Full Circle: How a grumpy cat saved my life


Please indulge me in this long, deeply personal and emotional blog entry. This is not a blog about hiking or adventures, but it partly explains what has kept me from writing or hiking much lately.


This is a story about a cat that saved my life even though she only lived with me for a few weeks. I want to share our story in the hopes that it will touch and help others who are in situations like we were in.


In 2002 I spent a few months working at an animal shelter in Oregon. I went there straight from working at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill, non-profit animal sanctuary that works very hard to save animal lives, even from big, expensive health issues and devastating injuries. I left Best Friends for the shelter in Oregon because I thought I was moving up. I was to be the cattery manager and head vet tech over cats.


The thing is that they killed many, many healthy cats in that shelter in Oregon. I should say, I, as the cattery manager and head vet tech, killed healthy or mildly ill or terrified "unsocial" cats if they didn't become friendly in three days or healthy with five days of antibiotics. It was my job and it broke my heart.


I knew it was wrong, but they had contracts to fill some of the cages and were legally obligated to take in animals from those areas. They had to make room even if there was none. I reminded myself over and over that they were working towards being low-kill (though they weren't there yet), and no-kill was a luxury that I couldn't expect in the "real" world. I stayed, thinking I could help somehow.


There was a long-haired white kitten with blue eyes that we named Ringo. He and his sister, Starr, who looked similar with short hair, had ringworm. It is a skin fungus, often looking like bald, scaly, scabby patches or rings, that is contagious to other cats, dogs, horses and people. It's ugly and kind of gross but not the end of the world by any means. I got ringworm several times working with the cats at Best Friends. No big deal.


Over several weeks both of the kittens grew back their hair and Ringo was so beautiful with his long, white coat. He was a favorite of the staff and volunteers and I loved him. He was extremely friendly and a big flirt even though he had been quarantined in a cage for at least two months. 

Starr was cleared to go out to the cattery, but Ringo took longer. Finally, we thought he was ready to go out to the cattery, but my bosses said he was a carrier of ringworm even though he had no symptoms.


They said he could never go out in the cattery to expose the other cats and he couldn't live in a cage forever so their solution, as usual, was to kill him. I protested, pointing out that at least six of the cats in the cattery right then had suspicious spots on their noses or ears and we knew the cattery was already exposed. 

Ringworm isn't usually a big deal for a cat, but to try to contain and stop the spread, especially in an institution, can be quite difficult and expensive and it takes the cats weeks or months to get over it and look good enough for adoption.


If affected animals were adopted and infected other pets in the new home, the shelter could be hit with treatment bills and they couldn't afford to feed the animals they had. They were near October in their budget and it was only February. I understood all that. I just didn't think Ringo should die for catching a skin fungus even if he was a carrier of it.


I refused to kill Ringo, so my two bosses waited until I went to lunch and killed him themselves. I had been thinking about adopting him. I hated them for killing my little Ringo kitten. I realized I couldn't stay there any longer, but I didn't leave right away. I began to make plans to move back to Utah.


Then I met Cooper, a plump, fluffy, medium-haired, apple-headed, seal-point Siamese cat. She was returned to the shelter for biting the old lady who was fostering her. The old lady thought Cooper was her dead mother, speaking to her from the grave. She was obviously not entirely sane, but she went to the hospital with skin tears (old skin tears easily), and Cooper was sentenced to death.


Cooper's past didn't help her. She had been brought to the shelter the first time for sitting in the hallway and swiping, hissing and lunging at the kids who were trying to leave the bathroom. With two strikes against her she was deemed too aggressive and my bosses decided they could not adopt her out without being liable if she bit again. They told me to kill her.


Maybe it was because they had killed Ringo, but I said I would adopt Cooper. I didn't even think about it. It was a completely irrational impulse that I couldn't explain or justify, but I persisted when they said no. They said she hated other animals and I already had cats at home. It would be more cruel to her to make her live around other cats than to kill her.


I begged them just to let me try. I was a staff member. She had no other options. I'd bring her back and kill her myself if she was as miserable as they predicted (I had no intentions of ever bringing her back). I didn't ask my roommate recently turned lover/boyfriend. I already had three cats at home. I came with cats. That's just how it worked.


Dean (not his real name) and I were having problems anyway, due to his aggressive behavior towards me. He didn't hit me, but he yelled in my face, leaning over me and pounding his fist in his other hand. He threw books and other objects that hit the wall next to me. When I complained about the throwing he said if he was throwing things at me he would have hit his target. He said he was missing on purpose.

He woke me up at 3 am saying I needed to vacuum the house and that I was lazy. I told him I had to work in the morning and to turn off the light. Instead he turned on the radio loudly and vacuumed the house himself, all the while berating and insulting me.

I was in hell at my job and frightened, sleep-deprived and miserable at home. After Ringo I was in full rebellion at the shelter, moving cats around into different rooms to hide them from my bosses to try to buy them an extra day or two to become social and not be terrified. I may have saved a couple of lives but I was drowning.

Oregon was not working out well for me, though it was beautiful and verdant green. I loved my drive to work every day and my Salsa dance lessons once a week. Those and my cats were the only positive things in my life at that time. I knew I was going to leave as soon as I could, but I adopted Cooper on the spot and brought her home that day before they could change their minds.


She hated the other cats. She hated me. She hated Dean (so did I by then so I didn't blame her). She was often angry and would wait in the hallway and slash at us with her claws. I was a little afraid of her, but sometimes I caught her basking in moments of happy contentment and I envied her. I felt trapped in a hopeless situation more than a thousand miles from my family and friends.


One night Dean pushed past me in anger and I hit the wall, but not very hard. He didn't really push me I told myself. I was just in the way I told myself. A day or two later we got into another argument and I just lost it. Instead of trying to be the sane, reasonable, understanding one I gave back what he gave. 


When he slammed his hand into his fist, I did the same thing back at him. What objects he threw near me I threw back near him. He yelled and I yelled back. I matched his actions as exactly as I could, maybe trying to "show" him how he appeared to me, maybe finally losing my own mind, too.


He said he was taking money out of my wallet to pay for something he insisted I owed him, though he was unemployed and I worked full time. I said no as he moved toward my wallet. I darted in front of him and grabbed my wallet before he could. 


He tackled me and pinned me to the floor with his body with his hands on my neck and my leg twisted painfully underneath my body. When I was a kid my parents spanked me and I got into fist fights with one of my brothers. Another brother threw a brick at me (he missed) and rigged a bucket to dump water on my head (this also failed) and we had roving shooting wars with rubber bands, which hurt when you got hit.


That was kid stuff. This was the first time anybody had physically attacked or choked me. He released my neck, pried my wallet out of my fingers and got off me before I could process what had happened. I went into shock and he retreated for a while, probably gloating over my last $5 that he stole from me.


After a few hours I examined my neck and chest and found bruises beginning to form. He saw me looking in the mirror and apologized. He took me to dinner the next day and bought me flowers. How stereo-typical it all was.


I was in an abusive relationship. I was THAT woman. The one I had always felt superior towards. I was supposed to be the smart, independent woman who doesn't get bullied and tortured by her lover. I was not supposed to turn into my mom with her second husband. She had died for abusive love. My dad was not an abuser and I didn't grow up with abuse, yet somehow I was doing just what my mom did. What the hell!


I had heard an interview on NPR in the car on the way to work a few days before this. It was with a representative of a domestic violence center. She described the stages of abuse. Walking on eggshells. The violent explosion. Repentance/penitence. Good behavior for a little or a long while. Walking on eggshells again as the tension builds again. Repeat ad naseum getting worse and worse every cycle.


I recognized that our (his) behavior was exactly like that cycle, except of course, Dean didn't hit me. I knew he would never hit me, but I wrote down the hotline number on my hand, then transferred it to paper once I got to work.


After he attacked me I had the domestic violence hotline number, but no privacy in which to call. He never let me be alone and was jealous of every minute I spent at work.


I called the hotline from work after a couple of days. I talked to a counselor who urged caution and warned me that Dean would explode again. She told me that if I noticed signs of tension building in him that I should leave right away. She thought I should leave right away, anyway, but I told her I had a plan.


I was working on leaving the state in the next two weeks. I could hold on until then. I just had to work out a few things financially. She couldn't make me leave right then, but she said to call or come by the facility at any time. I gave the shelter a two week notice and then went home.


I felt so exposed. Every interaction with Dean was a lie. I felt like a fraud. My guilt must shine right through me, I thought. I felt like a terrible liar and worried that he must know I'm playing a part, just acting, just getting by until I can leave. How am I going to leave with no money and no credit card?


I told a friend at work about what happened. She offered a room in her house if I needed it, even with four cats. She had previously been in an abusive relationship and she understood.


My world was shattered. He could have killed me, with his hands around my neck. He let me know it and then let me go, but now I knew he could and he knew I knew I was only alive because he allowed it. Maybe he would kill me. I had no idea. If he ever left me home alone I was going to head straight to the women's shelter and talk to somebody, but he never let me be alone.


We made it through a few more days and I felt his aggression building again. Oh no. How much time did I have before he exploded again? Could I follow my plan and get out with me and the cats intact? If he exploded again would it be as bad as last time? Worse?


A week after he attacked me, I was in the living room when I heard hissing, squalling and him shouting. I ran to the bedroom and saw him leaning over the bed stabbing a stick at Cooper who was under the bed. Her grumpy self had probably crouched under there and growled without stopping until he exploded.


I stepped into the doorway as she fled past my feet and away from Dean. I crossed my arms and planted myself. I expected him to hit me with the stick but I would not let him chase her. I would protect her no matter what happened to me.


Instead he put the stick down, shoved past me and left the house. I had no idea where he went or how long he would be gone. I jumped in my car and drove to the women's shelter. I filled out forms and told a short version of our story.


I told them that Dean had only started using meth recently, but he had admitted to using meth for a decade before this. I had discovered that his sobriety when we became roommates and then lovers was due to not having contacts in town, but he found a contact not long after we became lovers. It had been less than three months from the time we had become roommates until he attacked me. 


The counselor said usually the abusive process took much longer before it escalated to violence, often many years. They suspected the meth had accelerated the abusive cycle. I was lucky things escalated so quickly. He didn't take the time to truly wear me down and I still had a sense of myself, though it was damaged.


I wondered if that's what had happened to my mom. I already felt like I was drowning, after only three months. How had she lasted years like this? Suddenly I felt compassion for my mom instead of seeing her as too weak to save herself or her younger kids from her new husband's violence. 


She was married and had two kids with him. They shared a life, home, loans, religious vows that bound her tighter than anything else. He broke her bones and he broke her spirit. He kicked and punched my little brothers until my dad sued for custody and won. She wanted no life without her abuser and she died at 45 years old rather than defy or leave him. 


She didn't get away. I had hated her for dying, for giving up, for letting him break her, for not protecting my younger siblings. For choosing him over her babies. Now I was her, but I could do better than her. I would get away and I would protect my babies or I would die trying.


The counselor told me not to go home. I said I have to get the cats. She said it's too dangerous for you. I said I have a chance of defending myself. The cats have no chance at all. Now I believed Dean was capable of anything at all, including torturing and murdering my cats to punish me for leaving. They said he might kill me if I went back but I wouldn't leave the cats under his power.


They gave me a donated cell phone that had no service, and told me it would call 911 and to take it with me. They said to check the house first and leave if he was there. I told them I had somewhere to go once I got the cats, and I would call my dad. They said not to let my dad meet Dean. If they fought, would I feel responsible if my dad was injured? Oh yes, yes I would.


I went home. Dean's car was still gone. I raced inside, grabbed each cat and shoved them in a carrier, sustaining multiple scratches from Cooper and Aries who both panicked and struggled. I would not let go and risk having to chase either around the house so I held on and got them all crated. 


Dripping blood from my scratched hands and arms I put the four crates in my car one at a time, getting more worried with every trip, as if I were using up my chances to get away, then went back and dumped a few drawers and armfuls of stuff onto the bedspread. My mind went blank with panic. What did I truly need?


I tied the bedspread corners together and carried it out to the car, wondering if the neighbors had any idea at all what was going on or had been going on in our little bland half of a duplex in a nondescript neighborhood. 


I ran inside again and tried to get my computer and important personal papers (birth certificate, social security card, etc.) out of the garage, but he had locked my stuff in a cupboard to which I had no key.


I considered breaking the cabinet with a hammer, but my fear and survival instinct screamed at me to leave NOW so I drove away with my cats. I didn't feel safe until I made it out of the small neighborhood and off any road where he might see me in my car.


A few days later my dad drove up from Utah and he brought his gun. He wanted to see Dean and he wanted me to get my stuff back, but I remembered what the counselor had said and I refused. Dad talked me into driving by the house and if Dean's car was gone I could get some stuff, especially the important papers.


I really didn't want Dean to have all my critical information, so we drove by and the car was gone, but he had changed the locks and left me a note on the door. In the note he said he wasn't mad at me and I could still come home if I'd come get the key from him (he said where he was).


I was enraged. He wasn't mad at ME? Was he serious? Goodbye Dean. We drove away and I went back to Utah with my dad. I had nothing of my former life and former self but four cats, some clothes and my old car.


Cooper saved my life that day. Dean attacked me and I stayed though I made plans to leave-just like with my job at the shelter. When he attacked Cooper I left immediately. Of course I couldn't abandon her or any of them. I had saved her life and then she helped me save my own life. Life is beautiful in its simplicity sometimes. 


After a few months of living with my dad back in Utah, I got a bar-tending job and moved into my own apartment. My dad called after a few days, wondering if Cooper could maybe come visit for a few days or weeks. He and my brother missed her and she loved them. She hated me. I'm sure she blamed me for all the terror and trauma in Oregon. So I took her to my dad and after a year I moved away and went back to work for Best Friends.


I believe my dad was going through a rough time emotionally around then. I had wondered if he was depressed. His marriage had ended in divorce and he was struggling financially and just didn't seem to be in a good place. He would call me, though, and brag about how much Cooper loved him. 


He'd put the phone on speaker and I'd hear her purring in an ecstasy I could never have imagined she was capable of. He said she was hugging his arm. He asked when I was taking her back. I said anytime you want or need, but not sooner than you're ready.


For eleven years almost every time we talked he threatened to send Cooper home to me. I agreed every time, but didn't believe him. I knew he didn't mean it but I did mean it. I would take her back anytime, no matter what. I had adopted her after all. I saved her, she saved me, I thought she had maybe saved my dad. I owed her.


When I visited my dad Cooper hissed and ran to hide under the bed. She refused to come out or interact with me at all, other than hissing. She still hated me. I didn't blame her. I was somewhat gratified to hear that she hated my sister and my aunt as well. We decided she must prefer men because she loved my dad and brothers. She even had a cat brother, and she loved him, too, though he picked on her sometimes.


So things went until a few months ago. My dad had some health problems that stopped him from being able to work. At the end of June he moved out of his apartment into a room at my brother's house. My sister-in-law and nephews are badly allergic to cats and Cooper hadn't been eating well lately. She had lost weight and had bald and scabby ears, eyes and nose and hind end weakness. As my dad packed up and moved things out, she stopped eating entirely.


He called and asked if I could still take her or if he should have her euthanized. She could come to me but she is around 15 years old and they wondered if it would be too traumatic to make her travel for hours in a crate in a car. I started crying and that same original impulse responded as powerfully as the first time. 


"No, don't euthanize her. I always said I'll take her back and I meant it. I'll take her to the vet and see if anything can be done."


We arranged a transport and I brought her home with me once again. She got her very own room, so she wouldn't have to be stressed by my other cats (two of the three are cats she knew back then) and so I could monitor her litter-box deposits and how much she ate.


She ate some wet food, but barely any. I took her to the vet. Her mouth didn't look that bad, but they couldn't get a great exam, even though she loved the male veterinarian. She still loved men the most and was still difficult to handle but they drew blood, which showed nothing remarkable except some protein in her urine.


We gave her an antibiotic injection and some daily injectable pain medications and scheduled a dental in three weeks. I spent the last three weeks feeding her anything at all that she wanted. Baby food worked for two weeks, with some Fancy Feast, but she ate less and less during the last week.


I tried to move her dental closer, but there were no spots open. Her hind end collapsed on her sometimes and she pawed her mouth and cowered and growled after flinching and running away from her food.


I spent hours on the foam mattress I put in her room, reading aloud, playing music and NPR for her, talking on the phone, playing on Facebook, talking to her even though she hissed when I looked at or talked to her. I slept in her room and she cautiously joined me, hissing and running away when I moved.


Then she ran to me in one of her frantic flights away from the food. She huddled next to me in her pain, seeking comfort from me. She asked me to pet her. After that she came to me every time I came in the room and called her. She purred and rubbed her face on mine. She loved me and I loved her, but she still hissed when she had enough petting and tried to bite me once when I pulled her stuck claw out of the blanket.


Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome, but suddenly I was allowed into her very small circle of friends. Still she got sicker and weaker. The dental was scheduled for Monday. It's Friday today. She didn't make it. Last night she let me know she was done. She'd had enough. I had done enough. I had tried to save her again, but that's not why she came to me this time. 


After much worry, money spent and tears shed, I realized last night what a privilege and honor I have in being here for the end of her life. I was given the opportunity to spend the last weeks of her life finally getting to know her after all these years of distance and bad memories. How wonderful that we fell in love with each other after all this time. 


Somehow having her here and dredging up all those old, painful memories, I was able to let them move out of my energy and open my heart more. Her last gift to me was her love and the healing of my heart from the last of those old wounds. I wouldn't trade these three weeks for anything, even though I had to take out a loan to pay the vet and I'll be paying the payments for months after she's gone.


I feel lucky to be able to help her die with love and dignity and gratitude for all the blessings she has brought to me and my family. I paid extra to have the vet come to my house so she would not have to be afraid and upset for the last moments of her life. A peaceful death was the best and only gift I had left to give her.


I came home from work today and a violent storm arrived right behind me. Lightning struck nearby several times. The power went out. She was terrified of the thunder and tried to hide in my arms. It's just like her to have such a dramatic last day. I held her and sang to her and covered her ears when the thunder blasted. She let me.


I called my dad and told him it was time and I had to let her go. I put the phone on speaker and he talked to her. He called her pet names and used his special voice for her. Even under the effects of pain medication she responded by lifting her head and twitching her ears towards his voice. She meowed once to him, with a weak voice. We said goodbye and she rested her head on my arm. 


The storm cleared away and the power came back on. She got up and ate some catnip (her favorite) and a few treats with greed and excitement, but stumbled away in pain again and came back to me for comfort. She calmed and we snuggled together as we waited for the vet. Our eyes met and I wondered if she understood somehow when I told her that I would help her leave today. The pain would end soon.


She hissed once, when the vet injected the sedative into her leg muscle, then she fell asleep immediately. I cuddled her for a few minutes as we waited to make sure she was fully sedated. I kissed her head and told her I love her as the vet injected the euthanasia drug and she peacefully stopped breathing after a few moments. 


I held her for almost an hour after her heart stopped, grateful that I had learned some Jin Shin Jyutsu for animals and that I could participate in her crossing with intention and gratitude along with sorrow.


I have an idea of a place in the desert that I can bury her body where she won't be disturbed and I can visit whenever I like. Maybe I'll build her a cairn of rocks and put in her catnip toy and carve her name on a piece of sandstone. I'd like to do something special, so if anybody finds it they know it's a place of reverence and honor. 


Thank you, sweet Cooper Kitty, for letting me love you and for loving me. You have been an amazing teacher and a blessing and you were worth the wait. Rest In Peace. 7/26/13



This a link to Ryan Adams doing a cover of the Oasis song, "Wonderwall" and the lyrics are below. They speak to me right now about Cooper.


Today is gonna be the day

That they're gonna throw it back to you
By now you should've somehow
Realized what you gotta do
I don't believe that anybody
Feels the way I do about you now

Backbeat the word was on the street
That the fire in your heart is out
I'm sure you've heard it all before
But you never really had a doubt
I don't believe that anybody feels
The way I do about you now

And all the roads we have to walk along are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would Like to say to you
I don't know how

Because maybe
You're gonna be the one who saves me?
And after all
You're my wonderwall

Today was gonna be the day
But they'll never throw it back to you
By now you should've somehow
Realized what you're not to do
I don't believe that anybody
Feels the way I do
About you now

And all the roads that lead to you were winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
I don't know how

I said maybe
You're gonna be the one who saves me?
And after all
You're my wonderwall

I said maybe
You're gonna be the one who saves me?
And after all You're my wonderwall

Said maybe
You're gonna be the one that saves me
You're gonna be the one that saves me
You're gonna be the one that saves me