You saw them playing in the window of a pet store, a tumble of calicos engaged in happy battle and a sleek black brother lurking behind a water dispenser waiting to pounce. Or maybe you passed them at a cat show, the wire bars of the cage softened by cheerful red-and-white checked curtains and the kittens asleep in a tangle within a fluffy fleece bed. Toys were scattered on the carpet square around the bed, a mischievous mouse concealed in the feather teaser, and there were bowls filled to the brim with water and food. Rosette ribbons festooned the exhibit, and on the top of the cage was a dispenser of darling business cards with a cat silhouette. Maybe you stopped and asked prices of my mother. Pet quality $200. Breed quality $600. Show quality $1000. And she handed you one of the sleepy kittens to cuddle as a temptation.
What you didn’t see was the rest of the litter, who had died of some mysterious cause without a single vet visit. What you didn’t see was the litter before this one, who had died while closed into the unheated shed in a chilly March. What you didn’t see was the thirteen-year-old slipping those cold, stiff bodies one-by-one into the garbage can as ordered. I set them down carefully, turning over an empty box of cereal so that they might lie upon it rather than slide off into the dark, odorous bowels of the garbage can. What you didn’t see were the cages full of cats in the backyard where that sweet little kitten cradled to your chest at the show or pet store heralded.
What you saw was the beautifully decorated cage, one of many in the aisle, and you did not know the secrets behind some of them. But I did, because this was the world I moved in. One woman kept her hundred and fifty cats in tiny cages within the back room of her house. When the kittens were two weeks old, she gauged them for how well they met the standards of their breed. Did the face have a semi-foreign chisel? How did the ears look? Those that passed were returned to their tiny cages and brought to cat shows in time to be sold. Those that failed were wrapped alive in tin foil and placed in her freezer to die.
Fifteen years later, I am still having the same nightmare that I have gone to my parents’ home for a visit and they are breeding cats again. I am drawn to the backyard by the incessant meows. The poor creatures are thin and dehydrated in the cages, wet from rain blowing in or panting from heat, and sometimes the cage doors are padlocked so I cannot do anything to mitigate their piteous circumstances. That last part of the dream changes. Other times I can get them out, but I can’t find any kibble to give them and the water from the hose evanesces before it touches the bowls. Sometimes my parents are standing at the back door in quiet rage that I’m out there trying to help. The cats are fine, dammit, and they hate the criticism they read in my posture as I pull fruitlessly at the padlocks or try to find food.
The cats are fine. It was one of the last times I ever spoke to my father, not in the dream, but in real life. It was my junior year of high school, my brother’s freshman year, and our father was driving fast through the remainder of last night’s rainstorm to beat the first bell. Half a mile from campus, he asked if my brother had taken care of the cats that morning. In theory, my brother and I traded off weeks on cat duty, but in practice, I ended up doing a share of his week because often he forgot, or just plain refused. It did not trouble him, dozens of cats crying out in the backyard for food and water, awash in their filth from overflowing litter boxes, and were he not reminded repeatedly, he never would have tended the chore at all. Again he had not done it, and he was evasive to the following question if he had done it the night before. Our father swung into the teachers’ parking lot to drop us off and I refused to get out of the car. He was going to take me home so that I could do it. My brother ambled away, down the stairs and into the central quad to get to class, and I sat there while my father exploded the cats are fine.
It was fine with him to breed a female year after year, and then dump her off at the pound or in the hills with a half-dozen spare kittens hanging around unsold. It was fine with him that they froze and baked and sickened and starved and died in the cages. It was also fine with my mother, who loved the attention of the shows, the community, but had little to nothing to do with the day-to-day operations. Her only interaction outside of the show halls was to bring into the house the new mothers with kittens for a few weeks, or the best cats for brief photo ops, and then return them to the cage. My father swung out of the parking lot and took me home from school, both of us furious, and he roared away after dropping me off by the lawn.
The cats were fine. They were kept in an open-air shed, and the rain had blown in on them through the night. The litter boxes were sopping and packed with shit, dull clots of scum tracked all over the floor of the cages. Their bowls were dry of water and food, and the cats were huddled in the corners, wet and miserable and frantic. One of the kittens had gotten her little leg trapped in a groove between the wall and the floor of the bottom cage, and she cried out weakly when I approached. I freed her and started the slow work of cleaning up this wreckage. Food and water first, and then I shuffled them around to free up one cage so that I could attack it with water and soap, and shuffled them again to do the next one. I pulled down the tarps in case another storm came and rubbed the cats dry with our ratty old towels. My mother watched from within the house, our only exchange her comment that my father was very mad at me. Three hours later, she drove me back to school. I walked into my intermediate algebra class and threw my backpack at the desk in anger and despair. What the hell was going to happen when I went to college?
A kitten died under my loveseat once, and I could not bear to touch it. Not one more sad trip to the garbage can, not one more search for a cereal box or something flat upon which to place the body. Not one more lowering of the lid covering those merry tabby stripes with darkness. I did not have it in me to do this any longer, and I went to class leaving a dead kitten in my bedroom. Maybe it had just been deeply asleep. Maybe it was back to squeaking with its siblings and blindly pawing around for its mother in the darkness. It had looked dead in the beam of the flashlight, but I hadn’t wanted to explore further.
It wasn’t until the evening of the next day I came to the conclusion that this was a problem that could be avoided no longer. I pulled out that stiff form and saw in horror that the skull had flattened on the side to the floor, and the brain was bulging out the other. Wrapping the deformed kitten in paper towels, I did what had to be done for the body in a strange mix of disgust and grief and numbness.
You don’t know, you can’t know, from those gaily-curtained cages in the show hall. The pictures of kittens in blue wicker baskets, of champion cats posed among their rosettes, those were what you saw next to the exhibits. Not pictures of living kittens wrapped in tin foil and stacked in the freezer to expire, not the scum on the bottom of the cages at home, the sickness and the misery. But behind so many of the show curtains was a very ugly reality of negligence and abuse, and the kitten you held might have been the only survivor of a doomed litter.
Every few months I have that nightmare again, even though I have had nothing to do with show halls or breeding cats as an adult. The track is so well worn in my brain from years of working the cages that my subconscious simply travels it again, and again, and again. My parents quit the business when I was in my early twenties. I packed up the remaining cats in the backyard, which they had just left in the cages to live there permanently, and took them to the vet for long overdue care. Some I adopted out and others I kept as pets. The last one died this January. Though permanently affected by two years of living in a cage with little to no human contact, she spent the next thirteen slowly coming out of her shell and learning how to play.
Not all of the breeders in the show hall have such seedy underbellies, and I am not someone who yells ADOPT every time a friend mentions wanting to get a cat. Adopting from a rescue or a pound isn’t going to eradicate the problem. That’s what regulations are for, toothy laws and thorny small print, unannounced home visits and forms in triplicate. But that’s harder to figure out and fight for than just yelling ADOPT on someone’s Facebook page. I won’t even pretend to guess what true regulations on this industry would look like, because I write science fiction and fantasy and horror for a living, not legislation. I don’t care if my friends get their cats from a breeder. I do care if they have researched that breeder. Had any of our customers taken the time to peek into our backyard, they would have fled.
If I ever get a cat again, it will come from the pound. I don’t care about bloodlines and breeds. Hell, all of the cats my father dumped off at the pound’s door were purebred. But to me, a cat is a cat. I want a little buddy to keep me company in my long hours at the computer writing books. Being able to say well, THIS is Sir Crawford P. Codswallop, he’s a [insert impressive breed here] does nothing for me. Yet if I had my heart set on a certain breed, a certain look, a certain community, if I had money to burn, I might get a purebred and enjoy it. But I would research the breeder intensely first. Don’t trust the pictures at the show hall or on a website. They mean nothing. Ours were darling.
People at the show hall stopped at our cage wanting something special. They hadn’t gotten a cat from the pound because they didn’t want a cat from the pound, not because they were somehow unaware the pound existed. But one should know what is really going on once those cheery curtains are taken down at the end of the show. One should know that the sleepy kitten one cradled might have gone home to squalor and neglect, left in the care of young teenagers and dumped at the pound months later when it failed to find a buyer. Life should not be an impulse purchase. And to the anonymous neighbor who finally called the humane society on my parents when I was sixteen, even though nothing came of the call, thank you. It meant the world to me.
I wish you had called again.