Last night, my wife and I found ourselves in the middle of every pet lover’s nightmare: a lost cat, a busy road, a careless driver. A moment’s hesitation that may have cost a life.
Content warning: graphic discussion of animal death.
It had been a beautiful day in the Bay Area. It was a long weekend, the weather was wonderful. We wandered our neighborhood. We had ice cream. We were enjoying life.
On our way home, as the evening cooled, we encountered a cat. It was not a cat we’d seen before in the area — we’ve gotten to know a lot of our local kitties because, unfortunately, may of them are allowed to roam outside. Typically, we encounter them on the suburban side streets where there’s much less traffic. But this cat was lurking near the parking lot of the local supermarket, at a busy intersection of a major through street.
Immediately, we suspected this cat was not used to being outdoors. On the one hand, its coat was smooth and it seemed well-fed, and it was friendly towards us and other people passing by; on the other, it was a bit dirty and it had no collar, nor the tuft of fur that would indicate it usually had a collar.
As we walked past, we paused and gestured to it, and it approached us with some trepidation. It rubbed at our legs but seemed skittish when we moved.
It was a lovely cow-pattern black and white, a full-grown adult cat, lost and scared and alone.
Though we hadn’t said it, my wife and I were clearly thinking the same thing: we should bring the cat home so we could take it to a shelter. But the cat shied away from us, and we were hesitant to chase it.
Then, clearly getting more agitated, it made a go for the street. It crossed the first two lanes and made it to the median, then seemed spooked by the traffic coming the other way. It turned around.
And again, I hesitated.
It bolted back toward our side of the road. An oncoming car was accelerating through the intersection.
I can still hear the sound of it — two short thumps.
The car drove off, unaware or uncaring that anything had happened.
When the car passed, the cat was there, lying where it fell. My wife and I ran over to it. It was kicking its feet involuntarily. There was blood coming from its head. I pressed my hand to its chest to check for breathing and found it was gasping. While my hand was on it, I felt a tremor run through all of its muscles. I ran back to the house to get the car. Ilona stayed and gave what comfort she could. She said it purred, at the end.
We gingerly scooped it into an old towel and rushed it to the animal hospital, but we knew already. It was too late.
Many years ago, while we were living in the Bronx, the animal shelter took in a litter of kittens. Separated from their mother far too young, they were “bottle babies,” needing to be fed every two hours around the clock for days until they could eat wet food on their own. As usual, the shelters were running low on resources, and they didn’t have anyone on staff who could stay and feed them overnight. Ilona called me and explained the situation, and we agreed to foster the kittens for a couple of days, until the overnight vet tech was back.
It was a Thursday; I took Friday off of work, and together we spent our weekend nursing these tiny babies together. We warmed up formula in tiny bottles, and held the kittens in the palms of our hands while they fed. We traded shifts and woke up in the night to keep them fed on time. We kept them in our own bedroom, isolated from our other cat (we only had the one at the time), partly because he was a rambunctious adolescent at the time and we didn’t trust him with the tiny babies, partly because we couldn’t bear to leave them out of our sight.
They were all black and white tuxedo patterned, so small they could hardly crawl, their big blue eyes barely just opened, their tiny baby teeth only just starting to show through their gums. Some of them took to the bottle easily, others not so much; one of them had us worried all the time, because it wouldn’t latch on to the nipple sometimes at all, and was smaller and less plump than its siblings. When we finally got it to feed regularly, we cried for joy — it preferred to be held against our bodies for warmth, you see, when it was suckling.
We tried our best to give these four little black-and-white babies as much love as we could to make up for their lost mother. We cared for them as though they were our own.
Finally, it was time for them to go back to the shelter. There was an overnight vet available, and they were due for a checkup before their vaccinations anyway. Ilona took them in.
That afternoon she called me, sobbing.
They all had feline distemper. Their mother hadn’t been vaccinated. The disease is universally fatal in unvaccinated kittens. There is no known cure. They had already been euthanized.
After times like these, I spend a lot of time wondering what I could have done differently to affect a different outcome. Sometimes, the answer is simple: nothing. There is nothing I could have done to cure an incurable disease and give the kittens a new lease on life. Sometimes, the answer is very difficult: there was something I could have done, but didn’t. And there is something that I could have done, that I wanted to do, that may have saved that poor cat’s life. I will never know if it would have worked; perhaps it would’ve spooked the cat anyway and led to the same conclusion. But I could at least have tried.
I don’t really blame myself, or Ilona, or any of the other dozens of passers-by who saw that cat and didn’t do anything. The sad fact of the matter is that in an area with many outdoor cats, it is simply not a good idea to go around and pick up any old cat you see on the street. And, ultimately, it was a story that plays out over and over again, probably every day somewhere in the world: a frightened animal took a wrong turn.
For me, what hurts the most is simply my own empathy. I cannot help but imagine the fear and the pain of someone caught in those final moments. This is the grief that gnaws at me, rips my world apart, until I just want to find a way to stitch it back together again. But it can’t be made whole again. Not everyone gets a happy ending. Instead I bear a scar on my heart.
I am no longer a child; I know the universe is unfeeling and unfair. But still it seems to me that far too many living creatures die scared and alone.
I want to live in a world where that doesn’t happen. I want this country to care about children more than profits and campaign donations. I want ordinary people to care for lost cats.
But I am just one person, and I cannot make this world a reality by wishing. I know I’m not alone, but the road to a better world is long and requires so much of all of us walking it that it can seem overwhelming.
So for now, I must focus on what I can do. I can organize and vote for people who are committed to changing the world for the better. I can give of my time and money to causes that reduce the pain and suffering of people and animals. I can resolve to hesitate less if I ever find myself in a similar situation in the future.
And if the worst should come to pass, still I can comfort the dying and give them what love I can. Sometimes, this is all that I can do, but at least I can hope it means fewer will die alone and afraid.
Hopefully, if we all work together by doing these small things, bit by bit we can change the world.
This morning, as I made my coffee and ruminated on the events of last night, I saw a hummingbird in the tree outside my window. Two years ago, a female had made her nest and raised her chicks in that very tree. Now, another bird was perched in the same spot. Was that one of those chicks, come home to rebuild the nest and raise chicks of her own?
She sang her strange call for a long time before flying off in search of food. I will watch the tree for signs of nesting; Ilona will refill the hummingbird feeder as she always does.
Life goes on.