After five years of working with the SPCA, I find the most surprising thing is that I can still be surprised--by people, by animals, and by the ties that bind and break between them.
One recent surprise was the arrival of Butterscotch, a feline senior citizen. At 15 1/2 years (that's 80 in human years) she's the confirmed oldest cat that we've had in our new building. I say "confirmed" because often we just have to estimate a pet's age, based mostly on what their teeth look like--a rough guess at best.
So my first surprise with Butterscotch came when we knew exactly how old she was. It meant one thing for sure: The owner had her since she was a kitten and 15 years later was terminating the relationship by handing the cat over to the SPCA.
Butterscotch at one time had been a cherished member of a family. I'll hold to SPCA policy and keep the details of her surrender confidential, but it does beg the question: How could someone, after so long, abandon an old friend?
Cats can die of a broken heart. At least that's the way I think of it. When cats stop eating (as cats will do when they are under stress), they are at risk of dying from liver failure. When humans don't eat, our bodies can metabolize body fat and muscle to survive. Cats don't work that way; their livers can't process fat like ours can. Older cats, who are more susceptible to anxiety from strange situations, are especially at risk for dying from what I can't help but think of as a broken heart. At the SPCA, Butterscotch received extra love and care because it was clear to all that this cat's heart was broken.
My second Butterscotch surprise came as the days, then weeks, went by and she wasn't adopted. Although it can take months for adult animals to find a home, sometimes pets with particularly compelling circumstances are adopted more quickly. I was under the mistaken impression that this older cat's extreme age would work in her favor (it hasn't), and now I'm surprised to find that nobody wants Butterscotch.
Years ago, I remember a plain-looking, 12-year-old calico cat at the SPCA. An older woman was leaning into the cage petting the cat. She said out loud--whether to me, the cat or herself--that she was going to adopt this cat because as a senior herself, she knew what it was like to be overlooked. Having these heart-wrenching words in my head to this day, I assumed that Butterscotch was a casualty of age discrimination--overlooked simply because she wasn't young and vibrant anymore.
So my third Butterscotch surprise came when I realized people were afraid of Butterscotch.
I was passing by the senior cat's condo and a girl, about 12 years old, was crouching with her arm curled around the back of Butterscotch, lightly petting her head and whispering in baby talk to her. Butterscotch was doing her best conversational chirping purr-meow, clearly very happy to be having this talk with a girl who had entered the world a good three years after Butterscotch first opened her eyes.
"Oh mom, she's perfect, she'll sleep on my bed and it says that she loves to be carried around...." Mom peered closely at Butterscotch's profile sheet, and I watched her face change from happy to cautious and guarded.
"Honey, this is a really old cat, and she doesn't have much time left," mom said. And, as if she had just learned Butterscotch carried a disease her daughter could catch, I watched as mom pulled her daughter reluctantly toward the kittens.
I stood there looking at the cat, who was gazing longingly at the girl, and realized the mother's fear was valid. Who wouldn't be afraid of investing emotion in caring for a companion only to live with fear that she will be taken away soon?
I wanted to call out to the mom, I wanted to say something, but what would I say that didn't make me sound crazy--"Don't be afraid of the cat?" I might have spoken up had I felt more knowledgeable on the subject, but this is a life lesson I'm learning myself.
My big advantage in this lesson is that I have a great teacher--our SPCA office cat, Riley. Riley was recently diagnosed with lymphoma, and the type of tumor he has points to a very limited life span. After undergoing chemotherapy, 8-year-old Riley's cancer is in remission; however, it's hard not to grieve for his inevitable end while he's still alive.
Anytime we take a pet into our lives and our hearts, we know it's their fate to live a comparatively brief life. Some speculate that a shorter life span is why pets can love us so unconditionally: Why waste time?
And there's the idea that pets know more about love, forgiveness and sacrifice so God doesn't require them to spend as much time on earth, as humans must, learning these lessons.
The bottom line is that pets' lives are naturally shorter and that's something we accept from the start. And that's part of being realistic about a basic tenet of responsible pet care--the idea that caring for a pet is for the life of that pet--whether that life is 25 years or six precious months.
Savoring these months without fear is what Riley is teaching me. A few weeks ago while at work, I received the shocking news that a childhood friend of mine was killed in Iraq when the helicopter he was flying went down in Mosul. I searched online for the story and as I saw the picture of a man I knew as a boy but would never know again, I started to cry quietly. I looked up and there was Riley, slipping quickly through the almost-closed office door--in a hurry--as if I'd just peeled back the lid to a can of food. He jumped into my lap, leaned into my chest and urgently pushed his head and face into my neck.
As I cried and he let me hold onto his furry body, I couldn't help but think: What will give me comfort over his passing?
But Riley doesn't think of things like this. He knows to love and to play and give comfort and companionship when he can. And that is something to be savored and celebrated. The sudden death of a friend and the gift of comfort Riley provided assured me that we never know how much time is left, and fully enjoying Riley's companionship for however long he has left is worth whatever heartache lies ahead.
So, what would I have said to the mom of the 12-year-old who fell in love with Butterscotch? I would have said something like this:
To accept any pet into your heart, you must accept the fear of losing that pet--six months from now or 20 years from now. The limited life of a pet is often how children first learn that the things we love die. But don't say no to a cat you've fallen in love with just because she's old. It's OK to be afraid, as long as you don't let it get in the way of loving what could be your perfect companion.
But I let that opportunity go by. So I'd love for you to visit the SPCA and meet this 15 1/2-year-old cat. I don't know how much time you'll have with her, but I can guarantee it will be well spent.
If Butterscotch belongs in your forever home, the SPCA of Wake County Pet Adoption Center is located at 200 Petfinder Lane in Raleigh. Hours are Tuesday noon-8 p.m., Wednesday-Friday noon-6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m. For directions, call 772-2326 or visit www.spcawake.org, where you can also see photos of Butterscotch and other adoptable animals.
Mondy Lamb is the marketing director of the SPCA of Wake County.
UPDATE: Butterscotch has been adopted! Mondy Lamb e-mailed the Indy about three hours after this issue hit the stands to let us know that Butterscotch "went to a great home with two 14-year-old cats." The SPCA of Wake County has since made a list of their "Top 5 Needy Kitties" (due to age, a heart murmur, etc.), and it's ready for anyone calling or e-mailing to inquire. So don't let Butterscotch's happy ending stop you from adopting another cat who needs you!