When Lily got scooped up from the warm cozy bed where she was sleeping she had no idea that she would never nap in that spot again. She was restless on the ride and frightened when the cold wet wind came rushing through the open car window. Raindrops danced across the windshield as the wipers kept time to the blaring music and the faint glimmer of distant stars dotted the black horizon. As she lifted her paw to wipe the rain from her tiny whiskered face, she was flung from the car window like a bag of trash. When she hit the wet pavement excruciating pain riddled her entire being…all 2.5 pounds of her small, frail body. The only family she had ever known drove away as she limped off into the darkness of the night…
Lily’s plight is based on a true story. I met Lily in June of 2012. Her entire lower lip and chin had been torn away from her jaw from hitting the pavement and her right foreleg dangled from the shoulder joint like a puppeteer had severed its strings. She was shy and withdrawn. It was simple to repair the tiny kitten’s jaw, but only time would tell if she would regain full use of her leg.
As a veterinarian I have met and fostered many “Lily’s,” the castaways that have been left shipwrecked and all alone. Each time I have fought with every breath of my being to right the wrongs that have brought them my way, and each time I have struggled to understand why. I imagine my soul is tattooed with tiny paw prints from each and every one of them; some overlap, some sit alone, but all of them are deep. Lily was no exception…her story had etched a permanent paw print alongside the others.
Not once during my career had I ever considered their lives before me. I suppose that the human nature of my ego had allowed me to be blinded by the mere thought that I couldsave them. I sutured their wounds, healed their fractures, and nursed them back to health while I desperately tried to foster their trust in human beings. Then, I met Olivia; a beautiful 17-month-old lynx point Siamese mix that changed my thought process forever.
Olivia—Liv for short—had been rescued from the great outdoors. For the first 11 months of her newfound life she had been repeatedly tortured. Her living hell ended on May 18, 2011 when she was removed from the home of her “rescuer”—a woman that had allowed her to be physically traumatized over and over again.
When I saw the tiny broken cat on that day I was overwhelmed by a feeling of utter helplessness. She was huddled in a mound at the back of a cat carrier with a small orange tabby standing guard over her. When I looked at her face a wave of nausea synced my stomach with an image that would haunt me for months. There was a bruise over her right brow bone and a large soft tissue swelling on the skull bone between her eyes. The sclera—the white region of her eyeball—had a visible hemorrhage just below a severely swollen right eyelid. Between grinding her teeth and crying out in pain, she panted.
As I gently slid her battered little body toward me, I could feel her trembling beneath my hands. Slowly and deliberately I moved my fingers over her thorax toward her pelvis. When I reached the swelling over her right hip, she let out a loud agonizing cry that stopped me dead in my tracks. I took a deep breath and gently supported her torso as I raised her hindquarters off the table. When I released her she collapsed, looked back over her shoulder then dragged her crippled body across the table in an attempt to flee. Liv could not stand.
No one talked, no one moved—everyone just watched. The drone of the refrigerator motor fused with the sound of the air that I breathed in and out and the tick of the clock echoed in my head. The lab equipment hummed as it cycled through its “sleep mode” and the faint melodic whisper of a classic rock tune played through the open door. Voices from the front desk were intertwined with the buzz from the computer tower in a dream-like audio and the ring of the phone was off in the distance that was on the other side of this nightmare. Julie and Chris sobbed silently and there was a wet glistening in Lori and Sherry’s eyes.
While radiographs were being processed we settled Liv in a cage with a makeshift litter box that she could drag her body into. We put the little orange tabby in the cage next door.
When I heard the X-rays hit the tray on the processor I grabbed them and walked over to the viewer. I flipped the toggle on to illuminate the films and stood staring at Liv’s shattered body in disbelief. Both of her rear legs were completely fractured at the femoral neck. Tiny bone fragments had shattered off the left femur and the right femur was displaced about an inch away from the pelvis in a forward direction. She had 7 fractured ribs in different stages of healing and two completely healed fractures of vertebral processes on her spinal column. This tiny, defenseless cat had been tortured more than once. How in God’s name could anyone standby and watch another human being do this…not once, not twice, but over and over again.
In all honesty, Liv handled the healing process better than I did. I spent the first two weeks sobbing—sometimes silently, sometimes hysterically. We took her to MSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital to explore the best option for her recovery only to find that regardless of the choice, she would never return to a normal gait. Liv and I spent 6 weeks doing rehabilitation exercises that were excruciatingly painful for her and mentally agonizing for me. Each time I flexed, extended or manipulated the broken bones in her crippled legs, the cries of distress echoed in my head for what seemed to be an eternity.
Both cats are recovered now. Lily has use of her leg from the shoulder to the carpal joint (wrist) and lives in the home of my good friend Cilla. Liv and Squirt (the small orange tabby) came home with me. Both cats have adapted well to their new environment but they are a constant reminder of how we, as a society, fail them.
In the United States 30 million animals die annually from cruelty, neglect and exploitation…but it doesn’t stop there. Each year 6-8 million more companion animals like Liv and Lily enter our community shelters and 3-4 million (10,000 daily) of them are euthanized. Approximately 30% of these animals are owner surrendered with the majority being between 5 months and 3 years of age. More than half of them are not spayed or neutered and, moreover, nearly half have never been to a veterinarian.
Now, consider the 4.2-5.6 million shelter animals that are strays or homeless. Less than 2% of cats are returned to their owners and only 15-20% of dogs return home. The annual cost of taxpayer money to round up, house, euthanize and dispose of these animals in the 5000 community shelters nation wide is $2 billion.
Have we failed them? Absolutely. At the end of the day when we turn off the lights and pull up the covers, 70,000 more dogs and cats have been born; that’s approximately 3000/hour or 50/minute. The numbers are staggering and beg the question “who is saving who?”