My husband and I were at our local no-kill animal shelter on a Saturday afternoon when we found him.
My husband’s beloved cat Bea -- our cat, really, but she was his favorite -- had died very suddenly only a month before. Our remaining cat, an orange tom terror named Oberon with whom I’d lived since 1998, seemed a little down without other felines to lord over, and so although I felt it was awfully soon to be looking at new additions to the household, I was willing to try.
I always look for the older cats in shelters, the ones that wait longest to be adopted, and so I didn’t allow myself to linger at the adorable kittens and the rambunctious younger adults. Eventually I came to one cage with two cats in it, looking to be adopted together; one of them, a longhaired calico, was pawing at the cage door and chirping, eagerly seeking my attention. Her name was Penny. I asked a nearby volunteer if I could open the cage, and as soon as I did Penny started up meowing and purring like a freaking love machine.
The other cat, a tuxedo male the shelter had dubbed “Baby,” didn’t move. He just purred. I petted them both and in that moment unilaterally decided that these were our cats. I informed my husband, who fortunately didn’t debate the matter.
“They were dumped,” said the shelter volunteer, her matter-of-fact tone probably a result of having seen such a thing happen far too often. “A woman pulled up one night after closing and dropped a carrier with both cats in it at the front door. Then she drove away.”
As it happened, one of the shelter employees was in the building and saw the dump take place. More than that, she took down the woman’s license plate number. And found her name and address. And called her.
“We don’t do it to make people feel bad,” the volunteer explained. “We just want people to come in when they give up their animals, so we have some information about their background, any health issues they might have, or whether they’re aggressive.”
The woman's story, which she related when the shelter reached her by phone, was that the cats belonged to her father, who was moving to an assisted living facility. No pets allowed. The volunteer seemed a little dubious, given the state of the cats when they arrived: they seemed terribly neglected, although if they had been cared for by an elderly man losing his ability to care for himself, that may well have been the case.
I met the veterinarian who had treated them; she was effusive about the cat called “Baby.”
“He was so calm and patient when we shaved him,” she said.
Wait, shaved him? Why was he shaved?
“When he came in, the hair on his whole back was covered in mats, from his neck to his tail. We had to shave him to get them out -- it was the only way, brushing them was impossible.”
This was my first inkling that we might be getting into something more than a standard pet adoption. But I pushed it away. The second inkling was about to happen.
The paperwork completed, we returned to the cage to load our new pets into carriers and take them home. Penny went first. There was some debate about there being a carrier big enough for “Baby”; I thought surely they were making a big deal out of nothing -- he was large, sure, but not so large as to defeat a standard cat carrier. Right?
When they lifted “Baby” out of his temporary home, it was like watching a clown car act, except instead of a car it was a shelter cage, and instead of many clowns it was one, very, very, very large cat. He just kept going; he UNFURLED, like a sail, he went on like infinity. He wasn’t just a long cat -- he was the fattest cat I had ever seen.
Twenty-six pounds, the vet said. TWENTY-SIX POUNDS. We had already signed the paperwork. I couldn’t back out now.
Later that evening, when we had unleashed our new cats in the guest room prior to beginning the slow and methodical business of introducing them to the rest of the house -- and, of course, to Oberon -- I watched in shock as Rufus used the litter box, and then, in a supremely businesslike manner, dragged his butt across the carpet. Like it was TOILET PAPER. Right in front of me. Upon reflection, it seemed natural -- he couldn’t clean himself.
I realized with a chill of horror that I had just signed myself up for an unknown number of years of cat-butt-wiping. WHAT HAVE I DONE.
Within a week, we had incorporated the new cats into our household, and “Baby” had been renamed “Rufus” thanks to my husband. While Penny adapted quickly (aside from being the moodiest cat in the world) Rufus began to move from one catastrophe after another.
First, it was ringworm. Now, ringworm is not a worm at all, but a fungus, and it is incredibly common in shelter environments; normally, however, cats without compromised immune systems shake it off. Cats who are stressed, or cats who have recently experienced even a minor abrasion to the skin (like, say FROM BEING SHAVED) are more susceptible.
Rufus’ ringworm began as a smallish spot on his back, and rapidly spread to his whole body, including his face. We moved him back into the guestroom, to avoid infecting the other cats, and to prevent the contamination of the whole apartment. Anti-fungal creams were ineffective; ringworm is notoriously difficult to kill, both as an infection as in the environment. Rufus' hair, which had been growing back in nicely, fell out again. He was, frankly, a scabby nightmare, and if you saw him in an alley you would probably run away shuddering; he had all the aesthetic charms of a shambling zombie in cat form.
We began giving him twice-weekly sulfur baths -- yes, ACTUAL SULFUR, which smelled about as hellish as you might expect, and still wasn’t killing the ringworm, although it was making me sick. I got a tiny patch of ringworm on my arm, and I did not handle it well. I can't imagine how Rufus felt.
Poor sad lonely Rufus lived in that guestroom, mostly on his own except for a few hours in the evening when my husband and I would trade off spending time with him, for four months while we tried literally everything under the fungus-destroying sun to cure his infection. In time we found a prescription oral medication, a drug for humans, in fact, that cured him after eight weeks of treatment at a cost of roughly $370 just for the medication alone. Rufus was now an investment property.
People we talked to about it were astonished at the level of care (and money) we were expending on a cat we had only just adopted; many suggested we return him to the shelter.
“If you met him, you’d understand,” we told them. They still looked at us as though we were out of our minds, and possibly we were. But Rufus was special -- Rufus is the kind of cat that even cat-haters love. Wildly affectionate, quick to occupy a lap, purring at everyone he met: as cats go, he is an angel, and he’d have to be, given his other issues. Of course we would take care of him. Getting rid of him was inconceivable.
Then he stopped eating.
When a cat stops eating, it’s bad news: even giant cats like Rufus can’t go long without food, as it puts them at risk for fatty liver disease, an illness that becomes self-fulfilling because the further it progresses, the less the cat wants to eat, and the less the cat eats, the worse the disease gets. Untreated, it is fatal. Often cats recover only with the insertion of a feeding tube to force food into their systems.
We took him to the ER of a local animal hospital as soon as we realized something was very wrong. The emergency vet was dour about Rufus’ size, even as she was alarmed that he had lost four pounds in a matter of weeks (for a cat, even a giant cat, that’s a lot).
It turned out that Rufus was constipated. THIS CAT, I thought. We went through two weeks of enemas, after each of which Rufus was relegated to a bathroom where he could poop all over himself without ruining any furniture. The enemas resulted in a disgusting mess, but still the mass of unpassed poop in Rufus’ bowels remained immobile. He still wasn’t eating enough. He was still losing weight. They were going to have to Go In.
I remember sitting at my desk at my former job that day, knowing Rufus’ butt was being surgically roto-rooted in an animal hospital not far away, and thinking, This is what my life is now? Worrying about the state of my cat’s intestines? I am SO never having kids. But even then, I couldn’t resent him for it.
Rufus came through the operation like a champ, and now gets a daily laxative to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The ER vet told us: “Put him on a diet,” suggesting that more constipation was inevitable so long as he remained so large, but his regular vet demurred, saying that very often when cats of a certain age reach a certain size, there’s not much that can be done to slim them down. Each of our cats gets a half cup of (freaking expensive) protein-heavy dry food every day and they’re both active and healthy, although Penny is half Rufus’ weight. We decided to let them be.
Back in 2010 I was profiled in the Boston Globe, mostly focusing on my work in body acceptance. Among the little personal tidbits in the article added to give the story some color, the author mentioned my giant fat cat. I was expecting to get a lot of hate mail for being an unapologetic fatty, but the lion’s share of the attacks I received were based on the fact that I allow my cat to be enormous.
I tried to explain, “He was like that when we adopted him! He’s actually lighter now!” but nobody wanted to hear it -- people were too eager to point out my neglectful and irresponsible approach to cat care, and they were excited to let me know what a horrible person I was for causing so much harm to my poor suffering feline companion.
If only they knew.
Rufus currently stands at 23 pounds, and is impressively agile and comfortable with his size -- you wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he can jump and run with the best of them. He still needs the occasional help with his bottom, truth be told, but given everything else we’ve seen with him, a little cat butt-wiping is a minor thing to me. His coat is now shiny and luxurious, his bowels regular, and he remains one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever known.
My long-time cat-BFF Oberon passed away in late August of last year, at 15 years old, ending a difficult battle with multiple cancers. Losing him was like having my heart ripped out (sometimes it still is). Rufus wouldn’t leave me alone for those first few difficult weeks afterward, sitting under my desk all day as I worked, getting up whenever I did, insistently following me around, as though he was keeping an eye on me.
And yet, if I’d understood how big he was that first day in the shelter, and understood that he had possibly been neglected -- truly understood, before signing the paperwork, before bringing him home -- I might have left him there, might have moved on to some other cat looking for a home; I might kept him from the chance of being adopted by two ridiculously-committed cat lovers who would take care of all of his problems without even considering giving him up, ever; I might have missed the privilege of having such an awesome animal in our lives. For all the care we’ve given him, he’s given us much more.
The moral? Don’t judge a book by its cover, friends. Sometimes there are hidden benefits to leaping before you look.