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Pets Large & Small


Michael Hillman

(9/2017) I’ve often found myself wondering while looking at cat and dog adoption posters – what did the animal do that caused its owner to give it up? In today’s world of immediate gratification, for some, simply surrendering an unresponsive, or unaffectionate animal to a shelter is an easy out – sort of like trading in a car that no longer excites you for a new car.

Unfortunately, dogs and cats are not inanimate objects, they have feelings and personalities, and it’s up to us humans to take the time to figure them out. Some will come easy; others will test your patience. But it’s often figuring out the unresponsive ones that will bring the biggest smile when the connection is finally made.

Such was the case with Leah.

Living in the country affords you many opportunities for wildlife encounters, which includes stray feral kittens. I can remember finding Leah lying in the middle of a country road on one of the hottest days of the hottest summers in a long time. No more than six weeks old, she had struck off into a corn field from the farm where she had been born, and for what I’m sure to her seemed like an eternity, she eventually made it to the road. Hot, thirsty and thoroughly lost, she simply collapsed on the hot asphalt.

Fortunately I saw her, and was able to avoid hitting her. I looked into my rear view mirror expecting to see her run away, but she just lay there, not moving.

The first thing on my mind was to get her home and cooled down. I took her home to my wife, and after she took a drink she looked up at the two humans looking down at her. "We’re going to have to keep her away from the rest of the cats until we know what we’re dealing with."

My wife retrieved the "kitten box" from the attic. The kitten box is a large cardboard box with plenty of room to accommodate a kitten, with a litter box, room to play, food and water as well as a stuffed animal companion to keep her company. However, Leah didn’t seem too keen on the box, as she voiced her opinion rather loudly about being confined. For now though, this was where Leah would remain.

That evening, after she had consumed what probably was her first decent meal since leaving her mother, I placed her in front of my computer while I worked. Leah rolled over at me, smiled, and promptly passed out. Little did I know this was going to be my high point with her for years.

The next order of business was a veterinary appointment. Our vet identified that Leah had mites/feline mange, roundworms and respiratory issues. So she was de-wormed, prescribed antibiotics and sent on her way. She was definitely dealt a hand of bad luck. Instead of having a happy kitten-hood, Leah was forced to live alone in a box and undergo daily baths and administration of antibiotics for a month. As would be expected, she quickly became miserable. The purr she emitted the first night we had her was replaced by a hiss every time she saw us.

Eventually Leah was allowed to mingle with the rest of the cats, but as she soon discovered life wasn’t much better – the rest of the cats, all seniors - wanted nothing to do with a new kitten.

As at the time all of our attention was focused on the needs of the geriatric senior cats, Leah got less than her fair share of attention. With no one to play with, Leah withdrew into her own world.

Unfortunately, with her experiences as a youngster, she never truly associated human touch with a positive experience, so as she grew up, she didn’t enjoy being touched. If you did dare to try to touch her, she screamed, as a result, she was miserable to have around.

This aversion to touch, of course, made yearly visits to the vet challenging - for both Leah and my wife. On one such occasion my wife came home with serious scratches and a bite on her hand that had swelled. Needless to say, vet visits with Leah aren’t looked upon favorably.

However, in Leah’s defense, by the age of two, she had acquired a few personality quirks that did bring smiles to our faces. She developed a curiosity for opening doors, and after a while became quite good at it. She always seemed incredibly proud of her "naughty" feats in opening just about any cabinet door.

The addition of four more feral kittens over the next few years raised the feline tension level in the house – unfortunately Leah found herself at the lower end of the pecking order, which only made Leah more miserable to deal with. Fortunately we recognized that in saving the other kittens, we had created the situation that Leah now found herself in, so it was up to us to figure out how to rectify it. Our thought – build a cat enclosure.

Cat enclosures are a great way to allow indoor cats to safely experience the outdoors, and in doing so, blow off steam. As expected, Leah was the first one to explore the new enclosures. She thoroughly approved, and for a while, things seemed to settle down. She still hissed at you if you tried to pet her, or pick her up, but at least she seemed happy while outside.

Seeing how happy she was, we decided that maybe we could make her an inside/outside cat, like two other cats we had. Of course, to do that would require months of training, all of which would be predicated on her accepting the leash and harness.

We held our breath as we put the harness on her and brought her outside. For the first fifteen minutes she relished exploring her new surroundings. I was beginning to feel pretty optimistic. That thought had just entered my mind when Leah turned around and saw the leash – which apparently she mistook for a snake, and promptly had a melt down. It was all I could do to throw her into one of the enclosures as she turned herself inside out.

My wife said all she saw was a flash followed by a leash as she ran through the house trying to get away from the "snake." By the time we cornered her and took the harness off, she looked like she looked the first day we had found her. I’m sure that if she could talk, she would have told us to "just shoot me," to take her out of her misery.

But we weren’t ready to give up on Leah yet – we just needed to figure out what she was saying. It occurred to us that she was forever clawing at the window of the back door, as if wanting to go out, all the while yowling the same cry she did late at night. So one day I picked her up, held my breath, and carried her outside. For the first time in what seemed like years, she purred. She was quite content to be held in my arms. Her head bobbed and weaved as she took in everything around her. When I put her back in she ran into the enclosure and began to yowl again. So I went out, opened the enclosure door, picked her up, and walked around the house with her. This time, when put down safely inside, she trotted off, grabbed a quick bite of food, and went to bed.

The next day, she repeated it with my wife, who took a more leisurely walk around the property with Leah in her arms – all the while Leah purred and gawked. Gone, for at least a short time was the hissy cat we had known for the past five years. Instead of frustration, Leah desire to be carried around outside brought smiles and laughter.

Now, whenever she sees anyone returning home, Leah rushes to the cat enclosure where she waits for the ‘ride’ that she knows will come. The ‘rides’ have made her much more approachable inside as well. She now relishes pets, and even comes to seek them out.

Leah now has a ‘thing’ of her own. The ‘thing’ that sets her apart from every other animal in the house, a ‘thing’ we are only too happy to indulge her in, and a ‘thing’ we will remember the most fondly when she is a distant memory.

It took us five years to figure Leah out, but we finally did. I’m glad she never gave up on us – or us her. She now will come and show signs of affection by rubbing on our arms or legs, something we thought we would never, ever, see. Age seems to be helping Leah mellow out a bit, in conjunction with the cat enclosures of course.

As the old saying goes, good things take time. So before you decide to toss away that unresponsive dog or cat, ask yourself – ask yourself: "have I really tried to figure their ‘thing’ that will make them feel special out?" If not, you may be tossing away a lifetime of happy memories for both you as well as them!

Read other articles by Michael Hillman