My friend Mike split his time alternating between living with each of his two parents and basically doing whatever the hell he wanted. He had a large room in the townhouse his mother shared with his stepfather. They made good money and spoiled him rotten. His biological father — who lived in a trailer as an apparent result of the divorce — didn’t spare any expenses when it came to entertaining his son, either.
I looked up to Mike, not realizing at the time that mostly what I envied was all his stuff. His dad even got him a BB gun. As a result would come what was probably my first attempt at injuring another living creature and most certainly my first successful vandalism. This was around second grade, maybe.
We were hanging out in the little wooded area surrounding Mike’s dad’s trailer, throwing rocks and firing BBs at birds and squirrels. From what I remember, we didn’t hit a single one with anything from our arsenal, no matter how sincere our efforts. Perhaps it was this frustration that led me to draw a bead on the bulb of a streetlight and nail it on my first try.
Boy, was Mike’s dad pissed. I was shocked at how loud the popping glass had been, to say nothing of my surprise at having hit the damn thing at a more significant distance than any of the critters we’d missed had been. Had it been Mike that blew up the light post, he would’ve gotten way more than a stern talking to and a disapproving glare. It wasn’t my age that had saved me, but my lack of blood relation.
In hindsight, I find myself infinitely glad we’d missed all those animals. But it would be the first of many attempts I made to injure smaller beings throughout my youth, some of which I succeeded at.
Fast forward to somewhere around late elementary or early middle school, when I can recall what was probably my first real instance of hurting an animal. Bicycling around with my friend Red, bored and mischievous, we sought mostly harmless and obnoxious brands of trouble. We would move stuff from people’s yards onto their neighbor’s back porch. Prank calls were made from the community center’s clubhouse phone. Old light bulbs were left in the road for drivers to run over and be frightened by the gunshot-like report.
“Kick it!” Red said. A cat was eyeing us warily, and rightly so, from between some cars in the parking lot. He was a chubby thing, but he looked thoughtful and wily. Eventually we coaxed it nearer and Red whispered, “Punt it.” I didn’t punt it, but I did manage to catch it with my toe. Though I’d like to say that it wasn’t a hard kick, I’m sure it was harder than I remember it. The cat let out a meowlp and skittered away, clearly much more startled than actually hurt. Lucky for him, there was a reason I was third string on the football team and didn’t make it onto the soccer team at all. We sat out around the neighborhood looking for further feline victims but finding none who would get near us. Word gets around, apparently.
Another few years further on and I’m sitting on the couch with my mother’s rotten little cocker spaniel. I had a dog of my own at this point, one of the same breed, and she was the bomb. But this dog, my mother’s dog, was an obnoxious little twit. Sure, she was cute, but if ever the term “utterly worthless” could be applied to an animal, it would be this one.
Still, I never hurt her. Not directly. I was in high school now, more understanding of animals than I’d been previously. However, I’d be wrong to not admit that I did intentionally scare the poor thing on more than one occasion. And she, being the brat that she was, would cry out and urinate a puddle the size of the great lakes every time. Anyone who’s owned a cocker knows that they have the bladders of twelve year old girls on cross-country road trips.
Perhaps the worst of all was my sister’s cat. I don’t mean that the cat was bad — she wasn’t. I mean that I was bad to her. Probably worse than I’d been to any animal. This had been before we had dogs or before I eventually got my own cat. The first major pet (beyond hamsters or fish or whatnot) our family had was this sweet little kitten named Freya.
I was not nice to Freya.
At first I was fascinated. She was tiny and bouncy and did this thing when you were playing with her where she’d rear up with an arched back but fall over due to her underdeveloped kitty coordination. I’d play with her and pet her sometimes; mostly though, I annoyed her. I would chase her around the house, cornering her and making her spit and hiss at me. Sometimes I’d use a stuffed animal as an additional prop as these seemed to frighten her more. When I held her sometimes, I’d bend her tail to make her howl.
Let’s jump forward still again to adulthood, where a series of events brings the family back into one house again, living under one roof together once more. My feisty little cat Levi roaming the home, owning it. My sister Liz’s other cat, Abraxus, prowling around all fat and confused and skittish, generally embodying the very definition of “neurotic.” Then quiet and meek, walking with the softest whisper pawsteps in the world, is old Freya.
Now, I’d lived with her and the other two cats for a couple years in college when my sister and I shared an apartment. When I was around Freya again at my mother’s place after college, her familiar presence never caused me any concern or initiated any reflection. It had been years since I’d truly been mean to an animal. In fact, I would have even said that I mostly liked animals by this point. Having a wonderful dog for awhile first introduced me to that joy, and later getting my own cat (who still lives with me to this day) further cultivated what was really only a budding sense of compassion.
Yet I wouldn’t say I’d really “gotten it” yet. My sister’s ferret had passed away soon after she (and the ferret, and the two cats, and her five hairless rats) moved back in with Mom and I. From my bed I was annoyed by the sounds of what I initially thought was someone arguing on a cell phone, when in fact I soon found out it was the sucking sobs of my sister. The ferret had died and Liz was balled up on the bathroom floor clutching it to her, its small tubular body wrapped in a towel.
It had been sick for a few days, ill perhaps from the move. Afraid, maybe homesick or something. When it died I’d been expecting waterworks from my sibling. I had not, however, expected her to stay up all night in such obvious overwhelming pain, crying out intelligible semi-sentences and stroking the quiet furry body. My heart went out to her. The thing sure had stunk all the way up to the limits of tolerance during its lifetime, but even I myself was rather fond of the little thing.
Nonetheless, I was irritated over the coming days as Liz slept little and carried around the dead ferret like a sacred object. There were whispered grumblings amongst two thirds of the three of us in the house that the critter corpse needed to go, and fast. I was sad about the thing dying and all, but I mean, seriously. At that point I just didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand.
Then one day at my mother’s, I found myself alone in the house. It was late in the evening. Mom was on a business-related trip, and my sister was visiting her boyfriend two states away. I was unemployed and generally in a funk. The evening was spent with a drink in my hand and my eyes alternating between the television and the sight of Levi and Abraxus having one of their little lover’s quarrels on the living room floor. From directly beside me a heard a little inquisitive honk. There sat Freya, looking up at me.
Lazily I reached over and patted her little head without really looking at her, much like I’d done many times since I’d stopped being openly cruel to animals. Purrs began to roll out of her and she began to pit-pat my thigh with her paws. The correct term for this behavior is “milk treading,” but I like my friend Kelly’s term: “making biscuits.” I looked down at her and smiled sleepily. She made her soft little honking meow again.
Then oh my god. My eyes exploded. This surge of twitching unhappiness washed over me and I was crying. The boy kitties stopped fighting and looked at me from their paused battle stances. Freya ceased her biscuit-making and watched me plainly. It wasn’t the drink; I hadn’t had much. Nor was it loneliness or anything like that. My vocal chords tried to make words, but even if they knew English none of the cats would’ve understood me.
I’m so sorry, Freya. I’m sorry. So very sorry. I’m so sorry.
I just kept saying it over and over again. I was on the couch for hours petting that old docile furball. She had a brain the size of a walnut, so I’m sure she wouldn’t understand why I was apologizing. Most likely she didn’t even remember any of the times I was mean to her, beyond of course just basic learned survival behaviors through repetition. But I’d stopped being openly mean so long ago that for years she’d been nothing but nice to me.
I couldn’t help thinking about the people who’d seriously wronged me. Some of them I’d forgiven, some not. None of them are allowed to cuddle with me, though — that much is for certain. But Freya cuddled with me, and actually now that I thought about it had always been fairly assertive about doing so. Even when I’d recently be mean or would be so again soon. She didn’t start being nice gradually — she always was. You goofy old cat, I thought. I love you.
Another jump forward and I’m actually kind of surprised to find myself sitting in — and volunteering regularly at — the local animal shelter. There’s a behemoth of a feline in my lap. He’s a stray, nameless, so some of us volunteers entertain ourselves with potential monikers. Titan? Ox? Seriously, this cat is enormous. He looks like Photoshopped reality, proportions all exaggerated in comic fashion. The great beast is draped over my legs, thinking himself a tiny little kitten while his purrs rattle my bones like the roar of a riding mower. I call him Basketball Head because his cranium is so large and perfectly round.
During kitten season, the easiest way to move a single litter from one cage to another is by sticking them all to your shirt like Velcro. Fop fop fop fop fop. They grip easily and impulsively with their little thumbtack claws and hold on while letting out these squeaky little inexperienced mews.
I clean the cages, wiping feces and occasional hairballs from the walls and floor. Inevitably I get a chuckle out of other volunteers for the ease of which they see me cleaning the higher cages thanks to my height, not unlike the strangers who always ask me apologetically if I can reach something on a top shelf for them in the grocery store.
So much to learn. I pick up a copy of the classic Animal Liberation but leave it sitting on my shelf, not sure if I can handle it yet. Education comes anyway, in other ways. No-kill shelters, it turns out, can actually be worse than normal ones in ways too numerous and depressing for me to really spell out without choking up. Breeders and puppy farms, once so innocent in my mind, I now have a hard time thinking about — much less articulating. There are special events, fundraisers I attend. As talkative as I’ve become in my day-to-day life, I find myself oddly quiet during any volunteering I do for the shelter. Really, I couldn’t explain why. The words just aren’t there.
Other things are there, though. There are ticks on some cats, which we pick off and discard. Sometimes we use thick, elbow-length gloves or a net to handle particularly rowdy cats. My heart aches for every single one that passes through. Some are inevitabilities for adoption; others are inevitabilities down the opposite path. I try not to think about it. Any of it. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what particularly led me to don the maroon shirt of this particular shelter. Penance, maybe? Yet it feels nothing at all like punishment. It feels like I’m giving my soul a hearty, home-cooked meal every time I’m there.
How then do I pay reparations for my past misdeeds? It feels wrong for penance to feel this good. Guilt is supposed to be sour and oppressive, not enlightening. Right?
A shelter worker casually drums on the floor of one of the cages and I, curious, look in. Old, but still kitten-sized, a slightly spaced-out looking critter stares blankly around the cage. “He’s blind,” she tells me. “And deaf.”
But he can feel the drumming on the cage. His hair is thick and matted. It twitches itchily as he hops up with unexpected spryness, walking through his darkness to locate the finger taps. We both reach out and scratch and caress him. I can feel scabs beneath his woven fur; see fleas running for asylum away from my fingers. His purr sounds hoarse through a crusted, dry snout. Even so ravaged, he’s still beautiful.
I lift him very gently, noticing somehow his slight wince and realizing most of his body is probably in pain. Yet he doesn’t battle me. I sit him into the holding cage nearby so I can clean his. As soon as the holding cage door is closed, I hear it: tap tap slide tap tap slide tap slide. I peek in again and he’s walking in little limping circles for no apparent reason. It makes me uneasy.
Quickly, but as thoroughly as possible, I clean his cage. Tap tap slide tap tap slide. Washed and dried floor mat, blanket, clean litter box, fresh food and water. Tap slide. As I open the holding cage door to take him out he pauses, straining to find one of his still functioning senses with which to detect my presence. Before my finger really even touches him he’s pushing against it, rubbing and purring again, his circular pacing stopped.
He’d just been looking for a hand to touch him.
So I do, petting him for as long as I can, pouring as much love into the little guy as I can muster without falling apart in the middle of my duties. Eventually he tires and settles back into the same corner of his cage he’d been in when I first saw him. He briefly makes biscuits in the corner, and I’m hoping he notices the extra blanket I stacked in there. Not sure if he does or even can really.
Later, when I’m walking out to my car, I can’t shake the little guy from my mind. I think about the dark circles I’ve walked in my life, and how much less I genuinely deserved a loving hand to reach for me, and how much more often I got it than he probably did, and how wrong that really is.