IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Surrendered My Cats to an Animal Shelter to Protect My Baby

It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and the hardest I've cried in a long time.
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Publish date:
January 21, 2016
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babies, pets, cats, decisions, animal shelters

One of my favorite types of essays to read is the one that begins, "I never thought I'd be the kind of person who..." These essays explore that deep, dark cave of human emotion where all the terrifying stuff lives: shame, fear, anxiety, regret. And yet they also elevate and illuminate dark human experiences to a place where we can all see them more clearly — perhaps more honestly, with less judgment, more compassion, less pride.

One of the most profound pieces I've read recently was one posted on a new mom/baby blog, written by a doctor who had had a late abortion due to a devastating complication with the baby's heart. She wrote that while she had always been pro-choice on the issue politically, she never believed she'd actually have an abortion — and yet, in this situation, she made the decision she felt was best. Another piece (by another doctor, on another mom/baby blog) shared the difficult time she'd had with breastfeeding, and while she'd spent her early career judgmentally telling all her patients to stick with it and never stop, she found herself unable to continue, and making the decision she had to for her family.

Other issues have been less politically charged, but nonetheless fraught with passionate opinions on any side: moving to the suburbs, leaving a job, leaving a marriage, having kids, not having kids, etc. With each one, the temptation to judge is incredibly sweet. From the sidelines, everyone's an expert. And with each one, the dangerous game of "what if" is incredibly easy to play: What if the heart defect could have been fixed with a miraculous surgery? What if the woman had just stuck with breastfeeding for a few more weeks? What if another year would have made the marriage better? What if you regret not having kids when you're older?

Tonight, we became people I never dreamed we'd be in a million years.

Tonight we surrendered our cats to an animal shelter.

As an animal lover, I've maintained strong, passionate views on animals and pets. Rescue, don't buy. Older dogs, not puppies. Obviously neuter and spay. Obviously microchip. Obviously keep cats indoors. Obviously bring all animals to the vet every year, and obviously pay for any additional medical care needed. Obviously — and I mean obviously — keep the animals until they die. Anything to the contrary is irresponsible, heartless, and cruel. The kind of person I could never be, or rather, could never imagine myself being.

And yet we left the MSPCA alone, without the kitties, my heart clenched and aching as I sobbed into my husband's arms for 10 minutes before I could even get back in the car. "I can't believe I just left them there," I kept saying. "I feel so rotten. They're going to be so scared, and I won't be there to comfort them. I can't believe I left them."

The decision wasn't easy, and it wasn't rash.

It started two years ago, when we adopted a seven-year-old mutt from the MSPCA. Brady was shy and kept to himself, but our big alpha cat, Lucca, wanted to make sure Brady knew that he'd been there first. Before the dog. Before the second cat. Before my husband.

Lucca had been a frisky little kitten with extra toes at an animal shelter in Salem. He was crazy and wonderful, biting my ankles and chasing me around the apartment, until I got him a playmate, a tiny kitten that had been born to a stray. My friend brought Bella to me on the ferry from Long Island, and she spent the entire first night under my bed, mewing.

By the time we got Brady, the cats were five and six and had moved with me five different times. With each move, and with Brady, we worked hard to help them adjust, to make sure they weren't overly stressed. We read articles, we bought treats and toys, we sat on opposite sides of a door so the animals could sniff each other safely. We did all the right things — all the responsible things — because we loved our animals and because, if I'm being honest, we prided ourselves on being the kinds of people who do the right thing. No matter how expensive, no matter how stressful. And when it came to animals, the right thing always seemed pretty black and white.

And then we had a baby. A beautiful, healthy, sweet baby who turned our world upside down and then slowly turned it right side up again the first time she smiled at us. A baby who proved that all those annoying cliches about life gaining new perspective were completely and undeniably true.

While our heads became cloudy and foggy, our vision became crystal clear. Every decision was held up to a lens, and that lens is Jolene. The lens doesn't guarantee that every decision is right. Or that every decision will feel good. But it guarantees that we are no longer only acting for ourselves; we act for someone else, for something larger, for us as a family, a unit. Not Kevin or Dianna or even Kevin and Dianna. Kevin and Dianna and Jolene.

But along with this perspective and joy came stress. We were stressed, Brady was stressed, and the cats were stressed.

We dealt with it in different ways. I wrote and cried and called my sisters. Kevin played the drums and practiced meditating. Brady ran down the stairs anxiously, desperate to get back on a regular walking schedule. Bella found places to hide. And Lucca did what so many strong personalities do when they feel backed into a corner: he fought back. He lunged at the dog, he swiped at us, he hissed and snarled when there was too much going on. He was clearly overly stressed, and while it wasn't all of the time (we still had plenty of moments of our sweet Lucca curled up on the bed or purring in my lap), it was painful to watch.

We worried about Jolene getting caught in the middle of a dog-cat fight on the floor. And as more little kids started coming over to visit (such is our new stage of life), Lucca began swiping as their curious fingers poked and prodded his face. We had to start closing him in a room, micromanaging every interaction, treading carefully when all of us were in the same room.

I felt so many painful emotions: frustration that everyone couldn't just get along, fear that Lucca might actually hurt Jolene one day, insecurity that only a terrible mother would defend her cat in the face of potential danger. But mostly I felt guilty. I'd rescued Lucca and enjoyed all the saintly qualifiers that come along with being an animal rescuer — and then I'd added to his life another cat, another human, a dog, and then a baby. I'd created an environment that was too stressful for him to handle, and now I was struggling with what to do.

How could I make everyone happy, safe, and stress-free? How could I take care of everyone, take care of myself, please everyone, and disappoint no one?

I had to surrender to the fantasy that I could actually achieve all of that, to the idea that I was somehow more superior, more ethically sound, more responsible than all those people who "gave up" on their pets. To the idea that I would never struggle with a hard decision, never regret a decision, and always know 100% that I was doing the right thing. I surrendered myself to the reality of being a parent, which is that we're all just doing the best we can, and that a lot of decisions are going to be really, really, really hard to make, and even after we make them, we may always wonder, did we do the right thing?

Ultimately, we decided that it was no longer safe or pleasant for all the animals to be together with a baby in the house and limited space. And because Lucca posed a more serious threat to Jolene, and because we wanted the cats to stay together, we tried to find them a home. We reached out to our friends and coworkers, posted on social media, and even had a local humane society post ads on our behalf. But we didn't have any leads. And each day, Lucca seemed more agitated, and I felt more conflicted and guilty about the situation I'd created.

So we surrendered them. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and the hardest I've cried in a long time. We loaded them into their crates, drove to the MSPCA, filled out profiles about them (which asked things like, "What's something cute or funny your pet does?" and other such questions that made me break down), and made a donation.

While we waited for someone to process the paperwork, a family came in to the surrendering area with a couple loud children and two high-strung, barking chihuahuas. We ignored them all, since Lucca was getting agitated by the dogs and because I was crying and didn't want to talk to anyone. And when we finally left and got in the car, I told Kevin that I'd instinctually judged the family. I'd assumed they'd bought the chihuahuas as puppies (something we'd never do), never bothered to train them (not like us, who'd spent eight weeks in obedience training with Brady, the oldest dog in class), and then decided the dogs were too annoying (an unfair reason to give up an animal who never really had a chance).

And when those thoughts crept in, they crushed me. You think you're so great? You're in the same place — the surrendering area at an animal shelter. What makes you so much better than them? I was ashamed and embarrassed to be in the same space as the caricatures I'd created in my mind, and then doubly ashamed and embarrassed to have judged these people so quickly with absolutely no idea of what they'd been through, and why they felt they had to make this decision.

I realized that any of the many people who'd walked by us could have been making equally unfair and unfounded judgments about us, and that made me want to shout out to everyone at the shelter, We tried! We tried so hard to make it work! Then we tried so hard to find them a home! We did everything we knew how to do and we're still such new parents that every day we're facing situations we don't know how to handle. And we're doing our best. Please, please don't judge us the way I've been judging that family.

While the situation with the animals was only one example, it pointed to a larger truth that's been hard to learn as a new parent: as it turns out, all new parents are actually just doing the best they can every single day. Whether or not they let their babies have a pacifier, or make their kids give hugs, or drink wine every night when the baby is asleep, or co-sleep, or feed with formula, or use cloth diapers, or let kids watch TV, or use time out, or send the kids to daycare, or any other decision they could be making at any given moment that a huge portion of the population is likely to disagree with for their own impassioned reasons.

Getting up in arms over someone else's decision gets us nowhere; having compassion for what everyone is going through every day brings us closer to each other, closer to being the kind, understanding souls we want our kids to grow up to be.

The car ride home seemed to take forever. We told ourselves that the perfect person or couple would love to have them and give them a quieter, low-stress environment, that they wouldn't be at the shelter long, that it would be like being at a kennel while we went on vacation, which we'd never subjected the animals to before. It would be stressful for them, but it would be temporary.

Even as I tried to convince myself of all of this, I ached with grief and guilt. We came back to a quiet house, no cat running up and down the stairs, no cat curled on the bed, but also no cat stressed out and hissing in the hallway, no cat swiping out of fear and anxiety.

We picked up Jolene from my in-laws' house, kissed her adorable cheeks, and remembered that we'd made this decision to keep her safe and to keep the household calm, both of which are critical to her happiness and well-being. I still cried on and off throughout the night, and I know that many tears are still ahead. But surrendering means I have to stop fighting, stop trying to pretend that I was ever a perfect person, and stop blaming myself for ultimately doing the best I knew how.

I never thought I'd be the kind of person who would ever surrender an animal. But instead of trying impossibly to be any "kind of person," I'm better off simply trying to do my best in each situation. Making each decision with care and love and humility and, hopefully, discovering compassion for every other person trying to do the same.