Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Nigel, the three-legged cat

Mumbai, October 6, 2007: This is Nigel, the three-legged cat. He died yesterday, after being in and out of animal hospital for two months. A day before he died, I took this photo with my son Gattu in our building compound.

To me, Nigel is a question-mark about the way I view life. Let me tell you why… but first, I must explain a bit about this kitten who may have been about five months old.

“Leave him to die”…

Two months ago while playing basketball, Gattu and I found Nigel in the bushes at 11 pm. As we stroked him, we realized that he was horribly injured — his paw hanging in bloody shreds. The stench of gangrene pervaded the air.

We must have caused the little fellow a lot of pain by carrying him to a nearby bench to examine his paw under a light, but he was amazingly cooperative and trusting.
We gave him some milk in a saucer and he eagerly lapped it up. My daughter Bloo and I thought it wasn’t worth trying to save him because a three-legged cat wouldn’t have much to live for. Better leave him alone; he would die before morning, we reasoned. 

And so we put him back in the moist rain-washed bushes where we had found him. 

Kittens die all the time, I explained to Gattu. Each female cat gives birth to about 10 kittens per year, and nine of them die of disease, injury or starvation before they reach adulthood; otherwise, the cat population would skyrocket. So this kitten’s death is in the natural order of things, I reasoned.

But Gattu was of another opinion. Shouldn’t we at least take him to a vet? No use, I said. But he gently persisted until I gave in. “Alright, I’ll take him to the vet in the morning if he lives through the night. Now leave him,” I said.

Gattu wasn’t satisfied. “Maybe he will die… but shouldn’t we at least make him comfortable? Why not take him home and keep him in the balcony for the night?”
Fair enough, I thought. And so I made a soft bed from a discarded bedsheet, and took the cat home on it, oozing paw, stench and all.

The next morning, I drove the kitten to a private vet in a plastic basket lined with newspapers, which Gattu carried on his lap. On the way, I explained that the vet may ‘put him to sleep’ with a death injection.

Hospitalizing Nigel…

Well, it turned out that this vet was reluctant to even touch the cat for love or for money. He suggested that we should take him to the municipal veterinary hospital at Malad New Link Road. They specialized in amputations and could give much-needed post-operative care, he pointed out.

And so, after sending Gattu to school, my Mom and I admitted the cat to the municipal hospital which is run by a trust called Ahimsa Foundation. The doctor deftly cut away the rotting bits of flesh and bone, flushed out the maggots, bandaged the stump and injected a large syringe of vitamins, antibiotics and saline water into his thigh. 

Then the kitten was put in a little cage in a hall that held about 50 dogs (and a few cats). How the hall rang with their collective barking and howling!

My kids and I visited the cat every weekend for three weeks. We also became friendly with two three-legged cats, a one-eyed cat, a blind dog, and the hospital staff, and we watched a number of hopeless, maggoty cases as they were brought into their emergency ward by good samaritans.

While we were sitting with the kitten in an outdoor enclosure on one such visit, Bloo and Gattu christened him Nigel. 

Nearly a month later, there was still a small wound at the end of his stump, and that wasn’t going to heal in a hurry. As advised by the doctors, we decided to take Nigel home and release him in the compound. After all, being a wire cage in a room full of a bunch of barking and howling dogs wasn’t a good life for a cat.

Our compound seemed fairly safe. The stray dogs in the neighbourhood — all on cuddling-licking-feeding terms with us — left Nigel alone after sniffing at him, and he was now moving quickly enough on his three legs to avoid being run over by the vehicles that came in now and then.

Afterwards, for two weeks, things were fine. Nigel got plenty of hugs and cuddles three times a day. Besides milk, Nigel was kept fed on fish and boneless chicken which Bloo or I got despite our being vegetarians. 

Hospitalizing him again…

And then one morning, on my way to a meeting, I noticed that the stump was red and swollen like a tomato. I phoned my Dad and Mom to please take Nigel to the hospital. 

The vet told Dad that the stump could never completely heal unless the bone was amputated and the skin was stitched over it. But amputation was ruled out for Nigel; he was not strong enough to withstand this amputation, and would die on the operation table, the doctor opined.

And so Nigel spent another 10 days in hospital. On our second weekly visit, last monday, we took him home again. This time, on the vet’s advice, we clean the stump everyday with Savlon and applied Nebasulf powder.

Sudden death…

The day before yesterday, I slept fitfully in the morning. I awoke gasping for air several times before drifting off to sleep again. I didn’t have a cold or anything, but no matter what position I slept in, I kept choking on my tonsils.

After I got up, I awakened Gattu and told him to go give Nigel some milk. He went down but came back wailing, “Dost, come quick! Nigel is DEAD!” 

We examined the limp body lying on soft green leaves. Seeing a half-inch tear in the skin near his hip, I wondered if a stray dog had attacked him, but as the tear was bloodless, I doubted this theory. Maybe the tear had happened somehow after he died. There were no other signs of violence — no ragged fur, teeth-marks etc.

Nigel’s eyes were still moist and clear, not glazed or milky; his body had just begun to stiffen up. So he may have died in the last hour or so (while I was struggling in my sleep with unexplainable sensations of suffocation — was there some sort of astral connection? I wonder.) 

We buried Nigel in a shallow grave. Gattu hugged me and wept, and then tearfully drank up the half-glass of milk that he had taken for Nigel that morning. He drank it to give peace to Nigel’s soul, he said.

A whole bunch of question-marks and maybes…

As we often do after the death of a pet, Gattu and I had a discussion. “Maybe you were right, dost. Maybe we should have let him die that night,” thought Gattu aloud. 

I disagreed. “Thanks to your kindness, Nigel lived two months more than he would have otherwise,” I said. “Maybe it wasn’t a very happy life, but he did enjoy your love and care. For a stray cat with a life expectancy of about three years, two months is like several years of a human lifetime; that’s not bad at all!”
But I myself wonder whether it would have been kinder to leave Nigel to die, or indeed, to have killed him myself. (I’m no stranger to euthenasia; I once throttled a terminally-ill pet rat with my hands, and coldly watched the eyes bulge out of its head before it ceased to struggle.) 

On the other hand, as the economist Keynes remarked, ‘In the long run, we are all dead.’ Maybe the best we can do as friends of creatures is to help them see another sunrise, and draw a few more breaths of fresh air on this good earth.
If we choose to let animals live only when they are cute, cuddly and healthy, maybe we are nothing more than fair-weather friends. For all my stated love of animals, I may have decayed into a cynical fair-weather friend over the years. Through his gentle persuasiveness, my son helped me become more tender-hearted and less cynical.

Yes, I went out of my way for what seems to have been a lost cause. But I am beginning to think that maybe God lives in all the lost causes that we avoid. 
Maybe Nigel was what Gandhiji termed as Daridra-Narayan. Maybe Nigel helped me rediscover a kind of love that I had forgotten or never knew: love that doesn’t even expect the survival of the beloved, love that bows in humility to ugliness, disease and death.

Gattu wants to visit the animal hospital again tomorrow evening, to adopt another creature to care for in our compound — maybe a black one-eyed cat that had befriended us. He wants us to continue to serve animals, not because they are cute and cuddly, but simply because they are fellow beings.

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