Periodically, my friends ask me to tell one particularly embarrassing story—usually when the wine is flowing and they want a good laugh. I figure I’ll share it here: Doing so both exposes me as a bleeding-heart animal lover and states a very serious moral position. About 13 years ago, our 20-year-old rescue cat, Phoebe, died from kidney failure. Our little family was predictably upset by her passing; but after a few weeks our thoughts turned toward a new kitten. As it turned out, we went to New York City that autumn and fell in love with a blue-point Siamese kitten at a pet store on Lexington Ave. This little guy was no rescue cat. He had the striking blue eyes and sharp, gray face of a purebred Siamese—and an impressive price tag of $1,500. Nonetheless, my daughter and I talked my wife into acquiring the tiny charmer, whom we subsequently named Winston.
CAT Scans and Cabbies
Within days of joining the family, Winston became gravely ill. After a lot of vomit, diarrhea, and vet visits, it was determined he required a CAT scan (don’t laugh). The doctor thought perhaps he had a middle-ear infection that could damage his central nervous system. He was, in fact, getting wobbly on his feet, as if he’d been sipping the hard stuff from his water bowl. Alarmed, I scheduled an appointment at the Tufts Veterinary Hospital near Boston—about a three hour drive from our home. By the time I loaded Winston in the car, he could barely stand. Every time he tried to clamber to his feet, he would spin unsteadily and collapse. I thought he might die on the way to Tufts.
Well, the folks at Tufts admitted Winston right away and encouraged me to go home and await their call. Four hours later, I was eating dinner at home when my phone rang. A woman at Tufts informed me that Winston did, indeed, have a middle-ear infection and would be placed on an aggressive regimen of antibiotics for two weeks. He was expected to recover fully except for some possible issues with balance. Next, I was briefed on the financial damages, which amounted to around $2,500. Wincing, I asked when I should pick Winnie up. “Well, he needs to leave the hospital right away,” the lady said. “He doesn’t have his vaccinations yet and is highly susceptible to illness.”
“You mean tonight?” I asked.
Did I mention I had to catch an early flight to LA the next morning? We had planned for my wife to retrieve Winston the next day when she was done teaching—but neither of us anticipated this turn of events.
A spirited debate ensued on how we should bring Winston home. One thing was clear: Neither of us was up for a six-hour round trip. We explored all options including—I kid you not—putting him on a commercial flight. Eventually we chose a slightly more rational solution: a cab ride. With some elaborate coordination between the vet hospital and an incredulous taxi dispatcher, we made the arrangements. Four hours later, a yellow cab pulled up outside our house and stopped under the light of a street lamp. The driver emerged and carefully extracted a cardboard pet carrier from the back seat. I went out to meet the cabbie, who introduced himself as Bennie. Now, Bennie was highly solicitous and assured me he had personally spoken to our cat neurologist, at which point he solemnly presented a sheaf of papers with Winston’s care instructions. He couldn’t have been nicer about the whole thing. Then he presented me a $500 tab for the trip. With tip it came to $600. I’m guessing Bennie laughed the whole way home.
Winston did recover, though to this day he walks with his head tilted quizzically, and his balance is rather un-catlike. After a rough start, he’s had a great life—even if he sleeps through most of it.
My friends enjoy this story as proof of my soft side and, I’m guessing, my execrable misuse of money. When I share the saga, someone inevitably says, “Jim, you’re out of your mind. It’s a kitten.”
Of course, that’s the point. He was a kitten. He wouldn’t have existed were it not to be sold at a pet store to someone like me. Winston was as powerless as an infant and, for better or worse, we agreed to be his protectors. I take agreements like that very seriously. I’m fortunate I was able to afford Winston’s extravagant bills—not everyone is so lucky. Finances aside, though, we should do everything in our power to care for our charges.
The Only Thing More Expensive Than a Sick Cat
A few years after the Winston episode, my daughter and I got into show-jumping horses, eventually buying a horse for each of us. It’s not uncommon in the equestrian world to view one’s horse as equipment which, when injured or aging, should be disposed of unsentimentally. I saw it happen time and again: Some kid would work a $50,000 Dutch Warmblood into decrepitude and then unload it whenever and wherever he could. Often, these horses wind up being slaughtered.
When my daughter and I moved on from riding, it was a huge priority to find a home for our horses. It took me many months and lots boarding, vet, and farrier bills, but we placed them in safe and humane circumstances.
So, yes, I’m a zealot when it comes to caring for animals. It offends me when humans regard our fellow animals as disposable or insensate to suffering or loss. Occasionally, a new study will be published showing that animals communicate with each other, feel pain, or form emotional attachments. People often react with surprise that any creature other than homo sapiens should be so invested with the power of feeling. That view makes me speculate that humanity might be the unfeeling species.
Recently, Winston came down with another ear infection. I’ve been to the vet four times now and have been infusing his ears with antibiotic drops every morning. The medicine is helping but it makes the fur on his head spike up like Billy Idol. With any luck, we can avoid a trip to Tufts and a $600 cab fare. But if that’s what it takes, I’ll keep the AmEx ready—and I’ll brace myself for my friends’ laughter.