“Have you ever had to relinquish a pet?” I reread it.
The cursor pulsed at me, insistent.
I skipped over the question and filled out the rest of the application. Even though there was a red asterisk, I tried to submit without filling it out. Failed.
I went back up and took a deep breath and told them about Olive.
In mid-2012 my boyfriend adopted a puppy from the Arkansas Humane Society. A wildly sweet little lab mix puppy who became an even sweeter dog. I grew up with dogs, mostly labs. I loved dogs. And I thought, “I can do that.”
But I lived in a 1-bedroom apartment and labs gotta lab (run) and I’d always loved the smushed nose and mini size of black pugs. So I scoured the internet and found a listing on Craigslist, out in the sticks. One look at this tiny beast, surrounded by the clear signs and eau de puppy mill, and there I was taking out $300 at a backwoods ATM and bringing her home. I’d rescued her (really though?) and named her Olive. An unfortunately prescient choice, because I do not like olives of any kind. My best friend? Loves ’em. Can eat straight from the can. If I have to pick them off pizza I’m miffed. I CAN STILL TASTE THEIR GHOSTS.
Olive and I struggled from the get go. I worked full time, and even with a large crate, that life was too small for her. Raising a puppy alone was not what I’d thought. While growing up I’d had the benefit of family around to share responsibility, a large yard, and always at least one other dog to entertain (and show the newbie the ropes). I had none of those things here. Labs are vacuum cleaners – if you drop it, it now belongs to them – and I was used to their garbage disposal bellies eating anything and being fine. In the first week I dropped one grape, Olive ate it, I thought nothing of it until she threw it up on my comforter that night. Small dogs had different things going on.
We became irritated at each other. She’d loudly yelp, making neighbors text me about her howling when I was gone all day. I’d take her out in the morning, she’d do her business, and then when we came in I’d jump in the shower and she would poop under my dining room. Did you know you have to express their anal glands because I did not.
All this to say, I made a childish choice. I didn’t think through the responsibilities of raising a pet in the environment I lived in. I didn’t adjust my life and schedule around her. When I went home for Christmas, friends volunteered to watch her with their equally-small dog. I’d never felt so relieved. When I came back, we did another difficult week together, and my friends sat me down for an incredibly kind talk. They’d been thinking about getting another small dog and if I ever needed them to keep Olive for short or long term, they were willing.
I felt ashamed. I couldn’t hack it. There I was, ‘grown’ at 25, having had dogs my entire life, and failing. I knew it too. I was failing Olive. I said ‘let’s try a month’ and brought all her gear over. It sucked, telling people about it. I mostly kept it quiet. A month or so later, I visited her at their place.
Was this the same dog?! Her coat was shiny, she tore around the house with their dog, she lovingly jumped all over me and I asked ‘did you switch her food or…?’ to try and explain the changes. ‘No, we’re still working through what you gave us.’
And I knew. The difference was that she was happy. She wasn’t lonely all day with another dog around now. She had multiple pairs of hands loving her. She was living a better life than the one I could give her.
10 years later, it was still the right choice. It’s sometimes still an emotional bruise, one that is occasionally pressed if someone asks ‘hey, didn’t you have a dog once?’ or when I see a black pug or when Facebook is like ‘hey, remember when you had this gorl around?’
Olive is doing well. Her owners sent me a picture of the lovely lady, sun-drenched and gray muzzled, this past Christmas. I haven’t been brave enough to ask to see her the last two times I’ve been in Little Rock. It’s a cowardly move, but one that seems best (or easiest). She’s living a happy life, and I’m so thankful for my friends, who saw two creatures suffering and offered us a better way.
I was free to move to Korea. She was free to be part of the right family for her. I’ve never doubted it was the right thing, even when it’s hurt.
So here I am, 1 month ago, adopting two cats. Kittens, really. And multiple times in the first two weeks I thought “did I even learn?!” as I googled ‘am i a bad person if i return cats.’
Fleck strolled up to me as I sat in the lounge at The Catcade, rubbing her face all over my KN95 mask and sitting on the open book in front of me, as if to say ‘let’s not pretend you came here to read a book. We are women of action. Lies do not become us.’ I laughed, knowing this cat saw through my clear ruse. Of course I was there for her.
Talking with one of the owners, Shelly, after, she mentioned that Fleck was just 4 months old and would need a hernia repair after her her spaying the week before. She’d also need a buddy to come home with since she was so young. I nodded, thinking ‘we are going from 0 cats to 2 cats and 1 of the cats has a medical thing I will have to monitor oh lord oh lord oh lord‘ and filled out the application that night (Saturday).
The adoption coordinator emailed me Monday, asking if I had a preference on Fleck’s ‘buddy.’ I didn’t, so they recommended a ‘reindeer kitten.’ I frantically googled with some weirdo results, to find out that Blitzen had been one of several kittens brought in in December, all with reindeer names (Like Comet and Prancen and Balthasar or whatevs). I’m sure reindeer kitten is a type of very cool Level 17 BJJ move though, and agreed that the 2.5 month-old Blitzen sounded good to come home too.
I had a hot/cold/hot/cold week leading up to the adoption/surgery date on Tuesday, 2/1. Which might be putting it nicely. Really: I cried, I railed about it, I was so scared, I wondered if I was having a panic attack, I messaged my friends “is this a mistake,” I placed my first Chewy order and sent out alerts on neighborhood Facebook groups for items needed to house these two rascals. I spent the weekend before picking up items and going to fancy pet stores to get grain-free food and writing follow up emails to the adoption coordinator and suddenly Tuesday was here.
I’d carefully gone inch by inch through the house prepping for their arrival, setting up litter boxes and sweeping dust, gathering toys and museum gel-ing down anything precious. I was as ready as I was going to get, and was technically taking them out on ‘medical foster’ until Fleck’s incision was healed and had a follow up with the vet.
I got off the train at Southport, walking the final 10 minutes carrying my newly-acquired free carrier from a neighbor. I cried most of the way there. Not a cute cry. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or a bad sign as I knew my life was about to change.
I thought it was maybe a bit like when I left working for Apple. I’d cried a lot, making and doing the decision, but it was the right thing for me. It was hard, but it was right. I was scared, but its worked out wildly well for me over the last 4 years.
I knocked softly on The Catcade door, and Emma let me in. “I’m nervous,” I blurted out, but she couldn’t have been nicer. She showed me syringes, and I balked, but they were just pain medicine suspended in gravy to squirt into Fleck’s mouth. I wrote everything down with shaky hands and she joyously chatted at the cats as she brought them out. She handed me both and we tried to take a ‘gotcha day’ picture but both cats acted like their bones were jello in a windstorm. We tucked them carefully into the carrier and I called a Lyft.
Gingerly I wrapped my arms around the carrier, lifting them from underneath, not trusting the plastic handle. I slide them into the backseat of a Hyundai and tucked my fingers into the metal grille to graze their soft noses and assure them. They couldn’t have been more chill. Two casual car veterans enjoying the city lights, didn’t even make a sound as they nuzzled my fingertips. I unlocked my front door and carefully set them down in the kitchen, filming their emergence into my place.
They strolled out like this was already their house and slowly explored. They sniffed and smelled and meandered as I followed them around like a realtor murmuring about the apartment having good bones. They used the litter box and ate heartily as I gave Fleck her gravy cocktail, careful not to let her jump and disturb her belly incision.
They got sleepy around 9 and I thought ‘sleep when they sleep,’ like I’d heard people should do with babies. I lifted them both up onto my bed in a soft blanket, and they easily curled up and slept. I thought ‘well that was easy’ and crashed, my emotions catching up to me. An hour later I felt the tiny shakes of paws walking and jolted awake. Trying to corral them, we resettled. And again. Again. We finally got out of bed around 6, when I couldn’t keep her still. I had given up and let him jump off the bed several times.
I fed them, grateful they were still for a bit as they wetly munched away. I glanced at the clock; 6am on a Wednesday. I don’t do 6am. You’re lucky if I roll out of bed at 8:15 to start working at 8:30. I love my late nights. I love my independence to go to bed when I want. I scrolled ze apps, made a massive jug of coffee, and watched the cats re-roam, carefully monitoring Fleck’s vertical game.
The found anything that wasn’t carefully tucked away. I thought my under-bed was well packed, but they found nooks. Crannies. Soft extra blankets I kept under the couch. I looked at everyone via webcam at work that day sleepily and said ‘its going fine,’ and ordered an extra strength cold brew around noon. The cats slept most of the day, which was good, right?
The second night was worse.
Having slept all day, they wanted to roam all night. In a weird architecture choice, my bedroom door…doesn’t exist. It’s an open doorway. Which, who cares, right? I live alone. No visitors of any kind have been here in a long time, its fine. But now…now it’s 11pm and I can’t take another sleepless night and don’t trust them in the rest of the apartment without me around.
I made ‘the mature choice’ and put them in the bathroom with a litter box, two beds and a blanket, rigorously triple checking that the toilet is shut and the shower curtain tucked up out of reach. I was choosing to give myself sleep and keep them in a small, confined (not that small, it’s not an Andersonville micro bathroom) space, and yet couldn’t sleep all night. I felt guilty, like I was robbing them of exploring or worried she’d jump off the counter, I heard Blitzen’s jingle-y little collar as he paced (she’d already got hers off 2x). I think this was the first night I googled ‘can I give cats back.’
I learned that in my mid-30s I can do one all-nighter, I can’t do two in a row.
At 6am I gave in and let them out to be fed, only to see that one of Blitzen’s eyes was swollen shut. You’d think he was winking and like our parents said ‘don’t do that your face will get stuck that way.’
My first thought: I broke the cat. I made a selfish choice and put them in the bathroom all night, and this is what I deserve.
Rationality tried to creep in and I thought ‘well maybe it’s sleep crusties and he’ll be fine in a few minutes.’ Reader, he was not. It cracked open a slit, but was clearly swollen. I paced my 500 square feet until the 7am online vet that Chewy gave me free access to came online and initiated a chat with pictures. He either had scratched his cornea or had conjunctivitis, aka pink eye. Goop was accumulating in the corner of his eye. As the day went on, it spread to the other eye too.
I cried all day Thursday. I’m serious. From 6am when they got up and cried to be fed, to I think all-but-one of my work Zoom meetings, and after work, I cried. Everyone who asked ‘how are the cats,’ I answered honestly that it sucked. They were cute and sweet but I was cracking under the pressure. I was not enough to keep two tiny creatures alive and healthy even 48 hours.
I thought I was getting 1 cat and got 2. I thought there was 1 medical issue and now there are 2. All I could think about was that I was wrong and broken and stupid and DO I NOT LEARN and that they would limit what I could do where I could go, the jobs I could get, the apartments I could live in, and more.
Was this all in the application to be serious and consider? Yes
Did I seriously read it and truly think I was ready? Yes
And yet. And yet.
On Thursday I rewalked the same route from Southport to The Catcade, crying, again, for different reasons. I wondered if I’d overrode my clear ‘no’ feelings to adopt the cats and should just give up, even though we were barely on Day 3. Emma met me to give me some eye medication and demo’d application on another cat. She asked me how F & B were, and I kept up my routine of bawling. “It is hard” she said, kindly. I felt my soul (and butt) unclench 2 degrees.
Messages from friends and acquaintances, people I went to high school with, my grandma, my parents, my co-workers and more were pouring in.
“A dog trainer told me my dog was a terror and untrainable and I shouldn’t have it around my kid 16 years ago. I was a single parent. I cried the first 3 months.”
“Puppies and kittens are the worst. Especially when you’re single.”
“I sometimes think I should have fostered first and would have known what it was like. I love my pet but I think I had no idea and may not have been in the best place to do it.”
“Don’t give up”
“It gets better”
“Don’t give up yet”
I’ll be honest. I googled ‘give back adopted pet’ ‘how soon is too soon to return cats’ ‘will animals be negatively affected if I return to shelter’ more than once. Or twice. More than twice.
I filled my 6am mornings with Youtube videos of The Cat Daddy, Jackson Galaxy, based on a friend’s recommendation who works in a vet office.
I overnight ordered his book, Cat Mojo, and devoured it.
I ordered more items on Chewy. We got into a semi-routine. The cats were cool from 11pm-6am in the bathroom.
Life still was hard. And sucked. I had improv shows and felt guilty leaving them in the bathroom. I felt like going to the gym or grocery store was stolen time. I reveled in it and felt horrified that I loved getting out of the house and chose to wear an N95 mask to surf the bread aisles vs hang with them. I didn’t cook because I was scared of them jumping on the counter and lighting their paws on fire or touching hot pans with my back turned.
And yet. Inch by inch. Every day. We’ve gotten a little better. Sweetly curling up on my lap. Lazily stretching or wide-jaw yawning. That moist monch monch as they devour wet food. The truly rank smell of cat turds. Spending my annual merit increase on a fancy litter box. The pure relief at the vet check-up with Fleck and her hernia being totally healed. An apartment maintenance visit where they willingly went in their crate.
We are better. We made it to 1 month. 32 days and 31 nights. I haven’t slept a continuous 8 hours since February 1. I changed the layout of my entire apartment to accommodate their huge (free) cat tree. They have only knocked over my monstera once so far.
I do love them, I think. I made myself start saying it at the end of that first week, when I didn’t feel like I loved them. I knew they were just bein’ babies, but I was so lost and frustrated and tired and they were everywhere.
Nuzzling their soft bellies or pressing kisses into the downy bit under their necks, crowing back at them and watching their Cirque du Soleil routines attacking a feather wand, it’s all softening me. It’s the glorious part. The part that offsets the hard things. The hard things aren’t less but they’re more expected and I feel semi-capable of keeping them alive. Me too, I guess.
I’m grateful for every single message and heart’d reaction, for the friend that came over and talked to me like a human person that first week and the video calls, the texts and articles and links sent. For the Cat Mojo book and Cat Daddy videos – which truly – turned the tide.
There’s still a type of panic that can rise up, sour in my throat, when I think about the future, and apartments or jobs or going back to the office this month 2-3 days a week, but I’m trying to take it more of a day, an hour, at a time. We are figuring each other out. This was a hard fought month, and I’m celebrating the progress.
Here’s our family photo Tuesday, at 1 month with me (L>R, figure it out), Fleck (6 mo) and Blitzen (4 mo).
And here’s a few more from the past month: