Since the beginning of the summer months, my sister has been volunteering at an animal shelter in Chino with the goal of completing her Girl Scout Silver Project. Everyday, she scurried out of the door eager to bathe, walk, and get chewed on by various wayward critters. Due to the circumstances of the present year, my dad’s and mine July days consisted of him playing video games inside and me boiling in my own sweat on a skateboard in the driveway. The slick black suburban barge docked in our garage around 3:40, and my sister hopped out — both feet slapping the ground and a white sheet of teeth shined across her face. The trunk of the car popped and swung open. Within was a squealing red carrier and a rod-iron cage.
It was just as much the shock as it was the heat stroke that I robotically carried the cage up into my sister’s room. Who knows what she could have brought home to add to the burden of the already 10+ pets in our home. Could be lemurs, for all my dad and I knew. Once we had all gathered in my sister’s room she explained: the night before, a litter of one-week-old kittens numbered six, but tragically, due to the shelter’s lack of space, one of the kittens was dragged through the bars and eaten alive by dogs. Consequently my mom offered our house up as a temporary shelter for the mother to raise her litter, while the shelter made room.
The first few days were fun and easy for the whole family; the hardest part was quarantining them off from the other pets. The newcomers had kennel cough, which meant every time you wanted to play with the little things you had to shower before and after. I loved playing with them, so much so that I was probably costing us hundreds of dollars in water expenses. Nightly, I would hobble through the front door around 11:00 and scale the stairs to visit them. The runt of the litter was my favorite — she would crawl over to me and meow as I picked her up and warmed her in my hands.
All of the kittens seemed to be doing well, and the black one was extremely large, but the little one was struggling. Its limbs were thin and its eyes were grey and filled with brown mucus. She cried all day and all night, meowing and meowing. The more time I spent with them the more concerned I grew: the larger siblings would not let her feed, and even when they did, the runt rejected the mother’s teat.
The week was coming to a close, and I woke up early on Thursday to check on the cats, for this was the last day I would be able see them before we returned them to the shelter. The runt was not crying when I entered. The room was still and lukewarm.
My bare feet left crinkles in the black tarp that covered the ground below their cage. I peered around the cage and saw the runt lying limp outside the rightside bars. Her legs were sprawled to her side while her mouth sat gaping. The mucus ran from her eyes onto the floor in a puddle. I got on my knees and held her little body in both of my hands. It was freezing cold and still. I hopelessly held her close to my bare chest trying to warm her. You do not realize the nature of life until you have held it in your hand.
Her relentless bleatings were sobs to say “I am starving, help me please.” Her lopsided crawls towards my lap were not because she liked me or even that she knew what I was; it was the sheer desperation of an innocent life. We sat and giggled at the wails and screams of an abandoned life.
My mom and dad walked in and saw. In that moment I was embittered by the sight of the other cats in the cage with fat bellies sleeping soundly. But what gave them any less right to live as they please? To simply be endowed with the ability to take a single breath or course blood through one’s vessels is a thankless yet infinite gift.
At once, from my hands I heard a squeal, so loud it startled me. Her tiny limbs shook within my grip. She had not even enough strength to move them, only the mindless tremors of starvation. I took the following picture when I realized she was alive. This moment of the spark of life in its purest form emboldened something deep within me.
A wash cloth in a shoe box made a perfect temporary shelter for her, as I burst into my room retrieving a handful of socks. The clean, sharp voice of my mother sounded over the landline in the hallway, as I ran to the pantry. I filled the socks each halfway with jasmine rice and warmed them in the microwave for a minute and a half. Within that minute I dove back into the room to see her then ducked quickly out to retrieve the socks. I arrived back and surrounded her with the warm bean bags. An hour passed of me just stroking her head, and around 7 o’clock my mom entered the room.
“I just got off the phone with the vet, she says that kittens who do not take to the mother are to be euthanized and she gave me an address where we can get it done for free.”
I was not dismayed even in the slightest because there was no modicum of a chance that was going to happen. She was in a poor-enough condition where she could die at any second, euthanasia was pointless. My dad chimed in the conversion to say the same. It is not the idea that death is disturbing or wrong, if the kitten died, she was privileged to have lived at all. But, the idea of throwing away such a precious rare treasure that, by random chance, every being in the room shared is revolting.
This upset my mom, and she scoffed at us for not following proper medical procedure, and she and my dad left the room to argue about it. I couldn’t care less. Why should a procedure determine what is done with a gift that wasn’t given to those who wrote it? Life is hers and she should be able to wrestle with it, and I was there to give her a chance to do so.
More hours passed and my dad arrived with a syringe and small white tin. And so it began, the real bout. Before it had simply been a salute to a sinking ship, but now we had the means to do something. His hand extended and pushed the tin into my chest. I took it downstairs reading the tiny directions as I descended. Make sure the water is preheated and pour ten parts water to one part formula. I did as instructed and turned from the kitchen. My sister was on the couch silently crying, she never cries loudly. The tears only go down her face, more invisible than had she been smiling. I knew my mom probably told her that she killed the cat or didn’t take care of it properly, and there is nothing anyone can do for a shameless insult like that. All I could do was smile and tell her she’s gonna be alright as I passed.
After entering the room with the concoction the pattern commenced. I would try to force down as much food as she would take while my dad prepped more food. The feeding process was brutal, it took an hour to get her to keep down only one eighth of the syringe. The increased sugar levels shocked the little kitten’s system and she would nap for 2 hours after every feeding, giving my dad a chance to rest. I never left the room.
By the end of the day she looked like a fuzzy water balloon, so full with milk. My heart swelled with pride and my eyes smiled through blacked sockets. She was sleeping soundly and my sister had joined my dad and I in the room. Around 11:00 at night my sister wandered off to watch TV and fall asleep, and at 11:30 my dad had fallen asleep on the ground besides the shoe box. I did not sleep a wink, and neither did my mom.
It was 5:00 when my mom silently peered in the room. The little life had survived another day and now we were all fighting for her. She needed to be fed every two hours one for feeding and one for sleep, that meant 24/7. So, we took shifts. Mine was the 11:00 pm to 10:00 am shift and my family took the day shifts. It demolished my health, and those late nights of skating local schools turned into trips to the microwave to warm up the little one’s socks. I fed her on this schedule for a month, getting sleep where and when I could. My dad decided to name her Pixie because her limbs were as thin as Pixy Stix when she was born, morbid but cute.
As she matured the feedings got fewer and farther between, going from one hour to three hour to six. I researched kitten diseases, and it turns out she had a disease called Panleukopenia. It is an extremely deadly disease found in cats, with above a 50% immediate mortality rate. It is characterized by malnourishment, refusal of food, anemic limbs, extreme lethargy, and melting eyeballs. The following pictures display her progression better than my simple words can:
July 10th: Day of Reckoning
July 14th: Sleeping socks and toothbrush play time
July 20th: Fat little kitten
July 29th: She likes my shorts
August 3rd: She and I watching skate videos and her Climbing my back
August 17th: Playing with my sock
August 23rd: Room change and new toy
September 17th: With her crunchy ball
Photo Credits: Aaron Almeida