You might have noticed that there have been no photographs of cats in the last several months. That’s because there are no cats living here now, but I couldn’t write about it until it wasn’t so raw. (See many of Brené Brown’s works for excellent discussions of when, and when not, to go public with something that’s difficult and personal.)
Here’s the story, starting with the stars of the show: Nellie and daughter Polly came to the farm ten years ago. Nellie had shown up at a friend’s place, not far away, a starving, pregnant adolescent who clearly had been well socialized. She had seven kittens growing in her belly, and was otherwise skin and bones. Our friends Bonita and Fredericka took her in, and helped her raise her kittens, each one glowing with health. Polly was one of the two all white ones. Homes were needed for Nellie and the kittens, and although my cat allergies had become so bad that I could no longer have a cat in the house, we took them in as outdoor cats, which is what they were used to. [I’ll talk more about the controversy of indoor/outdoor cats later on in this post. Please put that issue on hold, if you would be so kind.]
We took in Mom and daughter Polly, in part because they needed homes, partly because I love cats, and in part because we had mice in the house and rats in the barn. That’s RATS, in capital letters, big rats the size of small rabbits, who once became so prolific they got into the house. If you’ve never had a large, Norwegian rat run across your kitchen floor, it is impossible to know what that feels like. (Some of my friends said they wouldn’t come into my home anymore. Seriously.) If you have grain for livestock, as we did, you have lots and lots of rodents. It’s a given.
Nellie and Polly were outdoor cats, so we created a cozy home for them in the garage, with places to cuddle and nap, a heated house for winter, fresh food twice a day and water out at all times. Both were spayed. Polly, even though she’d been raised with tons of love and cat-adoring visitors, was shy with visitors and saw the house as a place of horror to be avoided it at all costs. Her mum Nellie was the opposite. The definition of an extrovert, Nellie never met a stranger. Everyone was her best friend. Everyone’s car and every workman’s van required an inspection. The crew who did an extensive remodel on the house a few years ago threatened to take her home. Speaking of the house, oh yes, she’d like to be inside it whenever she could, please. The “no cats in the house so that Trisha could breathe” rule got bent and broken more times than I’d like to admit.
For almost ten years mom and daughter lived as good a life as we could provide. They got lots of attention and petting. Nellie supervised my gardening and photo shoots carefully, along with coming on walks with us when we walked the dogs. Polly and Nellie played together, slept together, and groomed each other every single day. They were inseparable.
And then, well, you know what’s coming. Last July, Jim and I left to visit friends and family out east. The night before we left, Polly didn’t show up for her dinner. As a completely outdoor cat, this wasn’t unusual. But we left for our trip a bit disconcerted, asking the sitter to let us know as soon as she came into the home she shared with her mother. She didn’t come home that night. Or the next day. Our vacation consisted of me calling friends, shelters, vet clinics, and neighbors. I sent photographs to a vet clinic who, bless them, made up flyers for me. Dear friend Bonita, and one of the two who had rescued Polly’s mom in the first place, went around to neighbors asking if they’d seen an all white cat. She’s pretty hard to miss.
Nothing. When we got home, ten days later, we searched everywhere. We knew full well that the chance of finding a small cat in waist-high overgrowth, or a huge barn full of places to hide, was almost useless. But of course, we did it anyway. And spent more time than usual petting Nellie, who behaved as if she had been badly frightened. We held out hope–we’ve all seen the stories of cats who showed up weeks, months, even years later. But I found it hard to believe that Polly wasn’t dead. We’d had a stray orange and white male poaching food in the garage for a few months, and we’d seen him threatening Nellie. There are hawks and eagles and barred owls and coyotes and bobcats a plenty out here. Polly was bright white and was visible from far, far away. I gave up looking.
Nellie slowly recovered from her fear, but was clearly desperate for company. We did what we could. In summer it wasn’t hard. Nellie would join me while I was outside gardening or working the dogs. When friends came for cook outs she rubbed herself all over them. She got lots of petting and attention, even though I was sure she missed her daughter terribly. And then, winter came. No more gardening outside. Few visitors, thanks to Covid. Sometimes I let her inside, and even after washing my hands and arms, spent the next hours scratching and less able to breathe.
I began to think about rehoming her, agonizing about it every day. She loves to be inside. She loves to cuddle. She is more social than many dogs. When I got the nerve to ask, her original saviors, Bonita and Fredericka, said they’d take her back in a minute. They had one of her daughters, along with a stray kitten they’d taken in the year before. (Stray cats in the southern Wisconsin countryside are, sadly, far too prolific.) I won’t belabor how hard it was to think about losing her. I adore her, still do. She is, don’t even think about correcting me, the BEST CAT IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. I am crying as I write this.
She is also now living the perfect life. After a few days in their garage, Nellie is now settled into her new home. She cuddles with her new humans on a daily basis. The former stray and her daughter Sparky sleep with her on the bed. The resident dog thinks she’s a great addition. Nellie lives exactly the life she wants to live, and I know I’ve done the right thing.
I’m telling you all this because I’ve always been honest with you, and being authentic is important to me. I am aware I will get castigated from several sides. For having an outdoor cat. For rehoming her. For not trying yet one more way of treating my cat allergy. (Please do not send advice about dealing with cat allergies. Thank you!)
But the main reason I am writing this is because so many of my clients had to face rehoming a beloved pet, and I want people to know that a thoughtful rehome is not an “abandonment” of a dog or cat. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had who realized, after a lot of talking and soul searching, that they were just not the right home for a particular dog or cat. One of my clients was elderly, deaf and almost blind, and got talked into getting a nervous, reactive adolescent Border Collie. Another had two ancient Labradors who were terrified of a rescued mix of a thing who hated both of them. There were dogs who couldn’t handle young children, and cats who wanted to kill the “incoming” cat–after two years of living together. There were hard-working young couples who had no concept of what raising a puppy entailed, who couldn’t manage to work 12 hour days and raise a pup. There were experienced dog owners with the best of intentions who got a dog from the streets of Haiti who needed a quiet place to live, not a busy street in downtown Milwaukee.
You get the idea. The fact is, no matter how well intentioned we are, sometimes we simply can not provide what an animal needs to live a truly good life. And that is our job, as I see it: To learn what a sentient animal needs, and figure out how to get it for them. I told my clients, as I’m telling anyone out there who will listen, that rehoming a pet who is struggling in its current home is not “abandonment.” It is the best gift we can give them. If we can change something in our lives to create a healthy environment for Fluffy or Fido, all the better. If we can’t, then, as animal-lovers, it is our job to try to find it for them. Of course, we can’t always. Jim and I were lucky that our friends never hesitated for a moment to take Nellie back. But if they had, I would have found the right place, eventually. I knew, heartsick as I was, that was what Nellie needed.
If you’d like to read more about this, I’ve written in Different Place, Different Dog? about how animals, just like us, can behave radically differently from one environment to another. I also wrote extensively in 2010 about my concerns about a puppy we got, named Hope. I adored him, but I had misgivings early on based on the way he behaved around my Border Collie, Willie, which I wrote about in Hoping for Hope Part II. He turned out to be exactly the wrong dog for Willie, and I ended up rehoming him, which I wrote about in a post titled Update on Hope. Don’t miss the comments; some of them are extremely informative.
I won’t pretend it is easy to rehome an animal that you love. It can be heartbreaking to say goodbye to an individual that you have brought into your home. But sometimes it’s simply the best way, if not the only way, to do what needs to be done. Sometimes for your sake, sometimes for the animal’s. Often for both.
I’d love it if you shared stories about rehoming a pet. I found, over the years, that people had a hard time believing that someone out there would love their dog or cat as much as they did. And yet, almost all of those animals eventually found wonderful homes. What about you? Have you ever made that decision? What was it based on, and how did it work out? I guarantee you there are a lot of people out there who are in struggling with this decision right now, and could profit from reading about the experiences of others.
[I said I’d comment about indoor/outdoor cats at the end of this post. As I started writing about this issue, an important one for sure, I decided to hold off now, and write about it in more depth later on in the summer. It’s complicated, and deserves it’s own post. I don’t want to muddy the rehoming issue with another one that is so controversial. An ecologist colleague of mine received death threats for saying that cats should not be allowed outside, and saying goodbye to Nellie has been hard enough for me without dealing with people who want my head on a stake. I will leave you with the knowledge that Jim and I thought long and hard about letting cats live outdoors here, balancing the costs and benefits. I’ll write about this more later, and leave it that we made the best decision we could make at the time, aware that both choices had significant downsides.]
So, again, please join the conversation about rehoming–were you the one who took in someone else’s pet? Did you rehome an animal you loved and want to tell us what you learned? I look forward to hearing your stories, as I’m sure are all in the village.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Cool temperatures. Flowering everything. Low humidity and cotton-ball clouds in a deep blue sky. A breeze. Good grief, I don’t remember it ever being so gorgeous here for so long. Here’s a Highbush Cranberry on the top left, a little, red Tree Peony in the middle, and a French Lilac who has lost its mind on the right. The scent from the lilac is so strong it’s intoxicating.
Skip and I had some great lessons from trainer Samantha Jones this weekend, along with friend Donna and her dog Wisp. Sam kept two pups from a recent litter, so I got to go into puppy rapture for awhile. Skip hasn’t met many puppies, and was clearly nervous about them at first. While the other dogs walked and played, Skip went out of his way to find other things to do, including checking out this dear, old horse and a flock of sheep.
I wish he was bolder, but he is who he is, and I loved how he made smart choices to keep himself out of trouble. After the walk, he decided to say hi to a pup once she was safely held in Sam’s arms.
As always, the Barn swallows are honoring their name by nesting in the barn. They are quite offended when we enter their territory, which is pretty rare this time of year. I took this photo below while surrounded by a flurry of protective parents.
I’ll leave you with a tiny Iris I planted last year, and gave up on because it looked so scrawny. Imagine my surprise when this bloomed last week:
I see it as a good reminder to us all: You gotta know when to hold ’em, and, pulling all we’ve talked about together, when to fold ’em. May your decisions this week be clear, and may they all end up with everyone living happily ever after.