Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kitten Teachings

A few weeks ago my neighbor here on the shores of Willapa Bay knocked on my front door. She was planning to leave the next day for a week-long trip. When I answered the door, she looked a little wild-eyed. "Florence," she said, "I'm sorry to bother you, but there are two kittens trapped under an abandoned house down the street. What should we do?" We walked down the street together, and soon we could hear desperate, high-pitched, piercing mews emanating from a dilapidated house.

Two impossibly tiny, nearly identical tabby kittens were in the crawl-space beneath the house, clinging to a small screened-in entryway and crying piteously. If kittens can scream, they were screaming. There are sounds that young mammals make in distress that are nearly impossible to ignore: the crying of a baby, the whimpering of a pup, the sound of hungry, frightened kittens. Wherever their feral mother had gone, she had been gone too long for them, or wasn't coming back at all. The sounds were unmistakably the sounds of little animals in extremis. I thought of my priest vows to be of benefit to all beings. It was too late to walk away. We looked at each other. "OK," we said, "let's do something."

We got a cat carrier, then went back to the kittens and tried to figure out how to extricate them from their crawl-space prison. With the help of another neighbor, we pried the screen off the small opening, and he crawled in. The kittens retreated, but were too small to go far. All we could see of the rescuer were his lower legs, but then his arm reached back to us, holding a trembling tiny bit of fur, blue eyes wide, striped legs spread wide. A minute later, another one appeared.

We popped them into the carrier and carried them back to my neighbor's house. They were very young, much younger than we had thought when we first saw them. Their blue eyes didn't focus, their ears were just unfurling and they wobbled more than they walked. We tried giving them milk (not a good idea, we later learned) but it was clear that they were too young to drink. They were trembling violently, clearly chilled, and mewing incessantly. Neither of us had any idea what to do. A call to the local rural animal shelter yielded only a recorded message.

We did what we all do these days, when faced with a dilemma: we went online. We learned that the kittens were perhaps just a bit over three weeks old, were almost certainly not weaned, and would need to be bottle-fed every few hours. They would not be able to maintain their own body temperatures and would need to be kept warm. They didn't even know how to urinate or defecate on their own. They were too young to go to a shelter, and might be euthanized if we tried. We should not have attempted to feed them - a chilled kitten should never be fed, and shouldn't be given cow's milk - our first big mistakes, blessedly irrelevant because they couldn't figure out what to do with the milk anyway.

My neighbor looked at me. We both knew she was leaving early the next morning. I had already promised to take care of her five-month-old Akita puppy while she was gone. "Of course," I said, wondering what my week was going to be like, wondering what I'd just promised to do.

So for the next week, with the help of my neighbor's kids and their father, I became a kitten mom. I coaxed them to eat, first unsuccessfully trying to feed them from a miniature kitten bottle filled with warm formula,  then from a mixture of warm formula and canned kitten food that they waded into and emerged from covered from paws to tail in what they were supposed to be eating. They would come straight to me afterward, to get warm, and then I'd be covered with formula and kitten food too. I washed them, I massaged their bellies to encourage them to defecate, I found them a surrogate mother to cuddle up to at night (a stuffed camel toy, just about the right size), I checked their heating pad every two hours. Mostly, I worried about them.

The first few days were the hardest. Although they'd had enough life force to get themselves into our hands and out from under the crawl space, I wasn't sure their life force would be enough to keep them going, especially in the hands of someone who had no idea what she was doing. The first night they spent at my house in their little cat carrier I barely slept. I kept wondering if I would wake to a dead kitten, or two dead kittens, and the thought seared me into wakefulness over and over again, listening for their small sounds. They were so fragile, so incapable of taking care of themselves. They had moved from the category of "other" and anonymous to the category of "beloved" in just a few hours.

That was the most extraordinary thing to me, to watch my own attachment develop so quickly, to care for them as if they had been in my life for years rather than hours. This seems to be one of the most basic of human capacities: the imperative to protect and care - for one another, for children, for wounded strangers, for the vulnerable and frightened. I could no more have chosen not to care for those kittens than I could have chosen not to breathe.

I was also shocked by how much I suffered over them, how completely neurotic I became, overnight. I worried about them nearly all the time. I felt responsible for their lives, moment after moment. A simple mistake on my part, a little carelessness, and they would be dead. I wondered how the parents of a newborn, or the parents of a sick child, stand that suffering. And here I must express my thanks to Cherie Kearney, who connected me to her friend Barb Hoover, a long-time foster kitten mom who gave me much-needed advice over the phone. Otherwise I might have gone right over the edge, not sure whether I was doing anything right at all. It turns out that it's hard to learn to take care of kittens via the internet (I'm sure the same could be said for babies) - I needed an old hand, and thanks to Cherie and Barb, I got one.

Then there were the moments when these tiny scraps of life curled together peacefully on my lap, small enough that I could hold both of them in my cupped hands, or when they clumsily climbed up on to the gigantic mountain of me, or when they looked into my face with their barely focused blue eyes. Then it was worth all the kitten food smeared on my clothing, and all the neurotic agitation. I could almost see the heart-strings that ran from my heart to their small faces.

And the miracles! They didn't know how to purr on Day 1. By Day 2 they were emitting tiny crackling noises. By Day 3 they were purring on my chest. They didn't know how to wash themselves on Day 1. By Day 4 they were swiping themselves with their paws, not very effectively. By the end of the week they'd learned how to wash everywhere but under their chins (that took quite a bit longer - weeks, actually!). I got them a miniature litter box and scratched in it with my fingers. One of them came stumbling over and started scratching too. Within a day they knew what to do in the litter box, and squatted there like real cats, looking a little puzzled but also pleased. I saw them wrestle together the first time, on about Day 3.  Their development was so rapid, it was like stop-motion photography, like a flower blooming, like the sun rising.

What had started out as bewildering and frightening became joyful and astonishing.

They - and I - survived the week. My neighbor came back and took them into her care with her kids' help. It was hard to let them go. They are now about six weeks old, and running around like little hellions. One's eyes are almost green, the other's still blue. We think they are both males, or maybe one is male and the other female (it's surprisingly hard to tell, graphic internet photos notwithstanding). My neighbor is still considering whether it's right to keep them - there are a lot of coyotes and raccoons around here, and kitties tend to be short-lived. If just the right home came along, someone who would take the two together, they might let them go. Otherwise, long-lived or short-lived, they do appear to have wormed themselves quite well into my neighbor's heart.

And I just donated to my local animal rescue group - HAVA - the Harbor Association of Volunteers for Animals- because the plight of kittens and puppies and dogs and cats and all the other creatures we take into our care, neglect, abuse, forget, abandon, has become vivid to me. I don't want kittens, any kittens, to starve under an abandoned house. All animals are these two kittens I cared for, deserving a good life, a chance to grow up and grow old.

I learned a lot from those kittens. I saw my ferocious protectiveness, my fear, my care, my capacity to love. I saw how life - any life - has a way of insisting, against the odds, on staying alive, on growing, on becoming. And beyond any words, our lives touched, intimately.

I will always be part of them, and they of me, however long they pounce and purr and climb in this precarious world.

May their lives be long, and bright, and lovely.

And a postscript, nearly a year later. I drove up to the house today, after being gone for several months, and was greeted by both kittens, now grown up and full of piss and vinegar. Here's a picture of one them.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Running the Edge of the World

Tokeland, Willapa Bay Southern Washington Coast ---

For the last sunny week or so I've been running barefoot on the big beaches to the north of here. Running's new - it's been a long time since I've been well enough to run - and running barefoot along the wet shiny salt-spray-and-wind edge of the continent is wholly new. The sand is packed hard from the breakers, almost as hard as pavement, and the shorebirds dash wildly into and out of the waves, just as I veer inland when a big wave comes in. Otherwise I like to run where the waves spread out into a fine mirror for the sky, my feet splashing in the shallow sheet of water.

Everything is reduced down to just a few "things", almost not things at all - sand    ocean    line of dunes   shorebirds   terns    sun   sky. There's a sense of edge, but not a hard edge - a constantly shifting, literally fluid edge.  Running the edge of the world.

James Swan, in his record from 1851 of the earliest white settlement of this part of the coast, writes about traveling along this very beach from Grays Harbor to "Shoalwater Bay" (now Willapa Bay). Inland were huge dark cedar and spruce forests, deep bogs, steep hills - but a person could drive a coach and four horses down the hard-packed open sand. Washington beaches are still classified as "public highways" - a legacy of the time, not so long ago, when they were the only way up and down the wet and wild Pacific coast.

I say "this very beach" but the beach I've been running on is called Washaway Beach. It's the fastest eroding shoreline in North America. What is beach now was once land, just a few years ago. Hundreds of feet of coastline a year disappear into the ocean, houses that were once well inland now stand tipped nearly over the edge of the sandy bank, the entire town of North Cove (church, coast guard station, cemetery) occupied a sandy peninsula now entirely underwater, where Pacific waves break at low tide, the graves moved inland, bones and headstones and all. Where I run this year will be ocean next year, the edge moving inexorably inland.

So what beach do I run on? Do I run on James Swan's beach? Where is the edge?

This time of year the shorebirds are just beginning to return from their far northern nesting grounds, some to stay here for the winter, others to go south south south, unimaginably far south. They're tired. Today I saw a whole group resting beside the waves, little white balls of feathers, heads tucked in, a gull presiding over them. I run a long way around the shorebirds. The last thing they need is to have to fly unnecessarily, after what they've been through. I cringe when I see a dog on the beach, joyously chasing them.

Right now it's all semipalmated plovers and sanderlings, the plovers gazing meditatively off into the middle distance, the sandlerings running like wind-up toys back and forth from one good feeding area to another, flying up together like a school of silvery fish flickering in the air. It took me about a half an hour to move slowly slowly up to a group of sanderlings today, to get close enough to see what they were with my small binoculars, but slow enough not to spook them.

This is why I don't want to spook them - the plovers have just arrived from their nesting grounds in the Arctic and subarctic, and they're headed south for the winter. Some of them are headed to....hang on to your hat here....Patagonia. More of the sanderlings stay around for the winter, but they nest even farther north, only in the High Arctic above the Arctic Circle, and some of them migrate 5,000 miles or more to South America. This is serious flying for birds smaller than a robin. I don't even travel that far, wanderer that I am.

So the shorebirds and I share the beach, all of us travelers, here for a little while before we head south, and the beautiful Caspian terns fly overhead staring into the water and croaking "like a crow being strangled" (as a friend of mine described them). When it's windy the dry sand moves in a fine sheet across the hard-packed wet sand, and the effect is mesmerizing, like running in a shallow desert river.

There is a joy that can seize a person in a place like that, running in the wind in all that space and light. I'm not sure where it comes from, or why it arrives. The spirit grows wide, spreading itself out. There's nothing outside that brightness, for a while.