Today was Ollie’s last day.
It was a hard day to play god. But I suppose every day it is hard to play god. We humans don’t get to do that much.
Sharing memories are a way we get to do human.
My wife and I live in Pike Township in Berks County. I describe it to acquaintances as one of southeastern Pennsylvania’s ‘last great places’. We moved here almost 14 years ago, lured by a hillside facing west, where the summer solstice sun crashes below a notch in the far off hills to introduce the warm breath of summer. There are few houses and the surrounding woods and fields host sparrows and wrens, woodpeckers and nuthatches, owls and hawks, turkeys and buzzards. And that’s just the feathered neighbors. The second year we were here a bear motored through our back field. Bears are not usually found in these parts, but that particular one was insistent on making his way to Delaware County, though the animal police had other ideas. Suffice it to say there is plenty of open space for all of god’s creatures, even those that originally called North Africa their home.
“What are they doing here?”
“They need a home.” my wife shot back.
“I don’t want cats.” I growled.
“They are not yours. They belong to Daisy (our daughter) and me”.
Two little kittens no bigger than bean bags squirmed at the bottom of a paper filled cardboard box. One was an orange tabby, bristling with life as he tried to climb the walls of the box. The other was a brown tabby, scrawny and reticent, almost afraid of the sound of the crunching paper beneath his delicate little paws. They were born in a shed up the road on a neighbor’s property. While I was not opposed to the idea of people rescuing cats, I did not think we should be so accommodating, falling prey as it were to kitten cuteness as opposed to reasoned discussion.
“Well find a home for them.” I ordered.
“They have a home.” my wife shot back.
“I’m not living in the same house with cats.”
“Well then I guess you’ll be moving out.”
Carol has a way of asserting herself sometimes. Not always diplomatic, but right to the point. It was of course, her house as well as mine and while I was miffed that she did not consult me about some new house sharing arrangement, she made it clear that she wanted the cats.
“I’ll feed them and take care of them. You can just stay out of the way.” She then slid the box over to a corner of the kitchen and poured milk in two bowls which they lustily slurped, chins dipping in to the bowls because their legs flopped about like baby penguins on slick ice.
Two days later.
“Felix and Oscar,” I declared. “That is what we should name them. Look at them. They are so different.” Okay, so I was not immune to kitten cuteness. And the little critters easily entertained, which is I guess how they make their way in to homes and hearts. My wife let the names stick and the little odd couple spent the next year frolicking on our property, tussling with each other on warm fall days, getting bigger yet at the same time defining their own personalities. Oscar clearly the gregarious one, and Felix a reluctant participant taking on the personality of a nerdy, introspective kid who always back down from a challenge.
People are assholes. Not all people, but particularly people who dump cats on country roads. While our fellow felines have adapted and survived by being co-dependent on humans they are hunters by nature and can survive on the small wild critters that populate the woods and fields. Dumped cats do exactly that, and there are estimated to be as many as 60 million in the U.S. alone. They consume native wildlife in great numbers when that is their only source of food. But the food source is often diseased or contains parasites. The offspring of domestic cats become feral and these animals live risky lives shorted by disease, starvation, accidents and predation from larger animals. The ones that are lucky enough to be brought to a shelter perish after a short while because there are not enough adopters. Millions of cats each year are euthanized for lack of resources. The offspring of abandoned cats are likely to die either cruel or untimely deaths. People who move out of their homes and leave their cats behind in outbuildings or barns to fend for themselves are also assholes. Simple message here. Don’t be an asshole.
Late Summer 1999
Felix and Oscar are filling out, almost adult in size and losing kitten cuteness. They have been neutered for the obvious reasons. Although they eat and sleep in the house we let them outside to play. Bird lovers think we are assholes. It is true, that our cats capture and sometimes kill an occasional bird. I’ve never seen anything except the plentiful varieties succumb to cat forays on our property. It doesn’t make it good or right, but we’ve found that cats need big spaces to roam and play, and we have a big space. Confining cats makes for difficult management, and in our case, we would not have rescued and neutered six feral or abandoned cats if we had to confine them to the house.
“Look, there’s Felix running across the back field!” I blurt to my wife from the dining room window. The view out the back is an overgrown field where we occasionally see deer or turkeys along with the usually collection of song birds, ground hogs and assorted critters. The cat I see looks like Felix, identical in markings and color, but the the tail seems bushier and the body chunkier.
“No”, my wife decides, “Felix is smaller and thinner. That must be a stray. I’ve seen a few now and then. He’s a stray. There’s also a gray one-eyed cat coming around. I think he sees our two and thinks there’s food nearby.”
I get another glimpse. Definitely not Felix. Most certainly a stray. The people who lived in the converted barn moved out recently. I’m thinking they abandoned this cat and now it has to fend for itself out in the wild.
We see the stocky brown tabby a few more times around the house, most likely following our cats closer to where they disappear at night. My wife decides to put dry food out in a bowl by the kitchen steps. It disappears every day. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the stocky brown tabby. The markings are eerily similar to Felix’s but the pudgy intruder has very odd ears, almost like that of a great horned owl. He is a frequent visitor, but very frightened of humans, darting away every time one of us opens the door. The days become shorter and the nights colder. We wonder where this cat stays for shelter.
Early Winter 1999
My wife and I are startled out of our sleep early one morning. Shrieking, hissing and growls bellow right outside our bedroom window. I brush the curtain to the side. The chunky brown tabby is stirring a commotion in the dormant flower bed. Face to face with another all white cat of unknown origins, the brown tabby is obviously exhorting this intruder to move on. There’s not enough outdoor food bowls in Dodge for these two, so one has to move on. Brown, stocky, weird-earred, tabby prevails. Never saw the white cat again. The law of the local jungle is summarily discharged before our very eyes. We now have a very good look at this stray. The ears are torn at the tips and one is decidedly curled up. We later find out it is damage caused by frostbite.
On a warm December afternoon, Carol begins the coaxing. She puts out canned food, a delicacy for a cat used to gnawing on voles, mice and other vermin. The stray comes closer, then shies away, but doesn’t leave. Carol opens the kitchen door and places the bowl on the threshold to show brown tabby what our other cats experience. The cat approaches the bowl, and eventually crosses the threshold.
“If he is going to be around our cats I want him to get shots. I also want him neutered. We don’t need any more wild cats around here.” she asserts. So in the next day or so we lure him in to a cage and hustle him up to the local shelter for shots and neutering. We bring him back and open the cage in the house. Stocky brown tabby has a hissy fit. He obviously wants no part of being an indoor cat. So we continue to feed him dry food outside the house.
Early January 2000
Thirteen inches of snow falls and the temperature drops to the single digits. Carol opens the door and has a bowl ready just across the threshold. Stocky brown tabby cautiously dabs across the floor and hungrily chows until the bowl is licked clean.
“Oliver Twist. That is what I will call him. He’s like the poor orphan in the Dickens in novel. He’ll have a good life here.” Carol is proud of her efforts and rightly so. If ever there was a deserving underdog, this poor creature fit the profile. She is the one who coaxed him in and took him to the shelter.
I called him Ollie for short.
Oliver’s first visit to the vet occurred within 30 days of coming in the house. He showed signs of fatigue and illness. The vet said he had a serious infection and might not make it. Carol faithfully gave the antibiotics and within two weeks he rebounded.
Oliver settles in and befriends Carol (the life saver) readily, sometimes watching TV and always mindful of the presence of the other cats, but showing more interest in food than feline friendship. Nature usually has different plans, and before long there had to be a sorting out of the pecking order. Oliver and Oscar tussled often and Oliver quickly established himself as the alpha cat. Oscar could care less, though, because his ambition was to be outside among the wild things as often as he could.
2003 The 17Year Locusts
I had heard of the 17 Year Locusts (Magicicada is the genus of the 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas of eastern North America) but never before experienced their beauty or fury. In the east they tend to be present where there are large swaths of mature trees and we certainly have lots of those in Pike Township. They’re about the size of large grasshoppers and after feeding on the juices of plant roots the nymphs burrow out of the ground every seventeen years. The spectacle is extraordinary to say the least with what seemed like hundreds of thousands of them climbing over every living plant and tree on the property, making incisions in the bark to lay eggs for the next 17 year cycle. Oscar was in Nirvana. Cats eat insects and Oscar gorged on the hatch. He could not bring himself to come on the house for a full five days. When he was finally lured in (and I don’t remember how we did it) he immediately obsessed with going outside. We exhausted ourselves trying to keep him in. After two hours in the house, we relented and let him back outside. He never returned. Synnie, another rescue, replaced him within a week.
Profile of a heart stealer
If Ollie had one singular focus it was food. Deprivation has a way of permanently changing your psychology and it is no different with cats. After Ollie ate everything in his bowl, he would visit all the other bowls and scarf up what the other cats neglected to eat. So even though Ollie had a stocky build, he carried the extra weight well. He looked like the cat world equivalent of a little linebacker. We gave him the nickname Butchie for obvious reasons.
Ollie was good at reading cues. After only one or two tries, he understood what I was doing when I pulled out the charcoal chimney to get the coals lit for the barbecue. He would immediately jump on the picnic table and watch me perform magic on the grill. When the meal was ready you could expect him to be sitting right in your chair as if he were one of the invited guests. While the other cats were ambivalent, he eagerly awaited the table scraps, coaxing you with those big green eyes to to get grilled meat down to his level. We often dubbed him nevermissameal.
Being an alpha cat is hard work. One of the things you have to do is see to it that the territory is free of intruders. Ollie was up for the job. He would run off any strays who dared enter, getting into nasty scuffles along the way. He had more visits to the vet than all other other cats combined, but you had to admire his feisty spirit. Even after being neutered he held on to his feral instincts, some of which were less than admirable. Ollie was a pisser. He pissed on every bush, shrub, wall, car tire, or lawn ornament. All this was tolerable because it was outside, but he pushed (well, went beyond) limits indoors. Ollie pissed in the house too. Not all the time, but under two circumstances. Whenever you brought in anything new like a crate or a basket, he often gave it a squirt if you didn’t put it away quickly enough. Once he shot on a new set of stereo speakers. The other reason that he pissed inside was when he was pissed, literally. Most of his time in our house was in the period BCD (before cat door). Sometimes we would go away for extended weekends and dump dry food in the bowls. Of course, territory could not be patrolled in these periods, so you know who got pissed. There were times when he thought you didn’t get to feeding him fast enough and he expressed with a douse. On these occasions DamnyouOllie! was another moniker used around here. Most people wouldn’t put up with as much as we did, I can tell you that. But we forgave him and he forgave us so feelings were never harsh for long.
If you think about show cats, those Foo-Foo perfect in every way, over valued, treasured for all the wrong reasons felines, Ollie was at the opposite end of the scale. His mangled ears, frost bitten on one side, and shredded on the ends by the claws of rivals, were his most noticeable trait. But before you could dwell on those for too long, the big, green saucer eyes captivated you. Many cats avert their glances or have that squinty look as if they preferred you were not there. Not Ollie. He would gaze right in to yours and communicate intensely. Melt your heart if need be. He had the human equivalent of a winning smile.
But oh what an ugly misshapen body. The opposite of sleek, Ollie was more the shape of a football with legs. Stocky, big boned, and after he started to eat well, chubby. Not so overweight that he was slovenly, actually far from it. He was still deft afoot, fast as a runner, agile as a darter, and graceful as a leeper, all the skills necessary to be a good hunter, which he had to be before he came in with us. And Ollie’s body took a beating. Fights with other intruding cats or other critters left deep bites and scars, many of which had to be treated with the free health care that came with residency. His last dangerous encounter this past summer, a bite from an unknown agent that became infected andrequired a five inch incision from his shoulder almost to his elbow that needed daily draining and peroxide dressing. After that he slowed down considerably, choosing to stay in the house much of the time or just visit the patio and driveway. He was getting old.
It took a long time for Ollie to shed his feral instincts. He got used to Carol first, and then me. Putting the food out won you big approval ratings. Since it was just the two of us, Ollie eventually felt comfortable around us, sitting next to us, laying across our laps and giving his notorious ‘headknocks’ as a way of greeting you. If you were at eye level, he would knock your forehead. If you were standing over him, he would knock your shins. He is the only cat we ever had that greeted this way.
Unfamiliar people were another story altogether. If outside when someone pulled in to the driveway, he would dart around the back of the house and hide in the woods or weeds, and might not come out until two hours after they left. If he was in the house when a stranger showed up, he would dart into the bedroom and hide under the bed or the bed covers. Family (our daughters who live away from home) were regarded as strangers, and adjusted to accordingly. The only people who he did not seem to mind were smokers. We only have a few smoker friends, but he invariably would come around if the smoker joined us for a meal or a glass of wine outside. This distrustful behavior carried on for many years. But he did trust us implicitly, and loved us unconditionally as we did him. Whenever we packed him up for a visit the vet’s office, he became the perfect patient as long as we were there.
Homer is the last rescue cat we’ve taken in, about three and a half years ago. He was a kitten who spent the first eight or so weeks of his life in a mangy old barn. A friend called Carol to see if we would adopt him, but we declined. She called again to see if we would foster parent him until a family could be found. Carol said she would ‘look at him’ (and you know what that means). Homer came to us full of ear mites, and eyes so damaged by a clouded cornea that he could barely see. He also seemed to have a neurological problem, his head inexplicably nodding uncontrollably about every 15 seconds or so. Like Ollie, he came to the right place. And like Ollie, he possessed a certain fearlessness, probably more out of bad vision that any ability to pick up cues. The other two cats disliked him considerably, but Ollie took him under his wing and mentored him. Whether it was wrestling, running outside in the grass, or grooming each other, Homer and Ollie became best buds, and we attribute that to Ollie’s loving and accepting nature. If there ever were an alpha cat in waiting, Homer fit the bill, despite his handicaps.
Eventually, as the years went by, Ollie slowly dropped his guard. He came out to join the whole family the past couple of Thanksgivings and Christmases. He was gentle around the children and of course enjoyed licking leftovers off the plates. After his run-in this past summer when the shoulder injury sidelined him, he became a different cat. Docile and accepting, he roamed about our last patio party as if he were one of the hosts. It took him twelve years to get to this point, the lesson being that you are never too old to change.
February 11, 2011
It has been a cold snowy winter here in Pike Township. The cats have been cooped up inside most of the winter. Carol doesn’t work on Fridays, so when I arrived home to the smell of a tender pot roast from the beef of a local farm after a long, tiring week at work it felt good to settle into a comfort meal and a glass red wine. As is our custom, we put the plates on the floor for licking. Ollie waddled off the chair he was resting on when he heard the plate hit the floor as he was wont to do. He came over and looked, then sniffed and then walked away. Ollie turning his nose up at roast beef au jus? Something must be wrong. Carol noticed that he only ate a half a bowl of food the last couple of days. We let him sleep with us that night, vowing to get him to the vet after the weekend.
February 15, 2011
“It could be one of a couple of things.” opined the vet. There’s fluid building up. If it is an infection, these antibiotics should do the trick.”
“What are the other things?” Carol probed.
“Not good. Fluid build up outside the heart and lungs would not be good signs. Give him the medicine and check back with me in a couple days.”
February 18, 2011
“Meet me at the vet’s office at 4PM, after work.” Those were my orders, when we decided that Ollie was distressed, with labored breathing and no intake of food or water for an appreciable time. ‘Not good’ had arrived. We took him home that night and placed him on his ‘hospital chair’ and sat vigil with him the rest of the evening. Sobbing, we traded stories about his life with us, then consoled him with petting, hugs and kisses, talking to him whenever he could get the energy to lift his head. We agreed that Oliver, the spirited, self-determining, warrior-lover co-inhabited with us on his own terms and we felt privileged for the experience. Sleep was restless for all last night.
February 19, 2011
A brisk cold front blew in overnight, the wind howling through the trees and climbing over the hill above our house to rattle the ridge top. Ollie’s last instinct was to drop off the chair and crawl, however excruciatingly, to the cat door. He pulled himself through it and settled on the porch for his one last scan of the land he roamed and ruled for so long.
Later that morning I lowered his towel-wrapped body in to the hole by the crabapple tree. Carol held three shots of rum in her hand before passing one of them to me. I doused his body with one and we each downed the other. The wind whipped furiously, muffling our sobs, pushing our tears sideways across our cheeks.
Today it is painful to be human.
Good-bye Ollie. We loved you. We will always treasure your time with us.
Lou and Carol