kitten

Lifelines come when they are needed the most

Gaston had already been watching us when he called out for help. Rather than panicking and running toward us with abandon he held back a bit, knowing it was a gamble. Still, he had to take a chance. Frank and I and our relaxed but active dog might be his only shot at survival, especially in his current state: wet, cold, thirsty, hungry, and a potential coyote snack.

The hike we enjoy most evenings in our semi-rural corner of Albuquerque’s North Valley is equal parts neighborly, agrarian, and, well, a bit wild. It’s a quiet way to end a day. Sometimes there are other dog walkers. We know most of the humans we encounter. It’s sort of like bumping into Sheriff Andy or Opie or Aunt Bea.

But surprises happen on the Rio Grande irrigation system. There are cattle and horses but also wild geese, ducks, skunks, possums, and coyotes. (In New Mexico we say it the Spanish way: coy-oh-tay, not kye-oh-tee, like some transplant from Detroit). On the night in question we heard a meowing white kitten.

It was around dusk, following a pretty good soaking rain. Rodents and other prey species would be just venturing out for their bedtime snacks. Coyotes, being wily, know this routine well as they lurk in the shadows. Do I sound like I’m making this up? It actually works this way. Nature is practical but often unkind. And so we hear a kitten talking directly to us, his voice raised enough to carry a little way. Not really a cry, more of a hello with a note of mild urgency from a little white guy halfway up the opposite ditch bank.

Oh, come on – how do I know what this cat was saying? Animal behavior is a mature science driven by active, peer-reviewed research into normal as well as pathologic neuronal activity of the brain. I have post graduate training in this discipline. After finishing my residency in veterinary behavior medicine I took this path exclusively. I don’t repair fractures, administer chemotherapy, or manage diabetes anymore. I diagnose and treat some of the most common causes of misery and death in pets – behavior disorders.

Nonhuman creatures don’t speak a human language. Deciphering their verbal and nonverbal communication is one of many moving parts in figuring out what’s wrong. Cats actually have words like chirrs, chirrups, meows, growls, and many others. The kitten calling to my son Frank and me (but probably not to our Border collie) had something important to say. Those feline words were hard for us to ignore and not just because we love cats. They were striking because we never hear a cat advertising his presence on the ditch. Our 37# dog doesn’t have to worry about wild carnivores but cats are bit more vulnerable and usually stay small and quiet.

A few years ago, when my first cat and dog books were published I did the usual book promotion tour. Some of that involved radio interviews by telephone. When a disc jockey from Poughkeepsie asked me which species, dogs or cats, is smarter I had to take a long pause. (Radio people really hate dead air.) His question had no answer because the intelligence of one species doesn’t relate to the other. There are some stark behavioral differences. Dogs earn resources from their leaders while cats survive by predation. They are merciless killers who can also find themselves at the mercy of a bigger predator, like an invisible coyote.

Mum had been the word for the fuzzy little fellow until he saw us. His vocalizations were short, repeated, and only slightly high-pitched. He conveyed the impression that, while a calamity was not imminent, time was of the essence. I stopped in my tracks, produced a flashlight from my hip pocket, and spied the little varmint standing still, halfway up the opposite ditch bank.

When my flashlight beam lit up the eye shine from the reflective tapetum lucidum beneath this kid’s retinas he held his ground but kept talking. This was no idle chit chat. I handed our dog’s leash to Frank, crossed the bridge, and slowly approached. As I squatted to become smaller and avoid triggering his fear, little “Whitey” hiked up the slope and readily climbed into my palms. He stayed very still as we tried to find his home.

Whose kitten was this anyway? He couldn’t produce an ID. He didn’t have a dollar or a collar. The Nichol family already had a dog, the energetic Border collie Miss America, and a 9 year old established resident cat named Tony. We weren’t in the market for another cat. And besides, you don’t just find pets and claim ownership. Doubting that he’d arrived on the semi-rural irrigation system by Uber, it seemed logical that this youngster belonged to somebody in the immediate neighborhood.

Door to door canvassing yielded nothing. I mean nothing. The gates were closed and locked. It was damp and nippy and the predatory evening was young. If little Whitey didn’t come with us his life would have indeed been brief. And so we carried him home.

Bright and early the next morning Frank and I posted “Found White Kitten” signs that included my closely guarded cell phone #. After a few days of silence we had ourselves a new kitten.

The naming of pets is often an interesting exercise. We immediately started calling this young upstart Whitey because it was descriptive and, of course, we thought we’d only be functioning as his short term crisis shelter. As the second and third day came and went I found myself appropriating the last name Bulger for the kid. That’s because the real Whitey Bulger had been in the news at the time for having finally been reached by the long arm of the law. Enjoying sunny California under an assumed identity Mr. Bulger believed that he had escaped his previous life as a rather ruthless mob boss of the Irish Mafia in Boston. But this was never a fitting moniker for our gentle new kitty.

Whitey the cat has made multiple appearances in my educational videos but, like his namesake, this feline character has recently undergone an identity change of his own. Recalling her affection for Beauty and the Beast it suddenly struck my wife that our white cat’s jaunty and carefree personality resembles this movie’s character Gaston. And so now our excellent white kitty goes by Gaston. I simply must make time to get him to the courthouse and make this name change legal.

All but one of us in the Nichol household has bonded strongly to Gaston. Not only has he turned out to be a delightful pet, he and our Border collie, Miss America, are the best of friends. Tony, our long established family cat, however, has found the kid positively odious from the start.

We have taken a valuable life lesson from our first meeting with Gaston. Everybody will be vulnerable from time to time. In some situations we may have to go it alone but it’s OK to ask for help. Gaston did not complain and belly-ache when he saw us ambling up the ditch trail. He asked, hopefully, for a lifeline. He made a wise choice.

We’re all in this life together, regardless of race, creed, religion, country of origin, or species. Trust can be a very good thing. Giving someone else the opportunity to be of service is a gift for them. And you can get pulled out of the muck in the bargain. I have learned that there is value in being in the moment and in listening. Pets can be mighty good teachers.

I hope you found the tale of Gaston to be valuable. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your pet-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website, drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide.

Thanks for your dedication to your pets. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.