I have never been much of a cat person. But I have lived in Puerto Rico for one week shy of six months, and I have grown to love cats. Seven of them. One in particular. I am writing this blog, which I’ve had in my head for a while, because that one died on Friday and I am still hurting.
These are the cats of All Hands.
Hector was already on base when I arrived in Barranquitas back in February. She (Hector was female) would wander the hilly area around Campamento Morton (our base), and sometimes show up near the kitchen, waiting for some volunteer or another to slip her some Tuna. In late February two acrobats from the Colorado circus came to volunteer with us and they adopted her–they completed all the necessary forms and veternary visits to bring her back to the circus with them. I hope she made friends with the circus cats.
Tuna, Sandwich, & Pickles
In late February shortly after Hector was taken to the circus, I made my first batch of bagels for the whole base. I resting in the dining hall afterwards when good friend of mine, Joseph, found me and showed me an orange cotton ball in his hands. Except it wasn’t a cotton ball, it was a kitten. Just a couple of days old.
Joseph had been doing laundry when he heard something squeal and scream. He investigated and found, in the shadowy corner between the wall and a cabinet, this little kitten. Further investigation revealed that on top of this cabinet there were three more kittens and their mama, a big orange girl who had been wandering around base for a few days. Their litter was about 8 feet above the ground–the first kitten Joseph found had fallen off the cabinet and gotten stuck.
Shortly after their birth one of the four kittens disappeared. We don’t like to think about what might have happened to it. The ones left we named Tuna, Sandwich, and Pickles. We always called their mother ‘Mama.’
These cats stayed in the laundry area, but we moved them to a safer nook, where there was less fall risk. They became a part of our welcoming tour for incoming volunteers (“Here we have our base kittens. Look how cute they are all sleeping on top of each other.”) Little by little Mama left them for longer periods of time, roaming the base for food, and over the months they grew. We did not interact much with them, other then to ooh and aah over their adorableness and sometimes to leave bowls of tuna where they could reach. But they didn’t need us. Mama looked after them.
aka Elephant, aka Shaquila, aka Puppy Jr.
Oily is the one.
In late March, in the middle of a cool night before a work day, all the residents of Campamento Morton’s Dorm A were snoozing. There was a nice breeze. The coqui frogs croaked a loud lullaby, one that everybody had gotten used to and could sleep through.
A sound pierced that night: an unholy screech. A long, awful wail. What was it? Nobody knew. But everybody woke up to it. They couldn’t go back to sleep, and the noise went on. Johnny left the dorm and went searching: what could it be? He found, just outside the Dorm A window, a kitten. Small enough for a newborn, loud enough to break the sound barrier, dark enough to be some kind of mythical night demon. She kept wailing, so Johnny took her to the tool shed. There were volunteers that needed sleep, after all.
In the morning, it was Crooks who found her first. Crooks who found her covered in a thin sludge of oil that matted her fur and made her look even more like a nightmarish thing.
There was no sign of a mother or any other cat that looked like her at all. She was alone.
Crooks did his best to wipe off the oil. She was shivering. He swaddled her in blankets and brought her to the office, and handed her to me. It was 7:00am and I didn’t know about the cat yet (I slept in Dorm B and didn’t hear the wailing). “Paul,” Crooks said, “I need you to look after this for me while I’m in the field today.”
I took the swaddled creature on my lap and she stayed there most of the day. I also filled a cardboard box with towels and when I needed to get up, she stayed there. We gave her milk and tuna. She kept shivering the whole day.
There are so many memories of this beautiful creature. Ex:
- One morning I walked into the office and heard a crunch. Then, Oily shot across the floor. I was confused. I went to the kitchen to get coffee then came back. Again, crunch. And a yelp. Oily was a flying blur. Then she paused. There was something in her mouth. Curious, I walked over to her. It was a lizard, nearly as long as she was. It’s head was in her mouth. It wriggled, and she bit down on it. Crunch. Disgusted, I watched her devour the entire thing. She slurped its tail like spaghetti. After that she kept our office clean of lizards for good.
- Lying in a hammock on duty one night, reading a book as the sun set over distant Barranquitas hills, Oily jumped onto my chest and fell asleep on me.
- We tried to introduce her early to the family of Tuna, Sandwich, and Pickles. But Mama wasn’t a fan of the idea. She hissed and batted at Oily, until we took her away. After that she lived permanently up in the office area, and she never ventured down to Mama’s laundry domain. But as those three kittens grew up one of them (who knows which one) wandered into the office and became friends with Oily. They chased each other around the office and cuddled together.
- Once I was walking out of the kitchen and saw her hanging by the claws, at eye level, from the screen door!
- The way every person on program slowly (or very quickly) fell in love with Oily. Our program director was often seen during meetings holding Oily in her lap. Volunteers would sneak her into their rooms and feed her. One volunteer even offered to pay to get her fixed (we did get her fixed). Others built a play tower for her out of scrap wood as soon during our move to the new base.
- The way she became big sister when another lonely kitten adopted us…
aka Itty Bitty Shitty Kitty, aka Anne Frank.
Ibskey came to us in almost the same way as Oily. She was left at the front gate of our base, alone and tiny. One afternoon some staff were walking into base and she followed them to our office. Not wanting to be responsible for another stray, a couple other staff took her back to the gate. But she followed them back and that was that. Although a few of us joked we might hide her from the few staff who didn’t want her (hence the nickname). Ibskey is light gray and her favorite hobby, the first few days we had her, was to poop on everything (hence the real name). She was a calm little furball, and we fed her, and Oily took her in. They spent many hours jumping through grass together, and many more sleeping together in a tight ball of fuzz.
She moved with us too, and enjoyed the company of her older sister on their play tower, and pooped on lots of things inside. She is just as loved as Oily, though she hasn’t been with us as long, and she is growing into a beautiful adult cat.
The reason I feel inspired to write this post now is because of the tragedy that occurred on Friday. Just a few minutes after eating breakfast I got a call from our program director over in Barranquitas. She was crying. In the background, I could hear more of our staff members sobbing, too. In short sentences she told me: Oily had gotten off base early in the morning and got hit by a car and died. Nobody was okay. Most of the staff had been around when Oily came to us back in March. Johnny and Crooks were a mess.
Later in the day I heard that they were holding a funeral for the cat. I drove down to Barranquitas that night after our nightly meeting. The funeral was held on our old base, where Crooks had dug a cat-sized hole near the office where she used to play. A sweet volunteer had spent her day gathering photos of Oily from everybody (because of course everybody who’s been to our program since March has photos of Oily) and made a collage to document Oily’s life. The whole staff and some volunteers were stood in a semi-circle, heads bowed, ambling around to hug one another in tearful silence while people took turns speaking about their favorite memories of that cat.
A volunteer I didn’t know (because I haven’t spent any time in Barranquitas in two months) spoke to how inspired she was by the way every single person fell in love with Oily and rose to the challenge of taking care of her.
On my way home to Toa Baja I stopped by our new base, where I saw Ibskey alone on her play tower. She was looking into the night, not moving, in the direction of the old base. Driving home was difficult.
But chance (if chance you call it) had something waiting for me…
While I was away putting to rest Oily, the first cat I can truthfully say I ever loved, a ginger kitten found its way to our base by way of some volunteers who found her stranded in a field on their way back from playing basketball. When I got back I saw her licking tuna off a dish in our common area, with a circle of volunteers oohing and aahing around her. She was not newborn – definitely bigger than Oily and Ibskey were when they came to us – but she is small, still a kitten for sure.
Most of the volunteers spent the weekend in San Juan, and I spent a lot of time with the cat. Holding her, mostly. She is rather docile, and falls asleep easily in one’s arms or on one’s chest. She rarely meows. She seeks us out and follows us when nobody is holding her.
On Sunday night it stormed heavily. I wanted nothing more than to bring the cat inside to sleep on my bed, instead of out in the cold. But I suspected the pastors who own our church would disapprove. So I sat alone with the cat in our covered common area outside the church, and wrapped her in a towel for warmth, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave her for a long time.
When it became clear she wasn’t leaving, that she had latched on to us, I asked the pastors what they want for the cat, offering to take her back to the field where the volunteers found her if they didn’t want her (knowing that it’d be super painful to do so). And my heart swelled with joy when they said “We don’t want her inside because she will make pee. But let her stay. We like this cat.”