Parallels between us

Over the past few weeks of our lives in lockdown, we’ve had the pleasure of interacting with a small family of cats in our building. A mommy cat, who we saw through her pregnancy and her extreme neediness and shrill meow, and her three identical ginger kittens. We spent one fun evening with them in the entrance corridor of our house, feeding their hungry stomachs constantly for about 45 minutes, playing with them, and creepily watching them sleep (the last bit was just me). Despite the kittens being identical, I learned to differentiate them quickly based on their personalities. The biggest of the lot was the most playful, always chasing after the string I’d entice his little self with. The second one was the most timid yet curious; he’d always seem to want to play with his brother but greater fear of this human made him run back off to his mother. The third of the lot, the smallest and seemingly the runt of the litter, stole my heart during nap time. As their mother lay down to rest from her duties, this one sidled up to her to be groomed, and after one begrudging lick of the butt by his mom, collapsed on the floor with his head resting on her belly. She growled. About a minute later, little runt got the hint and slowly walked back to his previous nap corner under the stool. My heart broke. He tried the same thing again a few minutes later, and mommy’s unwelcoming body language drove him back to square 1.

Over the next few days and perhaps weeks, mommy and her litter of three knew our door opening was their time to signal their hunger. The three kittens followed their mother wherever she went. Little runt appeared to be getting dirtier, and his poop was noticeably stinky. We didn’t pay it much attention, although it appeared worrisome.

Fast forward a week or two, mommy had disappeared. The kittens had retained in their memory the look and sound of our courtyard door and still tried to run in every time we’d try to give them some food or even just leave the house for our own purposes. One afternoon after returning from a mini getaway at a friend’s farmhouse, I saw him at the foot of my apartment staircase looking filthy as ever, dirty-faced and poo-stained belly, breathing heavily. My heart broke 10 times more. I tried to offer him some affection. I was convinced he would die soon. I cried. But another part of my brain attempted to shut right down and forget that this was happening.

Earlier this year I tried to take in and save two kittens, one after the other, that I found vulnerably somewhere or the other in these unforgiving outdoors. They were the first kitten deaths I experienced happen right in front of my eyes. One of them was violent; he died in my bathroom from the third seizure I witnessed him experience. I was discouraged from intervening in the life of an abandoned kitten again.

This was why it took two days for us to open our eyes to the slowly fading existence of the runt downstairs. I was waiting for my mum to give me, give ourselves, the go-ahead to take him to the vet and under our care. The reason I waited is because I need her help and support. The reason she was hesitant is because of the fear we both have.

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So we took the little skinny, filthy kitten to the vet. I took our cat carrier downstairs, opened its little door, and he walked right in. He was given an antibiotic and we took him back the next day, and two days after that. In the meantime, we bathed him, fed him, syringe-fed him, tried to play with him, cared for him, watched him. He lived in my room and I was his full-time caretaker. I probably told him I loved him every 15 minutes, and spent possibly 40% of my day laying on the ground and staring at him. We named him Georgie.

Georgie had difficulty breathing and we noticed this from day 1. He also had diarrhea, and a less than hearty appetite. We took him to our more trusted vet on day 4 of having him under our care, and discovered that his breathing problem was most likely a result of a damaged/herniated diaphragm. This could have been a birth defect, or the result of some trauma in his life. I didn’t want to think about what that trauma could possibly have been.

That night, he was unable to get to sleep. He had a tendency to try to sleep in a sitting position because that was probably how he felt most comfort in trying to breathe. I watched him because I couldn’t look away for fear; I spent most of the days with Georgie with a low-lying anxiety and a consistently breaking heart upon seeing the difficulty with which he continued to live. I’d see him sitting, eyes closing, slowly beginning to doze off until the lack of support underneath him woke him back up. I tried to help him, place a stuffed toy underneath his chin from all angles, soften up his surroundings. It didn’t seem to work, and I had to go to sleep.

I woke up at 5:20 AM that morning, worried. He wasn’t asleep the way he was the previous morning. He was awake and restless, and upon a closer look he had started to breathe from his mouth. It was growing more and more difficult for him, and I began to sob knowing what was probably about to happen. I watched him struggle until 6:40 AM which is when he took his last breaths, after having scrambled his weak little self to a corner underneath my desk. I covered him in a t-shirt, and once mum woke up, we adorned his little shoebox coffin in flowers and leaves from our courtyard.

Since Georgie’s death, I have not felt the same. I have a heightened sensitivity to the very real plight of the animals all around me; it was always there, that sensitivity, but a part of my brain – and body – tended to shut off the feelings that this awareness evoked. I had one eye closed.

For the past two days, I have been on Google and Facebook and YouTube, learning how to foster kittens and arming myself with knowledge about kitten care and opening my eyes to groups that exist in Karachi that actively seek to care for animals. There are some, few, organizations out there that are doing their very best; the most well-known rescue organization being the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF), Pakistan Animal and Welfare Society (PAWS), some growing foster care homes, and other platforms on social media where people can share and express their concerns and experiences with animals. I was happy to know that this world exists, but slowly I began to feel overwhelmed. On the side of each page in ‘Suggestions’ I saw a bunch of other Pakistan-based animal groups which opened my eyes to a whole other side of the animal ‘loving’ world – places where people bought and sold, posted pictures of adorable white Persian kittens with comments by young and suspicious looking Pakistani men reading ‘Price’ and ‘Interested’. Why are they interested? Why does this person in some corner of this sprawling city ‘urgently’ need a white Persian male?

The overwhelm increased. I felt fear again. I felt fear for all that I don’t know about what happens in this city. We recently had an encounter with a real estate agent who imports wildlife ‘on the side’ as a ‘hobby’. On one of these more humane animal groups I saw an outraged post about a Pakistani family sharing pictures with great pride of a baby white tiger as a pet. The reality of that man’s side business became more….well. Real.

There are so many animals on the streets of Karachi. Lately I have heard the most grotesque stories about what happens to stray dogs. It seems that the consequences of the COVID lockdown have made themselves evident in animals and humans alike. I read an article about animals in this city which brought to light once again the hypocrisy and flaws in our systems; why can forces be immediately mobilized to cull – read: murder – dogs in various neighborhoods based on complaints by Karachi’s elite, but none to take care of the massive issue of poverty that has only been exacerbated in the recent months? Is power only used when it makes the powerful feel the extent of their might? Killing is easy and feeding is out of the question. Isn’t there something so inherently sick about this picture?

On these groups I read about people seeking mates for their beautiful cats in order to create more beautiful cats. I read about pets being thrown out for not being beautiful or useful enough, perhaps being disabled. And then I thought about how familiar this sounds. The value of animals based on breed and beauty and a disregard that extends to hate to those that don’t fit the picture. The same kind of people will simultaneously spend hundreds and thousands of rupees on the transfer to and fro of animals in and out of their natural habitats and run over a puppy in their important-looking cars in their haste to live their very-important lives. This is not a fact, but it is probably true.

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this value for the superficial and disregard for street animals, and the same for women. There are clear parallels to me between the plight of each group in our society that is most disadvantaged. How can one distinguish between the mindset that underlies abuse directed at women and that which is directed at animals? But not just them. What about the earth? Where’s our regard for her; for ‘mother’ earth? Ever since capitalism became our default mode of existence our reverence for the land that we live on, that we inhabit, and those that protect and nurture it, has vanished. If the feminine represents the nurturing, the care-giving, and we do not value her, we do not value everything that she brings with her. If the earth is our mother, we do not value her. If animals are a core component of our natural world, we do not value them. If our value for a being, of any sort, lies in what they can do for us, we do not really value that being. We do not care for it as it is.

Power dynamics in our class-based society make these parallels convoluted but more and more evident as cracks in the system make themselves visible. I personally read the stories of cruelty and apathy and am overcome with a debilitating mixture of helplessness, rage, sadness, and fear. It makes me want to hide and speak to no one because it feels like no one can understand.

Even on the most humane of animal groups, the rage extends to the perpetrators of the evil. The anger is directed at the most cruel among us, and it should be. But why is this disease so endemic? What can we find in common between each and everything that we live among that is subject to the most oppression? Ultimately it seems, no matter how much you’d like to ignore it, turn a blind eye to it, our answers lie in systems of oppression. Why are these systems our default and how can we change them?

Another reason I feel so helpless is my personality type. I’m not the ‘activist type’. How can I make change? How can I feel okay? But more importantly, how can I feel okay without consciously or unconsciously blinding myself to these realities? The honest answer is that I don’t know, but that I know that there is space for me. I know the answer lies somewhere around wherever love resides. And while I don’t know what part I have to play, I will end this post with something I read earlier today, from ‘The Source of Self-Regard” by Toni Morrison:

“I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly—a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. There is also mapping, charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population. When chaos resists, either by reforming itself or by rebelling against imposed order, violence is understood to be the most frequent response and the most rational when confronting the unknown, the catastrophic, the wild, wanton, or incorrigible. Rational responses may be censure; incarceration in holding camps, prisons; or death, singly or in war. There is, however, a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art. Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, of military power, of empire building and counting houses, writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is right that such protection be initiated by other writers. And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”

We all have a part to play, I think. In the world of social media trends and the feeling of being forced to speak when we do not yet have something to say, I think we can all benefit from some stillness. Whether this stillness translates into art, into writing, into self-reflection, or into long, restful naps that lead to the wildest of ideas in the night; we can all tap into the love that exists within all of us. In some small and large way, Georgie the kitten taught me how important love is. I will try and extend this love as far as I possibly can.

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