities began to show, so we named the little one Pig The Destroyer and her mom Jelly. Pig is a pig, massively so. Whether that's because of her hungry time in the attic or just general cat greed I don't know, but she sniffs everything for potential edibleness, and becomes bold as brass when there's a treat in hand. Jelly is jealous. I was fussing Pig and her mom was frankly livid. "U jelly?" I asked her, and it stuck.

Still glued together.
Pig and Jelly. It suits them. I don't like prissy fancy sensible names. Cats are ridiculous, foolish, ungainly, comedic. They don't come when you call. Pig is Pigglington Smythe, Piggoid, Piggy Wiggy. Jelly is Jellyvision, Jellybear, Jells.

It took less than a month before they were curious about the world outside the bedroom and I opened the door for them. Now, they own the house. It's been nine months and the entire lounge is a cat playground. Climbing frames, tunnels, their own special rugs cause they slip on the wooden floor when chasing each other.

They're still bonded like glue, sleeping together in one of many 'pigbeds' around the house, but increasingly independent when it suits. Pig, still the more nervous of the two, will run if you approach her too fast, but was also the first to climb on my lap (last month, and I'm still glowing from it). Jelly gets so excited about being stroked she frequently rolls off the sofa while writhing in bliss. She's also the vocal one. If Pig is asleep upstairs and Jelly wants to show her an exciting piece of fluff or requires a wrestle, she just sits and yells. MROW MROO EROO ROWW. A few moments later, trotting little Pigsteps down the stairs. They constantly communicate with mother-and-kitten 'brrps!' too, even though that's behaviour they should have grown out of.
Jelly in her gaudy play tunnel
Pig checking if T-Rex is edible

Listen. People are higher up the need tree than cats. I know that. But it's also people who create the responsibility for these domesticated animals. Another human abandoned them, and that's something I want to compensate for if I can.
Pig and Jelly today :)

I know that at some point in the next fifteen years or so we will lose one then the other, and my heart will break. But the best I can do in the meantime is keep them safe and warm and fed, and not eat them if the bomb falls. Our lives are focused on their wellbeing and I plain old do not give a single shit what people think about that. Other pet owners get it. The unspoken understanding that we're all nuts, that we've given over a huge part of our hearts to hairmobiles that wander round our house and contribute nothing except happiness and turds. That when we *do* lose them, we will fill the empty space with another cat, and another, for the rest of our lives because once you're in, you're in. A dog person. A cat person. A crazy cat person. It's a badge of honour.

Final word for the Celia Hammond shelter. If Pig and Jelly's rescue moved you, or you're interested in hearing how they rescued hundreds of cats from the Olympic site, check out their website, and if you can spare even a pound then please do send it their way. I know there are other charities, other causes, bigger priorities, but a pound is a world of difference to a hungry cat and it all really helps. I'm not affiliated with the charity, they don't know I'm asking, this isn't some cynical PR puff piece. It's just a postscript in case you want to give. Thanks from a crazy cat person ^_^