I'm a sucker for any article about adopting the unadoptable. And recently my eye was caught by an article in the WSJ about rescuing dogs from shelters in the South and bringing them up North for adoption.
Apparently, there's an over-supply of southern dogs only a step away from the gas chamber -- that is what's done -- hoping to be brought to New York by rescue groups and ultimately adopted. Tears came to my eyes, as I thought of my rescue cat, Oberon, and what he must have gone through.
It had been a year since Kitty (an elderly cat my husband and I rescued from a luncheonette) died. We were now ready to open our hearts again to "A Little New Yorker," as the slogan goes, for the Mayor's Alliance For NYC's Animals.
I often pass by Metropets, a supporter of the Alliance's Feral Cat Initiative that features adoptable cats in its window. But this time I had a mission. I wasn't just window-shopping. I was hoping to see a special cat.
He was big. He was black. He presented his huge back to the street, nothing else. I could have gone in to see his front, but knowing that the price you pay for love is grief held me back and I couldn't. After a few forays I entered to face a lion of a cat -- a good 20-pound bruiser with one dim eye. The young girl tending shop said Evander, as they called him, was around 10 years old. He'd been at Metropets nine months.
The practical solution for feral cats, unfamiliar to human touch, is: trap, neuter, return. But Evander was deemed suitable for socialization and ultimately put up for adoption by Metropets.
As the girl and I chatted, the cat kept his back to me in a nonchalant yet intriguing way. Where was he found? "Right over there," she said, pointing towards the Hudson River. "By the abandoned railway tracks."
"Ah!" I thought. "A cat with character -- a Hell's Kitchen cat."
"Can I pet him?" But the girl wasn't allowed to take him out of the cage without supervision. Hoping he'd turn around, I thrust a finger through the bars to scratch his ear, but it wasn't there. It had been amputated. I scratched his other ear. But he wasn't impressed. All he wanted was to get out of that cage. In an instant, my heart went out to this old boy hoping to get the hell out of Hell's Kitchen.
Adopting at Metropets isn't easy. It can't be, explained store manager Maria Barney, who grilled my husband, Geoffrey, and me about our apartment, lifestyle and habits -- even to the extent of who'd be responsible for the cat if we died. She explained that people pass by, see a cat in the window and think, "that's the cat for me," only for it to be brought back a few months later, because it isn't.
Clearly, Maria loved the cat. With touching frankness she explained that Evander was a special case because his background, age, girth, deformities (did I say he had no teeth?) set him apart. She was the arbitrator. Whomever she deemed suitable to adopt Evander, would have to keep him the rest of his life, and we passed the test. On a cold November night, a Hell's Kitchen cat moved to Greenwich Village.
We christened him Oberon, because his fighting days were over.
Is it a love match? Yes. Has it been easy? No. To survive on the streets a cat or dog has to find its own way of doing things, and Oberon wants what he wants when he wants it. He responds neither to "pissss, pissss" nor to his name, old or new. There's no equivocation. Yet he understands "No!" from tone of voice. Most of the time stops what he's doing.
Not surprisingly, Oberon has food issues. He's in a state of perpetual starvation no matter how much he gets. He's truculent. He has tantrums. But what is most surprising is that he reminds me of me.
His neediness, combined with sweetness, is overwhelming. No amount of petting or brushing or play or scraps of meat from a dinner plate can ease his pain. In frustration, he swipes out at my ankle (not Geoffrey's) sometimes drawing blood. "NO!" I say firmly, not wanting to increase his pain as he slinks under a chair. Later, he sleeps in peace beside me.
I watch him in the night and try imagining what he went through on the streets. Maria explained that his remarkably thick neck is a result of him not being castrated early. It would have served as a warning to other males that he was king.
Surely he had been abused. Street cats are easy prey for angry kids or shop owners. Testosterone, bravery and plain luck had kept him alive. And what Geoffrey and I are trying to do is curb his pugilistic tendencies.
Abuse from birth does that to you. I know. Swinging out to assuage old pain or sorrow feels good. I see myself in Oberon when, in a fit of self-soothing, he lashes out mercilessly over some unknown slight, then tries to seek forgiveness.
Oberon is different than any other cat I've ever had. It's been a learning experience for both of us as I try to keep myself in check while trying to guide him. Not that I melt when he soulfully looks at me with his cloudy eye. I just understand better what happened to both of us.