Thursday, January 15, 2009

We Live With A Three-Legged Cat

We live with a three-legged cat. He has been with us for three years, since his mother produced him and his three siblings in the yard of our old house one steamy July day.

They lived outside. Best Beloved forbade me to buy food for them, as: “Cats worth their salt hunt”. The kittens nursed, and Rhea, their mother, tried to teach them survival. One afternoon I sat on the front steps watching ‘Hunting 101’: Rhea caught a lizard. Presenting it to her offspring with an air of “Exhibit A: Lizard. Watch: This is how you catch it…”, she dropped it from her mouth, then neatly cornered it. Seeming to say to the kittens: “Now let me see you try!” she dropped the lizard in front of them.

None moved. They watched indifferently as their training aid and prospective dinner legged it over the flagstones. Rhea cornered the hapless reptile again and returned it to her children. Their disinterest palpable, she gulped the lizard down and stalked away. I could almost hear her “Kittens these days!”

I supplemented their food as the days grew cooler. The kittens would jump onto the kitchen windowsill, crying for breakfast, then circle my feet frantically as I ventured out the back door. On a practical level, they were pests; on an emotional level, I couldn’t see hungry animals on my patch. Best Beloved muttered but acquiesced.

…until Rhea became pregnant again. “We are not hosting a tribe of cats! Chose one of the male kittens, my mother wants the female, and the rest have to go.”

In the end, we kept two males. A tabby, because he still limped from an injury, and his little black brother because “Black cats get put down at the shelter. No one wants them because they’re bad luck,” Sophia informed me.

We called the tabby ‘Cocktail'. Some of the children wanted ‘Sooty’ for the other one, but Leo held out for ‘Lips’. “Lips?” Sophia said. “You can’t call a cat ‘Lips’!” “Why not ‘Sooty Lips’?” asked someone else. ‘Sooty Lips’ he became.

They played together, groomed each other, fought viciously, and slept tangled in a mass of whiskers, legs and tails. Better than television for entertainment, they were always good for companionship. Best Beloved didn’t like them in the house, but they often found their way in and would curl together on the sofa or in my lap when I worked at my desk.

Around their first birthday, Cocktail came home one Sunday evening with a hugely swollen front paw. The next morning, I took him to the nearest vet. “I can do nothing while it’s like that,” he said. “Give him these antibiotics and bring him back in five days.” But the swelling didn’t go down and two days later I took him to Ina, the Russian vet whose practice was a half-hour away. “Snake bite!” she said at once. “A dog will usually die. A cat can better metabolise the poison.” She gave him the antidote and me instructions for care, and I took Cocktail home.

Daily I bathed Cocktail’s paw, and at first he improved. Then I came down one morning to find him listless, dirty, and very hot. He spent the next week in hospital.

“I think we can save the foot,” Ina said, handing me a bottle of her special saline solution mixed with healing herbs and aloe vera. “I have operated to remove the rotting tissue and there is still some blood supply. He may lose more of the flesh, down to the bone, but it should regenerate if we can keep it clean.” The fur and skin were all gone, the raw flesh showed pink and red. But the wound didn’t seem to hurt him, and several times every day I soaked a pad and bathed it. To no avail. Five days later hospital I had a very sick kitty.

This time Ina shook her head. “The leg will have to come off or the infection will kill him,” she said. “Pick him up tomorrow after lunch.” She asked if I wanted him castrated at the same time. “With three legs he will be unable to defend himself properly and other toms will pick on him.”

But I thought that waking up minus a leg would be traumatic enough – to lose his balls as well might be too disorienting. Besides, I wanted Sophia to make the decision. He was her cat, and she needed to think it over.

When I arrived at the surgery the following afternoon, Cocktail’s leg was gone from the shoulder. “I took it from the top,” Ina said. “Otherwise he'll keep trying to use it and the stump never heals.” Six black stitches closed the wound. “Keep bathing it,” she advised. “And bring him in a week from now…”

A friend was a Reiki master came every other day and sat on the kitchen floor with Cocktail in her lap. He relaxed there more than anywhere else, but was deteriorating again when I took him to Ina’s town surgery a week later.

She was scathing. “I give you a cat well on his way to recovery and you bring him back with an infection again! He has broken his stitches and is very sick!” I held him while she removed the old stitches and cleaned the wound. He cried and tried to struggle, but was too weak.

The Reiki and bathing continued, and a week later he was eating normally and went outside. The first time that I saw him playing and fighting with Sooty Lips, I knew that we had him back.

Despite his loss, Cocktail neither asked nor gave quarter with his brother. The fights and games continued as before. “Stumpy’s better then, is he?” asked Best Beloved the first time he saw them playing again. And ‘Stumpy’ he remained, despite occasional attempts by the children to revert to his previous moniker.

Sophia decided to get both cats ‘fixed’, so after Stumpy had completely recovered from his first surgery, he was back on the table.

Slightly less than a year later, we moved. All furniture, bags, children, clothes, toys, and pictures had made the 10 kilometre hop from our rented house to our new home. The goldfish and the cats were on the final trip.

Sooty Lips shadowed us in the new place but Stumpy disappeared for three days, returning hungry and covered in burrs and grass seeds.

One hot summer day Best Beloved took two big tuna steaks out of the freezer and put them under a cloth on the kitchen counter. In the evening, he opened a bottle of crisp white wine: “How about cooking those steaks now?” I picked up the cloth, still neatly covering the plate. "Two pieces of tuna were there, darling?" I asked. "One's gone walkabout!"

We didn't have to look far for the culprit. Sooty Lips slumbered flat on his side in the late evening sunlight, his belly distended like a python's after devouring a deer. Despite the loss of his dinner, Best Beloved only laughed: " I can appreciate this, the perfect crime!"

The tuna was one of his last meals. Sophia and I came up one morning and found him dead on the floor. I think that he had caught and partly eaten a poisoned rat. We buried him facing the sunrise, sang to him, and put flowers on the massive rock with which we marked his grave. Stumpy stopped eating unless fed by hand. He cried irrationally, bleakly. He quartered the house for days, looking in every room.

Last New Year, my brother in law visited. Driving his car down to the
motorway early one afternoon, he heard miaowing. Reaching the motorway at a weigh station, he stopped and opened the bonnet. Out jumped Stumpy. Terrified but unhurt, he fled to a concrete pipe that led under the slip road. By the time we got the news, night had fallen. Alex, just fourteen, and I got in the car. “Just don’t do anything stupid like go out on the motorway on foot,” Best Beloved said.

We found the pipe. It was about sixty centimetres across. Alex shone his mini-torch inside. “Catscatscatscats!” we called, using the high-pitched cry with which I summon Stumpy for dinner, and we heard his answering miaows. "He's here, Mum!" the excitement and relief in Alex’s voice as bright as the mini-mag’s beam.

As I dropped to my knees to enter the pipe, Alex touched my arm. "Let me go in,” he said. “ I'm smaller." So he crawled on hands and knees into the muck. But the terrified cat gave Alex the slip and bolted around him to another tunnel, this one heading under the motorway with cars thundering overhead. Alex went in to that pipe, too, but the torch was fading. He disappeared around a bend, keeping voice contact as I worried about other tunnels branching off or drains dropping down, seeing my son and our cat lost forever in a sub-motorway labyrinth.

Then I heard: "Got him!" and after an eternity Alex crawled out backwards and handed me the struggling mud-plastered cat.

He doesn’t sit in conventional cat places – comfortable places. He seeks security – under a bed rather than on it; on the top shelf above the garage workbench, his head in the corner, tail dangling; on the high top of Alex’s cupboard – behind the stuffed dragon; across the sill of an open window – head and front paws outside in the breeze, tail and hind legs hanging into the room; behind the monitor of my computer – rolled against the wall with his hind legs splayed open.

Independent, he gives his affection with genuine spirit rather than in the hope of material gain, and it is to Alex and me that he gives it most often. He strolls up in the evening and climbs onto my lap for his ration of ‘lurve’. Glassy-eyed, he lets his tongue loll, and his whole body relax as I massage his tummy.

He still disappears for a day or two at a time, returning burr-covered and sometimes with bite marks. I have seen him run off other cats that threaten his territory: fluffed up to twice his normal size, he deploys his voice to good effect, and hobbles ferociously at the intruder. So fierce can he be that I doubted his complete castration, and when my mother-in-law’s cat had kittens, I found myself giving their legs a quick count… before I remembered that amputation is not hereditary.


  1. Wow, amazing writing! And the last sentence made me laugh out loud. We're down to three cats now, but have no idea what happened to Jemima - she just vanished a little over a year ago, with no trace.

  2. I remember that you used to have a crowd of cats -- and of course I see them on your blog. How awful that you lost one! If Stumpy disappeared it would leave a huge hole in our lives...

  3. awwww. i love this story (naturally). at the shelter i work at in utah they even get around well with only 2 working legs! it's amazing how animals adapt without complaint, unlike we humans. that's a shame about sooty lips (love the name). people are that way about black cats here in the states too. many of the paralyzed cats at the shelter are black...hit by cars more because they are harder to see.