"Bubba"- that's what my brother called him. But I couldn't settle on name I liked - one day he was Mr. Hobbes (from Bill Watterson's comic strip) another day he was Orundai Kutti (rolly-polly baby in Tamil). Everyday was an adventurous journey for me to conjure a new sobriquet for him and for him to discover a new place to hide. Now as I go looking for him behind the sofa, I realize that he has found a hiding place I can never find out.
During his first car ride back home clinging onto my jacket as I tried to keep him from climbing onto my neck and tickling me, so many of my initial apprehensions of fostering a kitten were melting away - I just could not stop smiling. As my friend helped me pick out his first cans of foods and litter, folks at Petsmart kept adoring this cute fur ball tucked away and camouflaged in my gray jacket and my confidence grew. Being a first-time foster family can be daunting especially when you've never had pets growing up - but you always have google to the rescue. I practically googled everything from what food he should eat and what type of litter he should have to how to force feed him using a syringe and how to get rid of fleas.
The first few days were frustrating when I couldn't figure out why he was not eating. I rushed at 8 in the morning the nearest pet store to pick up a feeding bottle and KMR because he refused to eat the shrimp pate. Which kitten doesn't like fish! As I frantically emailed the folks at SPCA, I realized that I had a fussy eater in my hands. Once he settled on his chicken and liver diet, turned out that the bacteria in his gut really didn't take to it and he started suffering from diarrhea. Once again after a frenzied trip to the SPCA, we had him on a diarrhea medication (albon and benebac) and probiotic dry food along with his wet food. He appeared to gain weight and there was a regal air about his tiger-like gait as he explored new territories and conquered new corners.
But soon he had new problems- he was scratching all over. Fleas! I had never seen fleas before and I was terrified - even though fleas do not really harm humans and may only cause some minor itching, they can be a major cause of disease in kittens and result in anemia. Further I was horrified by the idea of tiny insects crawling all over my skin - (remember the scene from The Mummy) it made my skin crawl. So I dragged my protesting friend back to Walmart in the middle of the night to get flea shampoos sprays, and wet wipes. I gave my kitten a warm bath with his shampoo and spray which he seemed to enjoy at first and then violently disliked as he leapt out of the basin and landed on all fours before nearly missing the toilet bowl. That was his first encounter with conquering gravity to escape the dreadful water. Within moments I realized that I had turned a feisty Mr. Hobbes into a whimpering little skinned chicken - his fur sticking to his skin and his body shivering to his bone. I kept apologizing to him while he snarled at me and finally settled into a purr as I wrapped him in my old sweater and wiped his fur sitting by the room heater.
He was a little tiger at heart and knew exactly what he wanted - whether it was his preference in food, or his favorite corner, or his favorite place to take a dump outside the litter box (which he did far too many times much to my exasperation). He was a kitten unafraid to make new friends - creatures ten times his size were reduced to babbling baby-talkers. I've never seen my brother express love and affection so effusively for a creature before. I am amazed at how he took to caring for his "Bubba" in my absence: including cleaning up after him, feeding him and playing with him. Of course, my brother was a strict parent and did not allow him to wander near shoes and electrical outlets.
But life and nature set you up for some really hard lessons in the fragility of life. Bubba had stopped eating for a day and his breathing had become labored. I couldn't figure out whether it was a respiratory ailment or because of his loss of appetite and lack of energy. I tried force feeding him as he winced and spat out even the mildest KMR mix. As I let him climb into my lap and frantically googled - I felt an impending sense of loss and helplessness as the symptoms seemed to indicate very serious implications. As I fought back my tears determined to allay my fears till I went to the SPCA, there was a small part of me that still feared for his life.
The next morning at the SPCA, I was shocked when I was told that he was to be euthanized. It was completely unacceptable to me that a kitten who was pouncing around like a little tiger was not being given a fighting chance to live. I dashed off to the nearest vet who suggested I take him to the animal ER because he needed an oxygenated cage. As I was leaving the vet's I heard the nurse reassure me that I was a good foster mother and that was all I needed to not give up on him. As I waited impatiently trying to frantically call my friend and my brother, I tried to convince myself that there was nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile the ER nurses were trying to contact another foster kitten's foster family to let them know that their kitten was not doing well and may need to be put down.
After a round of blood tests, the doctor said he was highly anemic but his glucose levels were fine, which meant he had a blood borne pathogen or feline leukemia. She said either blood transfusion or antibiotics was the way to go. She did recommend blood transfusion as a better option, but was not sure about the likelihood of his survival. As my mind raced through the various courses of action I could take, I was rankled by the thought of him spending his last few hours in a cold hospital alone and me receiving the dreadful phone call about his death without even having the chance to hold him and letting him know that he was loved. Was I writing his death warrant by not agreeing to a blood transfusion? As I spoke to the nurse about the antibiotic course I felt somewhat reassured by the fact that I could bring him back into the hospital for a blood transfusion if necessary.
When the nurse brought him out, he was snarling and scratching her viciously fighting her off. I held him against my coat and wrapped him up as he squirmed and tried to tell me to let him go. I rushed to my car to protect him from the crisp winds of the Fall. As I lay him on the car seat, I could feel the cold hands of death were engulfing his body. I picked him up and dashed back into the ER and I kept imploring him to stay with me. He caught a last wind of his last breath as if to respond to my pleas but was declared dead on arrival. The doctors and nurses were shocked at how quickly he faded. I was distraught and couldn't comprehend how I could explain this to my rational brain. In the neat little box of rationality and invincibility that we create for our selves there is no room for hopelessness and we must have answers for everything - or at least a semblance of an answer. Even though every leaf that fell around me told me the same story every year - I failed to recognize that constant cycle of life and death was the way of nature and it would manifest itself in my life too.
Death as an outcome is easier to comprehend when you feel satisfied that a creature has lived his full lifespan and fulfilled his purpose on earth. Again purpose is very poorly defined and we as humans tend to attribute purpose to everything because we can't think of it any other way. So it was even harder to accept death as an outcome for someone so young and fragile. As I keep replaying in my head the last few days he spent with us, I am tempted to want to turn back time and change something about it. I don't know if this helplessness is what turns people towards religion or spiritualism. But for me not having an answer was very unsatisfactory. Even today as I try to grapple with the fact that it could have been feline leukemia (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or a congenital disease or caused by flea anemia, I cannot really be sure what was the right recourse to have taken. I have reconciled myself to thinking that his poor immune system really let him down on his battle to fight whatever disease ailed him. He was due for his first set of vaccines 2 days after he passed away.
In any case, I do believe that in whatever little flicker of time he spent on this planet we were able to provide him with a glimpse of a loving family that cared for his well-being. In turn, he took to us like we belonged to his species and showed us that we were capable of affection and empathy for a fellow creature and are willing to let ourselves be vulnerable to the vagaries of life. Hopefully in his current state or form he is at peace and has no suffering to endure.
Hopefully someone who is reading this can learn from my experience and understand that dealing with death is something you have to be prepared for at any point of time while fostering orphaned pets. There is no easy way to deal with it but to face it and let it sink in. There is also no alternative reality where you can go back and change something. Further, trusting your instinct and doing your best at any given time is the only way to reassure yourself. This website was a really good resource and should be used by folks who are thinking of fostering. I would also highly recommend getting your foster pet screened by an external vet for FIV and FELV and other blood borne pathogens.