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….


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Oh, I am excited for you, Kay! A new cat companion for you and Sugie. I can't wait for Part II.
    And I must read "Homer's Odyssey."
    I recommend "Dewey," if you haven't already read it -- about an extraordinary library cat.

  3. Betty, JP, thank you for your kind words and encouragement. "Dewey" is on my wish list at Amazon, JP; it will be my next Kindle download. Hope you're both still following the blog after today's post....