Herding Cats

My employer shared the letter with me not because there was really anything I could change or that could be done about what had happened. It was more to let me know that she had received it and because it was too good not to share.

A few weeks previously, a couple had brought us one of their adopted feral cats for a bite wound on its back end. They had warned us about how the cat was and told us to be careful with her. We had listened and had found the small gray tabby to be a wonderfully easy patient. She snuggled up on us during her exam and we loaded her in to her carrier without incident when her owners came to pick her up. I find this to be true of many adopted feral cats. They turn into big loves so long as you let them set the terms.

We did the recheck in our Ludlow office. The owner was present for the recheck, she had not been present for the initial visit. I took the feral cat out of her carrier, she was nervous but after some chin scratching she rubbed up against my hand. When I went to lift her up to examine her abdomen the owner tried to intervene. The cat did not approve of the intervention, my response to the intervention or both. She exploded around the room, knocked the blinds off the windows and then hid behind the sink. I retrieved her and finished the recheck. The issue had resolved and would not require any further attention. The feral cat and her owner returned home.

The letter arrived the following week. I don’t remember the details anymore, I had saved it for a few years but must have discarded it recently. The basic premise was that I was an inept veterinarian who didn’t know how to handle feral cats and shouldn’t be allowed near animals. I do remember that the word “idiot” was used eleven times in the one page letter. It was directed at me every single time. Needless to say I was not this client’s favorite veterinarian.

Fast forward one month, exactly one month from the day of that fateful recheck exam. The same owners bring in another feral cat, this cat had just been captured by these feline rescuers and was still mean as could be. It likely goes without saying that they did not want any of the veterinary services to be performed by me. Completely understandable.

Then the cat got loose in the cat ward. Bear with me while I paint the cat ward into your mind. It’s a rectangular room, eight feet wide by sixteen feet long. There is a single door at one end of a sixteen foot wall and two large windows along the other. At the 8 foot wall nearest the door is a treatment table and scale for weighing cats and a cat kennel bay on the other end of the room. All in there are 10 feline kennels in that room. The cat ward also serves as the location for the server and data lines for the hospital so there is a shelf in one corner and a hole in the ceiling for all of the data lines to go throughout the practice.

We attempted to capture the cat but he wedged himself behind the kennels against the far wall in the cat ward and would hiss and strike at us as we tried to get him out. Fortunately, the kennels are on wheels so I wheeled the kennel away from the wall and climbed on top of the kennel to get at the feral cat. The plan was to corner the cat on one side of the space behind the kennel by advancing a broom towards him. Once he was in a position he could not bolt from I was going to jump down, throw a thick towel over him, scoop him up and return him to his carrier. Seemed easy enough.

Instead of being cornered, the cat decided that it was fighting time, he attacked the broom that I was advancing towards him without any semblance of fear. My plan had been to use the broom to guide him gently out from behind the kennels, his plan had been different. Once he latched onto the broom and realized it was good for climbing, it took less than a second for him to be crouched next to where I was laying on top of the kennels. We locked eyes. I sat still watching him as he glared at me, waiting for him to attack me. Instead he hissed once in my face, turned and jumped up through the hole in the ceiling and was gone. I sat for a long moment in silence. All I could think to say after that moment had passed was, “I can’t believe that actually happened.”

I got down from my perch and went to the hatch that led to the crawl space attic above the cat ward, stood on a stool and shined a flashlight inside. Two glowing green eyes peered back at me and after looking around the small crawl space, I decided he didn’t have much room to hide and I could probably capture him with the net. So I climbed up into the crawl space with a four foot long loop net and planned to capture the escaped feral cat. I was of course, wrong. The crawl space had roughly one million tiny places for a feline to fit that a human might not even see let alone climb into. And it was approximately 1000 degrees Fahrenheit in there. After a few minutes up there, I retreated to the safety and comfort of the treatment area and thought about what to do next.

We decided to set a catch and release trap with some cat food in the attic and wait until morning. My boss told me she would call the owners of the feral cat when she arrived at our Ludlow office for afternoon appointments and explain everything to them. That seemed fair, I hadn’t even lost the cat. I was just trying to be helpful. What we didn’t take into account was that we were at the tail end of road construction season here in Vermont and the commute took her considerably longer than usual. As a result, appointments started a little late in Ludlow and she struggled to keep up. In Rutland, the owners of the feral cat stopped by to pick up their cat.

I must have rehearsed what I was going to say to these people fifty times in my head before I stepped into the cat exam room. I was going to explain to them that I (the veterinarian they called an idiot in the letter they wrote to my employer) lost their feral cat in the ceiling of our practice. Then I was going to get out of the room. As soon as I closed the door behind me, my mind went completely blank. I stood there for what felt like an hour before I decided that I had to just go for it.

I do not remember a word that I said to them or a single word they said to me but I do remember that they didn’t smile. Not once. They left and we set a Havahart trap with some canned cat food up in the attic.

The next morning the cat was in the trap. We called the owners, they picked up the cat and we never saw those cats or their owners again. I saved the letter for years but apparently discarded it recently. I suppose I am ready to move on.

Thanks for reading.

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One thought on “Herding Cats

  1. Pingback: 7 things being a veterinarian has taught me about life. | Vetcha

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