To All the Foster Cats I've Loved Before

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. I loved animals, particularly cats. I read a ton of books where the main characters were pre-teens who helped out vets (which, in retrospect, seems like a huge child labor violation). I even had a computer game where you could play as a vet. My interest started to cool when my fourth grade teacher said he'd never met a vet who didn't lose a finger or a toe to a patient, and I gave up on the idea completely when I realized that part of the job entailed putting animals down- not something I have the stomach for.

Since we started working with a local cat rescue last year, my boyfriend and I have welcomed five foster cats to our home. Fostering lets me realize all my childhood dreams. I don't have the capacity or expertise to treat sick cats the way a vet does, but I could give them love and comfort and help them in a different way. On top of that, I have the luxury of time on my hands to earn their trust, amplified by working from home.

Our first foster was Ronald. He was middle-aged at seven years old, but he had a lithe body covered in sleek black fur, a small head, small ears, and huge eyes, that made him look like a cross between a mini-panther and a cartoon kitten. His former owners reluctantly gave him up when he suddenly started being aggressive to the other two cats he lived with, and not even a cat behaviorist, not even an anti-depressant prescription could fix his issues. He was clearly loved and arrived with a bunch of new toys, a plug-in diffuser that spread stress-relieving cat pheromones in the air, two bottles of kitty Prozac, and a three page personal history document.

I think it was because we got him when Hamilton the musical just came to Disney+, or maybe it was because he was- through no fault of his own- abusing Prozac, but we decided that in an alternate universe, he would be a lawyer. Ronald T. Cat, Esquire, we joked. He would have made partner at our law firm, Whirly and Cats, specializing in white collar crime. We adored his deep, guttural meows and the way he would sink his teeth into the toy end of a cat wand and then tug at it until he carried the whole thing back to his hiding place. I did not love putting him on anti-depressants he definitely didn't need and clearly didn't help with his previous issues, and was glad that with the vet's approval, we weaned him off.

Ronald was adopted real quick, and the second cat we got was Horatio. He was a friendly stray who had been trapped and taken to the vet before coming to us. He arrived at the vet with an open wound on his face. Because the person who trapped him wasn't sure if the wound came from the trapping process, the vet couldn't rule out rabies. The whole thing took six hours, and by the time he came to us, he was covered in his own pee, traumatized, and under rabies quarantine.

I did a project on rabies in the seventh grade, and what I remember is that Louis Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine in the 1800s, back when people believed in spontaneous generation (i.e. the recipe for creating mice is old clothes and an attic). When the folks at the rescue asked us if we were still comfortable fostering him, we didn't hesitate. I thought, No big deal. No one dies from rabies anymore.

It got a lot more real when the rescue balked at the idea of us giving Horatio a bath to clean up the cat pee. If he bites you, even if it's out of stress, he's dead, they said. Because per state law, an animal in rabies quarantine who bites a human regardless of reason would have to be tested for rabies, and the only way to test for rabies is through brain tissue, a procedure that involves sending the decapitated head of the animal in question to some lab. Also, I had just ignorantly assumed that advancements in medicine had solved rabies, but while the vaccine is preventative, if somehow Horatio did transmit rabies to us and it reached our central nervous system, we'd certainly die a very painful death. Which was kind of weird to worry about on top of living in a pandemic. We did discuss getting a rabies vaccine preventatively, but it looked like it was going to be very expensive. What's worth more, $10,000 or an infinitesimally small chance of dying of rabies? Rational or not, we decided to forgo the vaccine.

I should say here that Horatio was the sweetest cat I'd ever met who got the happy ending he rightfully deserved, but in addition to the rabies scare, he had tested positive for FIV (the cat version of HIV), was constipated to the point that we, with the rescue's permission, had to give him laxatives. When he finally was pooping, we started noticing little white seed-like things all around his litterbox and hiding place that turned out to be tapeworm. When we gave him tapeworm medication and an extra dose of tick medication, the strange lump I had felt and seen on his neck which I thought was a benign fatty deposit suddenly disappeared. Suffice it to say I'm pretty content to not play "animal nurse" again for a while.

When I was in the midst of this whole ordeal, my best friend told me, "You have a pissy furball who's also a ho, give him back to the rescue." But he was my pissy furball. At least, to take care of until he was happy, confident, and adoptable. His history was a big mystery to us, but one of his ears was missing its tip, an indication that he may have previously lived with a feral colony and had been part of a trap, neuter, return program. He had small bald spots around his neck, which suggested that other cats may have bullied him. The rescue said that it's the sweeter, male cats that tend to get bullied by other ferals. Even when Horatio was at his most terrified, he would poke his head out when we spoke softly to him, purring, before shrinking back in fear again.

It took a month and leaving trails of cat food that led to other rooms to get him to explore the rest of our apartment. It took nearly two months and squeezing globs of cat bisque up my arm to convince him that the couch was a much better place to sleep than the cold, hard floor. But eventually, his true personally shone through, and he became the wonderful cat who'd sit with me through the driest Zoom lectures, who would respond with trills when we said his name, and who never got sick of being pet.

At this point, the rescue found him ideal adopters who wanted a mature cat and were prepared to give him the safe life and good diet that an FIV positive cat needed. The day that he was due to be picked up, I couldn't bear to be the one who put him in the carrier because I didn't want his last memory of me to be one of betrayal. Even though it obviously wasn't, he just didn't know it. Also, he still had two months of his rabies quarantine left, and I fretted that something would go horribly wrong. The first week after he got adopted, I mindlessly googled his name, as though he'd have a social media presence. On Christmas Day, I got a lovely message from his adopters saying he was a perfect sweetheart. I felt a lot better after.

Our next foster cat was Kabocha. He was young, confident, and athletic, and could jump from our dining room table to the top of our closet door, balancing himself on an inch of wood like an acrobat. He loved sitting on laptop keyboards, and we have a photo of him behind my boyfriend's laptop, a water bottle on one side and a crumped-up tape measure on the other, like some sort of chaotic architect. We had to tire him out daily by making him do flips in the air while chasing a cat teaser, and in the early morning, without fail, he'd jump on our bed and meow loudly, as if to say, "Wake the fuck up! You're burning daylight."

The couple who adopted Kabocha had a dog, who they assured the rescue was super friendly and was sweet even to meaner cats. They picked him up in a designer carrier and later sent us a photo of him hanging out next to an electric water fountain. Kabocha definitely upgraded, we decided. Also, he has a dog servant now.

We're currently taking care of a pair of senior cats, Waddles and Loki. Waddles has the cutest walk and would sleep at the foot of our bed, while Loki is a fluffy Maine coon who rivals Horatio in sweetness. I've always felt ethically conflicted about the supply and demand of "designer" cats bred for their looks when there were so many amazing mixed breed cats languishing in animal shelters. But I would be lying if I said I didn't fall in love with Loki just a little bit more quickly because of his soft fur and lovely personality. Around the same time that we got Loki, we learned that a larger shelter near us had just gotten custody of a bunch of Maine coons who were kept in abusive conditions by some backyard breeder. So I still don't think I would ever buy a cat from a breeder. But I am going to miss Loki and Waddles when they get adopted.

When I first started fostering, I expected to be working with some amazing cats and also some mediocre cats. But actually, all the cats have been wonderful and memorable in their own way. If anything, they make my beloved fourteen year old childhood cat, who would scratch you if you didn't brush her in the right way before immediately demanding attention again, look like a jerk- and I still love her too. Also, as much as I'm glad to be helping our foster cats, in truth, they're helping me too. It's hard to feel too stressed when there's a furry, purring kitty curled up next to me.

After I gave up the idea of being a vet, I thought I wanted to be a biologist in the fifth grade, and then an ecologist in the sixth grade, before I had to accept that I didn't actually like being outdoors all the time. But the research I'm working on today is still motivated by care for the wellbeing of natural systems, even if, as I'm running lines of code and writing equations, it doesn't feel like much. I still have a lot to figure out, but I'm glad to have something to do where the impact, if small, is tangible and immediate.

The obligatory end of semester PhD reflection:

At an interview to teach an undergraduate course, the first thing my interviewer, a recent grad from a similar program at my university, said was, "Reading your cover letter felt like a very familiar story. I also graduated from a liberal arts college, did consulting, and pursued a PhD with the intention of going back to work at a liberal arts college."

Me: "That's the goal!"

Interviewer: "I haven't reached that goal yet."

Me: ...

Oh well, I'm just glad I have this job for next year!