Poppy is eighteen years old. She was given to me as a pathetic little scrap that had been born in a coal bunker. The mother's owner wouldn't have her cats neutered and when they had kittens she just took them to the vets and asked them to kill them. My cleaner, who was a neighbour of this stupid person, phoned me and said would I take a couple of kittens she'd rescued, until she could rehome them? Someone took the other kitten before she got to me, or I could have ended up with both of them.
Poppy was filthy. She survived having a tape worm, fleas, lice and ear mites. By the time we'd nursed her back to health, Nathan said he didn't want to part with her. She's been run over (her tail was paralysed for about six weeks), had skin cancer (part of an ear had to be amputated), came home one day with a puncture wound in her face, and went missing for a couple of months about two years ago. The photo above, taken not long ago, has been viewed 248 times (to date) and favourited 44 times by cat-lovers on Flickr.com.
Poppy has a sunny disposition, she loves company, and liked to sit beside any visitors and pat them on the arm until they stroked her. Now she's dying. Within the next few weeks, I'll have to make the decision to take her to the vet one last time. Her kidneys are failing and her breath has that tell-tale smell of urine. She sleeps a lot.
Trouble is, there are two other geriatrics in this house - Wizzy (our Jack Russell), who was sixteen in May, and Barney, who's almost twenty. Before long, I'll lose them all.
Pets are sometimes referred to as "companion animals", which is an accurate description. For many people, particularly disabled and elderly people, they provide companionship that makes all the difference between crippling loneliness and tolerable solitude. Losing a pet can be as devastating for them as losing a close relative - in some cases, more so. I've provided a befriending service for bereaved pet owners through our local vet. They've said they found it hard to talk about their feelings to their friends, whose attitude might be, "It was only a dog!" Their uncomprehending "friends" muddle sentimentalism with grieving. Because pet owners can form bonds with their animals that can be as close as they might form with people, they grieve at the end of an animal's short life; those who don't recognise this betray their own deficiencies. When I was in my teens, my best friend's mum, Stella, gave me some good advice about relationships: "If he doesn't like animals or children, he's a waste of time." I've always regarded people who don't understand animals, or our relationship with them, as being seriously lacking in the empathy department.
For several years now, social workers have recognised that there's often a connection between animal abuse and child abuse; if someone tortures or neglects an animal, he or she is likely to treat his or her children (and partner) badly. Animal cruelty cases can alert social workers to children at risk. It's because of an inability to empathise.
I've always stayed with my pets when they've been "put to sleep", the euphemism for euthanasia, so they'd be reassured by my presence. After the injection, which literally does send them to sleep, they just stop breathing and that's it, over in seconds. It's always been very peaceful. If only we could do the same for people, like my dad, who had to suffer weeks of morphine-induced anxiety at the end of his life as his body rotted away. I've taken other people's pets to the vet because they couldn't face it. Within the next few weeks, I'll have to take Poppy. I'm not looking forward to it.
I like this poem by Gavin Ewart, called "A 14-year-old convalescent cat in the winter" -
I want him to have another living summer,
to lie in the sun and enjoy the douceur de vivre -
because the sun, like the golden rum in a rummer,
is what makes an idle cat un tout petit peu ivre -
I want him to lie stretched out, contented,
revelling in the heat, his fur all dry and warm,
an Old Age Pensioner, retired, resented
by no one, and happinesses in a bee-like swarm
to settle on him - postponed for another season
that last fated hateful journey to the vet
from which there is no return (and age the reason),
which must come soon - as I cannot forget.
Nathan's reminded me about how different attitudes towards dogs and cats are in countries like Cambodia. He mentioned that someone in Siem Reap had a row with his neighbour, who'd killed and eaten his dog "because he was hungry", while other people in the neighbourhood had pulled out or cut out their dogs' teeth to stop them biting each other during frequent fights - the screams could be heard some distance away. The WSPA reports that there are roughly 480 million stray dogs around the world, many suffering from horrible diseases and painful deaths. My pets live in comparative luxury, costing £1000s for food and vet's bills. Is it ethical to spend so much money on our animals, when so many people go hungry? Perhaps it's not so much the cost, as the fact that too many animals are allowed to breed. Mine weren't.