Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cats have belly-buttons too

Anybody who knows me, even a little bit, probably knows that I'm nuts about cats. I foster, and spend a reasonable amount of time at the cat rescue, conveniently down the street from me. This isn't a selfless act, really, but something I find immensely fulfilling.

Today was a hard day, but also the best day. We had an intake of 20+ cats, all arriving in a span of about 20 minutes, transferred from another rescue. What I anticipated being a quiet reception shift (taking inventories and greeting foster families as they picked up cat food - that sort of thing) was a whirlwind of cats, kittens, and more kittens. I spent most of the day looking after a litter of six kittens whose mother had become too sick to feed them; at just four weeks old, they needed to be bottle-fed, but were not strong enough to drink. Four of the six were very, very fragile, and we weren't sure if they'd survive the afternoon. Luckily, another volunteer was adept at syringe-feeding kittens, and probably saved their lives.

Nursing a litter of seriously ill kittens ought to be stressful. Yet, this spring, taking in newborn kittens and bottle feeding them has been a way I've coped with stress. There is something about the chaos of twenty cats, sick cats, fragile newborn cats, that oddly acts as a form of stress relief, obliterating all other stresses by their very needy, fuzzy presence. Nothing else mattered in the world today while I focused on these four little lives.

This spring, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Just days after receiving that overwhelming news, I was getting daily steroid infusions as an outpatient to help me go into remission. So I went home in the evening, picked up a litter of kittens, so small their umbilical cords were still attached, and bottle-fed them to keep me company overnight. I have good friends, but felt weird asking if any of them would sleep over to distract me through the maddening insomnia that comes with ridiculously high dosages of steroids. It's an odd juxtaposition (juxtaposkitten?), feeding palm-sized kittens with an IV line, but that's what kept me from losing (what remained of) my mind that week. They give a sense of normalcy - in what feels like an endless cycle, already, of unpredictable relapses and incomplete remissions, the needs of tiny kittens are constant and fairly reliable. Feed, help it pee (very young kittens need help with their rear-end bodily functions), burp, cuddle until it's purring and ready to go back to sleep. Repeat with next kitten. Four hours later, do it all again. It's OK that I wake up at least twice in the night to struggle to pee - so do they. They're a distraction through the monotony and heartache of being sick, and something to take care of, when I feel powerless to heal myself.

Even before MS, taking care of cats was a relief in my PhD-stressed life. History is depressing, and escaping from the troubles of the past by reading the news is necessary for some perspective on the present, but frankly it's equally stressful. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, how many problems there are - and I've struggled with the reality that I cannot single-handedly save the world. Working with cats doesn't quite allow me to sleep soundly. But at least there is a sense of fulfillment - one which is rare and fleeting in my academic work - that I've accomplished something, when a shy cat purrs and settles in for its dinner and warm bed.

But hey - cats don't just need people volunteering: they also need funds. Trouper was the first bottle baby I ever looked after, and he's now thriving in an adoptive home. You can donate to his fundraising page here. Warm fuzzy feelings all around!

Thus concludes an immensely navel-gazing essay about cats.

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