Monday, June 13, 2005

Emotional Rescue

Yesterday, we rescued a kitten.

Technically, it was not a "rescue" in the sense that the kitten has lived somewhere in our 1/3 acre back yard since shortly after its birth about 4 weeks ago. Its mother has been back there for nearly a year, feral as all get-all- and refusing to be caught along with other equally feral cats who seem to bask in the glory that is all that open space, much of it freshly rototilled for our annual vegetable garden. We've known about the kittens (5 of them) and have been plotting stealthy ways to get to them, but they were refusing to be gotten.

Until yesterday.

When we opened the back door to our porch, as usual mama cat and her babies, who tend to sleep on the deck chairs, scattered to the four winds faster than a bat out of hell. Except one. To say that this kitten is "no bigger than a New York minute" is an understatement. So we figured, today's the day. Upon closer inspection, it became clear why he had not, like his siblings and mom, hauled ass upon our arrival.

His eyes were completely gooed shut.

Picking him up was like picking up a handful of feathers. He weighed absolutely nothing. It was clear that he had been low-man on the nursing totem pole. Looking at the goo, and the fact that neither the kitten nor its mother put up any fight whatsoever, we realized that this was one pretty sick kitty.

So off we went to the vet, fearing blindness, fearing the worst.

In the car, the DAH, my daughter and I started jokingly asking the cat, wrapped in a hand towel, what its name was. I should have known that we were doomed, when that started. The original plan was to take the kittens in for adoption, since with our lifestyle pets don't get a fair shake. But by the time we got to the vet, we were already rationalizing why we couldn't leave him behind.

Eventually, he told us his name: Pharaoh.

An hour later, freshly de-wormed, weighed (0.5 pounds), fed, and antibiotic smeared/fed, Pharaoh came home with us. And sure enough, he is living up to his name. He is presently investigating the house, all 0.5 pounds of him. Since he's so small, and we do not have the same wide-open spaces inside that we do outside, it's going to be interesting finding The King when it's time to re-introduce him to the litter box, something he turned his nose up at last night.

Juxtapose that with our experience yesterday morning, heading out for a day of tile selection (yes, I lead an exciting life.) While we were filling up our car with gas, we met a homeless woman. After approaching the DAH (they never ask me - proving once again that race matters) she first asked for $3, then $5, to get something to eat. Since the specifics of the request (and its size) took me aback, I blurted out that she could always go to the local pantry or the church around the corner, since they always fed the homeless. Her response? "I don't like the food there." Being Old School, I said something to the effect of "My daddy told me Beggars can't be choosers." She said, "I know that - mine did too."

Yet here she was, choosing. Choosing to eat a meal on her own terms.

$5 later, and hours after the Rescue of Pharaoh (TM) I realized that these two completely unconnected experiences of rescue can be viewed as sending a unified message.

We think of ourselves as rescuers, and those in need of our help as the needy. We need to be heroic, I guess. Particularly when it comes to the homeless. We deny them any sphere of autonomy over their lives - survival, we demand, must be on our terms or none at all. We deign to bless them with a handful of pocket change and believe it makes us saints, while at the same time we rant and rail about them being "aggressive" when they ask us for what they want. We demand programs to sweep them out of the face of public life because we don't want reminders of human suffering when we're chilling at Starbucks with a frappy.

But I can't think of anyone who would turn their back on a kitten that asked for help.

Isn't it, in many ways, the same thing? Cats are a self-reliant species. Their relative disdain for human beings is pretty much proven. They tolerate us, at best, it seems to me. Yet we fawn all over them. All it took is two giant eyes (or two eyes welded shut by goo) in a ball of fluff for me to instantly shell out $150 in veterinary care for a cat that I'd believed for weeks I had no intention of keeping. Yet I gave another human being, surely equal to me, flack for hitting us up for $5?

There are many people who believe deep down that the poor and the hungry deserve their fate. Probably more people than would admit it, given how many of us are walking around calling ourselves Christian. We appear to need to believe, as a culture, that the poor or hungry are that way because of some failing in themselves, rather than a failure in the system that keeps the working class and poor just on the edge of the abyss, increasingly so post-Dubbya. And when they fall off, we insist that they live the narrative we demand for them - clean, sober, supplicant -- as a condition of our help. We expect barter of their very dignity and autonomy as a condition of our caring. We expect begging, we expect gratitude, we expect them to expect on our terms. Yet we do not even think of demanding such a thing from the animals we rescue, even if they show us the back of their hand afterward.

It's food for thought, that difference. Perhaps we need to change our own personal narrative about what it means to be homeless, what it means to need help from other people to survive. And what we have a right to demand -- the surrender of the right to choose even the smallest elements of how one lives one's life -- as a condition of our caring.

After all, everyone knows that we could never demand such a thing from a Pharaoh.


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