A loud MEE-YOW pierced my ears when I clicked on a video of a buff-colored kitten with legs bent at right angles on the Facebook page of the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Michael was too big a name for a tiny kitten with crooked legs. “He’s a Bug,” I thought later as he sprawled on my lap.
Bug was born with radial hypoplasia, which means he is missing the radius bones in both front legs so they were at right angles. He walked on his elbows. I assured the shelter staff I had lots of experience with special-needs cats from a decade volunteering at Best Friends.
Little did I realize that Bug would need no handicat accessibility and he had no “special needs.” I drove home wondering how to keep him away from the staircase. Do I buy rugs for my wood floors? Build a ramp for the bed? He needed one thing: a cushion on the floor so when he leaped off the couch he’d land softly. But Bug quickly outgrew his cushion. His knuckles banged when he hit the floor, but this kitten was no fool. If it hurt, he wouldn’t be doing it.
People call them twisty cats; their condition is caused by a mutation related to polydactylism. There are cats who stand on their hind legs like squirrels! I found a webpage that showed how to splint tiny kitten legs to straighten them, but how would I like popsicle sticks taped to my legs? I wouldn’t. Expensive surgery with questionable outcome? No way. Twisty cats don’t need to cost you any more than any other cat. They come home with you and adapt.
I watched Bug dart around the room playing with his boxing bag and my other cats, completely at home, utterly confident in himself. I still worried that his elbows would get sores, so I got him leggings. But Bug would have none of it and tore them off repeatedly. I began to think: Bug knows better than me. I’ll let him show me what he needs.
The first night he was home, I tried to keep him in a downstairs room, worried that if I brought him upstairs, he’d fall off the bed or fall down the stairs. But that MEOW you hear on the video filled the house when I tried, so I brought him up to bed, hoping for the best. The next night at bedtime I headed upstairs and there he was behind me, elbows on each step, back legs hopping up. By the end of the week he was galloping up the stairs and wanting no help from the likes of me getting off the couch, off the bed, or down the stairs.
Every night I go up to bed and shake the Greenies bag. In the distance I hear the knocking gallop and the thunder of him bounding up the stairs and watch as he spins like a racecar on a curve to make the U-turn into the bedroom. He pogos up onto the bed and lays there, looking quite pleased with himself.
I think we humans want to overprotect, but animals don’t work that way. They meet a challenge and adapt. They waste no time wondering why they were born that way or feeling sorry for themselves, so I didn’t bother wasting a moment of pity on Bug. Why? He is amazing. He can do anything he wants to do.
So Bug grew up just the way he was. Even though both of his front legs were severely turned in, he insisted on attempting to use one paw. I didn’t even notice it happening; he was scrabbling around on his elbows and then one day he was using one front paw — and so Bug evolved from a twisty into a twisty-tripod.
When he walks, he hops, and when he runs — well, he just runs. He holds his tail curved up over his back for balance and it’s become as well-muscled as any of his legs. He will squat on his hind legs and sit like a squirrel just because he can, and Bug likes to do anything he can do. That includes catching any fly or moth that happens to get into the house, Bug growling over his prize.
From my volunteer experience, I know quite well what “special” cats are capable of. I knew Scooter, who had no hind legs, and yet he could run out an open door before you knew it; Weebles, with cerebellar hypoplasia, who never failed to get into the litter box to do her business despite her spastic movements; and Baby, who was born with severely twisted and unusable hind legs, who would lift her butt into the air and walk like a gymnast on her front legs. Those cats had a huge impact on me. When I met them, I marveled not at their deformities but instead at their abilities and their fierce independence and inspiring determination. Cats don’t ask, “Why me?” They get up and go and see what they can do, and they let you know if they need an occasional hand.
Even though I could arrange expensive surgery with questionable results, I don’t see Bug as needing fixing, because I don’t see him as broken. Rather, I see cats like him as having an incredible message for us humans, and if we watch and understand, we can learn from them.
I made Bug a Facebook page, and soon he had other twisty friends like Flipper, Finnegan, Garfield, Hopie, and Honey and Petal, and I share other twisty cats up for adoption. No surgeries, just handi-capable cats doing their twisty cat thing. Someone recently attacked Honey and Petal, saying they should either be fixed or put down. Hundreds of fans rose up in defense of twisty cats everywhere — people who understand just how wonderful they are just the way they are.
I had cancer a couple years ago and I took my cue on coping from the many handicats I’ve known. Make the most of everything you can do, don’t dwell on what you can’t do or what’s wrong. Don’t lay there feeling sorry for yourself. Lick your wounds then get up and go. Animals with deformities or disease or injuries will surprise, enthrall, amaze, and inspire you. And Bug does that for me now every day.
Valerie Schumacher is a Certified Crazy Cat Lady dating back to 1969 when at nine years old she got a three-dollar kitten from a pet store and named him Fearless. Later in life she managed to successfully convince her late husband Bob, a Dog Person, to become a Cat Person. All their cats who’ve gone over the Bridge now have his lap to snuggle in. Valerie works for a living, but mostly she’s an eccentric, an artist and long-time journal keeper (which she guesses makes her a writer of sorts), an enthusiastic volunteer helping cats and cancer survivor living in Wild Western Massachusetts.
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