Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Heartbreak of Being An Animal Lover

Last night found me at my local PetSmart. I no longer own a cat, but the cat that used to be ours and now lives with my mom still owns me, and when the creature needs food or litter it's somehow still my job.

Ainsley will never be able to have a furry or feathered animal in the house because of her asthma, but we both like to window shop at the cat adoption center in our PetSmart. We sometimes leave there a little sad because inevitably a tiny furball will steal our hearts by sticking little paws through the cage, or letting loose a pitiful mew, and we know there's nothing we personally can do to ensure the fur baby gets a good home.

Yesterday evening I was all alone at the pet superstore, save for a huge bag of Fresh Step, gazing through the glass of the adoption room. A PetSmart worker was in there showing kittens to a young couple and a woman was standing next to me holding a little black ball of kitteny cuteness.

I looked over at her direction and smiled; I figured she was test-driving a new pet of her own.

But instead of joy, I saw tears on her face and noticed an open cat carrier on the floor beside her.

She sniffed loudly and wiped her eyes. She rubbed noses with the kitten, no older than 6 weeks.

"You know I'm going to miss you, right?" she said. Then she gave a quiet sob and cradled the kitten gently to her chest.

Oh, dear Lord. She was dropping the kitten off for adoption. Gah.

I found myself starting to tear up. Mind you, I didn't know this woman or her story. I didn't know whether it was the last un-adopted member of an unwanted litter, or if it was a stray that wandered into her life, or if it was a new family pet that didn't work out. I just knew that a grown woman was sobbing like a child at the prospect of saying goodbye to an adorable but helpless baby animal and putting the animal's future into the hands of unknown adopters.

I can't even write about this without feeling myself getting a little choked up.

I am a sentimental old fool anyway, but if you throw an animal, especially a cat, into the mix, then I become a blubbery mess. I get it honestly; I come from a long line of people who like some animals more than they like most humans.

As a kid, we always had a stray something hanging around. The dogs never lasted long; I think they sensed that I was a little afraid of them. But both cats we had during my adolescence were creatures that showed up, fat enough and well-groomed enough to show that they once had human owners, looking for a better life. They were smart cats; my mother never could resist anything small and helpless, and my dad had been known in his own childhood as a great taker-in and keeper of his hollow's stray cat population. They must have been able to sense that, by simply showing up in our yard and occasionally meowing at the front door, that they would be taken in and fed and loved.

My dad could be gruff and harsh-spoken and downright scary. But hand him a cat and he would melt. In the days following his death my mom told the story of when, the year before, a family on their end of the street had adopted a young cat. The family didn't keep the cat inside, and every time it crossed the street in front of dad's car or showed up at their door hungry and thin, dad threatened to take it in himself, ownership tag on its collar or not. One night mom heard him come home from work but he didn't come in the house right away. When she looked out the window she saw him cradling something in his arms and depositing in on the neighbors' doorstep. He had found the cat dead in the street, apparently hit by a car, and wanted to give the cat back to the neighbors as a release for his own anger that they had not been the best of pet owners and in hopes that the cat would be respectfully put to rest. Of all the stories I heard about my dad after he died, this was the one that made me cry because it showed a side of him he didn't let out much.

My mom's dad had a reputaion as a healer. In a place where people had to travel many miles to get "in town" for a doctor or vet, Papaw was a first stop for our family members who had sick kids or pets. He provided competent and loving care for my aunt when she was born at home with the cord around her neck and due in large part to his common sense and nurturing the first night she was alive, she is now a physically healthy woman in her late 60s who, depite being mildly mentally disabled, is able to live by herself. Among the many animals he saved was a flying squirrel named Rocky who landed in mom and dad's Knox County yard as an injured infant and stayed the pet of the family for 2 memorable years. He gradually weaned it from human care with a skill that would impress wildlife professionals and returned it to the woods; after all, fish gotta swim, flying squirrels gotta fly. I am very envious of my older sister that this happened during her childhood and before I was born; there aren't too many people who can boast such a pet.

It's a well-documented phenomenon that people often get more worked up over an animal's demise than a human's. Watch any disaster movie in a theater full of people; adult characters in the movie can die horrific deaths and the audience will hardly bat any eye. When the token golden retriever rushes into the burning building/rising water/flowing lava/collapsing building, you will hear audible gasps and sobs. Perhaps it's the innocence; perhaps it's the cuteness. Perhaps it's that animals love us unconditionally and trust us to keep them from harm. I can only guess at the psychology behind it, but I know for sure that some people who don't cry when Jack lets go of the wooden headboard will cry themselves into the hives over Where the Red Fern Grows. I myself cry until I choke at the ending of Homeward Bound.

I remember when the news story broke about the mother cat who went time after time into a burning building to save her kittens. The mother saved her babies but in so doing suffered serious injury. She survived, and thousands of people offered to take her and the babies in. The whole country was moved. Had a human mother done this it barely would have made news; we all know, and expect, that human mothers will give up their lives to save their children. But somehow when it was an became one of the most moving true stories we've ever heard and made a household name of Scarlett the cat.

I don't know if I will ever be so moved by the emotion of a complete stranger as I was when I saw that sad farewell between a woman and a kitten. It was genuine, and un-ashamed, and as real as any mother's love.


Karen said...

Thanks for getting me all choked up! I can't go to PetSmart when they've having the pet adoptions - otherwise I'd come home with 20 cats!

Robert K. said...

The day after my parents gave us our basset, we went to the pound to pick out a companion for her. However, I had to delegate the task of actually going inside and picking out a dog to my wife, because I knew there was no way I could go back there without coming out with at least a dozen canine orphans.

Mrs. Rob K said...

He thinks that I had an easy time of being drawn to just one dog! There was a pen of puppies in there that I cried seeing when I walked through. But I knew that we weren't prepped to handle puppies at that time... and I also knew the cold facts, puppies will get adopted faster than any other dogs. So I showed 'disciprine' and moved back to the adult dogs... and found our absolute angel Sadie, who was set to be put down on the following Monday. That did it for me, and it was the best decision I've ever made looking over at her right now... save marrying Rob :) And yes... I'm crying as I type this remembering walking through the shelter.