In Memory of Kodak the Blind Cat--And a Way Forward
This weekend, my husband celebrated his fiftieth birthday. I threw him a big surprise party with friends and family traveling in from all over the country. It was one of those weekends when I was so happily preoccupied catching up with loved ones we hadn't seen, in some cases, in years that I didn't have a chance to do even a general cursory sweep of Homer's Facebook page for three days straight. And while I was so preoccupied, a tragedy occurred.
Many of you by now will have heard the story of Kodak, the blind "feral" (I put that in scare quotes because I don't think we can know whether Kodak was truly feral. But I'll come back to that in a minute.) who was brought into Companion Animal Alliance in Baton Rouge. Over 2000 people shared Kodak's photo on Facebook, and several local and national rescue groups as well as individuals stepped forward offering to take Kodak in and off the "death list." CAA acknowledged that Kodak was "safe." I was one of many people who were emailed about Kodak's story. I also shared the post about him on Homer's Facebook page just as soon as I got back online after Laurence's birthday weekend. But by then, it was too late. Several readers let me know that despite all the efforts on Kodak's behalf and all the temporary and even permanent homes being offered him, he had become aggressive with shelter staff and had been euthanized the day before.
Kodak's death is a tragedy. Any needless death is a tragedy, although I'll admit that stories about blind black cats who are considered "unadoptable" and end up euthanized hit me on an especially personal level. There but for the gods of fate and timing might Homer have gone 16 years ago.
Many people are angry at what they perceive to be CAA's negligence--or even outright malfeasance--but I'm hesitant to judge them harshly without knowing more. I spent many years working in non-profit, and I know how very difficult the work is--the chronic underfunding and understaffing; the persistent sense that no matter how many you save, there are so many more who you can't save; the knowledge that many of the people who are the first to criticize the work you're doing are also the last people who would ever step forward and help you do it better. I can't claim to know anything about CAA aside from the fact that they picked up and ultimately euthanized Kodak, but I do know that there are many shelters staffed by wonderful, compassionate, hard-working employees and volunteers who nevertheless have to face the daily heartbreak of euthanizing healthy animals simply because they have no other choice. I freely acknowledge that they do work I can't do and never could have done. Whenever I catch up with Jackson Galaxy, we talk about the glorious day when this will finally be a no-kill nation. It's a goal we firmly believe can be attained. But that day, alas, hasn't come yet.
I'm not saying we shouldn't be angry. We should be angry. We should be enraged. Any needless death is a tragedy. But, rather than directing anger at CAA and what they did or didn't do, I want to see us channel that anger. I want to see something come out of that anger that will help prevent needless deaths like this from occurring in the future.
I keep thinking about Homer when I think about Kodak, and not just because of the superficial similarities between them. Those of you who read my blog and keep up with Homer's Facebook page will remember how very, very violently Homer reacted the last time I brought him to the vet's office. Homer had collapsed, and I rushed him down to out vet. They immediately took him from me and wouldn't let me follow him into the emergency area. I understand, of course--there were other animals there who wouldn't have found my presence particularly calming.
But Homer was terrified out of his wits. Three grown people--a vet and two vet techs--all wearing the protective gear used to handle feral cats couldn't control this little four-pound cat without risking serious injury to themselves, Homer, or both. By the time they finally called me in, Homer was little more than a vicious, dangerous, out-of-control animal who (I have no doubt at all about this) absolutely believed that these strange people were trying to kill him. And his response, understandably enough, was to fight for his own life with every ounce of strength and courage his poor little body could muster. As it turned out, there was enough strength there to keep three strong adults at bay. When he heard my voice and smelled my hand, he immediately and quietly crept into my lap, curled up in a little ball, and began to purr. The jaws of the other three people in the room dropped at seeing such a swift and dramatic transformation from crazed beast to affectionate lap-cat. It took twenty minutes of my sitting alone with Homer in my lap for both of us to calm down enough that they could administer a mild sedative (I wish there'd been one for me!) and finally begin to examine him.
No cat likes the vet's office. But for a blind cat--or any special-needs animal deprived of one of his or her basic senses--the utter inability to make sense of what's going on in a strange and frightening new place is going to lead to a situation in which you don't see the animal's true personality. That is, not unless there's someone there who understands that special-needs animals have to be handled and calmed differently than the ways in which "normal" (for lack of a better word) animals are.
Personally, I'm not and never have been of the opinion that ferals should be euthanized simply for being feral. I know I'm not alone in having stories of feral cats I've worked with who've become among the most loving and good-natured domestic companion animals once given enough time, patience, and love.
But in a shelter that's forced to euthanize animals who are considered "unadoptable," I still maintain that we can't know that Kodak was feral simply based on his reactions at the shelter. Any sane person who'd seen Homer at the vet's office wouldn't have doubted that he was feral, aggressive, and completely unfit to be adopted out. And yet, if there's a cat out there who's more affectionate and more prone to loving humans than Homer is, I've yet to meet him. He was just scared. He was scared because he couldn't see and couldn't understand what was happening to him, and the people attempting to care for him--who were trained and experienced professionals--simply didn't have an understanding as to the specific ways in which you have to calm and soothe a blind cat, which are different than the ways in which you approach a cat who can see.
Maybe Kodak was like Homer--not just in the sense of being a blind black cat, but also in showing a very different personality under the stress of a new place than what his true personality was.
There's nothing we can do for Kodak now except to mourn him. But I, for one, would like to see us channel our grief and anger at Kodak's death into something more positive. I would like to see someone--some shelter, some rescue group--create a training program that teaches people who work with animals how to work with special-needs animals. I would like to see this become a program that spreads to more shelters, and then more, until knowing how to approach and handle special-needs cats is common knowledge. And I would like to lend my name, my time, and my pocket book to making such a program a reality.
I know that a lot of you who read my blog are active in the rescue community. Who's with me?