Michael

Last July we said goodbye to Sonny, the older of our two cats. We still miss him every day, but he’d struggled with kidney problems for so long, and went downhill so quickly in those final days, that it almost felt as if it had to happen. Not to over-anthropomorphize, but Sonny seemed at peace when we put him to sleep. He was tired. He’d fought a long time.

We were worried about how Sonny’s death would affect Michael, his younger brother. Michael had always been a little needy, and liked attention, even Sonny’s which tended to be rough. After all, it was Michael who got our attention in the cage at the Humane Society eleven years ago, and his cuteness led us to bring them home, so they’d always been a pair. But Michael thrived on his own after July. He owned Nellie and I now, had us all to himself. We couldn’t even be in a different room than him for long; he’d have to come snuggle with us, or nuzzle us, or eat Nellie’s hair. And I couldn’t watch TV for two minutes without this happening:

He was just always, always happy. More like a dog, almost, with all that unrestrained affection. Frankly, we probably misnamed him — if Sonny was the kinda-sullen older brother who was prone to violence, Michael was always…well, he was always more of a Fredo than a Michael. No dark schemes or quiet intelligence with this one…he just wanted to please everybody all the time. Plus, like Fredo, he exactly wasn’t the brightest.

_Fredo2

He’d avoided all his brother’s health problems, and passed his check-up in March with flying colours, considering his age. We thought we’d have him with us a while longer. But things took a turn this past weekend.

On Saturday he seemed a bit lethargic, and kept trying to wheeze up a hairball. That’s not unusual, especially with hair as long as his, but he just couldn’t get this one up. Still, he spent part of the day on my lap and part napping under Nellie’s blanket, and even some time playing catch with me while enjoying a sunbeam, so pretty close to normal. We’d seen this before and figured he’d be back to normal after he hacked something up.

Then, yesterday, we noticed that his breathing was a bit shallow. He wasn’t wheezing, and he was still getting about just fine, but he was definitely a little off. Especially that night, as we got ready for bed — he didn’t start the evening on the bed with us, as was his custom. Instead he curled up on a pile of sheets in a corner of the closet. We went to sleep, worried that this hairball was giving him more problems than usual, and planning to call the vet in the morning.

I don’t know what it was that woke me up in the middle of the night. I’d finally drifted off despite worrying about him, but something woke me. I looked for him, and found him on the living room floor, struggling to breathe. We rushed him to an emergency vet clinic where they stabilized him, put him on oxygen, and kept him overnight. He had fluid around his lungs and his heart, which was making it hard for him to breathe. The next morning we heard the results of the tests on that fluid: it tested definitively for a carcinoma. Cancer, and not operable. They broke it to us that we could never bring him home again; even if they drained the fluid from his chest it would just build back up to choke him. He’d need oxygen pumped constantly just to keep breathing.

After talking to the doctor and to our regular vet clinic, we knew all we could do was to keep him from descending into pain and struggle. Palliative care just so we could bring him home for a few days would’ve been for us, not for him. He wouldn’t have wanted that. He wouldn’t have been able to jump up on my lap. He wouldn’t have been able to burrow under Nellie’s blanket. He wouldn’t have been able to chase his laser pointer, or stalk summer birds on the balcony, or eat food straight out of the bin, or play with the suds in Nellie’s bath, or climb on our most-allergic guests as he so loved to do. He wouldn’t be Michael. Not anymore.

And so, we went to the vet clinic. We spent a long time with him, as much as we could. We rubbed his belly and scratched his chin inside his oxygen tent. Even with all his discomfort and stress, he couldn’t help himself — he rolled onto his side and started purring as we stroked him. We kept on scratching and rubbing as he gently lowered his head and closed his eyes for the last time.

When Sonny died we’d been expecting it for years, then had a few days to come to terms with the prognosis, and then had a full day at home with him to spoil him. With Michael it was barely 12 hours after realizing how sick he was that he was gone. We wanted so much more time with him to say a better goodbye, but it wouldn’t have been fair. After eleven years of being so intensely affectionate and loving with us, we owed him the gentlest end possible.

And so: goodbye. Goodbye Michael, aka Mike, aka Monkey, aka Dumbass, aka Stinky Mike. Thanks for getting our attention at the Humane Society that day. Thanks for being with us and making us goofily happy all these years. Say hi to Sonny for us when you see him. We miss him, and already we miss you so much we can hardly stand it. We love you both. We’ll always love you both. Rest in peace.

 

Sonny

A little over ten years ago Nellie and I decided to get a cat. We visited the Toronto Humane Society, passed the interview process, and were told to pick out our new friend. But then something happened: we saw two brothers (half-brothers, actually) together, and just as the staff commented to us that we could take two brothers for a single adoption fee, the smaller of the two cats jumped up, stood on his back legs, and gently pawed at us through the window of their cage. It was one of the cutest things we’d ever seen, and we were sold. We couldn’t break them up (turns out this was Nellie’s plan all along) so we adopted them both. Lucky for his big brother, who was sulking in the corner of their cage, looking miserable.

The Humane Society gave us carrier boxes to bring our new friends home, but those boxes are designed for normal cats, not these guys who were 15+ pounds each. We put the big, cranky brother into one of the boxes and he looked like a muffin, his bulk and hair spilling over the top of the narrow box. “Is this,” his eyes seemed to ask, “really how we’re going to start this relationship?” Mercifully the staff let us take a large dog carrier which could accommodate their collective bulk. They were agitated on the drive home, and acted scared when we brought them into our tiny apartment. They had been given up twice already in their young lives (the smaller one was two, the larger was two and a half) and were understandably wary of any new humans. Maybe they didn’t want to get too comfortable, as they’d never lived anywhere for long up to that point. The little one soon warmed up to us, but the big guy mostly hid under tables and in dark corners.

We decided to name them Sonny and Michael, after the Corleone brothers in The Godfather. The older, larger, crankier one was Sonny since despite being sullen and moody he was bold and stubborn and already had a habit of bullying his younger brother, just like in the movie.

Santino_corleone_2

Their initial vet appointment revealed that Sonny had kennel cough, so we put him on antibiotics. Then, a few days after we adopted them I was working from home when suddenly this cranky, withdrawn, sullen cat was next to me, sitting up on his hind legs and begging like a dog for attention. Like this:

I scratched him and rubbed his belly for a good ten minutes before he went back to his nap. It turns out he wasn’t cranky, withdrawn, or sullen at all. He’d just been sick. His real personality soon emerged: he was playful, mischievous, stubborn, curious, constantly hungry, and had this bizarre habit of being hyper-affectionate for about ten minutes after waking up from a nap, and then a normal cat the rest of the time. It was almost like every time he went to sleep he expected to be given away again, and was always relieved when he woke up at home. I know, I know, I’m projecting and anthropomorphizing, but this cat was smarter than most. He could problem-solve — we had to start locking the bathroom door when he figured out how to work the pull handle, and earlier this year he figured out how to push his way through the screen door so he could explore the balcony that always fascinated him. So we constantly fell into the trap of expecting a human reaction from him.

Over time he became more and more affectionate with us. Even after we began sticking him with needles and pumping him full of IV fluids every night to treat the kidney problems he’d developed, he became increasingly affectionate, almost overwhelmingly so, especially after we returned from a long vacation. He’d climb between us in bed. He’d climb on our laps while we watched TV and massage our stomachs. He’d headbutt us and bite our noses.

The kidney problems got worse over the last few years, but to our vet’s surprise he never really showed any symptoms. Though we gave him more IV fluids and more medications his levels kept going up…still, he never showed it. He remained big and active and affectionate and about as playful as older cats get.

Suddenly, last Saturday, he became very ill. By Sunday he was worse. We tried one last Hail Mary of meds and painkillers, but it didn’t work. He was such a tough bastard — getting abandoned twice, beating kennel cough, and surviving longer with bad kidneys than anyone ever expected. But now his body was just shutting down. He was no longer the Sonny we’ve known for the last ten years. We owed it to him to give him an end with a little dignity, and with the vet’s counsel we decided to put him to sleep.

Before we took him to the vet for the last time we fed him enough catnip (the only treat he ever liked) to seed a lawn, and took him out on the balcony where he’d wanted to go his whole life. We lay down next to him and rubbed his belly as he gave us a few last I-love-you headbutts. And then we were at the vet and it was over.

I openly admit to having a stronger emotional attachment to animals than to most humans — apart from a short breakdown last year at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the only reason I can remember ever crying is when a pet died — and believe me when I say I had several emotional reactions whilst writing this. But we know we made the best choice possible for him. He was a proud guy, at least as proud as you can be when you shit in a box in a closet. He was our friend and family, and this is the call I’d want my friends and family making for me when I’m no longer me, when I’m more sadness than strength. When I’m more pain than joy. So his thirteen years here are done. But they were a really goddamn good thirteen years.

We’ll miss you so much, buddy. We’re so glad your brother was a good salesman all those years ago. Rest in peace.

"Give them the safe home they deserve."

Last week the Globe and Mail broke a story about the Toronto Humane Society, and about the conditions some of the animals are kept in. Since then the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has suspended the THS’ affiliate status. I’m not entirely sure what that means. I’m also not sure how bad the pictures that accompany the Globe story are; I can’t bring myself to look at them. Hurt and sick animals distress me, and if I looked at the pictures I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

I’m conflicted about this story. The descriptions of the conditions in the shelter sound awful, but I know the entire truth rarely gets reported in the media. Animal protection & care is a big issue for me, and both Nellie and I make monthly donations to the THS. It also hits home for me because of these guys:

Just over six years ago Nellie and I went to the Humane Society and adopted dumbass and dumbass jr. up there. We saw no evidence of mistreatment, but we weren’t back in the cages, just in the visitor section. We were interviewed extensively before being allowed to adopt. We literally got cheers from the staff and some visitors when we came into the room to take them home. They were microchipped and given shots. Michael (the sit-ee in the picture) was quite healthy, but Sonny (the sitter) was a little sick. A vet visit, some rest and he was good as new. Cranky at first, but over the six years he’s become highly affectionate, especially right after he wakes up from a nap. They were abandoned twice before we got them, and I wonder if every time he goes to sleep he wonders if he’ll be abandoned again when he wakes up. He never is, and we get ten minutes of (rather smothering) affection every time. Michael’s a different story: he is perpetually the most affectionate cat I’ve ever seen, and will follow us around the apartment until we sit down and he can climb on us and purr. He likes us a lot, and he’s clearly glad that we adopted him. He may be an idiot, but he knows that he lucked out.

Who knows what would have happened with these guys if they hadn’t arrived at the Humane Society, and then come back again? Maybe they would’ve been ok. Maybe they would’ve been given to a family that didn’t take care of them. Maybe they would have died of exposure in the winter. They’re just one case, but put together all the abandoned and mistreated animals in this city and I’d have to think the Humane Society’s helped far more animals than it’s harmed. In fact, most of the allegations of abuse seem to stem from the fact that a) they’re too slow to euthanize animals which would be put down elsewhere, and b) they’re overcrowded, probably due in part to their policy of not euthanizing.

However, I urge you to read the lone comment at the bottom of the Globe story, posted by a former OSPCA affiliate. I’ve pasted most of it here:

Ultimately, the responsibility for the welfare of our pets falls on the shoulders of the owners. Pets need to be kept safely within the home, not allowed to wander. They need to be spayed or neutered to avoid unwanted offspring. They need medical attention and love.

With the housing boom over the last years in the GTA, shelters are bursting with animals that have been rescued off the street or worse. They often come in injured, and usually have picked up colds or viruses.

This puts a huge burden on the shelters, financially and in terms of space and manpower. It also is very difficult for workers to watch day by day the number of incoming animals (particularly cats) that nobody comes looking for. It’s as if these poor, frightened creatures were trash, not loving companions.If shelter workers lose patience with people, it’s understandable.

Well said, and I hope that resonates. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need a Humane Society, and in a better world than this they wouldn’t be nearly this busy or crowded. Hopefully whatever problems they’re having can be straightened out and they can get back to sacrificing their time and energy on saving animals from our collective neglect.

The hairball unto death

I’m in the den watching hockey and working on my finance assignment. I can hear Nellie in the other room trying to explain mortality to the cats:

“If you keep meowing, I will kill you. Then you will be dead.”

Hard to say whether they’ve processed the weight of those words. I know that Sonny reads some Kierkegaard so he probably has a pretty good grasp on the ramifications of death, but Michael prefers to spend his time eating piles of his own hair, so he’s not as likely to comprehend the limits of his own existence.

Sigh…I need sleep. Clearly.

[tags]cats, mortality, kierkegaard[/tags]