This week’s Throwback Thursday photo is probably from early 1980’s, although I can’t place the precise date. The grain of the photo is a little unclear, but the kitten in the image looks like Spike, and looking at it made me remember him again after all these years.
Spike was one of several kittens from a litter born on the ranch one year. I can’t remember, really, why we had to bring the kittens inside, who their mother was, or why I remember so clearly the way I was trying to get them to eat dried catfood softened with milk. What I do remember is that Spike was the malformed runt of the litter. He had a crumpled ear and one eye smaller than another and possibly an extra toe here or there on his white paws. He had a squeaky little meow and he was a little clumsier than even an ordinary kitten should be.
Spike was always going to be “gimpy”, in the parlance of ranch country. He was always going to be the last kitten picked from the give-away box–maybe even the one that no one would take. Ranchers are notoriously unsentimental people, and they have little patience for imperfection, in people or in animals. You have a beast that’s “gimpy”, the thing to do is kill it. Tie it up in a sack and toss it in the river, if it’s something small and helpless. Take it out back and shoot it, if it’s something big like a horse or a cow.
They don’t treat people that much better.
Pity is not a survival trait in that environment. The idea that a living thing could be allowed to exist, to consume calories and take up space, and have no function other than to be loved and cared for by you…is a pretty alien concept, in ranch country. Animals are expected to be useful, to pull their weight. And to a lesser but no less significant degree, so are human beings.
Perhaps that is why I decided that Spike was “my” kitty. Why I “adopted” him and claimed responsibility for him, at least for long enough that he could grow up to be some kind of cat.
Maybe he’d never be anything but a half-ass kind of cat, sure. I knew that it was possible that I wasn’t buying him much time. As soon as he wasn’t a kitten any more, I knew that he’d have to go outside and live where ranch cats live, in the barns and under the porches, slipping in and out of windows and doors and being shooed out of kitchens. He’d be exposed to the perils of a ranch cat’s life, including coyotes and raccoons and even the ranch dogs, some of which are inveterate cat killers. And he wouldn’t be spoiled much, and he’d have to be able to kill things to eat occasionally, even with his wonky eye and his crumpled ear and his floppy extra toe on each paw.
He’d have to survive.
It is perhaps the mark of my endless naivete and sentimentality that I believed that I was actually doing a good thing, by giving him the opportunity to grow up and try to survive.
I’d do it again, though. Today, I’d just do it better.
I was not in a safe or happy place in my life at that time, and I had very very few emotional or physical resources at my disposal. I was under siege at that age, and drawing my knees up tight to offer as little surface area as possible while I took a hell of a beating. When I was a kid, all I could do was wrap myself around a kitten or a person from time to time, and take that beating for both of us. It was always temporary and it was never perfect protection. But that was my version of “helping”, of “saving” people and things.
In retrospect I guess it wasn’t much. As I grew older and stronger I was able to increase the size of that temporary zone of safety. Create a larger bubble. I learned to bring greater resources into that protective circle, emotionally and physically. I learned to build fellowship, family, and even community.
With enough love and faith, you can take an empty space and a handful of people who think they have nothing, and make that into a home. A place of peace and safety for a group of people who feel like they have it all. Extend that same principle and you can build a lot of good things in this world, and create a lot of empowered and happy people.
And it doesn’t really matter if a person or a kitten is half-formed and imperfect, when you first meet them. It doesn’t matter if at first it appears that they won’t be able to pull their weight, that they’re “gimpy” and won’t ever be useful.
You can always give them a little love and shelter and they’ll have a chance.