Posts from the ‘Paper Collage’ Category
Champions of the Undercat
February 10, 2015
A Toast to the Most Marvel-ous of Kittens
A person is a person, no matter how small.
This, and subsequent quotes, from Dr. Seuss
Over the last few months, cat lovers all over the world watched a very special kitten grow into his happy, healthy place in the world. Professor Marvel of the Kittens of Oz, he of the cleft nose and unique mouth, graduated from Tiny Kittens Headquarters late last week and was adopted into his forever home with sibling Toto. Everyone cheered, and some brave souls, including his foster mom, admitted to being teary eyed. After all, we watched this guy from the time he was born, took his first bottle, and later plunged his little face into a big bowl of mushy kitten food. He was OK! His cheerful countenance started and ended our days, and now, he is off camera.
Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.
Many years ago, as I prepared to adopt my second cat, I wandered into the Denver Dumb Friends League and read a pamphlet about how to choose a new companion. I was advised to select the healthiest-looking and the most outgoing cat in the group, the one who, with bright eyes, strolls energetically to the cage door, puts out a paw, and says, “Take ME home!”
Of course, being a contrarian and the perpetual champion of under-cats, I let my heart make the decision. Huddled at the back of the cage, a tiny gray and white girl looked at me with eyes filled with green goop, and hope. I knew my wonderful vet could take care of what ailed her, so off we went. Pamphlet be damned, because that sickly kitten grew into a beautiful sleek cat, and a dear friend.
Flash forward fifteen years, and there I am again, this time working at a shelter. Initially hired to create an education and outreach program, I did not officially do adoptions for the first several months I was there. That said, I kept track of every special needs cat who came into the shelter, and helped place as many of them as I could until I had exhausted the goodwill of friends. Most stopped answering my calls after a while, and one warned that if I told her about another blind, three-legged cat, she would stop speaking to me altogether.
It was rough to hit the wall of reality as hard as I did. The fact was, and sadly remains that there are exponentially more cats than there are homes for them. And many, if not most, potential adopters move to the next cage when they see a special needs cat. To be effective as both a humane educator and an adoption counselor, I had to become “practical”, a word I often loathe. Adulthood, with all its burdens, is not all it is cracked up to be.
Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.
In quiet moments, I can remember what it was like to be a child who loved all creatures without qualification. My grandparents had a dog with epilepsy, and one night, he had a seizure under the dinner table. We children were rushed out of the room, but I wanted to stay and comfort Beau, even though I was warned he might unintentionally bite me. It was natural to reach out, even through my own fear.
At that tender age, I started to champion beings of all species who lived on the margins. And then I began to realize that I was one of them. In third grade, a well-meaning but poorly informed teacher tried to help me write in cursive with my right hand. Until then, I had been decidedly left-sided, and as I tried my best to comply, everything went haywire. I started to reverse numbers and letters, reading was no longer easy, and although no one knew much about it at the time, I was clearly struggling with dyslexia. I pushed myself to figure out ways around it, and while I did well in school, the whole process was exhausting. It still is, although I now appreciate the value of experiencing the world through visual images. As difficult as it has been, my learning disability led me down a creative path to art.
And like so many children, I realized early on that I would never fit in with society’s expectations, let alone my parents’. I marched to a different drummer from the beginning, and by the time I was in high school, realized I was falling in love with my best friend. Ooops! At least I had the good sense not to tell her, or anyone else, until I was safely on my own.
After coming out in my early 20’s, I joined a feminist publishing collective. We spent a lot of time talking about the personal as political, and late one night after an editorial meeting, we sat around our typewriters and talked about messages we’d gotten about ourselves as young girls. Everyone shared stories about growing up, some funny, others sad or infuriating. When it was my turn, I pointed to my large, muscular legs. My mother, a beautiful woman who could easily have been a model, once asked me to stop riding my bike so my legs wouldn’t be so un-ladylike. Ouch! I never once considered abandoning my bike, but I felt the sting. I confessed to my fellow collective members that, even though I knew better, I was still embarrassed by my legs. One asked, “What’s wrong with them? Can’t you walk?” Yes, I could walk, and at the time, ran over 5 miles a day. “So, stop with that already,” she added, “And accept your own beauty.”
Every time I see someone who really struggles to walk and defies all physical odds, I think about the courage it takes to cross the street. And the beauty of determination.
Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
So, years ago, I threw out that adoption pamphlet, and have had the great joy of living with a variety of cats, many of whom had special needs from the outset, or later in their lives. It seems my partner and I have recently adopted another special cat, this time without knowing it.
After our beloved Siberia died in November, his companion Sam let us know he wanted a new friend sooner rather than later. We started to peruse Petfinder, found the perfect match, traveled across the water to meet him, and walked into a distant adoption event just as another family was finishing their paperwork. It felt as if we had lost yet another little gray cat, one we hadn’t even known. The tears welled up once again as we made our way back home without a new friend for Sam.
Back to Petfinder, and this time we read about a cute little black cat, the right age and temperament, who, in his description, promised to be a good kitty. This time, the adoption process was rigorous. We did a phone interview and meet-and-greet, and the rescue did extensive reference checks and a home visit. We were glad to comply, but there was a little glitch. Even though the organization soon knew everything about us, they hadn’t told us everything about Max. At the home visit, the shelter worker congratulated us on a successful adoption, and said, “You know about his hip, right?” His hip? Seems the staff we interviewed with at the rescue did not know that Max had major surgery in September, and the woman who delivered him to us could tell us nothing more about it. Of course, we had already fallen in love, and had committed to taking care of this little guy. We certainly were not going to send him back.
Max and Sam immediately became good buddies, and the day after their introduction raced around the house for several, joyous hours. And then, Max began to limp, and we started making calls to connect the dots. He was hit by a car in California, where he was initially rescued, and the shelter there covered surgery to repair his broken pelvis. He was then sent to Washington to recover at a local vet clinic before being put up for adoption.
Everyone at the rescue fell in love with this indomitable character, who charms humans and cats alike. Max was their official dog tester, and we can understand why. Despite everything that has happened to him, he is a rough-and-tumble cat with complete self-confidence, and a great sense of humor. Best of all, he adores Sam, and is gentle with our old Finn cat. We are told that it will still take several months for him to heal, and that he needs to keep building strength. He will either be completely fine, or he will always have a limp and an interesting way of arranging his back legs when he rests, a quirky sploot, if you will. Either way, we are keeping him as comfortable as possible as he develops more muscle, even if that requires some time-outs for rest. He doesn’t like that one bit, but Sam appreciates little pieces of peace and quiet.
Our new black cat came to us with the name of Georgie, but was quick to agree to a change. He is Max, king of the Wild Things, who returns home for dinner after his wild rumpus. We are so glad he chose us. For being adults, we aren’t half bad.
Why fit in when you born to stand out?
A few weeks ago, I had the great fortune of visiting Shelly and the Kittens of Oz. There were some bittersweet moments as I delivered the framed portrait I had created of the Jungle Kittens, but there was another reason for my visit.
In November, as I wrote about losing Siberia, I started the blog with Shelly’s voice. I had the cam up as I worked that day, and could hear her speaking gently to mama-cat-to-be Dorothy as she began contractions. The next day, the mother of Oz finally went into long, hard labor, and had no idea what to do with her kittens as they were born. Had Shelly not taken over, none of them would have survived, and that most likely includes Dorothy.
I remember how Shelly reacted as she cleaned Marvel and noted that his nose was different. There was no trace of panic, but she was curious. From the very beginning, Shelly saw him as especially cute, and perfect in his own way. We all breathed a sigh of relief when Dr. Ferguson examined him soon after and said that barring anything wrong internally, she thought Marvel would thrive with bottle feedings if he could not nurse. He couldn’t, and Shelly fed him around the clock until he started eating on his own. Everyone watching this unfold was hooked even more than they had been.
Shelly touches countless people through her work with the Langley Animal Protection Society. But there is more to this magic than just fostering on camera. Tiny Kittens engages viewers through our hearts and imaginations, and Marvel became a symbol of something we all want for ourselves.
If we are honest, each one of knows that something about us is different, and may well not be valued by a culture that narrowly defines perfection. No one can ever really fit the definition, but we can waste a good deal of our lives trying to change ourselves and squeeze into a box that is much too small. What if we had someone like Shelly to tell us that we were perfect not in spite of – but because of – our special little nose and mouth (or our unique way of learning, or our strong legs)? What if we knew that we are just fine as we are?
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better. It’s not.
Everyone who watched the Kittens of Oz knew that it would be particularly hard for Shelly to say goodbye to Marvel, and a small but mighty group decided to do something special to thank her for including us in this journey. A secret group came together, and everyone enthusiastically suggested ideas of what Shelly would like. Soon, it became apparent that nothing in the world would mean more to her than support of a project near and dear to Shelly’s heart. She has been working steadfastly to raise awareness of the need for a separate building at LAPS to house cats with potentially infectious diseases. Everyone agreed to raise money for the ISOasis, and within a few weeks, $6000 was raised in secret. Donors generosity was matched by the growing excitement as the dollar total climbed. At the end of the drive, no one could quite believe what had been accomplished, but all knew this would be an incredible surprise for Shelly.
I proposed doing a portrait of Marvel as a gift to her, and everyone chimed in with great design ideas and support. When I work with the image of an animal, the process is as different as his or her own personality. Collaborating with Marvel was sheer delight, but ever the Professor, he wanted to teach me something new about my medium. First question: how to capture the coloring of his eyes? The Oz kittens all have remnant fetal tissue in their irises, and while it causes no problems with vision, it is, well, different to capture. I expanded a close-up of Marvel’s eyes on my computer until I found the right combination of transparent papers to give them depth. And then there was that special nose. After hours of trying to shape the paper, I built a little armature, using a pair of chopsticks to form the cleft. I could hear the universe chuckle.
When I arrived at TKHQ for my visit, I secretly passed the portrait to a co-conspirator before I had even gotten a glimpse of Marvel. During the next hour, I held him and several of his siblings for brief moments before they squirmed away to join the play action on the floor. Later, when he was ready to nap, Marvel cuddled in my arms for a long time, and I studied every detail of his dear face. Unless I am portraying my own cats, I rarely have the opportunity to look so closely. Or feel so connected. That experience was a gift, one for which I will be forever grateful.
Shelly was presented with the donation to the ISOasis and the portrait the day after Dorothy and the kittens of Oz started the next chapter of their lives in new homes. Every person who donated to the ISOasis shares the same heartfelt wish for Marvel, his family, and all the cats who will eventually benefit from the ISOasis: love and good care for the length of their lives, and the chance to be treasured as a unique individuals.
And now, a parting message from Marvel, Champion of all Undercats:
I may be super special, and so is my foster mom. But there are many super special cats, and some really great people who take care of them. They all need support, so don’t forget your local rescues and shelters. Share the love, and send them a donation. And remember that rescue cats are the very best. Just tell them Marvel says so!
It Takes a Village
January 1, 2014
There can be no vulnerability without risk. There can be no community without vulnerability. There can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. M. Scott Peck
Because this first blog post of 2014 has a happy ending, we might as well begin it with “Once upon a time.” So, here goes.
Once upon a time, in a land not far south of Seattle, there was a handsome young cat named Gabriel. Actually, no one knew his given name at the time he was first seen feeding with a group of feral cats behind an office building. No one knew how he had suddenly come to be there, but the kind women who fed him did know that he was not feral, and that something was wrong with his back legs. Terribly wrong, in fact, because Gabriel could barely move without pulling himself with his front legs.
As it happened, the women who fed Gabriel knew an animal- loving man in the office building who agreed to take the injured tabby to his animal-loving daughter. Enter Gabriel’s fairy godmother, a woman who has spent much of her life rescuing and caring for cats. She took one look at this beautiful brown tabby and bestowed on him a name with dignity, hope, and wings. Gabriel would need all three for the adventure he was about to begin.
Initial x-rays revealed bad breaks and dislocation in Gabriel’s both legs. The veterinarian believed surgery could work, but the cost was well beyond the means of his rescuers. His godmother refused to resign herself to the worst. She had fallen in love with this fellow, seen the spark in his eyes, and knew there was a way to help him if she told his story. Word spread, and within a few days, Purrfect Pals agreed to take Gabriel and provide the care he needed.
By the time Gabriel arrived at the shelter in Arlington, he had many concerned followers. A fund was set up in his name, and donations from all over the world helped pay for his surgery. After a long and involved procedure, the orthopedic surgeon noted he had never seen anything quite like Gabriel’s injuries. Whatever happened had caused this young cat unthinkable pain. His will to survive was essential to his recovery.
Back at Purrfect Pals, Gabriel amazed his caregivers. He healed quickly, used his back legs eagerly, and was soon ready for a forever home. His adopters, a physical therapist and a nurse, had been following his story, knowing they had the unique skills to help him fully recover. Gabriel now has a loving family, and an opportunity to make up for a lost kittenhood. His humans believe he is actually younger than first estimated, and his cat and dog siblings often wish he were less rambunctious. Gabriel tears around the house with boundless energy, stopping for an occasional cuddle before he dashes up the stairs to oversee his kingdom.
With the help of many caring people, this story unfolded quickly. Gabriel was found at the end of June 2013, and was in his new home a month later. I got to assist with his transport to Purrfect Pals, and his godmother and I watched with wonder as he intrepidly explored the shelter office despite his impaired mobility. I knew he had to be part of the 13 Cats Project, and started to design a quilt of bright, energetic colors for him to rest on during his recovery. But before I could even start stitching, Gabriel was well on his way. His “healing” quilt is now a place for him to rest between his many adventures.
Gabriel got a second chance because so many people were willing to take risks on his behalf. A fairytale ending was never guaranteed, but then, it never is. It truly takes a village of fairy godmothers, skilled veterinarians, willing adopters, and a shelter where every cat matters.
As the New Year beckons with promise, we all have a chance to make a difference. Please welcome 2014 with a donation to an animal shelter in your area. I plan to share part of my first paycheck of the year with Purrfect Pals, in honor of Gabriel, and all of the cats who can look forward to their happily-ever-after beginnings in the months ahead.
Petting the Tiger
September 27, 2013
“God created the cat so man would know what it was like to pet the tiger.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson
The show for which I have been madly creating work opens on October 8th at the Gallery at Town Center, in Lake Forest Park, Washington. The last pieces are now at the framer, and I have a quiet, in-between moment to reflect on this wonderful, intense process.
In Missing Lynx, my first blog post about preparing for a show, I talked about muses. Every time I have created a body of work, an animal has come forward and offered to work with me. The lynx I created arrived first, leaving fresh tracks in the snow, and has since watched from the living room mantle, welcoming every animal who followed in the last several weeks. There are bigger cats, and many birds, and finally, two small felines, bookends of this amazingly creative work cycle that began a year ago, inspired by a group of kittens and their very special mother.
And so, I come full circle. I did not grow up with cats, did not live with one until I was twenty, and I have always felt as if I had to make up for lost time. A fascination became a passion, one that continues to guide my life’s adventure. Even when I worked at a shelter, I craved even more interaction with cats. I got home, spent time with my resident felines, and then went for long walks to commune with neighboring cats of the night. They were my outdoor inspiration, each one a reminder of Leonardo daVinci’s observation, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
A Canada Lynx may be the muse for my current work, but Felis catus, the small masterpieces who share my house and my computer screen, are my daily muses. Last year, I fell for a Kitten Cam family, fostered by Purrfect Pals volunteer John Bartlett. John sets up a camera in his kitten room so viewers can watch little ones from the time they are born until they are old enough for adoption. A whole community revolves around that camera, an extended family of ailurophiles from around the world. Tune in any time day or night, and you will find folks chatting about kitten antics, their own pets, what they had for dinner. It goes deeper, into friendships off line, shared dreams and hopes, support during times of hardship and loss. And perhaps the greatest gift of all: no one has to make excuses for being a cat person.
Last year, the Scientist Kittens captured my imagination, and got me back into the studio to do their portrait. On September 29, 2012, Einstein, Tesla, Darwin, and Newton were adopted into their forever homes. Marie, their mother, spent some time recovering her health at Purrfect Pals, and then found the best home imaginable in late November. Their human families keep fans up to date with regular Facebook posts.
Since then, several families have grown up on the Kitten Cam and found their humans. Tomorrow, the Looney fosters will get their turn. Penelope, Taz, Marvin, Sylvester, and mama Hazel have legions of followers who will watch anxiously for updates until every one of them has been adopted.
As I chose the subjects for my last show pieces, I thought gratefully of 2 of my most recent muses: Ellie Marie, Scientist mother; and Hazel, soon to be freed from the duties of motherhood to experience her own, playful kittenhood. These lovely ladies have captured many hearts, my own included. So, to both of you, thank you for inspiring me, for refueling my passion to work on behalf of your species.
I will be honored to have work at The Gallery at Town Center from October 8 through November 16. A percentage of the sale of Ellie Marie’s and Hazel’s portraits will be donated to Purrfect Pals.
August 30, 2013
From the introduction to Dream Animals, a book written by James Hillman with paintings by Margot McLean:
James Hillman: Are you saying that studying animals, knowing about them, even feeling for them isn’t enough? We have to imagine them. Get into them as imaginal beings, into them as images . . .
Margot McLean: What I’m saying is I believe a little anthropomorphizing is necessary. For me to be inside means entering the animal’s body and trying to see the world from there. It simply does not make sense to separate ourselves from the animal world when there are far too many concrete similarities.
I am hard at work preparing for a show opening at The Gallery at Town Center on October 8. Putting together a body of work is always a compelling experience for artists, a creative process with its own agenda. With little more than a month before the show opens, I do not have time to over-think anything, and figure that after invoking my muse, I should follow her prompts, even if they seem random and arrive at 3 a.m. If I resist, I work against her, myself, and all the animals asking for form.
So, while I keep up with my day job, I allow my subconscious self to be overtaken by the images passing through me. With equal amounts of focus and fortune, some of them make it to sketch stage, and then into a paper collage, and finally into a frame, ready to hang on a gallery wall.
But I can’t really surrender until an animal steps forward as a mentor. As I prepared for a significant show in 2002, the first one to show up was a nighthawk who flew into my lap during a strange and wonderful dream. To this day, I remember how happy I was collaborating with that bird as it emerged on my drafting table, and then stayed to supervise the rest of the work I created for the show. I couldn’t sell the piece when the time came, but was happy to hang it with a Not for Sale tag as it oversaw the exhibit.
This time, long before I sent out a request for a mentor, I let the theme of October’s show move through a few iterations. My intention is to pay homage to animals with whom I have a deep connection, ones I have actually, physically worked with. At first, the title “Indicator Species” surfaced and stuck around for a while. When I read about another animal going extinct, my thoughts about the future run dark. While every loss is critical, there are some species I cannot bear to live without in this world. They are my personal indicator species. Tigers gone? I’m not far behind if that happens. How could I exist without knowing they still roamed free somewhere besides my imagination?
My next working title was “Familiars,” until I considered the implications of the word. It suggests an exchange of sorts, and probably not a very equal one as I ask animals to do something for me. Over time, they have done more than enough. I am alive because of their generosity, and that is not an exaggeration. Now I want to give back, no strings attached, except for the inspiration to make the art. And then the big Aha! The animals themselves are the muses who wake me up at night and tell me what they want to happen. “Muses” it is.
And into this awareness strolls a Canada Lynx, my main muse for this collection of portraits. While I worked at Woodland Park Zoo many moons ago, we received a pair of lynx from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Manitoba. Shy animals to begin with, these two were nearly invisible at the back of an enclosure that did not serve their needs. Before we could make changes, we needed to know how they were using the space, and what stressed them. That meant observing them when they were most active: before dawn, without human activity on the grounds.
For two months, I arrived at the zoo every morning before 5 a.m. I perched silently on the back of a bench, binoculars in hand, to watch Pierre and Dominique, as we named them, interact with the enclosure. In time, I knew what we could do to make life in captivity better for them. Most of the changes were easy – moving a marking log to the front so they could claim a corner, putting a small shrub in the back so they had more privacy when eating, changing the placement of their den door so it opened out of public view. With each modification, the lynx relaxed a little more. They eventually moved into their new space.
And I fell completely in love with these ghost-like cats. Of course, they sensed me in the early morning, but got more comfortable as the weeks unfolded. During my regular shift in the feline unit, Pierre and Dominique allowed me into their enclosure to clean, and sat quietly watching. In their presence, I moved slowly, consciously, gratefully. Time was suspended, and nothing else existed for me but two beautiful, silent, intense beings.
Seeing my increasing devotion to the lynx, Helen Freeman, then Curator of Education at the Zoo and founder of the International Snow Leopard Trust, encouraged me to get involved in their protection. Years of trapping and dwindling habitat has forced these cats to the brink of extinction in many places. I volunteered with Defenders of Wildlife to help get Canada Lynx listed as a threatened species in states with remnant populations, and it was after the conference in DC that I began to perceive other ways of bringing attention to their plight.
On the way home from the conference, I sketched on the plane, faint images of cats in the wild, still visible, but retreating deeper into their disappearing habitats. The idea was there, but my artistic skills were not. They are now. I started the work that is currently on my drafting table a long time ago. In the intervening years, the cats I imagined seemed real enough to speak, and they challenged me to learn my medium well enough to create portraits, to make their gaze so convincing that no one could ignore them.
Of all the animals I have worked with, Canada Lynx are not the flashiest, but they are the ones I have missed the most. Or maybe what I long for is the sense of peace I felt in their presence. Life so often feels loud and out of control, and I am left exhausted. I cannot create from that place, and I certainly cannot hear the whispers of my muses. As soon as I slowed down to focus on this show, Pierre and Dominique brushed quietly against me. They offered to see me through this process, to be my muses. I will soon get to the big, sexy cats, but for now, I am grateful to have my work seen through the keen eyes of Canada Lynx.
James Hillman: . . . some theories say that we got our words from the sounds of animals. So, I like to think that the right words say something to the animals, too.
Margot McLean: That’s nice, a message to the animals. Hmmm . . .
James Hillman: In part, I am trying to tell them something: a message about how they register in the human imagination, in our lore and fantasy, in our symbol systems, even what our zoology says about them. Like a report to them about how they are perceived. . . Our civilized mind makes a terrible mistake by contrasting “real” animals and animal “images,” as if the one standing in the zoo and the one you meet in a dream are two different beasts altogether.
The Remedy for Love
May 14, 2013
May 15th is a great day to make a donation to honor someone you love. It is Give Big Day, sponsored by the Seattle Foundation, when contributions to over 1400 organizations will be “stretched” through a matching pool. I am making a donation to Purrfect Pals in memory of a very special cat. Please join me by giving what you can in celebration of someone who has made a difference in your life:
“There is no remedy for love but to love more.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Along with the joy of living with animals comes the inevitable heartbreak of losing them. Our companions never live long enough, no matter how well we care for them. And when they leave, there is a huge hole in our lives. Sometimes it takes a long time to heal.
A year ago today, I said goodbye to Possum, a gray cat who had been with me through the steep ups and downs of our fifteen years together. I have loved many cats in my life, and like a good parent, I should not admit to having a favorite. But I did, and getting over this loss remains an unfolding process. I still reach for him in the early morning, and remember with a sharp pang that he is no longer here.
Poss was rescued by Friends of Campus Cats near the Mary Gates building at the University of Washington when he was just a few days old. Sharon and Diana, the stalwarts of Campus Cats, managed to trap, spay/neuter, and release hundreds of cats at the U, but Possum’s mother eluded them until shortly after he and his siblings were born. Three of them were strong and healthy, but Poss came close to dying several times. He could not shake a tenacious case of coccidiosis, and by the time he was 4 months old, he had spent a frightening number of nights getting fluids at an emergency clinic.
People who have worked with animals know that ones who are gravely ill often develop an ethereal sweetness, and despite their weakness, are completely present. Possum was like that. I fell in love with him while I was volunteering with Campus Cats. I didn’t intend to fall for a kitten with such limited chances, but how do we choose who captures our hearts?
And how can we predict who will survive, despite the odds? By the time he was 6 months old, Possum was stronger. Two months later, his devoted caregivers allowed me to adopt him. I set up a room for him, and planned a thoughtful introduction to the other resident cats, one of whom could be a terrible bully. In the middle of our first night together, I heard Poss crying. When I opened the door to check on him, he slipped past me, ran right to the orange menace, and immediately disarmed him with a surprise head rub. There was never an issue between the two of them, and over time, my gray boy proved to be quite the diplomat, always befriending new cats and facilitating easy introductions.
Possum was a gentle observer, quiet, and sometimes goofy as he did mid-air back flips in pursuit of raffia. He was also the most arboreal cat I’ve known, leaping from the floor to the tops of doors where he perched for hours watching the world below him. I thought about writing and illustrating a picture book that would begin with the line, “My cat Possum thinks he is a lemur.” It would portray him as the many animals he was: prairie dog, greyhound, bushtit, and in his later ground-bound life, turtle and toad. The last illustration would explain why he was named Possum: as a puny kitten, he squeezed between his much larger siblings at the bowl, with only his long , skinny tail visible. His rescuers thought he looked like his namesake.
That little runt grew into a gorgeous cat, long and lithe, with a velvet coat and almost comically small ears. A veterinarian once asked me if he knew how handsome he was. I responded that no, he was quite unaware. She said that he was lucky because self-conscious beauty in any being could be a burden.
Possum and I lived through many losses together, and each of them brought me to a deeper understanding of unqualified love. I could be a sobbing mess, and he never left my side. He was a cheerful morning animal, and I started every day cuddling with him, rubbing his belly as he purred deeply. I miss those moments the most.
Early last spring, something was clearly wrong. Exams and blood work could not explain Possum’s increasing weakness and confusion. When we realized he had suddenly gone blind, we suspected a brain tumor, but chose not to put him through extensive diagnostic testing. It all happened so fast, and when he could no longer hold up his head, we decided it was time to schedule euthanasia.
I have said goodbye to more cats than I can count, and it is never, ever easy. Before they die, I think of those cats who have gone before, and I ask them to help the others cross over. Before Possum died, I could not even conjure the images of his predecessors. Their world on the other side of mine was silent, closed. I felt empty, and somewhat panicked. I needed their help to ease this transition for Possum, and for myself.
The night before our scheduled appointment, I slept on the couch to be closer to Poss in his basket. He did not even seem to know I was there. Just before dawn, in the liminal space between dreaming and waking, I sensed a large feline presence next to me. It was a tiger, a healthy young male. I asked him for help, and he responded that if I could hold Possum close to me while I followed him into the darkness, he would make sure my gray cat passed safely. When I finally woke in the light of mid-May, I lifted Possum into my arms, and we began our last few hours together. I assured him that he would be alright, and I almost believed it.
I can’t deny that it was a rough passage. My gentle cat, unable to move when I carried him out of our house, surged with energy and fought until his big heart was finally still. A friend suggested to me that it was tiger energy, that he had begun his journey into the unknown with a roar. A few months later, I began a series of portraits with the image of a Bengal tiger. Then, I created Possum, and finally the two of them together, Poss glancing over his shoulder at me one last time. It is the strongest artwork I have ever done. It was the beginning of my own passage into a new chapter of life.
A year later, I have vivid images of not one, but two cats to remind me to be both gentle and strong, and to love fiercely. And I think of my favorite Thoreau quote. It is a homeopathic remedy: treat love lost by loving even more.
Shortly after Possum died, I sent a donation to Friends of Campus Cats to thank them for bringing the best cat ever into my life. Today, I am making a contribution to Purrfect Pals. I am paying forward in gratitude for a cat I have not yet met who will fill my life with joy. I will never replace Possum, but there is too much love in this heart not to share it.
A Tale of Two Mothers
May 10, 2013
One cat just leads to another. ~Ernest Hemingway
Yes, it is ironic to start a Mother’s Day blog with a quote from Ernest Hemingway. I am sure many people referred to Papa as a “mother” during his life, and he most likely deserved it. He was a troubled, tough guy, with a big soft spot in his heart for cats. A friend recently returned from the Florida Keys with stories about Hemingway’s house, now a museum, and home to over 40 cats, descendants of Snowball, the polydactyl kitten given to the author by a sea captain over 80 years ago. Without me even having to ask the question, my friend explained that there was a spay/neuter program in place. Females have one litter, are then spayed, and the original line continues.
Since that conversation, I’ve thought about how many cats a single, unspayed female produces. A look online yielded some wild numbers, up to 400,000 if all her offpring are also reproductive. Snopes debunked that total, citing a feral cat colony study done by the University of Washington’s Math Department:
“Here are the assumptions used for the population projection: One female cat gives birth to six kittens per year. Kitten gender is 50 percent female, and only 25 percent of kittens survive to reproductive age. All surviving female kittens become adults and reproduce with the same birth and kitten mortality rates. If no adult cats ever die, how many cats/kittens would there be at the end of seven years? One female cat and her offspring could produce between 100 and 400 cats by the end of seven years.”
Given that cats can have multiple litters in a year, the estimate seems low, but still a nightmarish statistic for those contending with overpopulation. Cats can become pregnant at a mere 6 months, when they are still kittens themselves, which is why progressive shelters spay and neuter as early as 2 months of age. If they are not already strays, many pregnant cats are turned out of their homes because people don’t want to deal with kittens. Not that long ago, humans did the same thing to our own. Every town has old buildings that were euphemistically called” homes for unwed mothers,” and in some places in the world, pregnant women still deliver their children in exile from their communities.
If a feline mother is lucky, she is taken in by concerned people who either foster or find a rescue organization to care for the cat and her kittens until they can be adopted. In my last post, I wrote about the opportunity that Purrfect Pals and Foster Dad John Bartlett have given us through the Kitten Cam. In the comfort of our own homes, we can watch a mother cat and her kittens, knowing that their stories will end happily when they all find their forever homes.
And now, the stories of 2 cats I want to honor this Mother’s Day. The first is rather famous. Named for the Sigourney Weaver character in Alien, Ripley is a slim and elegant cat. Found as a stray and taken to a shelter, she ended up at Purrfect Pals, where she gave birth to 5 kittens.
In John’s words, “Ripley doted on her kittens constantly when they were newborns, always providing them with a warm belly to feel safe with and to nurse. Her fans remember her fondly for her trademarked wide-eyed look every time she heard any kind of noise that couldn’t be 100% identified.” Ripley won the hearts of thousands of Kitten Cam viewers, and we held our collective breath on adoption day as her kittens left one by one, and Ripley patiently waited.
The wait was worth it. In the afternoon, John posted a message to tell us someone was on the way to save the day, and later, he shared a picture captioned “Ripley with her gentleman.” As it turns out, Ripley has a whole family, with 2 loving people, and 2 other cats who have accepted her into the fold.
And onto the quilt I made her. Ripley will represent the Kitten Cam mamas in the 13 Cats Project, and indeed, her story is a fairytale, from the lonely streets to a loving home.
Another mother who will be featured in the project still awaits her forever home. Glorianne is a Himalayan, recently rescued from a breeding facility where she had been regularly bred for a decade. That means Glori had at least 10 kittens a year, probably close to one hundred before she was finally spayed by Purrfect Pals. She was surrendered along with 2 breeding males, Gordon and Gunther, who are about her age. All of them spent their lives in individual cages, handled only when they were bred, but otherwise lacking any interaction with people or other cats. Without proper socialization, and in poor condition when they arrived at the shelter, their adoption prospects looked bleak.
Enter Purrfect Pals, and their relentless belief in every cat in their care. Glori, Gordon, and Gunther spent the next few months pampered by foster mother extraordinaire Connie Gabelein, Executive Director at Purrfect Pals. Connie lured the three Gs out of hiding with countless cans of smelly food. She slowly gained their trust, and they became more confident. Last weekend, they were introduced to the world at the Average Joe Cat Show, and are now available for adoption at the Issaquah Petco. All three have their quilts already, each stitched from William Morris reproduction fabrics in different color schemes. I figured that if ever a group of cats deserved dignified quilts, it was the Gs. As soon as they find their forever people, I will do their portraits, and finish writing their stories.
So, back to the Hemingway quote. I admit to using it a bit out of context. Papa didn’t intentionally refer to cat reproduction, although he was surrounded by unspayed females, one generation leading right into the next. My interpretation of his words is this: when cat lovers invite one feline into our hearts and homes, there is inevitably room for more. Ripley’s family found that open space. It is my fervent hope that Glorianne, Gordon, and Gunther find their people soon. Even more than that, I hope that everyone will realize the importance of adopting from rescue groups and shelters, and that in time, no other cats will be bred for profit. On this Mother’s Day, let’s make a special place for all the mama cats like Glori who richly deserve a loving home.
How I learned to stop worrying and love kittens
April 19, 2013
That’s right . . . I haven’t always loved kittens. In fact, my time working at an animal shelter taught me to dread them. Kitten seasons, especially the ones that started early and ended late, were bad news for us, and even worse news for the adult cats surrendered to the shelter. Older cats, sometimes even those barely out of adolescence, just couldn’t compete. Adopters were drawn to the cute little ones while the others, as we euphemistically said, ran out of time.
In doing humane education, I heard people ask why they couldn’t let their cat have just one litter before she was spayed. Parents really wanted their children to experience the miracle of birth, and the fun of watching kittens grow up. On particularly difficult days during peak kitten season, I had to stop myself from saying, “Why don’t you meet me at the shelter this evening so we can share the miracle of death.” Instead, I explained the problems of overpopulation in the most helpful words I could find. And I encouraged parents to turn on the Nature Channel more often.
As happens in that line of work, I relied on some interesting coping skills. One of them was shutting kittens out altogether. I knew they would be adopted, and that they would get plenty of attention from others at the shelter. So, I focused on the adults, doubling my efforts to get their stories into the world. Twice a month, I took older cats to a local TV station for a Saturday morning pet feature. I touted the benefits of adopting “experienced” cats, ones who would not required kitten-proofing a house. Usually, there was someone waiting to meet the new star when I returned to the shelter, but not always. Kitten season was hell.
When a friend sent me the link to the Kitten Cam last year, I initially resisted. And yes, I judged. Purrfect Pals volunteer John Bartlett has fostered 37 litters of kittens, the last several of them on camera. At the time I tuned in, the Scientist Kittens were in residence, still tiny things with their thin, patient mother, almost a kitten herself. I watched for a few minutes, felt my blood pressure elevate, and walked away from the computer. John seemed like a nice, sensible man, and I knew Purrfect Pals to be a solid organization, fully committed to helping cats in all circumstances. Why then, I wondered, had they colluded to promote kittens? How in the world could I condone this blatant irresponsibility by watching even casually?
I had a lot of thawing to do, and the last several months have brought a big and welcome melt. I started watching the kittens in the evening after work, and before long I left the livestream running on my computer while I worked. I got hooked, and, oh my gods, realized how much fun it is to watch kittens open their eyes, learn to walk, and tussle with each other right up to adoption day. With my early warning system completely disabled, I suddenly understood why parents would want their kids to watch this.
And the best thing is, they can. John and Purrfect Pals are brilliant. People of all ages can get involved – and involvement is what happens – and it is even better than having to clean up after a litter in your own home. Plus, it is obvious how many resources go into raising kittens. Watch John, admittedly a model foster parent, and you’ll see how much time, energy, and money it takes to do this right. People inclined to let their cat have that one batch of kittens should witness the entire process on the Kitten Cam.
So, learning to love kittens is changing my life. For the first time in years, I feel energized about rescue work, and understand it can be a very different experience than what I knew in the past. In addition to the connections many of us have made through the Kitten Cam, we regularly celebrate the creativity of people who have fallen under its spell. These cats inspire their fans to be creative. From making wonderful videos and needle-felting tiny kittens, drawing pencil portraits and setting up a Café Press shop, people engage with their hearts and hands. This is the future of rescue work. It is truly an act of love. And yes, it is fun!
Watching the Scientist family last year, I remembered how much I wanted to create a book about rescued cats. I couldn’t even begin to do it until I let myself fall in love with kittens. It was appropriate that my first reconnection was a paper collage portrait of Ellie Marie and her family. I am happy to say that I am moving forward with the book project, and have just finished a portrait of sweet Penny (earlier known as Newt), one of Ripley’s kittens. She is the first of 13 Purrfect Pals cats who will receive a quilt and have her story told in collage and words.
Here’s to kitten power. Oh yes, keep spreading the word: don’t wait to have your cat spayed!
March 27, 2013
It is time for a confession: I am a bad birder. I don’t mean “bad” as it equals good, because I don’t even aspire to be a good birder with a life list long enough to encircle the globe. This may come as a surprise to friends and students who know my complete devotion to our avian kin, but even Roger Tory Peterson shared my distress over the “good” birders who trample nests of common species to get a glimpse of a rare one. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Peterson a year before his death, and he rued the day he was first called the Father of Birding. He told me his goal was get people to slow down and look at birds, even the most familiar, rather than frantically making checkmarks in the field guides he had written.
To me, the gift of watching birds is presence, both the ineffable, intense being of the bird itself, and what happens inside me. I am quiet, focused, as alive as the glorious feathered creature breathing the same air. It makes no difference if the bird is common. One time when I was taking a bird biology class, I spent a cold afternoon hypnotized by a Black-capped Chickadee prying apart a pine cone. Everyone else rushed to check an earlier reported sighting of a Tufted Puffin on the water, and later expressed bitter disappointment at having braved a blustery winter walk to the beach for nothing. My experience with a common bird kept me warm the rest of the season.
But I must admit that less usual observations can be a special reward, and owls in particular have sent me searching. In some cultures, owl sightings are considered auspicious, and in others, they foretell disaster. Being in close proximity of efficient predators who fly silently through the liminal space between dusk and dawn, between life and death, I understand both interpretations. It is equally eerie and thrilling to come upon a nearly hidden owl, watching the world with eyes as large and luminous as planets. I have felt my heart suddenly stop, and then restart with pounding recognition as I adjusted to the owl’s gaze just a few feet away.
When you share that moment with another human being, it is a powerful bonding experience. A few years ago, my partner and I were fortunate to witness Barred Owl parents teach their young to fly. The first night we saw them, the still night was broken only by our occasional whispers, and the owls’ highly pitched, metallic-sounding calls to each other. A few nights later, we stood under the watchful eyes of the parents who allowed us within a few yards of their fledglings, until other people arrived with flashlights and loud voices. The owls disappeared back into the darkness, and we were caught in a disorienting beam of light. We wondered if the folks who spotted us recorded “2 old witch birds” on their life lists.
One of my fondest memories of an owl sighting is from childhood. My mother, terrified of birds since her own childhood, woke me late one winter night to look outside. The nearly full moon lit the back fence where a Snowy Owl perched. For once, she was unafraid, and the wordless hour we spent together was one of the best we ever shared. The bird returned the following night, and it was my turn to wake my mother to come watch again. Shortly before her death, we spoke of the experience as clearly as we had years before.
During the last 2 winters, there have been irruptions of Snowy Owls who venture into Seattle to find food. My feelings about this remain divided. It is a rare treat to know that they are close to us, but many of them are young birds who arrive in poor shape and face the real possibility of starving during their first winter. Their visitation is poignant.
Late last year, I received a commission to do a collage of a Snowy Owl. My hope was to see one before I started to layer bits of paper into distinctive feather patterns. All season, I dutifully checked every time I heard our resident crows join in mobs, but the disturbance always involved other birds of prey, and a raven or two, an equally unlikely sighting in our suburban city. And while I kept vigil, I looked at pictures of a Snowy standing on a nearby beach, and yet another perched on the roof of a neighborhood less than 6 miles away. Even a trip to the Skagit Valley, where a friend reported seeing 2 owls just a few days before, yielded countless swans and geese, harriers and eagles, but no Snowies.
When the time came, I retreated into my imagination to start the collage. Somehow, in the hustle of the last month, I found a quiet and necessary place in my studio for the owl to roost. It was a young owl, with lots of barring, and in good health. This bird stood still and posed in my mind’s eye so I could capture the gaze that makes hearts stop, and then race. I needed an avian sense of suspended time – of presence – even more than I realized. I finished the collage on a rare day off, and was thrilled to see a vibrant young Snowy Owl look back at me from the drafting table. At that moment, I thanked my mother for waking me on a frosty night long ago. I may not be a good birder, but I do know how to be present to life around me.