In another of my rescue stories Tess and her Boys, I mentioned a couple of neighbors who nearly annually brought me a female cat, usually with kittens. They were nearly always older kittens and unneutered, and always with a story. Most of these were unexceptional and I don’t really consider them rescues though some have interesting details, like tabby and white Tess and her blue-eyed “snowshoe” kittens. I was happy to take the cats off their hands and find cat and kittens good homes; the alternative would often be to try to catch or later trap them outside in the neighborhood somewhere, or know that they had been dumped along some back road. This was much more direct and less work for me, and certainly a better option for the kitties.
Most of the time the cats had been gift kittens from someone’s cat who’d had kittens and they’d been given away as Christmas gifts with, naturally, no veterinary care at all, and no desire to pay for any in their new home. It’s a cycle of neglect I still see today, one where the needs of the cats come last, and that could we stop it somehow we would likely reduce the numbers of cats living outdoors dramatically. That was easily enough remedied by me by scheduling their vaccinations and surgeries though we still waited until six months at that time to spay or neuter. I eventually either found homes for them or occasionally placed them with one of the shelters where they found homes readily. They were very nice cats, handled since they were tiny, accustomed to a noisy home with children and activity, easy to place if a home could be found using the old-fashioned technique of telephone and multiple prints of your photos sent out in the mail.
This particular year in the mid-90s, the neighbor who would stop by on his way home from work seeing me in my yard did stop and told me there was a cat where he worked eating out of the dumpster and some guys were going to kill it. This was not an uncommon story, and I know sometimes it was true, but the storytellers found the need to embellish things as well hoping the high drama would make me more amenable to taking the cat and maybe they’d look like a hero. I did always start out trying to convince them to take the cat or keep the cat, just made them work a little bit before I’d take it. I told him if he really felt the cat was in danger to bring her to me.
He showed up in a few days with a nice little ginger girl, holding her while he was driving. I had no way of knowing if he’d driven from where he worked, wherever that was, or if he’d driven around the corner with her, I was going to take her anyway. But when I put my hand under her belly to take her I felt all her mammaries swollen, very swollen, and hot. She had mastitis, which usually happens while actively nursing. I wasn’t terribly familiar with it at that point, only knew of it as something to look for with cats I’d rescued who were nursing kittens.
“Does she have kittens somewhere?” I asked, kind of sharply I remember, because the situation had suddenly completely changed, but he jumped back a little.
“I don’t know, why?” he asked, looking scared.
“She’s been nursing, that’s what it feels like.” I didn’t feel like explaining mastitis to this guy. “Did you find or hear any kittens where you worked?” This still presuming the cat was not his.
“No, I never saw another cat but her, I just saw her. Do you think she had kittens out there somewhere? What happened to them?”
I was trying to judge his level of sincerity. A whole list of questions had surfaced. Was the cat his? Did she have kittens in the house and he did something to them? Or his children? An accident? Did they not survive for natural reasons? She was small and she was young, it was late winter and this would be her first litter. If she had had kittens in his house it’s possible she would have lost them all. If she really had been a friendly stray where he worked it was even more likely she had lost her kittens to her immaturity, cold winter weather and lack of food—or that she was actually still feeding them, or trying to with mastitis, and that was why she was dumpster diving. She felt plump enough for her age, but it could be swelling from her mammary condition.
And that condition could be either a result of losing kittens or a cause of losing kittens. She may have lost her kittens and developed mastitis after they quit nursing, or she may have developed mastitis and she couldn’t let them nurse because of the pain. My head was spinning.
“Do me a favor, if you have time, go back there tonight. Listen for mewing kittens. It’s cold and they would need to nurse. Where do you work? I’ll go.”
“No, that’s okay, it’s in an industrial park. It’s not around here. I can’t go back tonight but I’ll look tomorrow.” He seemed sufficiently worried but I still felt he was putting me off. “What do you think happened? I’ve just seen her around the dumpster, but not every day. Guys said they were going to put out poison, but someone already does, for rats,” he said. He could be making it up on the spot. It didn’t really matter, the only thing that mattered was to get her taken care of and find out where the kittens were, if any.
I told him just to look for kittens and let me know because I’d take them too, and I took her up to the spare cat room.
She had to be in pain from those hot and swollen mammary glands but she couldn’t be sweeter. I gave her food and water and she ate and drank happily, purring loudly. I called my veterinarian and and left a message explaining the situation. She was a house call veterinarian and let all calls go to voice mail, but if she was between appointments or home she would return a call right away, which she did. She gave me all the information I could ever need about mastitis. I liked that about my vet, no dragging information out of her, I just had to make sure I took good notes.
Regardless if she had kittens somewhere the mastitis had to be treated because she could become septic and besides that it was painful. And there might not be kittens because mastitis also developed with a pseudopregnancy, also not uncommon in a younger cat in her first heat. Her nipples were even distorted so that it was difficult to tell if she’d been nursing. The best thing to do right now, she told me, was to gently press warm compresses against her mammary glands and see if the swelling would start to come down, and try to get a temperature. I had antibiotics on hand from my vet so that she could just tell me to start using them if one of my rescues needed them. She could swing by the next day between appointments.
The kitty continued eating and drinking through the evening, was quiet and affectionate and happy to be inside. Her temperature was only slightly elevated, and at the end of the evening I saw that the swelling had begun to recede. The bright evening sun had come in the window around her, and she had such a regal bearing, settling down sphinx-like to watch me work on the table, that I decided to name her Sun-Ra.
I treated her again in the morning before work; at that time I was freelancing as a designer and working part-time as a typesetter in my first attempt to work my way toward full-time freelance. My veterinarian decided on an antibiotic since it appeared she’d had the condition for a while and been outside, and an infection was likely even with only a low-grade fever and a good appetite. Sun-Ra’s nipples appeared to have been nursed on but it was hard to tell how long ago it had been or how long she’d been nursed. Her belly actually looked pretty fresh despite the receding swelling, so it was likely she had lost her kittens, who hadn’t nursed for very long, or nursed off all her nipples. As gently as possible my vet gave her an abdominal exam to be certain there wasn’t a last kitten still lurking in there, also not uncommon with first litters and with possible stillborn kittens.
The neighbor stopped back after work again and said he had looked at lunch and then waited after work until it was quiet and did not hear or see kittens. She’d only been around for maybe two weeks tops, showed up every two or three days looking for food. It had made me suspicious she was so comfortable with him, but she was just as comfortable with me and my vet. It could be her nature, it could be her pain and a slight fever keeping her subdued.
After talking to my vet, it seemed likely Sun-Ra’s kittens, if more than one, only nursed a day or a few. There was still a chance that she belonged to the neighbor or even a friend or family member, and just as likely she really had been coming to a dumpster in an isolated industrial area, possibly when someone dropped her off there. Her story was suddenly very sad either way. This sweet young cat had lost everything and may have lost her life if my neighbor hadn’t contacted me.
Sun-Ra continued being as sweet and slowly healed and became more playful. My neighbor stopped by about a week later to ask about her. I told him what my vet had said about mastitis and kittens and added that anyone who would dump a kitten like this or neglect her deserved a pretty harsh punishment. She would have died a slow and very painful death so it was a very good thing he had picked her up and brought her to me. I hoped to get through him to possibly anyone he knew who might have done this, or was the actual source of the cats he’d brought to me. Cats having kittens, easiest thing in the world, they can take care of themselves, no, suffering and death, that’s the truth and don’t forget it.
While Sun-Ra was healing, friends visited and happened to meet her. They were Amby and Dan, who had adopted Fawn and Nikka’s brothers and mother Genghis and Boris and Phurson in 1988, and who in 2006 would adopt Lucy’s brothers Angus and Donal. They fell for the sweet ginger kitty but were determined right then not to adopt any more cats. Ironically, when Sun-Ra had healed from her mastitis and was active and playful as a kitty her age should be, a friend helped me to place her with Animal Friends, the shelter where I’ve recently surrendered Gabby and the recent three, and where Amby was then volunteering. Sun-Ra was spayed and put up for adoption, but when Amby saw Sun-Ra again during a few of her volunteer shifts she couldn’t resist and decided to adopt her, calling her Sunny. That is indeed a record for anyone who has adopted cats from me over the years.
This story took place in 1996. Of course, I don’t remember exact conversations from that time, but looking back over records and my handwritten notes from my conversation with my veterinarian, and remembering the nature of the conversations with my neighbor, I could piece it together. I’m glad Sun-Ra’s story had a better ending than it otherwise would have, and that I was here to take her. People dumping cats is not right, and really nor is repeatedly “adopting” cats and then giving them away, even to a responsible person like me. But there are always dynamics at work that cause things to happen and, right or wrong, I am glad to take an animal that isn’t wanted.
The photos I used for this article were scanned from prints of film photos. You can see the bare tree branches and snow on the ground outside.
This story was first published on The Creative Cat in March 2017.
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As I mentioned above, when I wrote this story in 2013 I had planned to expand the story to its natural length and include a set of illustrations done as linoleum block prints. I created one marker sketch in a style I’d use for the prints, but cutting and printing them is a time-consuming labor of love. Finishing this story and illustrating it is on my list of Patreon projects because it would take place over time, and support through Patreon would help to support me while I worked. You can read about it here or visit my Patreon page.
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