Last year, I wrote a thing about cats.
It almost didn’t happen—this thing about cats. Or, at least, I was concerned that it wasn’t going to happen. It was one of the final things I was contributing to the Southern Minnesota Scene, and many months before writing it, I had pitched the idea to my editor as a feature story for the magazine’s ‘animal’ issue; he said yes to it, but then, there was some very unanticipated unpleasantness at the magazine. In the aftermath of that, the writers had, more or less, been left in the dark on where things were heading with the future of the publication, and I didn’t have a lot of hope.
I started writing the piece anyway, and once I was maybe a third into it, I confirmed with the person who had taken over editorial duties at that point that they’d still even want it and run it as a feature story.
Much to my surprise, they said yes.
I wrote a thing about cats. I was never a ‘cat person’—and realistically, I can’t be one. Mostly because my wife and I live with a companion rabbit, and despite photos you see on the internet or stories you hear about cats and rabbits being pals, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to bond them, or at the very least, make sure they weren’t going to tear each other apart when I wasn’t home to supervise.
Also, my wife and I are both terribly, terribly allergic to cats, and the over-the-counter allergy medications I use only work for so long during the day.
I wrote a thing about cats. It’s about how I was never a ‘cat person,’ but how I started volunteering at the local animal shelter, and was given the task of socializing the cats there who were more frightened or shy than others, so I had to quickly overcome any anxieties or hang ups I had about being around cats, and I had to try, as best as I could, to understand them.
I wrote a thing about cats and it’s about how I quickly became attached to specific ones, like Filbert or Rocky, and then they’d get adopted and I would be sad to see them go, but happy that they had found what is commonly called their ‘forever home.’
With my work schedule, I had been volunteering at the shelter once a week, on my day off. Last fall, I too found myself in a bit of unanticipated unpleasantness; at that time, the shelter was looking for additional help with cleaning cat kennels in the morning before they open for business in the afternoon.
I asked if they’d be willing to take me on for Tuesday mornings.
* * *
Cleaning, like, 20 or more cat kennels is both good exercise, and it also makes the first four or five hours of the morning fly by. There really isn’t time to take a break—these cats all want their breakfast, and they continue to meow at you very loudly until you feed them, or, if they are starving for attention, they will bop you on the head or shoulders as they press their paws through the bars of the kennel doors.
Cleaning the kennels has also given me the chance to get to know all of these cats a little bit better. When I volunteer, I spend my time with only a handful of cats—four or five who need additional consideration, or ones that I have glommed onto as ‘my favorites.’ When you’re actually working at the shelter as an employee, you get to know everyone’s personalities as you open up their kennel door, let them run around for a few minutes while you clean, then scoop them back up so they can have breakfast.
Because I speak to animals like they are people, I carry on conversations with the cats, asking how their week had been, or if they had big plans for the day. I begin to give them nicknames—Lana becomes Lana Del Cat, Bert becomes Bertie, Duke becomes Grumpers, simply because he has a permanent frown and big, expressive eyes like the internet sensation ‘Grumpy Cat,’ and Goldie became Golders.
Jasmine became Jazzy Belle, Jazzy Pants, Jazzercise, or simply Jazzy.
* * *
There are a handful of ways that cats wind up at the shelter. More often than not, they are ‘owner surrenders1’; or they are strays that have been picked up by local police, held for a short period of time at ‘animal impound,’ then transferred over to the shelter when no human comes forward to claim them. Or, in some cases, if a stray cat brought in happens to be pregnant, her kittens are born at the shelter.
Usually, when trying to work with a cat who is new to the shelter, I will ask a staff member what their story is—where did they come from? Why are they there? With Jasmine, nobody could tell me very much. She had been a stray; picked up by the police, held at impound, then transferred over to the shelter.
The first time I met her, she hadn’t been at the shelter all that long. She was very young at this point—maybe a month old, maybe more—and she was being held in an enclosure with another very young cat. I knelt down to get a better look at both of them and to say hello. Her roommate started toddling toward the opening of the enclosure, mewing in response to my attention.
Jasmine stayed hunkered down in a corner of the enclosure. When I reached my hand in slowly to pat her on the noggin, she very deliberately hissed at me—it was an otherworldly, unsettling hiss, the type of sound you would not expect to be coming from somebody so small and young.
* * *
There is a stable of ‘old timers’ at the shelter—cats who have been there for a while, some longer than others—Jonathan, mischievous but good natured, has the run of the entire shelter and has been there for two years; Bert, with his wacky smile and big, floofy tail, has been there for just a little over a year. A majority of these cats do not need the extra attention and socialization, but during my time volunteering, and as an employee, I‘ve been charmed by the personalities of many, and will spend a few moments with them just to say hello.
More often than not, on days that I am volunteering, the shelter coordinator will have a list of new intakes for me to spend time with during my shift — or, cats who had been there for a while and haven’t adjusted yet to their new surroundings and roommates.
I was certain to make time for Jazzy, whether I was told I needed to work with her or not.
* * *
Jazzy was always difficult to try and wrangle. When I would reach my hands into whatever enclosure she was living in, she’d hiss and begin to cower, hunkering herself down lower and lower, as if this would prevent me from seeing where she was, or getting her.
As I wrapped my hands around her, in an effort to hoist her up and out, she’d hook her claws on to any surface she could—the bars of the enclosure, a blanket or other bedding; her whole body would tighten and stiffen. Occasionally she’d thrash around—early on, I’d been nipped or clawed countless times. It’s an occupational hazard when working with unpredictable animals. Once, I came to work with a large gash on the side of my thumb. While placing a bandage over it, my boss asked if it had happened while on the clock.
“No,” I told her. “I just had a little run in with my friend Jazzy yesterday. I’m fine.”
Once I had a grasp on Jazzy, I’d carefully take her into the acquaintance room, which is where I spent my time trying to work with these cats. Occasionally, once we got in the room, she’d sense me loosening my grip on her slightly and she’d make a break for it—or, at least, make a break for a corner of the room, where she would, again, hunker down and hiss.
Other times, she would just resolve herself to the fact that she was going to receive attention and affection from someone, though she’d never really relax. I would try to cradle her as best I could, and give her reassuring pats on top of her small noggin. She seemed to like the pats, or at least, she didn’t tell me otherwise. Sometimes it seemed like she was smiling, or at least, finding some contentment in our time. But she was still rigid—it always seemed like she was in some kind of pain or discomfort.
There were times where I thought I was making progress—once, she gave me a gentle bonk on the nose. There were other times—like when she’d jump out of my hands, dash through the shelter lobby, and hunker herself down as far as she could in some dark corner behind the reception desk—there were other times that I didn’t think we were making any progress at all.
* * *
Jazzy would be placed with a roommate, and the two of them would live in a large enclosure in the lobby. Her roommate would get adopted, and she’d be left behind. This continued to happen, until she was simply just living on her own. Potential adopters would come in and inquire about her, or try to approach her enclosure, and she’d simply hiss at them once, and startle them away.
With many of the cats at the shelter, they’re done growing. They’ve reached their full size, so not much about them changes week to week when I see them. Jazzy was still growing—slowly getting bigger; her limbs becoming longer, and slightly ganglier.
“You’re getting so big, Jazzy!” I would exclaim each week, when I’d see her.
In the mornings, outside of cowering and hiding in various pockets of the building, Jazzy had developed a habit of romping around—as best she could—with the other cats in the lobby. There were a few occasions where I watched her trotting around, or playing with someone else. Once, when I witnessed this, I hollered out to her, “Caught you having fun, Jazzy!”
She heard me, looked me in the eyes, reached deep down into her small feline body, and found the most sinister hiss she could muster, and sent it my way. Then she got up from where she had been playing, and scooted to somewhere she could hide.
That was the end of the fun.
* * *
One of the other employees at the shelter told me once that it was ‘a place of both life and death.’
She told me this after two young kittens with myriad health issues had been put to sleep. The two in question were part of a litter of four—the other two were perfectly fine. These two, clumsy balls of black fuzz, had been born blind, or at least partially blind. They could maybe see shadows, or at least had some kind of vague idea that someone was near them—though their lack of vision was putting them at a disadvantage.
Their eyes were also often weepy and goopy, and if this all weren’t enough, there was concern that their insides—specifically their digestive tracts—were not developing correctly.
I mean, I get it—they were more than likely suffering, or at the very least, incredibly uncomfortable and unhappy. Blind, unable to digest correctly, it would be irresponsible of the shelter to try and adopt them out to someone. But at the same time, I don’t get it—when, and how, do you make that call?
It’s a place of both life and death.
* * *
The term ‘unadoptable’ begins to be tossed around about Jazzy.
She becomes more and more difficult for other staff members when they try to handle her, or work with her in anyway. She continues to hiss at any potential adopters who approach her enclosure.
I still sit with her if she’ll let me; I give her slow, reassuring pats on the head, and I tell her that I think she’s very good. I ask her why she’s so angry, or upset.
I tell her that I want her to be the cat I know she can be.
I come into the shelter one morning to work, and I notice her enclosure is empty. I wonder if she’s found a home finally—but no, she’s been demoted out of the lobby, into the examination room—where new intakes and cats with persistent medical issues are kept.
She’s placed back there so she stops hissing at potential adopters. Another staff member tells me that maybe she’d make a good barn cat, but even in that situation, if something were wrong with her, how would the person who took her in even be able to catch her and take her in to the vet?
* * *
On a Saturday evening, while my wife was in the kitchen making dinner, I had sent a message to another shelter staff person about a completely unrelated matter. We had a short back and forth exchange, and then she changed the subject.
“Did you know they put Jazzy down on Thursday?”
My heart stops.
“One minute, I let her out to play and she was rolling around with the other friends in the lobby, and the next, she was being taken to the back, and I was told ‘We’re saying goodbye.’ And that was that.”
I guess part of me wasn’t surprised. Once she was relocated out of the lobby, I knew, deep down, that this was as possibility.
I get it, but I don’t get it.
It’s a place of both life and death.
* * *
When I return to the shelter the next Tuesday for my shift, nobody offers any explanation to me—nor do I ask any questions. I’m simply too afraid to bring it up. I wipe down kennels; I clean litter boxes; I make my small talk with the cats as I escorted them to and from their enclosures.
The reality is that it’s none of my business, and my attachment to an unstable cat is not something that factors into a decision like this. I get it, but I don’t get it. When, and how, is that kind of a call made? What was it that was the breaking point—too much of a liability to continue to house? Too vicious with a staff member? Or was her health actually that compromised—was her disposition and her continually rigid body a sign of a larger problem that hadn’t been addressed?
Why didn’t anyone tell me so I could have come in to say goodbye?
* * *
Telling my wife about what happened to Jazzy was, for some reason, incredibly difficult.
She could tell something was wrong with me while we were eating dinner, but I continued to say that I was fine. We finished eating, and I asked if she wanted any dessert—two pieces of leftover cranberry pie.
I warmed up the pie and plopped a scoop of vanilla coconut milk ice cream in each bowl, bringing them over to the table with a loud sigh.
“What’s going on?” she asked again.
I took a breath, and I explained that on Thursday, Jazzy had been put to sleep.
From the living room, an absolutely devastating song by St. Vincent, “Happy Birthday, Johnny2,” plays softly on the turntable.
The ice cream begins to melt. The pie begins to cool down. The song ends, and the record continues to spin, the needle riding on the dead wax at the end of the side.
For a very long time, we sit in silence.
* * *
A number of years ago, when I had slightly more disposable income, I made some small donations to a few animal welfare organizations, ensuring that I’d be on their mailing lists until the end of time.
One of them was Best Friends—they send me a calendar every year, as well as quarterly notifications that it’s my ‘last chance’ to renew my membership with them.
The slogan, or tagline, or whatever, for Best Friends is ‘Save Them All.’
I know that isn’t true.
I wrote a thing about cats, and when I was writing it, I interviewed somebody with the animal shelter, in an effort to contextualize my experiences a little more. During our interview, she told me one of the things she wanted people to realize about working with shelter animals is that you can’t, actually, save them all.
“Some are too broken, or too sick,” she told me. “Through no fault of their own.”
Jasmine, Jazzy Belle, Jazzy Pants, Jazzercise.
I’m sorry Jazzy.
I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.
1– I’ll never be comfortable with the term ‘owner’ when it comes to companion animals.
2– I suppose it’s fitting, if anything, that this song was playing during this moment. The song itself is heartbreaking, and finds Annie Clark walking a thin line between ambiguity and truth. She’s incredibly guarded about who the ‘Johnny’ of this song (as well as two others) actually is, and there has been a lot speculation as to if it’s a friend, an ex, or a family member. It doesn’t matter, in the end, it’s someone she couldn’t save.
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog, Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. He occasionally puts pictures of cats on Twitter: @KevEFly.
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