Friday, August 14, 2009


Just wanted to add a quick note as an addendum to recent posts:
(Hate to sound like the doting mother, but seriously, doesn't Sugie look, well, just like Sugie in this photo? All ears sideways and wild-eyed, like she's about to attack something?? Glad it wasn't my hand... this time....)
So I stopped by Upland Animal Shelter (cat hell) yesterday. Two serendipitous events occurred. The first:
When I entered the smaller cat room, I was surprised to find it crowded with women. 'Wow,' I thought, 'lots of folks looking at cats today.' But then I realized these weren't potential adopters, they were volunteers. Three of the women had Down's Syndrome. The fourth looked up from a cage and smiled.
"Are you all volunteers?" I asked.
"Yes," she told me. "We come here every Thursday, just to interact with the cats." Is that cool or what?? More angels!! I thanked them all and four kind faces lit up. I watched for awhile as they carefully brushed and stroked the cats, then put each one gently back in its cage. Wow. What a blessing.
Then I headed off to the big cat room. There was a black kitten curled in a ball whose gender I could not determine, so I went to the front desk.
"Can I help you?" asked Mr. Jackass. I ignored him as if he were invisible. A woman swiveled around in her chair. I hadn't seen her before.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied pleasantly, and asked if she could check the gender of a kitten for me.
"Of course!" she replied, just as pleasantly, and off we went to the cat room. Little Miss Thing turned out to be a girl, and as I held her, the nice officer and I got to talking about black cats. She confirmed what others had said, that black cats are very difficult to place, and often 'grow up' in the shelter.
"I have one at home right now that I'm fostering," she told me. She went on to explain that a batch of kittens had been brought to the shelter in such bad shape she didn't think one of them would make it through the night. They were dehydrated, anemic from the fleas that covered them, full of worms, and starving. She took the worst one home--he had an infected eye filled with pus (shades of Homer Cooper!!)--and started caring for him, picking the fleas off, giving him fluids, treating his eye... and loving him.
"You should see him now!" she boasted. "But I'll have to bring him back, and he'll probably just sit here, because he's black...." Hmmm....
Anyway, this lady was great, and she clearly cared for the cats, so we'll have to conclude that she is an angel who has volunteered to work in hell. Now that's impressive!!
Of course, at the end of the day I ended up back in cat heaven, spending a luxurious half hour in the sunny yard with "Elmore," "Chesterfield," and several other furry children whose names I didn't know. (Angel was busy inside, sweeping out each and every cat apartment, so I couldn't ask him.)
I still haven't made a decision about who's coming home with me, but I appreciate all the response I've had to the blog and your comments. Love you, animal lovers!!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Finding cat heaven

You would think that after Sunday’s heartbreak, the last place I’d want to go for awhile would be another animal shelter. But the Universe sometimes pulls me in certain directions, and I dare not resist….

I finally got around to buying a new washing machine on Monday. (I highly recommend the Sears Outlet on Vineyard in Ontario—I got a $849 Whirlpool for $400; it had a nearly imperceptible ding on one corner.) I had to go to the credit union, so I headed there first, then turned the little Tacoma in the direction of Vineyard, meandering along side streets, looking at houses. (It’s a weird addiction, I know.) I ended up east-bound on Mission Blvd. A long forgotten memory surfaced… and I started looking along the south side of the street. There it was: West End (as in the west end of Ontario) Animal Shelter. Just out of curiosity (or because I am really into self-punishment), I pulled in.

At one time, Ontario was a fine city, equal in status to its close neighbor, Chino, but larger, and boasting its own library (not a branch in the San Bernardino County system), among other points of city pride. But something happened over the years, and the city fell into decline for awhile—to the point that one would have to step around all the homeless people in order to do research in the library. In the years since, it has sort of been the red-headed step child to neighboring Upland and Claremont. I took some deep breaths before entering this shelter, expecting the worst.

As I walked through the door into the lobby, I woke the young man who was dozing behind the counter.
“I’m looking for cats,” I said quietly.
“Oh,” he said, pointing and yawning, “through that door, outside, follow the path, it’s a long white building.”
I found the building, and a door, but when I opened it, it led into something like an anteroom. There was a beautifully decorated bathroom adjacent, and I thought at first I must have inadvertently walked into an ‘employees only’ area. But then I saw two double doors ahead, with a sign reading, “Cats are like chips; you can’t have just one.” I opened it and stepped inside.

My first impression was of severe pain in my left big toe. I looked down to see a small white cat biting me.
“Hey!” I told him laughing, “no toes!”
“I’m sorry,” a voice said. I looked up to see a young man in shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap approaching. “That’s Cameron. Cameron, no,” he said, turning to the kitten and gently picking him up. “This one’s got a motor on him!” And he placed the little cat in my arms. I was immediately nuzzled, cuddled and licked. “Let me know if you have any questions,” the young man said.

I was standing at the end of a long corridor. At first glance, all I could see were cats everywhere. Cats and cat toys and scratching posts and tall, carpeted towers. Cats strolling, cats skittering, cats curled in baskets, cats grooming happily.

“Yes,” I said, “I do have a question. How do you do this?”
The young man, a serious expression crossing his face, replied, “Well, we know that many of these cats may not get adopted for a very long time, if ever, so we try to make them as comfortable and happy as we can.”

Yes, dear readers, I knew then that I had just found cat heaven. On either side of the corridor, there were “cages” (a misnomer, as these spacious studio apartments each contained a cat tower, large covered litter box, baskets filled with blankets—and a window to the outside world) with one or two cats inside. Another 30 or so roamed the corridor. I still hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps inside. Another white cat greeted me. She was sitting on a cat pedestal, but reached a delicate paw toward me. I petted her head, and she began to purr immediately.
“That’s Laverne,” the young man said. “Her sister is Shirley. Looks just like her.”
“Um… I’m kind of looking for a black cat,” I said, which caused the young man to turn quickly and assess me. “My black male recently died….” I explained.
“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. “We’re careful about who we adopt black cats to.” Yes, and for good reason, I thought. Good for you.
“Well, we have several black cats,” he said. “This is Dean,” he pointed to another cat pedestal which was topped with a gorgeous black cat. “We have Drew and Pepper. They both look a lot like Dean, but they’re smaller. Drew had a broken hip, and he’s still recovering, so he’s a little shy. But he’s doing fine.”

As we walked down the corridor, more cats trotted up to greet us. As they did, the young man would introduce me.
“That’s Vivica. She’s really sweet. That’s Chesterfield. He’s my favorite because he’s really playful. Oh,” he added, “some of the cats are outside.” At the end of the corridor, a door stood open to the outside. Puzzled, I walked down and looked out. A play yard for the kitties had been created by fencing in a grassy area with soft chicken wire. The fence was curved along the top so that no one could climb out. The landscape was dotted with more toys, towers, pedestals, scratchers and hideouts. A dozen or so cats were sitting or sprawled or curled in the morning sun.

I asked the young man his name.
“Angel,” he replied.
I told you I found cat heaven.

Angel has been working at the West End shelter for nearly a year. He is “the cat guy” (‘cat whisperer!’ I thought, as he said this). His sole job is to care for the 150 cats (mas o menos), clean their apartments, feed and water them, and offer them affection. From what I could tell, Angel is doing a tremendous job at all three duties.
“Some people don’t like doing the 9-5,” he told me. “Me, I love getting up in the morning to come to work because I love my job.”
And I love you, Angel, I thought.

After sitting on the floor for a half hour, playing with a half dozen different cats and getting covered with cat hair and kisses, I remembered I had to go get a washer. I told Angel I’d be back the next day, and I did return, dragging my good buddy Doug along with me. He, too, lost his beautiful black male, “Scout,” a year before I lost Boo, and we’d grieved together. Doug had the same trepidation I’d had in entering the shelter, but after awhile, he had to agree that we’d found cat heaven, and we spent an hour there, playing with Drew and James and Chesterfield, who seemed to really like Doug a lot. Finally, it was near closing.
“How do you think Angel gets these cats to go inside their apartments?” I asked Doug as we sat outside in the sun with various kitties around us.
“I think he just calls them and they know where to go,” Doug answered. Of course. As we walked back inside the building, Angel was moving down the hallway, opening cage doors and calling cats.
“Come on,” he’d say quietly, and a cat would quickly slip inside. Amazing.

So. No, I haven’t chosen a kitty yet to be Sugie’s new brother. I found myself partial to Drew, one of the black cats, but it’s hard to tell how playful he will be once his hip is fully healed, and she needs someone she can tear around the cabin with when I’m not here. Beyond that, I have a pretty intense moral dilemma. My daughter, in her profound wisdom, has already told me that I “have to” adopt from the Upland shelter, because I know, now, what hell those cats live in. She has a point. But it’s infinitely more difficult to assess personality in those cats, precisely because they’re living in those conditions. If I adopt from Upland shelter, though, I will be truly ‘rescuing’ a cat in the fullest sense of the word.

What to do!?! I’m still thinking it over. For now, though, it is enough to have found what a shelter can do when the humans in charge truly care for the animals they’re sheltering. This began some serious healing in my heart. While I decide which kitty, from where, I will be writing a letter of commendation for Angel, our cat whisperer. Bless him forever and all the other folks involved with West End shelter who decided long ago that the cats’ needs should come first. Amen to that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Covington Two

(This is the second part of yesterday’s blog. Today's photo is of Sugar Plum.)

After deciding on Thursday that the beautiful black boy who was desperate for affection would be Sugie’s new brother, I knew I had to continue bonding with him even though I couldn’t think about taking him home until Sunday. I had a book signing scheduled for Friday, so I drove down the mountain early and headed for the shelter. I signed in and went straight for the ‘annexed’ cat room. There was my boy, lying on his side, paws protruding through the bars. Poor little criminal. What had he done to find himself here? His eyes were closed, so I put my hand under his nose and waited. Suddenly he stood up, eyes wide, looking through the bars at me.
“Yes,” I told him, “I’m here to rub under your chin for you!” He began to purr immediately and we repeated yesterday’s time together, him doing happy cat postures, me just petting and scratching and quietly talking.

Before I left, I stopped by the larger cat room to wash my hands. One cage was empty. Apparently Mr. B&W had persuaded someone to take him home. Perfect.

That evening I told Sugie to expect a new brother soon. I’d been sorting through names that might fit him. I’d never changed Sugie’s name when I brought her home because, well, “Sugar Plum” just seems to fit her. But this cat, this very cool cat, had no name. Hmmm. ‘Which of my male friends is a very cool cat?’ I wondered. And I had the answer in an instant. Bob. I mean, Robert Louis Covington, beloved friend and poet. Covington would be the perfect name. Now that he was named, he definitely felt like my cat, and I couldn’t wait to bring him home.

The next day was Saturday, and I had a long-planned reunion with a cousin that had already been re-scheduled once, so I didn’t want to change it, but I thought I’d just get things started on Covington’s adoption. Again, I headed down the mountain early, but Saturday is a busy day up here; this summer we’ve seen people in record numbers coming up to hike. By the time I’d negotiated traffic (and spent a few minutes talking to a neighbor at the post office), I’d used up half the time I’d wanted to spend with Covington. ‘No worries,’ I thought. I’d be bringing him home soon enough.

Instead of going straight to his cage when I arrived at the shelter, I stopped in at the office. The young man behind the counter was in his mid-twenties.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said smiling, “Do you have an adoption application I can take home and fill out?”
“Nooooooooo,” he said, dragging out the vowel and smirking as if I were asking him if he had a steak smothered with onions. “Do you know which animal you want to adopt?”
“Let me show you,” I told him, turning away and heading toward the dog/cat room. With each step I took a deep breath. I hate when people are condescending toward me.
I led the young man to Covington and his first words were, “You want this cat?” Yes. This nondescript full grown black cat. Yes. But I said aloud:
“Yes, I know he’s been here a long time—“
“He’s been here a really long time,” he cut me off to say.
“Do you know how old he is? Was he a kitten when he came in?”
“No, he wasn’t a kitten. Let me see how old he is….” Naively, I thought he was going to go look up the cat’s file, but he stepped in front of me and threw the cage door open, causing the cat to jump to the back of the small cage, frightened. The man reached his hand in and I watched as Covington’s eyes grew huge in terror as the man grabbed his head, then lifted his lip to look at his teeth. “He’s a year or two, I’d say.”
Thanks, genius, I thought. I can see that from looking at him. I took more deep breaths as he closed the cage door and turned to me accusingly.
“Why can’t you adopt him today?”
“I have somewhere I need to be in about ten minutes,” I told him. “Can I just fill out the paperwork—“
He cut me off again, shaking his head. “I can put a hold on him—“
“Oh, great,” I replied, “so I can get him tomorrow—“
“No. I can only hold him for an hour. And you can’t take him until he’s neutered, and the vet’s office won’t do that on the weekend anyway, so the soonest you could have him would be Monday. But you could come in tomorrow and do the adoption, then he’d go to the vet’s overnight and have the surgery first thing the next morning. Will that work for your schedule?”
“Perfectly,” I replied, leaving out the “you jackass” ending. My time with Covington was limited to five minutes of serious neck rubbing before I took off to meet my sister and head for Pasadena.

So Sunday morning finally arrives. The shelter is only open for three and a half hours on Sundays, but I am there at noon when they unlock the door and allow the public in. The day before, Mr. Jackass’s last words to me, in reply to my “I’ll be back tomorrow to adopt him,” were, “Just bring me the card off his cage tomorrow.” So I scurry back to Covington’s cage—only to find a gray cat looking up at me through the cage door. I search all the other cages in the room, my heart pounding. No Covington. I run to the larger cat room. Two small dogs are now in cages in the other cat room, but no Covington. He is nowhere to be found. I rush to the front desk.
“Can I help you?” a young woman asks. My words tumble out haphazardly as I try to explain that I’ve come to adopt the cat who is known as “Impound #25,” and that I’ve been there four days in a row bonding with him, but now he’s not there, and, I add, “now I’m frantic.”
She goes to the chair at her desk and as she swivels away from me and toward the computer she says, “Well, he must’ve gotten adopted, then, because I haven’t put anybody to sleep today.”
At first I think this is a horrifically bad joke, but then I realize she is not kidding. I’m suddenly aware that my stomach muscles are clenched, my face tight. If this were a movie, if I were Erin Brockovich, I would be saying something in reply like, “I’ll bet that’s one of the aspects of your job you take particular pleasure in, ma’am.” But I stand quietly at the counter, listening to the blood pulsing in my ears.
“Oh yes,” she finally says, after scrolling through countless files, “He was adopted by someone yesterday.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say, “he’s been here since—“
Just then Mr. Jackass walks by. When he looks up, I ask if he remembers me coming in yesterday, asking about that certain black cat in the back.
“Oh yeah!” he says, enthusiastically. “Some people came in yesterday after you were here and they adopted him. He’s already gone off to the vet’s. But hey,” he adds in a patronizing tone, “we’ve got plenty of cats available for adoption.”
I make it to the parking lot before I start crying. I drive a block, then pull over, because the lenses of my glasses are fogged with tears, and I need to blow my nose.

What are the chances? The boy sat there in that cage all those months, and no one wanted him. I come along, fall in love with him, and someone snatches him out from under my nose. In my bitterness, my first thought (after ‘God hates me’) is that Murphy’s Law has once again come into play. But then I have to take some deep breaths and consider the absurdity of the ‘coincidence.’ And since I don’t believe in coincidences…. Maybe my daily visits were enough to give Covington hope, to bring him out of his despondency enough so that, when the next group of people strolled through, he was up and looking like a sweet, affectionate boy at the front of his cage. So someone got a really cool cat, and I want to believe that he ended up in a really loving home. Please, Universe, let that be so. And—when I can stop crying—I will find a companion for Sugie. But the experience has really made me think. We know that animals become despondent if they are left alone, without attention, over a long period of time (even a short period of time—some cats become depressed after only 72 hours alone). If my time spent with Covington perked him up enough for others to notice him, I wonder if just volunteering to spend time with some of the other cats could have the same result. Of course, if I go back to the Upland shelter, I’ll have to put up with Mr. Jackass. Maybe this can be a learning experience for him, too, I think. That’s me; ever the teacher, ever the optimist.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Covington One

On Wednesday afternoon, I finished reading Homer’s Odyssey, a soon-to-be-released memoir about author Gwen Cooper’s “wonder cat,” Homer. As a tiny kitten, Homer’s eyes were so badly infected that they had to be removed. Gwen’s vet asked her to adopt the little cat, and thus began an amazing relationship that has lasted over a decade. The book was a completely absorbing read, both for Cooper’s skilled writing and for the stories of Homer’s amazing courage in the face of a challenge he apparently still hasn’t realized he has.

Having recently lost my own domestic shorthair cat (black, like Homer), reading the book took me on quite an emotional journey. I miss my Boo every morning when I wake up and realize it is only Sugie on the bed with me. Oh, I don’t know what I’d do without her—my own courageous little black cat who suffered horribly at the hands of some less-than-human cretin before finding her way into my heart. But we have felt the loss of our beautiful boy cat for some months now. Mostly for me this happens at bedtime, when Boo is not there to push my journal away and climb into my lap. For Sugie, it is in the long hours she spends alone when I am at work. Yes, there are birds to watch from the windows, mice to stalk in the basement, and warm sun spots beneath the skylights in which to curl up and nap. But I know from the way she clings to me constantly after being alone all day that she needs someone to be here with her always. She and Boo were never the best of buddies; by the time Sug came to us, Boo had entered the winter of his life and was no longer interested in racing through the house, playing hide ‘n’ seek. But let there be danger, and the two cats would quickly find each other and huddle up, usually under the bed. And it was Sugie who watched over Boo in my absence as he became sicker and sicker, crawling under the bed to check on him and soothe his fretfulness by kissing his head.

I found myself inspired by the story of Homer’s inner strength (and that of his mom, the young Ms. Cooper who decided at one point in her life to move from South Beach, Florida to New York City—with all three of her cats, something I would never be able to summon the resolve to do). So, on Thursday, I headed down the mountain to run some errands, and I stopped by the Upland Animal Shelter.

When I adopted Sug, it was through a local rescue organization (HOPE), which contracts with Petsmart. The cats are kept in the store in small but clean quarters behind a large Plexiglas window. Some months after the death of Calpurnia, the little black spitfire my daughter had given me for my birthday sixteen years previously, I went looking for “a black cat” as a companion for Boo. I walked into Petsmart one Sunday afternoon, and there was "Sugar Plum"—the only black cat they had. “I want her,” I told the volunteer who was there to clean litter boxes and fill water bowls. All the other cats were beautiful feline specimens. Sug was short, overweight (not the case any longer), and missing half her tail. I had to undergo a grueling process to get her, including filling out a three-page application, submitting to a home inspection, and taking Boo to an unfamiliar vet for all manner of tests to make sure he wasn’t afflicted with any feline maladies (despite my offer to produce documentation of shots and annual check-ups from our regular vet). “Sugar Plum,” I asked her when I was finally allowed to bring her home, weeks after initially finding her, “are you worth it?” She was.

Someday soon, I hope, the City of Upland will follow the lead of neighboring Rancho Cucamonga and renovate its shelter facility. It seems hard to believe that it is the same stark place I visited in 1986 and again in 1987, adopting first our beautiful huskie/coyote mix, “Nikita,” and the next summer finding “Alex Haley,” the Rottweiler/Chow mix who was the best dog a girl could ever ask for. The Upland shelter is still far too small for the number of animals housed there, especially for the cats. According to the original design of the building, there was one room set aside for housing cats, with large cages along three of the four walls. But the shelter now houses so many cats that part of a laundry room has been used, with cages stacked one atop another against the wall that divides the laundry room from the dog kennels. Cats housed here are exposed to the constant barking of terrified, impounded dogs for hours on end.

When I first arrived at the shelter, I headed for the larger cat room after signing in. I was looking for a black cat, just as I had been when I went looking for Sug. It’s not that I have some affinity for black cats over others—I’m not prejudiced (though my kids will tell you otherwise). But I’ve learned from various shelter and rescue groups over the years that black cats (and black dogs, as well) are very hard to place. Yes, my bright, educated friends, there are still so many superstitious folks out there that black cats often languish in shelters for months if not years. No one wants them. HOPE took custody of Sugie when she was a year old, living on the street with three kittens. They’d had her for a year and a half when I came looking for her.
I assumed (silly me) that there might be a handful of black cats at the Upland shelter, and I could quickly narrow my search by finding a male. Ha. In the large cat room I discovered kittens, many, many little black kittens, mewling, tumbling, shoving their way to the front of the cage. For a moment, I was overwhelmed. How does one choose from a batch of identical black kittens, all with huge ears and wide eyes?
“Me.” I heard someone say.
I looked down. In a lower cage was a black and white kitten, somewhat older than the others, maybe twelve weeks to their eight.
“Hey, little guy,” I said.
“Me. Please. Me.” He put his front paws up on the cage door. I reached my finger in and scratched his neck. He mewed and purred, mewed and purred. Hmmm.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. I left the room and walked through the door marked “Cats and Dogs.”

Here were the cages where I’d found my beloved canines years ago. Off to the side, in the laundry room, small cat cages lined the walls. There were more black kittens here, a few gray ones, a gorgeous Siamese, a beautiful but sleepy orange tabby—and a young black male cat, lying on his side, one paw listlessly protruding through the bars of the cage. I stood in front of him, talking softly, stroking his paw. He wasn’t sleeping; his eyes were slits as he scrutinized me. Finally, I slid my fingers through the bars and stroked his forehead, then stopped. He stood up and pushed his face into the metal bars. Please pet me again. I did, reaching my whole hand through as far as I could to scratch his ears, his chin, his head as he rubbed his face against my fingers repeatedly, purring and occasionally mewing when I stopped.

It’s true what people say: When you find The One, you’ll just know. I knew. I looked at his card. “Available 1-10-09.” He’d been here, in this tiny metal cage, for seven months.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. I knew I couldn’t take him home on Thursday; I had a book signing to do on Friday, a reunion with a cousin on Saturday, but I would return home and start making preparations for him to join the family. Before I left, I stopped by the large cat room again to wash my hands. A young man and his lady were looking at kittens. The little black and white orphan stood with his paws on the cage door, talking to the girl.
“Hey babe,” the young man called from across the room, “look how pretty this one is!”
“I like this one,” she told him, never taking her eyes off Mr. B&W.
“Me. Please. Me,” the kitten said.
I left smiling, vowing to return the next day.

As I realize this post is rather long… and I also realize the value of a good cliffhanger… I will post Part II tomorrow….