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.



  1. AWWW...and thanks for the memories! I had 2 kitten rescue experiences...years apart.
    "Wild Bill"had probably been abandoned by his mother as she moved her litter..upon his death after a year of full-on life amusing and touching many,the vet who cared for him found he had a heart defect which he suspected the mother the mother cat had sensed.
    I had just brought a cup of coffee out to sit on the front steps of my flat on Florida St.and heard a compelling screaming. It took awhile to track the source to a house across and up the street a ways where I could see something very small perched on the metal awning over the front door.Even as I climbed the stairs I was still unable to tell what sort of creature it was...someone's pet monkey ? Only as I climbed to where I could stretch my hand out to it did I see that it was a tiny, powerfully distressed kitten who had practically turned himself inside out screaming.
    I gave him water from the tip of my finger, wrapped him up in towel scraps and took him to the neighborhood vet.It seems like it was only a matter of a few days before he was fully integrated with my male Springer Spaniel (who carefully washed him)and year old part Siamese male cat (who would often allow the kitten to curl up against him).We spent most of the following summer in a farm house surrounded by orchard up near Davis where Wild Bill developed his tree climbing skills and the trick of hanging upside down from a limb and looking over his shoulder at us grinning.Everyone loved him...even 'non-cat' people.
    Years later I lived in Kodiak, Alaska and was working through the winter at the Women's Shelter as the "overnight intake" person, which meant I had a 'sleeping room'.On the daily radio message board I heard a woman saying she'd found a small kitten abandoned in her woodpile and was looking for someone to foster it. I went out that afternoon to pick up a little white kitten bundled in a sock, her feeding bottles and formula.She was a comforting secret presence until she was 'busted'by a shelter supervisor for daytime rowdy play. Fortunately a friend who lived near a woods and with children wanted her, so she had a good life.

  2. Thanks Florence, for this beautiful story on how attachment forms in the human heart, and its "natural" presence there. Sometimes I find myself presuming that "an awakened being" might be beyond these movements of the heart. Your story reminds me how silly this presumption is.
    Here's to caring for all beings.

  3. How beautiful! I am currently nursing my elder kitty, who was a rescue kitten long time ago. Our bond is strong, a forever bond. He teaches me compassion and being present every day, and how all love given returns.

  4. Beautiful story, Florence. And so well put. As you know, Danica and I were long ago bitten by the bug of animal rescue. All animals are great teachers, but being able to rescue one from an ill fate is a special, and extra-informative, experience. Good for you.

  5. I was at the edge of my seat while reading your story--hoping, hoping, hoping that the kittens would survive. But I also knew that you were feeding them love (having been an axious mother myself and knowing that there is a direct line between those all-night worries and love). Thank you for telling your story--transformative for you, the kittens, and your readers.

    Cheers, Susan

    How are you these days???

  6. christyphelps@hotmail.comApril 25, 2012 at 12:42 AM


    Thank you for your wonderful story, I hope that others will open their hearts and hands should they ever stumble into a "rescue". I thought you might like to know that we just collected all of the cats from the end of Whipple at Washaway Beach. There were 33 in all, and each has been transported to the Feral Cat Project near Seattle where they were vet checked, altered, vaccinated and provided revolution and a good old fashioned ear cleaning. As of tonight, after a week of TLC & recovery - all of the kitties are tucked away safe, warm and loved in their new barn homes. Donna from HAVA trapped the last 5 that waited until after we had left by working with Craig who cared for the cats from the time the people moved thru the very last cat. HAVA even had the last 5 fixed after we had already transported all the rest. We were very lucky to have had homes that allowed multiple placements of 2, 4 and 6 cats so we were able to send the cats in family groups all over from Ocean Shores to Elma. We even have a foster home for 4 ten day old babies! Many of the cats allowed my daughter and I to hold or touch them before relocation. We were even lucky enough to They jumped into their beds & blankets together & sat proudly as if to say thank you! We appreciate the donations that allowed us to give these very deserving cats and kittens a home of their own. This just goes to show what can be done when people come together. Somehow we were able to make it once again on a wing and a prayer and just a few donations from good hearts. Thank you for sharing how normal people will go to great lengths to save these tiny creatures and wind up falling in love. Sincerely, Christy Roberts, Grays Harbor Spay Neuter.