by Jane Satterfield
It’s Saturday afternoon, almost too hot for late October, when we pull up to park on the residential street outside Little Flower Rescue. Yellow leaves swirl across an archipelago of still-green islets as my husband and I make our way to the door. A week earlier, at the local wine bar (Slayer for me, a Blue Moon for him), we shared a spinach-blueberry salad and an enormous sandwich of mozzarella and cornmeal-encrusted fried heirloom tomatoes, the last fruits of the season: a meal of sustenance and diversion. Between bites, he was musing about animals he’d known and loved, thereby sealing the decision to bring another cat into our home.
We’d been thinking about adopting a new cat since we’d spotted a feral mother and her three kittens at an artist’s colony that summer. We had a white cottage all to ourselves next to the main residence and dining hall. Through the sliding doors of our respective first-floor studios, we watched the family cavorting in nearby hedges or climbing through the gated door to scavenge the trash bins after the chefs left for the day. Sometimes, late at night, flashlights in hand, we’d catch a glimpse of their little lantern eyes peering out at us from the brush. Ned worked, mightily and unsuccessfully, to befriend them, laying out bowls of water under the bushes that shaded them from midsummer storms and hundred-degree heat. Several of the kittens would tiptoe out to lap it up, listening calmly to the human voices querying over their heads, only to change their minds and shuffle on back to the companionship they knew and trusted. The mother, I guess, had good reason—or no reason—to respond to the gestures we meant as kindness.
The previous winter, we’d had to put down my daughter’s cat, a painfully shy but sweet rust-colored tabby I’d adopted when Catherine was eight. In her previous home, hounded by bassets and playful toms, chubby, wide-eyed Tess had taken to cowering under a couch. The friend who gave her to us had been along the day that Cat (my daughter’s chosen nickname) brought back the pottery she’d made during some classmate’s birthday party—a hand-painted pink and purple pet food bowl inscribed For my new cat. “The highest form of rhetoric,” my friend had laughed.
Soon after, Tess moved into the second floor apartment Cat and I called home. For an only child living with her mother during the school year, Tess became a pretend confidante and source of fun, stepping onto board games or batting around a catnip butterfly—a gentle companion who offered unconditional love. Though declawed by her first owner at some point in the distant past, she still somehow killed a mouse, leaving it under the kitchen table, right by Cat’s chair—a tribute. Whenever she returned from stays at her dad’s, my daughter could count on finding Tess curled up on a pile of blankets at the foot of her bed—a literal reminder she’d been missed.
Six years later, my husband and I were thankful that Cat was away at her dad’s over Christmas break and didn’t have to witness Tess’s final days—didn’t have to accept the tissues offered by the nose-ringed high school girl at the SPCA or the badly Xeroxed copy of the Rainbow Bridge story that promised our pets and we would one day meet again. It was awful, but no matter: I broke into tears anyway. I gave the handout two quick folds then placed it in my jacket pocket alongside a battered “Just Breathe” medallion.
Cat would not take the news well. Tess’ death had come during Cat’s first year of high school when homework piled up and friendships were shifting. She hadn’t been blind; in the past year Cat had often commented on how Tess had lost interest in toys or leaping onto open books. In the weeks after Tess’ death, Cat would tear up without warning, mourning the steady companion who’d curled at her side while she studied.
Outside the SPCA, one of the cars in the parking lot sported a bumper sticker that read “Who Rescued Who?” It’s a question that we who share our lives with animals often ask.
Back home, my husband’s green-eyed black cat waited at the window. When Ned moved in, joining Cat and me in the suburban townhouse I’d bought when we left the apartment, Poe had swapped her seventh-floor city view for a perch on a ground floor window. Even today, the outdoor cats in the neighborhood like to stroll across our porch and leap up to greet her, a gesture that drives her into a territorial frenzy. Sweet but temperamental, Poe soon learned to turn away from what she did not want to see (including Tess who stayed close to Catherine), keeping me company each evening in the kitchen while I cooked, like generations of her kind—a domesticated predator alert for an easy theft.
Poe and my daughter were never friends. To express and strengthen our connection, we reach out to touch our pets; in the absence of speech, it’s a common language we share. But Poe was suspicious and Cat impulsive, which produced an unfortunate dynamic: the lure of Poe’s velvety fur (and the hope of seeing her affection returned) proved irresistible; but Poe saw Cat as a tormentor and would whine, scuttle away, or swat defensively. Cat was crushed; with Tess gone, it was clear she needed a pet of her own. Donovan, a cream-colored, copper-eyed youngish British shorthair showed up in an online search. His profile promised that he was gentle, fond of people, and good with other cats. For Cat, shared custody meant another weekend with her dad, so Ned and I could check out Donovan without unduly raising her hopes.
A 501 nonprofit on less than a half-acre in a residential neighborhood, Little Flower Rescue is run almost entirely by Grace, a former elementary school teacher. Sounds like a sweet place, I think, remembering the child-like saint who embodied a fabled innocence. But as Ned and I step into the kitchen, I feel we’ve arrived at Litter Box Central. Grace apologizes for sending us back outside until a gas company rep can wrap up his visit. Despite the warm days, the nights are getting cooler.
“Furnace blew yesterday,” she tells us, recounting the deal she’s worked out for its repair, a little intense, a little distracted as she leads us through her tiny bungalow. Sympathetic words roll off my tongue but, truthfully, I just want to turn around and leave. The acrid smell of urine on cedar shavings is overwhelming, and I’m astonished by the abundance of feline life. Cat after cat emerges from corners, hidden places, moving toward or away from us; before I catch a glimpse of one, another appears. Cats on the table, the counter, cats trying to nudge open the cabinets, cats slinking around Grace’s legs or through the doorways ahead of her. I feel I’ve walked into that dream my husband and I pass back and forth between us: cats or children that we didn’t know were ours crawl from forgotten corners, vanishing before we can touch or shelter them.
In the front room where the only sign of human habitation is a tattered couch and a scattering of family photos, we first catch sight of Donovan. We sit on the floor, but he’s not in an obliging mood. Anyone familiar with pets knows that individuals share the habits of their kin—pouncing on toys like prey, hiding in baskets, jumping in boxes—but also show distinguishing attributes we read as “personality.” What had been revealed in the brief description that caught my husband’s attention? This cat’s musician’s name suggested right away that he might be meant for us; we’re both fans of the Scottish songwriter’s catalogue of whimsy. Donovan’s heart murmur offered another parallel—Ned often joked about his own “bad ticker,” a murmur without any clinical significance.
We wait. Donovan jumps on a pair of cages stacked on top of each other, then jumps off to taunt a few cats napping on the piano. A silver tabby leans off the edge to play with my hair, and a gray kitten wanders into the room. Ned asks about his obvious injury and Grace explains that, sadly, its broken jaw will never heal. Summoned by his caretaker, Donovan casually strolls over and jumps into her lap, blissfully indifferent to us.
No matter. Grace has other ideas. She leads us outside, past the fenced-in area where outdoor cats sprawl in the sun, some batting at falling leaves or snoozing on dry patches of weeds, to an area further back where the property edges onto unpaved road. There, I’m amazed by what I see. Grace tells us about the volunteers who built this Rube Goldberg contraption of cages that form a sort of cat condo where tunnels connect a maze of straw-lined cages and common areas insulated for the coming season. It’s ingenious, a little awkward, and quite a sight.
Here, Grace houses the cats within kinship groups based loosely on her understanding of their temperaments or according to their arrival. A fluffy Maine coon and two young torties try to reach out as we pass. Grace considers opening the cages, then stops. “I can’t separate them,” she insists. “But there’s a nice tom over here that might do well with your other cat.” It takes patience to introduce cats to each other. Though littermates become accustomed to sharing territory from their earliest days, a solo cat like Poe was liable to lash out at a newcomer. We would face several months of supervising their contact and orchestrating play sessions to reduce their competitive feline instincts. A youthful, outgoing tom would have the best chance of winning Poe over, perhaps in as little as six months or so. But it might take longer, so any newcomer would need a steady disposition to coexist with her during the transition.
A half hour passes and I start to wonder: does Grace want to surrender any of her furry charges? To her credit, she pops opens some cages to let us meet the candidates, sharing their names, their quirks, their histories: who was found in a barn, who was injured along the highway. But I know my husband’s signs, and he knows mine, so by now I know for sure: we know we’ll be leaving empty-handed. The cats had met our gaze, returned it, and turned back to their own ways—a nibble, a squabble, a lap around the cage.
“Just when I think I’m at my limit,” Grace confides, “another cat comes my way, another friend calls to bring by a stray or an abandoned litter they’ve found.” All the sounds of communal Saturday life continue around us: car doors slamming, the voices of neighbors greeting each other, the clink of beer bottles. Earlier this year, friends on our own street received a covenant violation from our neighborhood association for planting garden boxes of vegetables in the front yard. What complaints, I wondered, had been lodged against Grace?
Researchers who study the psychology of animal hoarders generally agree that their emotional struggles are not fully understood. In all likelihood, a deep-seated pain lies at the heart of their condition. Difficulties with human relationships may lead them to identify more deeply with animals, especially those whom they believe have been abandoned. Grace’s attachments appeared very deep indeed, and like many hoarders, she believed her decisions were for the best; yet unlike many hoarders she was engaged in an enterprise that announced itself as a shelter and offered essential care. Was Little Flower an expression of her impulse to collect, or a way station provided by a dedicated caretaker? Grace’s quality of life did seem under threat (a common problem for hoarders), and worse effects were possible. If Little Flower’s population outstripped the care she could provide, the health risks could be serious. Fleas and ticks could proliferate, illness could spread beyond the house, and the animals’ waste could contaminate local soil and air.
Many years before, I’d been a child at the National Zoo, and I remember the day’s shining moments—lining up against the aviary railing to share out the sandwiches my mother had packed, watching hippos sink into the slick surface of a muddy pool—and a moment of terror when, in the Great Ape House, one of the caged gorillas (a western lowland silverback) rose up to an impressive human height and roared. I’d seen the primates in books and on animal programs that showcased all of the exotica of the “wild kingdom.” Severed from the moment of their taking, these images promised a wilderness—a wildness—beyond the confines of urban life. The cages with their concrete floors, the pooled urine, the bits of fruit and vegetable peels tossed aside: all of it filled me with a sadness I couldn’t put into words. I’ve disliked zoos ever since, no matter how “improved” their conditions or how closely their landscape architecture simulates a natural habitat. John Berger famously observed that in looking at animals in zoos, we are seeing “something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.” The true nature of the animal, he suggests, has been stripped away; its life is entirely dependent on routines set by its keepers. Of course I would have been too young at the time to think of any of this—but not too young to feel a powerful connection, to apprehend the pain of a creature out of its element, the frustration of the captive, the literal trap of limits.
Back inside Grace’s home, Ned catches my eye, gesturing as if to sign a check. I nod. Masking our disappointment, I promise we’ll visit another time. Ned hands over a donation—nothing next to the blank check that this overwhelmed caretaker needs. We retrace our steps back to the car. A bicyclist streams by; I hear shouts from down the street indicating a hometown score in a mid-season game.
In months to come, we’ll find the right match for our home. My daughter will leave a flurry of voicemails letting me know, “We got Wyatt!” At the local Petsmart rescue cat room, this gray polydactyl had cozied up to each of us independently, stretching out his thumbed paw, tagging us as if in welcome while several young kittens dashed around the cages. Calm and friendly to all, he let Cat count the extra digits on each front paw. He would spend his first night in our home curled up with her, tapping her face in occasional, gentle greetings. In time, even Poe would let him gently bump her nose and share an afternoon nap on the futon she jealously guards even today.
In Grace’s kitchen, I’d noticed the twenty-pound bags of cat litter and food stacked against a corner. The countertop, momentarily free of cats, had been scattered with prescription bottles, eye drops, and tubes of cream. From the website we knew that Little Flower is particularly attentive to unadoptable pets, and now we saw the evidence. Just off the living room, in the roughed-in extension where Grace sacked out at the end of the day, there was a full sized bed complete with stained, fur-covered quilt and a live cat in each corner. But there was also a floor-to-ceiling caged-in sector currently reserved for the sick tuxedo sprawled out on a rubber-sheeted mattress—a haven for cats without much time. Grace had looked him in the eyes, smiled, and whispered tenderly. I was thinking of a phrase the instructor had used to seal the morning’s yoga practice. Feel the heart open, she’d said, ready to receive. Not simply a hoarder, Grace had a generosity of heart that led her sustain an animal’s life past the point where others, more squeamish or more practical, would have extinguished it. Even if Grace had the emotional fortitude to extend her kindly touch to all the animals Little Flower welcomed, when would space and financial reserves reach their limits—if they hadn’t already?
Given the flood of animal videos circulating on social media, I think it’s too easy to dismiss Grace as just a hoarder—a crazy cat lady. In person, in print, and on flashing screens, creatures enchant us: the wolf that befriends the donkey that was meant as a meal, the abandoned cat and the crow, the real life Bambie and Thumper. They distract us from emotional numbness, from the shrinking landscape around us. The unexpected bonds they strike up, despite the differences in species, are reassuring.
Images of violence reverberate around the globe. Should we be surprised that we’re drawn to unlikely animal friendships that spark some hope for a peaceable kingdom? Researchers aren’t exactly sure what these interspecies relationships are telling us but agree that they bear watching. Though some of these videos underscore frightening truths about the effects of domestication and remind us of animals’ marginalized status, I wonder if we aren’t watching for another reason. Perhaps these unlikely bonds are a consolation for the meanness we encounter in other settings, and a reminder that we, too, need to touch and foster something vulnerable—even at some cost to ourselves.
About Jane Satterfield
Jane Satterfield is the recipient of awards in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, Maryland Arts Council, Bellingham Review, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Mslexia, and more. Her essays have received awards from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, Massachusetts Review, Florida Review, and the Heekin Foundation, among others. Her books of poetry are Her Familiars, Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic. She is also the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press). Born in England, she teaches at Loyola University Maryland. Visit her online at https://janesatterfield.org.