Thelma and Louise (not the movie)


Thelma and Louise arrived one July morning at my house on Mt. Aukum in the Sierra Foothills. Rick was outside performing some backbreaking chore; he noticed a wriggle at his feet, jumped back and prepared to bring his shovel down on what was probably a wounded gopher when he noticed its odd-looking ears. It was not a gopher, but a newborn kitten with the afterbirth still attached. Not knowing what else to do, he whacked off the cord and brought the dirty little thing to me.

“I think it’s a kitten,” Rick said.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“Well, Rose rescues baby rabbits for Wildlife Rescue.”

We called Rose. On the twenty mile drive to the vet we stopped at Valley Feed and Grain, per Rose’s instructions, and purchased KMR (kitten milk replacement), doll-sized baby bottles and a heating pad. Ten minutes later the vet held up the tiny creature, cleaned it, gave it fluids or something and sent us home with instructions to feed it every two hours around the clock and keep it warm — very warm — but not too hot or we’d cook it, and not too cool or it would die. Oh… and it would probably die anyway.

We left, cradling a fragile life form approximately the size of a bar of hotel soap, terrified it would die before we got it on the heating pad. At home with the heating pad and the towel-wrapped kitten on my lap (mind you, it’s July and 100 degrees), Rick mixed up KMR formula and poured it into a Betsy-Wetsy bottle. Then, I heard a strange “cheepcheepcheep” coming from outside.

“Rick! Do you hear that? What is that?”

“Nothing! It’s nothing! Birds!”

“That is not nothing. That is something.”

Handing the kitten over, I set about locating the source of the cries; I’m confident you have guessed by now that the cheepcheepcheep was three more newborn kittens squiggling on the hill. In EMT mode, I plucked three bodies from the brambles, foxtails and dirt while Rick watched from the deck with a look that said: Please do not tell me we are going to nursemaid four kittens.

Back in the car, carting a box housing four brand new kittens warmed by a hot water bottle, we once again drove the twenty miles to the vet.

“Well, well, well. They appear to be Torties (we were ignorant of what dire consequences that meant). Hmm, and looky-here… polydactyl (again, ignorant). They are hearty critters. Except for this one. This one’s in critical condition. Too bad. I think it’s a male. Male Torties are rare, you know. But the others, well… they probably won’t make it… but listen, if you attempt to raise them, I won’t charge for vet care until they’re out of danger. How does that sound?”

The mission was daunting. Every two hours around the clock and the task to keep them always warm enough (no matter how hot it was outside) loomed. Also, following feedings, we would need to help them go potty by stroking their tiny bottoms with warm, wet cotton balls… peeing was crucial, so watch for yellow streaks.

“You have got to be kidding,” said a stricken Rick, accurately envisioning standing over the sink at 3 a.m. stroking a kitten’s behind.

The little male died about an hour after we got home. I may have inadvertently helped him along by trying to feed him KMR; he probably drowned. In tears, I called the vet who (for once) said the right thing: “That little guy was never going to make it no matter what anyone did.”

Trial and error consumed us. We needed a better box. We gave up the heating pad for fear of slow-cooking the remaining kittens. The hot water bottle couldn’t circulate the heat in a way that would warm each of the three. We called Rose: Fill plastic water bottles with hot water, wrap in thin towels and place strategically along the sides and corners of the box.

When they weren’t forming one dark ball of fur, the kittens sought opposite corners like tiny prizefighters, draped over water bottles. Terrified that I might kill another one with my abiding love (pervasive images of Lennie, the big guy in overalls from Of Mice and Men), I took to sleepless hovering. Days were hard enough, but nights did us in.

The schedule: sleep for two hours; get up (mostly they woke us up — cheepcheepcheep); feed with Betsy-Wetsy bottles; carry to the sink for cotton ball butt-stroking; change lukewarm water for hot water (but not too hot) in plastic bottles; settle triplets into box; tiptoe back to bed; fall into exhausted sleep while Gracie, Tawny and Sophie — our morbidly obese golden retriever, anorexic greyhound, and tennis-ball-fixated terrier — stared at us in abject confusion. Two hours later it started again.

We couldn’t keep it up. Rick and I, way past the age of fertility, had no energy for raising multiple babies of any species. We called Rose: a friend of a friend knew of a mother-cat living at the emergency vet in Placerville. The mother cat had nursed her own litter and was currently wet-nursing someone else’s. Perhaps she could fit in the triplets. We drove the twenty miles to the emergency vet and watched the mother cat with four or five kittens attached.

“Will she accept more?” I asked the vet.

“We can give it a try.”

The mother cat and I locked eyes. Her message was clear. “You have got to be kidding.”

We left the triplets, drove the twenty miles home and went directly to bed. Three glorious days of rest later, the emergency vet called with bad news and good news.

“The mother cat took them for a few days, but rejected them in the middle of the night when no one was here. Unfortunately, one of the kittens has expired, but the good news is that the other two seem fine. You will need to come and get them.”

We drove the twenty miles, allowed the vet to dispose of the “expired” kitten and left with the (now) twins. Naturally, we stopped off at Valley Feed and Grain and purchased the last of the KMR, checking to be sure Carl, the clerk, had ordered a new batch.

Over the next weeks, we often rushed the twins to the vet, with whom (along with Carl, the clerk) we were now on a first name basis: one wouldn’t poop; one was listless; one stopped eating; one couldn’t pee. Tom, the vet, somehow got them to poop, play, eat and pee. Each time, we stopped at Valley Feed and Grain for more KMR. The amount of kitten milk replacement those tiny bodies consumed was astounding.

By the time they were two months old, it dawned on us that the kittens were going to survive. We had become adept at feeding and encouraging reluctant peeing and pooping. Following one visit to Valley Feed and Grain, where we picked up a miniature litter box (yes, they have those) to begin potty training, it was clear we needed to make some decisions.

“Rick, what should we name them?”

“I thought we were going to save them, then give them up for adoption.”

“After all we’ve been through? Aren’t you attached to them?”

“No.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I want my life back.”

“It will be different when they’re adult cats.”

“It certainly will. We’ll have to pay the vet.”

“They won’t cost much. They’re healthy, mountain cats.” (I actually said that.)

Rick knew he was beaten.

“I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. “We’ll name them Thelma and Louise!”

And so, the longhaired one with double-claws on her thumbs was christened Thelma. The shorthaired one with eyes like that horrific movie doll, Chucky, and seven toes on one paw alone, became Louise. Their out-of-danger kittenhood was adorable. They marched around on Gracie’s head and back, hung from Tawny’s ears and tail, confiscated Sophie’s tennis balls, and slept in the dog food bowls. We made them indoor cats as the vet suggested, because I was terrified of coyotes — not to mention snakes, eagles, vultures and foxes.

When they were nearly a year old, Rick and I were about to set off for France on the vacation of a lifetime. We scheduled the kennel to care for the three dogs and two cats (at a cost that rivaled our airfare to Europe). The night before, I opened the back door to let the dogs inside — and out darted Louise. Racing after her, I watched in horror as she deftly leapt up the mountain and disappeared.

We called Rose: should we leave out food and water? Absolutely not — all the mountain animals would set up a homeless camp on our deck. Rose would drive the twenty miles to our house everyday in hopes of spotting Louise. It was the best we could do. I didn’t sleep all night. I lurched out of bed at every critter sound. At 5 a.m., Louise came home. Forcing myself not to screech at her, I opened the side door and Louise sauntered in, sat down and methodically licked her rear end, then sneered at me like Chucky: What’s your problem? We called Rose and cancelled.

Ten days later, we arrived at the kennel to collect our menagerie. The kennel staff solemnly directed us to follow them to the cat house where they flatly refused to extricate The Cats from Hell from their cages. It seems Thelma and Louise had picked fights with each other from the second we dropped them off, joining forces only to assault approaching humans. Their ensuing separation, feeding times, litter box cleaning and water refilling were undertaken by an elite SWAT team of handlers armed with welding gloves, face masks and broomsticks in order to avoid the collective 25 claws on their front paws alone (polydactyl).

A couple of months later Louise, who clearly did not relish the indoor cat lifestyle, got out again and disappeared up the mountain. I hiked every inch of Mt. Aukum twice a day for two weeks. The hills were alive with the sound of “Louise…LOUISE?” I slept restlessly, plagued by nightmares of starving coyotes and packs of horny tomcats. We were resigned. Surely Louise was gone for good. No human would have picked her up. Trust me on this; Louise is not the cute, cuddly type of pet that attracts human beings.

In the third week, Rick was outside early. I heard him talking to something but figured it was birds or deer (talking to the animals was a common occurrence — it could get pretty lonely up there). The next thing I knew, Rick sailed into the house with Louise draped on his shoulders like a shawl.

The seventh toe was causing problems. Louise needed surgery to remove the entire toe. Tom, the vet, put a positive spin on it.

“Just think — you’ll have one less knife-sharp claw to contend with,” he said, glancing at the red scratches on our arms and necks.

Thelma and Louise were out of danger, so we had to pay up for toe removal. We still received praise for our valiant efforts in saving doomed kittens, but vets need European vacations too.

From the beginning it was clear that Thelma was… special. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but we suspect high-functioning autism. When she ventures outside (rarely), she sits under the deck and stares. Now, I’m aware that staring is a cat thing. They’re good at it. But Thelma is All-League, MVP. She sits for long periods of time… staring at my face. If I reach to pet her, she twitches, Tourette’s-like, just out of reach, backs up and resumes staring. Thelma prefers the indoors because her fun stuff is there: the carpet for shredding; clean countertops for traipsing on after litterbox usage; the hallway for racing up and down at 2 a.m.; furnishings on which to vomit; light-colored fabrics on which to leave long, dark hair. And purring doesn’t come naturally to her. Thelma catwalks to a different drummer — we just let her be.

Louise, on the other hand, is a sociopath. Her disdain for Thelma is clear, but Louise has no patience with sub-par behavior from anyone, regardless of species. You know how one kid is always harder to handle than the others? Louise is that kid.

Also, from her second year on, Louise has been plagued by bladder infections. Inappropriate peeing is her way of letting us know about a reoccurrence. She has a knack for peeing on costly items that are next to impossible to clean: non-removable microfiber cushions; guest room upholstered headboard (no clue how she managed that); pillows, bedding and dog beds that have to be thrown out. We dash to the vet for her meds — so she’ll feel better, of course, but also to save our furniture. (A note about cat pee: The Defense Department should look into using cat-pee as a biological weapon of mass destruction. I’m just saying…)

Giving Louise meds is surreal. She has a built-in pill detector, no matter how cleverly disguised or pulverized. She would starve to death before she would consume a pill.

The vet says, casually, “Okay then. Give her liquid form. Just squirt a syringe-full in her mouth twice a day.”

Rick and I look at each other, then at him, and say in unison, “You have got to be kidding.”

Louise is also psychic, somehow able to distinguish the opening of the refrigerator door twenty times a day from the precise moment it’s opened to retrieve her meds, at which time she makes a break for it, usually under the guest room bed. We get the vacuum cleaner (Louise hates the vacuum cleaner) and barricade the guest room. When she runs out, one of us grabs and makes a burrito out of her with a towel. Then Rick paralyzes her by gripping the back of her neck, and I stick the syringe full of pink stuff down her throat — twice a day for ten days. It’s a two-person job. If one of us dies, I have no idea how Louise will get her medicine. One time, the vet decided to order a urine culture (oh my… that was fun), after which we gave her different medstwice a day for four months. At least it wasn’t every two hours around the clock.

Gracie, Tawny and Sophie are gone. Tawny went first (from being age 14), then Sophie (diabetes), finally Gracie (obesity/ age-related thing). Thelma and Louise live on. They very likely could outlive us. Rick and I are in our sixties and Thelma and Louise are eight. It’s going to be close.

I extracted a promise from our youngest son to care for the cats if we die first. He rolled his eyes in resignation, while my daughter-in-law looked stricken, probably recalling once being trapped in the bathroom by Louise with her Chucky eyes, 22 claws and violent tendencies. Our oldest son lives in rented, no-pets apartments… on purpose.

Given the opportunity, would I do it all again? Are you crazy? NO. Still, I have to admit there is something about Thelma and Louise (notice my inability to be specific). No matter how difficult they are, they are ours, and we are in it for the long haul.

There must be something to learn from this experience, and so, FYI: Here are five things to remember if you decide you must own a cat.

  1. Do not believe any fool who tells you cats are easy.
  2. If you have a mental lapse and get a cat, do not ever acquire a Tortie on purpose (unless it’s a male — then sell it).
  3. If you are coerced into adopting a Tortie, open a cat-care savings account and purchase a good first aid kit.
  4. Cover your floors in linoleum and buy furniture at Goodwill.
  5. Never forget that no good deed goes unpunished.
Justine Blank’s life took her on a zigzag path: work (flight attendant, marketing, aerobics instructor, graduate student, digital art) and family (marriage and two sons). Writing and reading remained her constant. She has had two essays published, online and in an artist’s book on aging.

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