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Alison Stein Wellner Headshot

In Praise of Imperfect Pets

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Last Saturday, my husband Phil and I ran two cat-related errands. The first was to visit a cat we were thinking about adopting, who was being sheltered at a vet's office in Alphabet City.

The young man in question was eight months old, very small, and had a jet black coat. I'd been to visit him on Friday, and knew almost immediately that this was going to be the cat for us. He purred on contact, but had a gleam in his eye that told me he'd be a frisky one once he was settled at home. I snapped a picture with my phone, captioned it "sold" and texted it to Phil. The next day, we returned to visit the cat I'd already named Jack, and Phil was equally smitten. We asked the vet tech come in and read us Jack's medical history. The poor guy had some kind of a tussle with a car, which did a lot of damage to his left hind leg - so a few weeks ago that leg was surgically removed in its entirety. This was paid for by a very cool nonprofit called The Picasso Fund, about which I will have more to say in a moment.

The vet tech ran through the medical file with us, and then looked up and said: "If I may ask, why are you interested in adopting an amputee?"

We had a quick answer to the question, which had to do with our second cat-related errand that day -- we needed to drive up to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and pick up the ashes of our 11 year old cat Ginger, who had died of a heart attack three days before. Ginger was also a "tripod", a three-legger, and we loved her. So that's what we said, that we'd just lost a cat who was a tripod, and she was a great cat, and we wanted another one.

This answer had the advantage of being true, and satisfying, and plus it positioned us well as prospective cat parents, which is terribly important in New York City's rigorous pet adoption process. But since then, the tech's question has lingered in my mind, because my answer feels somewhat incomplete. Why were we interested in adopting a feline amputee, when clearly many others are not? (Jack had no other suitors but us, nor, a decade before, did Ginger.) Why would one adopt a pet who is imperfect when there are so many "perfect" pets out there, more in fact, than can be placed in good homes?

Here's the answer I've been working on.

I think most of us want our pets to be "perfect" more than we're willing to admit to this desire in anything else in our life-- or at least, let's say, with our children. It's hard to imagine anyone admitting, out loud, that they wouldn't want a kid who was too short, or too fat, or whose eyes weren't quite the right shade of blue or whose hair didn't match the drapes. Debate rages about the morality of engineering a human child without blindness, or cancer, or diabetes, what with the shadow of eugenics and whatnot. But with pets, it is morally neutral and socially acceptable to use "perfect" as a criteria, whether it's surface aesthetics or serious medical conditions. There's nothing wrong with preferring perfect.

But I was not repelled by Ginger's imperfection, her missing left rear foot. Actually, it made me want her more.

The night we met Ginger, ten years ago, we weren't planning to adopt another cat, we already had two at home. But we made the mistake of stopping to look at the shelter cats on display at Petsmart. "Look at this one," Phil called to me, and I walked over to see a small gray tabby cat resting her chin on his fingertips. "She's missing her back foot". I scratched her head, and she looked up and fixed me with a look of uncommon intelligence. "We're taking her," I said. I thought that she was smart and sweet and beautiful. And I thought that if we didn't take her, she would be likely to hang around in that cage for a long time. She was not a kitten, already at least a year old, which is practically a disability in itself in the world of pet shelters, and of course, the matter of the missing foot. If there are karma points for adopting any stray animals, surely there's extra special bonus credit available for adopting an animal that not as many people want?

Oh, but I am being so disingenuous! Because this was never really about being a "good person", whatever that means, or accruing points, and I am hardly ever a selfless martyr. The "imperfect" pets that we encounter are by their nature, extra-special. They would have to be. Any adopted animal goes through a selection process, the special needs pets have an additional hurtle to convince someone to shell out more, at some point, for their care. They have some extra sweetness, and some extra spark, charisma or intelligence, something, that makes the people in the shelters say, this one is a keeper, let's help this one out. They compensate.

Ginger did. She wasn't merely cute, she was gorgeous, a silver and gray tabby with dramatic big green eyes, and a pink-gray nose outlined in black. And she was incredibly social: She'd climb on your lap, and then your chest, so she could cradle your face, rest her paws on your cheeks beam into your face, purring. This treatment wasn't just for us, this was for anyone who sat on our couch. At night, she slept on my pillow, and I'd wake up most mornings with her cheek on my cheek.

Most of the time I forgot about her "disability" completely. People would do the "Awww, poor kitty!" reaction when they saw her hindquarters, but I never saw anyone go pale -- it wasn't, let's say, gross, in the childish sense of the word. And it didn't really affect her daily life. At first, I worried about how Ginger would do up against our two other able-bodied cats, especially about how she'd get along with Buzzy, our 18 pound orange tabby. But she was fine. She slapped Buzzy around, stole his toy, a fishing rod-type thing with a leather tassel that he used to drag around the house in his mouth. She became the boss of everyone in just a few days. She had no trouble getting around, in fact, we nicknamed her "Rocket Ship" because when she was in a hurry, she'd get down low and she could scoot.

What got Ginger in the end had nothing to do with her missing leg. A couple of years ago, The Rocket Ship seemed to be orbiting at a faster pace, and she went from having tummy tending towards pudge, to being a bit skinny. She was diagnosed with a hyperthyroid. A year later, chronic renal failure. We gave her medicine twice a day, and IV fluids every night, and Ginger lived her normal happy life, until very early this past Wednesday morning, when a blood clot, possibly more than one, first paralyzed her back leg and then stopped her heart.

Even with the care we gave Ginger in her last two years of life, the truth is, there are special needs cats out there -- ones that have incontinence, or ones that have a fatal disease -- that would be more work than Ginger ever was. Which is why it would be crazy for me to claim any extra karma points, for in the care she required and even in the old-age diseases that she eventually contracted, she was completely a ordinary cat. It was in the joy she gave us that she was extraordinary.

After Ginger died, in fact, I didn't think about getting another tripod, I just wanted to fill the place she had left empty. And that's when I came across the Picasso Veterinary Fund, which is a program of the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals. Picasso was an abandoned pit bull with a face that could have been created by his namesake, perhaps in collaboration with Dali, his face was wavy, his nose twisted to the left and then back a bit to the right. The program created in his name funds the medical care of animals who enter the city's Animal Control and Care shelter. These are animals that would have almost certainly been euthanized. A network of the city's veterinary practices offer their services at discount, and the fund picks up the rest. Apparently, the Mayor's Alliance is responsible for reducing the euthanasia rate among NYC's animals from 74% in 2002, to 43% in 2007. And when Siobhan from the Picasso Veterinary Fund told me they happened to have a tripod -- the black cat named Jack that's now napping in a sunbeam on my couch -- that felt right.

So why, finally, were we interested in adopting an amputee? We weren't, actually. We wanted a cat that was right for us. And for us, a cat with three legs is every bit as good as cat with four legs.

You might even say that such a cat is perfect.

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