Life is full of many painful decisions, but ending a beloved pet’s life has got to be right up there among the worst. Last Saturday morning saw us staring at x-rays on a monitor in our vet’s office, dutifully listening to her description of the effects of fluid on the lungs and dreading where all this was headed. Moments before, we’d confidently assumed Finley’s rapid breathing and negligible appetite would be fixed right up with a course of antibiotics; certainly it could be nothing much worse than a respiratory infection. Wrong. It was likely the final stage of some hidden cancer or other malady whose signs had been invisible until now. The tech carried her in wrapped in the blue blanket that would be her shroud, a catheter already inserted in her little gray front leg. Always a shy cat, the look of abject terror in her eyes was a terrible indictment of us that no reassurances of ending her suffering could mollify. This was not the first time we’d been in this situation, but each occasion has its own special sting. As we watched the labored breathing slow, then stop, it was terrible to anticipate the emptiness of her territory under the fruit trees, an area not to be entered without a tribute to its feline mayor in the form of a gentle pat or belly rub.
Yes, Finley was an outdoor cat. I know – in addition to annoying the neighbors, outdoor cats can wreak havoc on urban and rural wildlife, particularly birds. Two recent studies I’ve read, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S., identify specific at-risk bird species which are heavily affected by cat predation, including certain sparrows, bluebirds, and hummingbirds. Accurate estimates of total birds killed by domestic and feral cats are hard to come by, but the American Bird Conservancy suggests that “hundreds of millions” are killed annually, a shocking number. And I’m sorry to say that in her younger years Miss Finley contributed to this number. While pigeons, thrashers, and other large birds never captured her interest, we did sadly witness the odd dove and – sorry – hummingbird succumb to her lightning-fast leaps.
Surely by now you condemn me for my complicity in this environmental crisis, and I accept the blame. Until 10 years ago when Finley and her siblings came into my life, I smugly asserted to one and all that I would only keep indoor cats, and indeed I did, five of them. I repeatedly scolded my neighbor for neglecting her perfectly nice female tuxedo cat, who was forced to roam the streets day and night seeking food from me and others and enduring litter after litter of kittens. When the neighbor decided to get (and consequently neglect) two large dogs, the tuxedo cat disappeared. Weeks later she reappeared under my shed, five scared feral kittens in tow.
So what would you do? Some people, like my despicable neighbor, would do nothing. Others would trap the whole family and have them euthanized, or have taxpayers fund the euthanasia at the pound. Something must be done to stop rampant cat overpopulation. No-kill shelters are perpetually full. But hard-nosed realism has a way of eroding when one must look at unbelievably adorable wee kittens everyday. Many have faced this dilemma; some on a large scale. My plan was to tame them, get them neutered and find homes for the lot, and nearly all of those goals were accomplished. Two found homes, the Mom and a female. In the process of trying to do the right thing I’d fallen hopelessly in love with the others, sweet Finley and her siblings Berto, Vela, and Clarence. They couldn’t come in; my house was already full with five cats, two elderly. So that is how I became a big fat hypocrite. I got them I.D. collars and yearly vaccinations, and bribed them with good food and treats to stay (mostly) in the backyard. But still, there were the occasional feathers in the yard. As a society, this is one of the decisions we’re faced with, to balance justice with compassion. I haven’t figured that one out yet.
Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.