"But I am saying that if they offer you the chance, then love them for what they are and care for them for all you’re worth."
In the spirit of full disclosure I should let you know that living with HIV is only one piece of my particular puzzle. You see, I also live with depression, C. O. P. D., a vascular disruption to my legs and the onset of old age. Luckily for me, I also live with the two handsome devils pictured.
I’d like you to meet Little One (l) and Rodney (r). Little One was named by his former owner, a neighbor of mine. He kept running away from home in order to be here with me. Finally we all just decided to let him decide and he’s blessed my days ever since. And then there’s Rodney.
One of the things my Dad used to say he loved about cats is the way they just go ahead with life no matter how difficult it might get. No whingeing or whining. They just get on with it.
Rodney is a great case in point.
My Dad would sometimes add that if ever a cat did get into real trouble the cat was almost never the real cause of that trouble.
It was almost two years ago when I first became aware that he was watching me. I never saw him come, he’d just suddenly be there, a silent little apparition, crouching in the darkness where the light from the porch was blocked. Easy to miss and intent on staying that way. Eyes like two little holes in the night with deeper night behind them, watching intently.
I looked away for a moment and he was gone. And he would always work it so that I’d be looking away when he’d leave. The only thing I could take from the encounter was that my observer was deeply wary of humans. Around where I live there are plenty of mad humans, so that’s understandable.
These visitations went on sporadically for about a year and a half until, after this long observation, he overcame his fear enough to approach me.
I am a cat lover. I love dogs too but most of the animals I meet are cats and the more I’ve learned about them, the more drawn to them I’ve become. Along with my Dad, I did a lot of cat rescue in Toronto and then later on in Winnipeg. Now that I’m a pensioner my circumstances are reduced so I can no longer do rescues on the scale that I used to but I always make an effort to be nice to the ones who show up at our place. I’ve seen how hard their lives can be.
I make a point of having food and water available for the neighborhood cats and this guy has had a chance to see how I behave with them. It isn’t lost on me that the potential risk of this encounter is all on his side. He’s approaching because he’s had a chance to form an opinion of me, or at least an educated guess.
And as I touch him for the first time he just sort of melts into the contours of my hands as they run over him. He absolutely loves my petting him and I’m getting the idea it’s something he’s been missing. He begins to purr very loudly indeed and as I pet him I’m wondering, “Buddy, what happened to you?”
Because certain things stick out, now that I’m able to get a closer look at him. In fact one of his vertebrae towards the base of the spine juts out oddly. And his tail is broken. Though intact, it just flops along behind him. He can’t control it.
Also an area the size of a silver dollar behind each ear is bloody and raw. Probably ear mites. That’s easy enough to fix.
And then I realize that I know what happened. The first time I ever saw this cat was three years ago, just before and just after he was struck by a motorcycle in front of my house. To his credit, the biker came back and we went to look for the cat around the railroad tracks behind our houses where I’d seen him run, obviously injured. We didn’t find him though. There’s enough brush and habitat to be sure that if a cat doesn’t want to be found there, he or she won’t be.
After that, it was one more depressing thing for me to put out of my mind.
Until now, that is. As near as I can tell, he’s been living wild ever since the accident, afraid to go near humans and he’s still very much on his guard. I move a bit too fast to scratch my itchy nose and he’s thirty feet away by the time my fingers reach my face. But then he returns to me, flops over and shows me his belly.
And that’s it. Just like that the bond is formed. This cat has selected me from the myriad other people he could have come out to, has unerringly homed in on the guy probably most likely to take him seriously and least likely to leave him in the lurch when the vet bills are in. Smart cat.
I couldn’t possibly feel more honored.
In that instant I understand that this creature’s trust is about as sacred as things get chez moi and I have a new mission, which is to answer that trust with all the love my savage little heart can muster and do all I can to see him live the rest of his life in love, respect and dignity. To see him stop cowering.
Because, as one unrepentant stray to another, as one survivor to another, I’m in love, you see.
And later, when telling a friend about all this, the response I got was, “My God, Robert! You don’t need this right now on top of everything else!”
Oh, but I do, in fact I’m a bit shocked at how badly I feel I need every bit of it; his pain, his fear, physical problems and vet bills. I need to help him through all of it and most of all, I need the love of this creature who has known such indifference, neglect and possibly abuse and who does not give his love lightly.
Rodney is just the sort of quintessential survivor my Dad was talking about. We could all learn.
"simply petting an animal has been shown to help people suffering depression or battling illness"
Much has been written about the benefits to physical and emotional health conferred by relationships with companion animals. “Pet therapy is a well-received mode of helping many varied groups, for example hospitalized youth, elderly people and HIV-AIDS patients,” Danny Joffe, a medical director at the Calgary Animal Referral and Emergency Centre is quoted as saying here. “Such benefits as decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rates and decreased feelings of neglect and hopelessness have all been well documented scientifically.”
And from the same article we learn that simply petting an animal has been shown to help people suffering depression or battling illness. An American Heart Association study in 2008 showed that seniors and people recovering from surgery had faster recovery rates and responded better to treatment if they had contact with therapy animals.
Much is made online about the risk of toxoplasmosis from pets to people living with HIV, but this is pretty overblown. FACT: Cats may shed the toxoplasma organism in their feces two weeks during their entire life. Only if their egg-laden feces sits for 24-48 hours before being ingested can toxoplasmosis infect people. There is a risk, but it’s minimal unless you’re immune system is suppressed. Try to avoid handling feces insofar as possible and follow basic rules of hygiene and you’re probably going to be OK. Caroline B. Schaffer, DVM debunks the toxoplasmosis myth along with several other persistent myths about safe pet ownership and immunosuppression here.
It’s really all about the love. Much of what’s scary about contracting HIV is not the virus itself but the human dimension. You know, sure you do. The isolation, the fear, the stigma, the resultant depression, the feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. It’s all crap of course, but it seems to hit most of us at some point.
If I could make any recommendation at all to someone diagnosed with HIV or to anyone else for that matter, it would be this: love someone.
Cute n’ curvy, hung and hunky or four legged and furry; it really doesn’t matter to the love. Please note: I’m talking about love here, as distinct from sex. A lot of people like to conflate the two, but I’ve never found that helpful so I don’t. I’m not urging anyone to throw propriety to the wind and start redefining animal husbandry here. Really, I’m not.
But I am saying that if they offer you the chance, then love them for what they are and care for them for all you’re worth. Through all the challenges and reverses you’ll face it will help you keep in touch with everything you love best about yourself and life and you’ll like yourself and everything else more. You wouldn’t believe how much my feline friends inspire me and raise my spirits.
If you do take an animal for a companion, that’s great. It’s even better if you make an effort to understand them. It’s much more usual that the human will expect the animal to understand human foibles, which is manifestly unfair. Hell, I don’t understand human foibles very well.
Anyone interested in learning about animal behavior and communication would do well to check out the writings of Mark Bekoff as well as those of Temple Grandin for a good start. Your animal buds will love you for it.
And it’s the love that’s important.