I Was a Starving Student, He Was Feral and FIV+ -- It Was Love at First Sight
About 10 years ago, while attending the Universtiy of Nevada at Las Vegas, I lived in an aging block of townhouses in the heart of the city. The complex was largely empty, with many evictions having taken place when the new management came on board. Things were improving, but it was still relatively rundown and overgrown -- a typical haven for feral and abandoned cats.
The new management had informed residents that it planned to round up the many stray cats on the property and take them to the pound. Even I, a diehard cat person, realized that the cats had to be controlled. They were always fighting, and one in particular simply positioned himself by the pool in the middle of the night and meowed loudly enough to wake me. The thought of putting any of them to death, though, was heartbreaking.
I found a local humane group called Heaven Can Wait. It had recently started a volunteer program called Ground Zero that enabled concerned cat lovers to borrow animal traps to leave in areas where feral cats live. The trapped cats receive free sterilization and are released back into their communities or put up for adoption. I borrowed a trap and set it in front of my apartment door with some food, hoping to save as many cats as I could before the death roundup.
If any local cat needed neutering, it was Buster, a muscular, black-and-gray tomcat with a torn ear and testicles the size of cherry tomatoes. He was certainly the most visible cat in the colony, and I often saw him fighting with other cats. That’s who I was hoping to catch, as I suspected he had also sired many of the cute, though unwanted, kittens in the area.
Sucker that I am, I had already taken in one of those kittens. Ryoko was a scrappy little beast who seemed to fear and loathe anything moving that couldn’t be eaten. She had joined Ichiban, my 12-year-old Russian Blue mix, who was dying of kidney failure. I didn't intend to take in a third cat, but cats have different ideas about such things, and they usually win.
The next morning, someone was in the trap. But it wasn’t Buster. Instead, it was a mangy, filth-covered hairball with one eye and a hair-raising yowl. This, I realized, was the cat whose mournful wails had awoken me night after night. I immediately brought him home to feed and bathe him before taking him to the snip-and-adopt folks.
I put him in the tub, slathered my own shampoo over his matted, dusty fur, and began the onerous process of scrubbing grit out of a cat whose coat would have made Charlie Brown's friend Pig Pen proud. I’d expected a fight, but he seemed grateful. He shivered and rubbed his head against my hand, demanding with a loud purr to be petted.
He was very well behaved throughout the adventure of bathing and then being clipped with a pair of sewing shears. He met my two hissing, snarling cats with the gracious demeanor of a redeemable urchin. He even rode in the car to the free vet clinic without a fuss. By the time I arrived, I’d nicknamed him Cyclops, and his coat had dried, showing a beautiful brown tabby pattern -- even with the sad emergency haircut I’d given him.
The clinic neutered strays and tested them for feline immunodeficiency virus and leukemia. The cats who had those diseases were euthanized unless someone wanted them. The vet told me that Cyclops had FIV, but the eye I’d thought was gone was actually just swollen shut. (When it healed, he was cockeyed.)
They also told me he was a Maine Coon. The vet said that FIV+ cats can often live long, asymptomatic lives; the real problem is when they fight other cats and infect them. I couldn’t leave such a sweet cat to be killed, so I took him home and foster him while I found him a new family. (Hint: Don’t ever name a rescue cat unless you’re willing to keep it!)
Cyclops also enjoyed chewing plastic bags, so cat-proofing the apartment was necessary. I suspect this worrisome habit was born of the necessity of eating people's garbage when homeless. A few callers responded to the "free cat to good home" fliers I put up, but they lost interest when they learned of the plastic-eating and the FIV. My cats were less than pleased with the orphan in their midst, but they all staked out their own area in the apartment. Eventually they could be in the same room without hissing.
Like many "unadoptable" cats, Cyclops (like his stepsister Ryoko) became a wonderful companion, and he lived another eight years with FIV until succumbing to renal failure (which the vet said was unrelated). Had either of them been rounded up by animal control or taken to the pound, they would have been among the more than 28,000 cats put "humanely" to death in Las Vegas each year because they weren’t perfect.
Las Vegas is typical of large cities in that about two-thirds of the area’s stray animals are cats. Tens of thousands of these ferals and abandoned cats are euthanized each year. Hundreds of thousands may populate the area. Since the year I found Cyclops, Clark County has implemented a feral cat management program in which volunteers and agencies take care of feral colonies. Heaven Can Wait and a number of other organizations are still going strong, giving a chance for feral cats to find good homes.
This is a substantially revised version of an article, “Cat-astrophic Consequences,” that first appeared in Las Vegas CityLife on April 9, 2003.
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