How an Abandoned Kitten taught me about the Value of Life

(originally published on 23/07/2015)

Let me tell you about the day I had yesterday. When I woke up in the morning, bleary eyed, and made my way, zombie-like through the house, Jacky, my girlfriend was still in the living room, getting ready to leave for work. I’m a freelance teacher, and during these summer months I have the luxury of nobody giving me any work, so unlike her, I didn’t have to go in that day.

Jacky kissed me goodbye and left our 1st floor apartment, returning a few minutes later with the nervous declaration, ‘there’s something downstairs – a baby dog or a cat, but I don’t know what we can do, so maybe you shouldn’t go down.’ She set off again.

Baby dog. Nothing we can do. Don’t go down. My brain took in these elements with its usual morning dopiness, accepting and not really trying to make sense of any of it. I settled into the sofa, where, on a non-work day, I take my sweet time to wake up properly.

20 minutes later Jacky contacted me. ‘Have you seen it?’ she asked. Now my brain was ready to question.

There’s a baby dog or cat downstairs, something alone and vulnerable. And I’m just sat here, simply because someone else told me there was nothing we could do.

I went down to see for myself. Outside, the air was already heating up. These are the dog days of summer, where temperatures in the city climb up as high as 40 degrees Celsius.

I took a moment and scanned the driveway, finding nothing. Then I stepped out onto the pavement. There, incongruously, lay a tiny little kitten, smaller than my fist. Its umbilical cord stuck out of its belly like dried up twig. I rushed upstairs and found a box, lined it with napkins, then went and retrieved the little mite from the ground.

It was mewling and rolling around as I placed the box on the living room table. But I had no idea how to look after a newborn kitten. Living, as I do, in the modern world, I made a video of it and took to the social media with an appeal for help. Anxiously, I imbibed online literature concerning the care of an orphaned kitten and discovered that they need cat milk, that cow’s milk was a serious no-no. I had no cat milk.

The kitten was clearly losing energy. It had stopped meowing and was no longer struggling around the box. I read that you can give it warm water and glucose as an emergency substitute, one time only. Well, I had no glucose either. I boiled some water and mixed in some regular sugar, let it cool and then dripped some along my finger and into the kitten’s mouth. It suckled, and to my relief immediately perked up.

The social media had been busy. Two charities were looking for a surrogate mother. Jacky was occupied locating a good vet. Through a string of friends I received advice from a vet that one of them knew. Baby milk, 0-3 months, should work as a substitute, and I could apply it with a syringe. The animal should be kept in warmth at all times. I turned off the air conditioning and took a clean tea-towel from the cupboard, which I wrapped around the kitten.

The nearest chemist’s was a decent 10 minute stroll. I took to the outdoors in the burning heat, noticing for the first time that I had neither eaten nor even had a cup of tea yet that day. At the end of my street I encountered a man on a bicycle with two unleashed dogs in tow. As I passed, one of the dogs snarled and bit at me, very nearly sinking its teeth into my leg. It barked viciously until I had receded to a safe distance. My first thought was one of anger towards the man who had let his dog attack me without a word of reprimand or apology. Then I realised that they were heading past the spot where I had found my kitten, and simply became grateful that I had scooped it up when I had, that it had not become a meal for a nasty dog.

At the chemist’s, I bought the tub of baby milk and a medical syringe. Expensive stuff for a man without work, but it’s at times like these that you discover how little wealth matters. All available resources must of course go to a life in danger. What else, I asked myself, are they really for?

When I got back to the apartment, Jacky had spoken to a vet. They had a special replacement formula for kittens, and he would snip the umbilical for me if I took the animal in. I abandoned my purchases and picked up the box, deciding it was better to wait for the speciality milk powder rather than risk feeding the little thing incorrectly. We took another 10 minute hike through the merciless sun. I began to fret – what if he needed feeding right away? Should I have given him an emergency application of baby milk before we set off? I was anxious, dehydrated, stressed. And none of that was important, because it wasn’t a priority. I figured that this must be what being a mother was like.

The vet was a friendly, good soul. He administered a vitamin syrup and cut the umbilical cord. He charged me for the kitten milk and gave me a syringe and the remainder of the syrup.

At home, I boiled water and fed the kitten for the first time. Through a mixture of internet advice and advice that the vet had given me, I learnt that you had to hold him in your lap, to your belly and feed him slowly from underneath. Everything was supposed to be sterile, but I had no steriliser. I didn’t even know how hot the milk should be. We would just have to make do. I used boiling water for everything I could. I learnt to make a bed for him out of a bowl of warm water. I placed a towel over it, and fixed it in place with an elastic band, then arranged more towels around the bowl, so that if he rolled from his bed he would not fall. I covered the entire box with another towel to keep him warm and safe.

He was grumbly after his first feed, and Jacky messaged me that he may need a belly massage, which I gave him. He settled down, and I afforded myself my first cup of tea. It was now 1pm. I nipped out to a local cafe for an overdue breakfast.

I fed him again upon my return. I had read that a kitten needs feeding every 3 hours, but after our second feeding I realised I had no idea of the correct amount to give. I researched, discovering that in the first few days of life a kitten requires 2.5ml of milk every two hours, but some kittens don’t want so much. Well, mine had not taken so much yet, but it had just been rescued from an ordeal, perhaps it would take some time to build an appetite.

I fed him once more two hours later, but before that I couldn’t help but check up on him every ten minutes, pet him, make sure that he was still breathing and happy. When I did feed him, I noticed an insect in his fur on his face. it only became visible when it ran through the white patch. I pincered it between my nails, it looked a bit like a tiny cockroach. I killed it, and searched through his fur for more. I found nothing. If he had lice, we would just have to deal with that later. I had also learnt that the mother cat licks the baby’s genitalia and anus after feeding, it’s an important part of the process that stimulates defecation. Without it, the kitten will become ill. This process can be simulated with damp cotton. I found some cotton buds under the sink, placed the kitten on a napkin and integrated the ‘licking’ as part of the procedure.

We passed through the day like this: feeding him; cleaning the utensils with hot water; wiping his bum; changing the water of his bed to keep it warm; checking him regularly; waiting for the news of a mother.

Jacky returned from work and we discussed our kitten. She apologised for the morning, saying she had panicked when she had seen him. She wanted to know if he had a name, I and confessed that yes, he did, it was something that had just happened. He was called Nilo. We decided that he would go to a surrogate mother and that if none could be found, we would give him up only to someone with proven expertise in rearing kittens. In any other case we would just have to look after him ourselves. Over dinner we debated if he should be neutered when he was older and decided in the end that it was a bridge on the other side of the world, that we most probably would never have to cross. Nilo would find a mother.

I showed Jacky what I’d learnt on how to feed and care for Nilo. He seemed a little lethargic, grumbly. He didn’t want to take the milk from Jacky. Eventually I got him to take something. Well, it had been a long and stressful day for him, perhaps he was just exhausted. I administered the vitamin syrup form the vet. We went to bed and I set my alarm for 1:30am, which was when his next feed was due.

Of course I couldn’t sleep. I got up after fifteen minutes and checked on him. Went back to bed. He might fall, I thought. He could roll off the bed, over the towels, and over the side of the box, and then he could roll further off the table. I got up again and went to check. Nilo had moved mainly onto the towels, into a little dip. I squashed the towels down so that the sides of the box were higher for him, and I petted him. He mewled plaintively. It reminded me of when I disturb Jacky while she’s sleeping. ‘Okay,’ I told him. ‘I’ll let you be.’

The alarm woke me at 1:30. I scowled at Jacky, not for any reason other than the fact that it hurt to wake up after half an hour’s sleep.

‘Do you want help?’ she asked.

‘No, it’s fine. you’ve got work in the morning.’

I tottered to the kitchen and boiled the kettle, measured out the powder, made the milk and put it in the syringe. Then I lifted the towel from the box.

Nilo had died some time while I’d been sleeping. I lifted his limp body up. It was still warm. Futilely, I placed the syringe to his mouth and tried to dribble a little of the milk into it. One, then two of those insects ran across his face. There were more! After some difficulty I caught one of them and killed it.

I went to get Jacky and told her that Nilo was dead, but I think what I needed was for her to tell me he was dead. When he was alive, it had been a struggle to keep his body warm, but now he was dead and his body was still warm. These summer nights are hot, so I didn’t want to leave his body out to the elements, nor for ants or other insects to nibble. But if he was merely almost-dead, rather than dead, I couldn’t bear the idea his last moments would be alone in a cold box. Eventually we decided he was gone. We wrapped him in napkins and put him in a tea box, which we wrapped in a towel, then brought him into the bedroom, and placed his little coffin in front of the air-conditioning.

Then we got back into bed, Jacky held me, and I found myself crying. It had been a long stressful day, with mini-triumphs, that had ended in complete failure. I thought over everything that I must have done wrong – I had left him on the pavement for 20 minutes, I hadn’t sterilised enough, I didn’t feed him right at first, there were bugs on him and I didn’t wash him – why didn’t I wash him? I didn’t warm the vitamin syrup, I misinterpreted his last, plaintive cry to me. Any, and maybe all of these things had caused his death. Or perhaps he was already sick. Jacky, she told me later, was thinking along similar lines. When she had made up the milk perhaps it had been too thick; when she had renewed the water in his bowl-bed perhaps it had been too hot.

I didn’t sleep for a long time then. Despite the stress and anxiety of that day, for all the feelings of impotence and failure and guilt, and now the sheer grief of trying to save and losing an innocent life, for all of that, I would not have changed the fact that I tried; that Nilo, briefly, came into our lives.

In bed I considered that there are many people out there who would tell me, in sympathy, that it wasn’t meant to be, that Nilo just wasn’t meant to live. That’s not true. That implies that there’s an external force that allots and gives meaning to our lives.

But the external universe (should such a thing exist) is, at best, indifferent to life. This is not a religious point. Whether there’s a God who sets the conditions or not, it is the job of life itself to find the value in life. When Nilo was abandoned – by a human or rejecting mother, we don’t know – his life was spurned. It was up to us to decide to value him. He only had one day with us, but in that time he experienced what it was like to be fed, to have a full belly, to have a roof over his head, to be safe, warm, loved and cared for. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to save his life, but at least I could give him that, and knowing so is worth any amount of suffering that comes with it.

What I’m asking myself this morning is why, when the value of Nilo’s life is obvious to anyone reading his story, do we often fail to place value on even human life? Why is it that many lives regularly go without those things I was blessed enough to be able to give poor, little Nilo?

I feel the answer is that too many of us are like the abandoner of Nilo. Far too many like those parasites who live for their own existence at the expense of others, and may have sucked the life’s blood out of his baby body. Many of us panic, as Jacky did, and feel there is nothing to be done, or react in my zombie-like fashion and swallow it when we are told that nothing can be done.

Life is sacred if you make it so. I won’t fool you – to give a damn will hurt you in manifold ways. But also I can assure you, to make a little difference to another’s life is worth whatever pain that can bring you.


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