“…love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
“Can we get a kitten?” It was becoming an oft repeated question in the weeks following the loss of Woody, our cat and only pet. Woody had come into my life several years before as a tired, grease-stained cat found in the bowling alley parking lot across from my veterinary clinic. The grease mark made it appear as though it had been hit by a car, but other than being dirty, it appeared relatively unscathed. At first, I didn’t pay much too much attention to the yellow and white cat sitting in the cage in the treatment area. However, after a day or two of no one claiming or wanting to adopt it, I began to interact with it a little more. No one had checked the sex, but the cat just “looked” female, so her name became Mae West in honor of our clinic name of Westwood. “She” had a sweet demeanor and I started to take an interest in her as the staff began pushing that I adopt her. I warmed to the idea and gave her a little closer look. Realizing I had not verified her gender, I lifted the tail and took a peek at the private parts below. Mae West was a boy! The name had to go, but I wanted to still try to incorporate Westwood in my choice, so Woody he became.
|Woody bedding down for the night with David|
Woody was a calm, loving cat who eventually became a fat, happy cat from lounging around our home all day. He was great with the kids and would hold long conversations with my wife on the staircase. Our new addition was a wonderful pet with the exception that he was not a healthy cat. It started with continual diarrhea that splattered the litter box and created an urgency that almost didn’t allow him to make it. After trial and error I found a diet that would help him, but a few years later the symptoms returned along with vomiting and anorexia. I diagnosed him with inflammatory bowel disease, and the only thing that I ever found that would control his symptoms was steroids. The stools would soften, then I would find spots of vomit throughout the house, and then finally he would hide away, not moving or eating until his injection. Within 24 hours he would be a perfectly normal cat, remaining so until almost exactly six weeks later when the symptoms would again return with a vengeance. Unfortunately, for all the good they did, the steroids took a terrible toll on his body. His skin thinned to the point of ripping, and he became diabetic. With the constant steroids, I could not control his diabetes, and without them he would decline dramatically. Finally, one day he just lay on the staircase not moving. I knew the time was approaching we would have to say goodbye, I just wasn’t expecting to come home and find him still on that step at lunchtime. When I went to check on him, he flopped onto his side and went into a seizure. It could not wait. I bundled him in my arms and immediately rushed back to the clinic where I euthanized him through tears.
|A sleepy Woody catching a few zzzz's|
So there was a great void in our house without our talkative friend. That’s when the begging began. I was missing him, too, but I wasn’t quite ready to take on a new life (I needed to mourn Woody for a while) and besides we had a vacation coming up and it would be so much easier not having to find a pet sitter. The response to the children was that after our vacation to Kiawah Island in S.C., I would begin looking for a possible replacement. Being a veterinarian, unexpected kittens or stray cats were always crossing our doorstep, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult to come up with a new cat. Little did I know, the clinic would play no role in the little life that was soon to join us.
Just before we were scheduled to leave on our trip, we received word from my wife’s brother that a friend had a little kitten they had rescued. Reportedly, the kitten had been tossed into a river; however, I find many rescuers jump straight to the abuse/attempted murder story for any poor, lost animal they find. I suspected the little kitten was more than likely just found in the vicinity of a river, and the rest was a creative back story. Nonetheless, we’ve always maintained the thrown in the river angle to add more color to her origins. We were presented with a couple of photos. One was of a cute little face with big eyes staring out from between the leaves of an iris, and the other were of the same tortoiseshell kitten curled in the lap of the young girl who now had her. We hadn’t met her, but we had already fallen for her, so I knew there would be no grand search for a new pet. She would be waiting on us once we returned from Kiawah.
|Our first glimpse.|
A week or two later we were presented with a little black, orange and white bundle of fur who was every bit as cute as her picture. She seemed a little shy, but she would eventually settle onto one or our laps, or my favorite trait, reach out and touch a face with her paw. The first duty we had was to name her. Given that the Kiawah trip had been our period of anticipation, we decided to try to pick a name relative to our just finished vacation. We tossed around names like Kiawah or Bohicket (a marina near our resort), but in the end we went in a different direction. Each year when we visited this South Carolina island, we would take the kids to a children’s performer named Rick Hubbard. A big part of his show revolved around presenting the audience with kazoos (Rick eventually purchased the kazoo company) and creating a large kazoo band. In celebration of his passion, Rick had coined the phrase “kazoobie” meaning “exceptional fun involving everyone.” Something about that seemed to fit this little kitten, so we shortened the word and our newest family member became known from that day forward as Zoobie.
|Baby Zoobie resting on the bed|
As she became adjusted to our home, Zoobie became a little ball of energy. We had just built a new two story house with an open foyer, and the kitten was not the least bit hesitant to explore the stairs. Thus was born a great fear in me. What if she climbed to the top, peeked out between the railings of the stairway and decide to jump? Cats have no natural realization of height, which is why veterinarians in New York City often treat what is called “high rise syndrome” in which cats leap off of apartment balconies several floors up. I panicked every time she explored the upstairs landing and had to find a way to put my mind at ease. My solution was to buy netting and staple it around the entire upstairs balustrade. For the most part it worked, but there was a frightful time or two in which she pushed herself under the netting and was then trapped on the outside on the ledge. Thankfully, she would allow me to lift the netting and retrieve her. As she got older, the netting went away, and she never once tempted fate on the edge, much to my relief.
|David with his new buddy|
Zoobie soon learned the ropes and became a part of our family. She was not exactly a cuddler, although in the evenings she would sometimes hop onto a lap for a nap. More than anyone, she gravitated toward our son. He is the cat whisperer in our family, and she adored him. Daily they would engage in wrestling matches where he would grab her and she would wrap her legs around his arm and then take his wrist in her mouth. She never bit down, at least intentionally. If David was in his room playing or doing homework, you could expect to find her in his lap or laying on his bed watching him. The more she grew towards him, the more she avoided us for the most part. At least at night I could count on her making her way into our bed and lying at my feet, but that was it. As much as I wanted an affectionate cat who would snuggle in close and doze with me, it was not to be. Zoobie always wanted to be near people, but any direct interactions were few and far between, and only at her initiation.
|Like all cats, Zoobie loved boxes|
|No matter how uncomfortable|
She had a playful streak which lasted until her final days. She was the cat who taught us how much felines enjoy the rings from milk jugs. It was a serendipitous discovery on our part, one day dropping a ring only to see her toss it in the air and bat it around the room. From that day forward, milk rings would always be tossed on the floor. If you went to the bathroom on the main floor of the house, it would not be uncommon to suddenly see a plastic ring slide under the door followed by a little black paw fishing around to find it. If you flicked it back out, it would quickly return to you with even more force. The games would continue until eventually she maneuvered the rings to the basement door where she would knock them into the dark unknown beyond.
|Watching the birds.|
As a kitten she had another mischievous trait. Our children would often fail to finish their lunch as school and would bring home their sandwiches still in the bag. These they would set out on the counter when they arrived home, but a little while later, the bag with the sandwich would be gone. The first time this really puzzled me, until I later found the sandwich under our bed, Zoobie’s hidden lair. After that, I started paying attention for the sound of cat feet hitting the ground as they jumped down from the counter. Then you could hear a rhythmic thump, thump, thump as a full sandwich bag bounced up the stairs. My favorite episode, however, was the time my wife had a large bag of dried beans which she intended to use for crafts at Sunday school. I once again heard the familiar thump, thump, thump and hurried to investigate. There, like a leopard hoisting its kill into a tree, was our little kitten dragging a heavy bag, bigger than herself, up the stairs to the bed. Her habit was more amusing than annoying, but eventually she outgrew it. However, her bags of stolen booty were replaced by something else- a little stuffed vet. We bought it as a joke, me being a veterinarian, but Zoobie took a true liking to the toy. One night I heard a mournful wailing coming from downstairs, and I panicked that Zoobie had injured herself or was sick. I hurried downstairs and flipped on the lights only to find Zoobie standing there, blinking in the sudden brightness and holding a limp vet in her mouth. I knew after that whenever I heard crying at night, it was only Zoobie with her little friend. She would often bring him up and drop him by my bed, much like outdoor cats bring dead mice and birds and deposit them on the owner’s doorstep. Even in her final days, when it was physically difficult for her to walk, I found her carrying her vet with her. It remained a constant in her life for 17 years.
Zoobie engaging in her favorite pastime.
As mentioned above, Zoobie was not a cat to want physical handling, and she frequently made this knows with a hiss or a growl, a swat of a paw or a quick bite and run whenever petted or if someone attempted to pick her up. That’s how she treated those she loved. If you were a stranger, she had even less patience with you, which became a problem during a later vacation. We had once again returned to Kiawah, but Zoobie was to remain at home with one of my technicians stopping by each day to feed her. Usually, pet-sits consist of spending time playing with the pet along with feeding it. There was no playing with Zoobie, and there was almost no feeding her, either. Zoobie’s food was located in the upstairs laundry room, and when the technician went up to feed her, she turned around to see a fluffed, growling Zoobie blocking her exit. Fearing for her safety, Amy finally grabbed a rug from the floor, and like a bullfighter keeping his cape between him and the bull, she managed to block Zoobie and maneuver around her. It was an adventure each time she visited to feed our cat.
Zoobie’s intolerance wasn’t limited to just people. She despised any other animal. I wanted to get another pet, but anything I would bring home would be attacked by the queen herself. Once I brought home two small kittens and kept them in a carrier in our kitchen. I knew they would be safe and thought maybe if Zoobie could see them and smell them without them being loose in the house, she might be a little more accepting. On the contrary, she circled the box emitting a low growl, then spitting and hissing, she started swatting the sides of the carrier to attack the innocent kittens within. Back they went to the clinic for someone else to adopt.
Then seven years ago, a client brought in a wet, cold little kitten she had heard mewing from her front lawn as she headed out for her morning jog. She found it still sitting there alone and shivering when she returned, so she brought him into the clinic. He was a little ball of black fur that could easily fit in the palm of your hand. His pitiful state, as well as his loving personality won me over, so I again tried bringing another cat home. Zoobie was definitely not impressed and proceeded to curse him in her native tongue, but she did not approach him to hurt him. I thought maybe this just might work out. Perhaps she would eventually accept him and they would grow up to be buddies and playmates. Boy, was I wrong. She did come to halfway tolerate his presence, but they were never friends. For the first year, she would still stake out her place in front of the fireplace on cold winter days, and he might be allowed to sleep four feet away, but it never got closer than that. Eventually, she made the decision to withdraw from the main floor and stay in our bedroom. Although she was given free reign of the house, she spent the last six or seven years of her life resigned to living only on the upper floor. I would lock Alonzo, the now grown black kitten, and later his playmate Jasmine, in their own room at night in hopes that Zoobie would come down during the nighttime and have some quiet time along in her old haunts. I think she did this occasionally, but mostly she remained under our bed during the day and by my feet on top of the bed at night. She seemed content with this arrangement, and most nights or mornings, we could hear her thundering footsteps as she charged from one room to the next above our heads as we relaxed in the family room, burning off her energy. However, every so often in the evening, Zoobie would sneak downstairs and attempt to visit us, all the while keeping a vigilant watch for the other cats. Alonzo, not the brightest cat in the world, never understood Zoobie and tried through all of those years to be her friend. The more she hissed and swatted and charged, the more he thought she liked him and wanted to play. His eyes would grow large, his tail would twitch from side to side in an excited fashion, and he would just prance right after her. She would eventually retreat back up the stairs and as soon as she reached “her territory,” the fight was on. The growls and hisses became all out screams and I could hear a tussle. I would yell for them to break it up and then head up the stairs to separate them, but she had usually chased Alonzo away by this time. Undaunted, he would stop halfway down the stairs, look back up at her and cry sadly for the friend he was forever denied.
|Zoobie's new nemesis- Alonzo|
A few years ago, I noticed that Zoobie’s water bowl was often dry in the morning when I went to feed her. For most of her life, the water level hardly budged and only got changed to freshen it from time to time. Along with the rapidly disappearing water, the litter box grew heavy with increased urine. I suspected Zoobie was beginning the slow decline of renal failure, and blood tests bore that out. Yet, despite her diagnosis, Zoobie remained Zoobie. She continue to eat well, and as she had done for most of her life, she also continued to throw her food up at about midnight two or three times a week. She had a knack for knowing just when I was falling asleep, then she would stop just outside our bedroom door and start retching. She still did her nightly laps, racing from room to room, and she still would cry out as she dropped her vet by my side of the bed. I placed her on a supportive diet and hoped it would slow the progression of her disease.
|Her perfect cat pose.|
All was well until a few months ago. It was becoming apparent that Zoobie was losing a considerable amount of weight. The water was still disappearing quickly, but the food bowl was not emptying as it had for nearly 17 years. She started taking a couple of attempts to jump onto the bed. I repeated blood work and it confirmed that the kidneys had indeed continued to decline. After a couple of months of this, she was no longer able to make it up on the bed by herself. I had heard her try a couple of times only to hear her fall. From that day on, she began coming to my side of the bed and crying until I picked her up. At the same time, she had gone from laying at the foot of the bed, to starting each night by my side demanding I pet her. Little Miss Independent wanted affection! The sicker and weaker she got, the more affectionate she grew. By morning she was still at my feet as in days of old, but bedtime meant an hour of stroking her head and scratching her chin before she would allow me to fall asleep.
|Zoobie's favorite day of the year was Christmas. Even in her older years she joined us on Christmas morning.|
Another change occurred during the final weeks of her life. Zoobie started reappearing downstairs! At first she only came down when my wife had something baking in the oven. She would follow the smell downstairs and plop herself under the oven while Sara cooked. Then she was making appearances at other times, sitting by our patio doors and taking in the fresh air from the backyard. She was doing this at a time where it was more and more difficult for her to even walk, let alone climb stairs. I still do not know what prompted this. Did she want to be close to us, seeking comfort in her waning days? Did she maybe realize the end was coming and wanted to reconnect with the pleasant memories she had from kittenhood? We will never know, but Zoobie, poor weak Zoobie, was in our lives once more.
Then came the final days. Zoobie was now so weak she could not even climb into her litter box, instead leaving a large puddle just outside its entrance. As weak as she was, however, she came down the stairs one last time. She was staggering and could barely stand. It had been days since she had eaten more than a bite of food. She lay by the open patio door and made no attempt to move or return to the upper floor. I brought a litterbox down, and with her final effort she climbed in, fell into the litter and urinated where she lay. I got her back out and she again lay by the door. I knew she would not be going back upstairs. She was a mere skeleton of her former self, yet somehow her fur remained soft and shiny as it always had. I knew I needed to make that final decision. As a veterinarian, it is usually easy for me to recommend an owner euthanize their sick pet. However, as a pet owner, I am a total wimp. I knew it was time, yet I could not do the deed. I went as far as to bring home a catheter and euthanasia solution, and I dug a grave in the backyard. Yet, in my defense, Zoobie was not showing any signs of pain. She was weakening quickly, and I knew she couldn’t last long. If I handled a leg to feel for a vein, she would pull away with what little strength she had left. How could I, the person who fed her and cared for her, the person who had replaced my son as the one to whom she showed the most affection, take her life? And how could I make her last moment on earth be one where she must be restrained, the act she hated most her whole life, while I search for a nearly non-existent vein in her weak, dehydrated body? Had she shown me she was in pain and suffering, the task would have been easier, but she wasn’t. I knew she couldn’t last much longer, and I felt she would just slip into unconsciousness and pass. But this was Zoobie. She was a stubborn fighter right up to the end. We moved her to the kitchen and placed her on towels since she could no longer walk to a litter box. She lay there dozing on and off for three more days. She neither ate nor drank. Somehow, the first day or two, she managed to move herself about a foot off the towel, but I still don’t know how. Finally, even that stopped and she just slept, often with eyes open. Each morning I would come down expecting to find her gone, but she clung to life. Her breathing remained steady. I broke down one evening, knowing I was not doing her any favors allowing her to go on like this. I took down the syringe and solution, I got a wet paper towel to wet her fur and highlight a vein, and I sat by her on the floor. I dissolved into tears thinking I was about to end the life that had been a part of my own for the past 17 years. My wife came over and stroked Zoobie’s head, something Zoobie had never allowed before. Rather than resisting, Zoobie pushed harder into Sara’s hand. I felt she was saying she was not done fighting. I put the supplies away. In the end, I decided Zoobie should leave this world on her own terms. She had been so independent her entire life and had such a fighting spirit, it would not be fair to deprive her of that. Again, she showed no signs of pain, only sleepiness. On Wednesday afternoon, I petted her head and told her I loved her as I went back to work. She stretched her legs slightly, but did not more her head. A few hours later, my wife texted me that she had passed.
|Waiting at the top of the stairs. This is where she greeted me every night.|
That evening, I placed Zoobie in a box, the stuffed vet between her paws and a rose blossom by her head, and I buried her beneath the dogwood tree at the back of the property. This was what she looked out on those final days as she once again breathed in the fresh air of outside. In the morning, as the sun slowly rises over the roof of the house, this area is thrown into light. Zoobie always followed the sunny patch around the room. Now she does not have to seek it out, the sunlight finds her each morning and warms her little patch of earth. Life is so different now. No longer is there the cry at the top of the stairs when I come up at night, and those bright eyes are not there peeking through the balusters. I search the patches of sunshine on the bedroom floor in the morning, but no cat is stretched out on them. Jasmine and Alonzo have been a little more needy and affectionate since Zoobie got so sick, but I’m not a cat psychologist, so I don’t know why. They kept a wide berth of her as she lay on the floor, but they have more freedom now. I feel I have more freedom, too, but I would trade it all away just to have Zoobie back in my life once more.