Today I found my personal “mission” for the next time I retire, one that combines the two things I love the most, cats and Swahili. I’ll bet you’re wondering what these two things could possibly have in common.
For more than twenty years before I left for Rwanda, I have been rescuing, rehoming, and homing any and all feral cats that have crossed my path, as well as, for balance, a few domestic ones. After all, it can be unnerving to live with only pets who run away at the sight of you, even after ten years. My cat-rescuing career began in Japan, when I rescued three kittens from outside a sushi shop a week or two before I returned to the states. Bless their little hearts, they made the 17 hour trip without messing their cages. They launched what can only be described as obsession with feline critters who are in need of assistance. Some of my outstanding student loans reflect the level of my financial commitment to this endeavor. But I thought I was done with it all. I was going to let the last of my motley crew, which once totaled at least thirty, counting the ones whom I had brought home who chose to live with my mother and my brother in their part of the Vermont house where we had the property to home any number of beasts that our hearts might desire, age out, and then I didn’t think I would probably get any more. Fool that I was.
As a testament to my readiness to move on and let someone else rescue the cats of the world, I bought a home in a retirement community that does not allow homeowners to have more than two pets. Of course, I later learned from one of my neighbors that things are not necessarily as simple as they appear to be. Despite the fact that she had no idea that I had any cats, she announced in a group discussion when we were discussing the community’s pet restrictions that, no matter how many cats you actually have, “you only have TWO cats”. I presumed that she, or someone she knows, has more than two cats. I didn’t tell her that I still had five stashed away in Vermont. No point in broadcasting the likelihood that I would eventually be violating community pet limitations. Of course, I also knew that at least three of the five would not be visible if anyone new entered the house. My “two” cats would, indeed, only be two.
However, I should have realized that my commitment to cat rescue is not a matter of choice when the tiny black kitten ran across in front of me in the parking garage at Orlando International Airport after my very first stay in my new pet-restricted home in Florida. I obviously couldn’t leave it, so I hauled out the salmon that I had brought along for my dinner, and which I subsequently lost somewhere during our airport adventure, set a piece of it in front of the little black nose that was peeping out from under a red sports car, and laid down on my belly, luggage and all, to reach under the car while he ate, to swept him off his feet. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t expect he’d be that easy to catch. As I held the indignant fuzzy creature squirming in my hands, I realized that I had to put him somewhere before he got away, so I unzipped my carry on luggage and popped him into the space left by the removal of my Pyrex bowl of salmon salad. As I stood in the parking garage, in front of the entrance in the airport, I ran through in my mind possible next steps. First, I visualized trying to get through TSA security with a cat in a rolling suitcase. That was obviously not an option. Neither was flying home that night. But, low and behold, I now had another home to which I could return. And if truth be told, I hadn’t really wanted to leave that day, which was why I was, for the first time ever, late for a flight, and the only reason why I happened to be in the parking garage at that particular time. Was it luck or divine intervention that placed me there at a time when I ordinarily would not have been there to rescue the little fellow? Traffic and crowds at the gas station had delayed my arrival so that I was there to noticed him run by at that particular time. I have always wondered about this. Any other day, I would have already been well on my way to my gate. And, any other time, I would not have had a home to which I could return with an animal in tow. Until then, I had been staying at an AirBNB.
I knew that Southwest would refund me the cost of my ticket towards another flight, if I could get there before the flight left. I had just returned my car, so I couldn’t put him there there while I sorted out a flight cancellation so I headed towards the terminal with hand luggage that was, by that time, mewing pitifully. My new friend proceeded to mew his way through the airport ticket lines. Southwest was obliging, and did not even ask why I was cancelling a flight while standing at the airport although, by that time, I might not have made it to the gate in time. No one at the counter or in the line seemed to notice the squeaking in my carry on luggage which I found somewhat amusing. Of course, I then had to rent another car so we mewed our way to the car rental counters. Finally, settled into the car, the tiny boy climbed out of his suitcase to hide under the seat for the entire trip home, including a stop at Walmart to buy cat litter, a cat pan, and cat food. The only way I knew he was there was the faint aroma of “terrified dirty street cat” that swirled around me in the car. Of course, I could not open the windows. I also knew that, once settled down with food and a warm bed, he would stop smelling, and he did.
One of the things I discovered in Rwanda is that my cat addiction is not something I can just walk away from, not when there is so much temptation everywhere I go. Although Rwandans did keep dogs as pets prior to the 1994 genocide, the packs of owner-less dogs roaming the streets and eating the corpses of their owners pretty well sealed the fate of dogs in Rwanda. I only saw three in the year that I was there. No one mentions cats, but, as I discovered early on, there were actually quite a few living out-of-sight in my neighborhood, both adults and kittens. I struggled with my inability to rescue the few kittens who were living in the roof of the house behind my first house. Eventually, they came down and, just before I was relocated, one had become a “regular” at my doorstep. But I could not take her with me; Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to have pets.
As a feral, my girl would have to be socialized before she could travel, and I couldn’t imagine any scenario where a feral cat would fare well on a 24 hour trip to the U.S. in the cargo hold of a plane, assuming I could have got her to a vet for the necessary vaccinations and health clearances. I also had to ask myself what, realistically, she would want, to be left in the only home she has ever known and in which she has already survived on her own for several months, or stressed out in the belly of an metal flying beast. The thought that the flight could kill her was enough to stop any speculation about how to transport her to the U.S., although I had found out how it could be done. So I chose to leave her behind, and soothe my conscience with the knowledge that she lived in a rural setting, with lots of birds and ground critters around to hunt and that she might not, herself, want to exchange a shorter life running free for a longer life in captivity. However, if truth be told, if the volunteer who had moved into my house after I left had been willing to continue the process which I had started to socialize her, then I would have found a way to take her home with me this week.
December found me in Zanzibar, land of cats. Stone Town is full of cats, some belong to people, some do not. Some look to be in reasonable health, and adequately fed, and some do not. While Muslims do not like dogs, they do tolerate and include cats in their environment. They do not “dote” on them as European cat lovers do, and you certainly won’t see any Zanzibari cats dressed up in funny clothing doing antics on You Tube. I was beside myself, both with pleasure at seeing them, and being around people who, unlike Rwandans, included them in their lives, and with distress at the living conditions which some of them appeared to be enduring. So it was not an unreasonable leap of my imagination to envision myself coming back to Zanzibar to do something to reduce the cat population in Zanzibar. So I went online to see if there was a local vet to whom I could present my plan one day.
Much to my surprise, not only was there a veterinary clinic, it was one that had a volunteer program, as part of the World Vets network. I decided that I would come to check it out when I returned this week, to see what they did and whether they would be interested in conducting a trap-neuter-release program in Stone Town. Of course, I also knew that the Humane Society in Brattleboro has had, in recent years, to import cats for people to adopt so I knew that it was also not outside of the realm of possibility to consider bringing a few Zanzibari cats to Vermont in my imaginary future.
Today was the day we went. It is located about 25 minutes or so from Stone Town by taxi and Fatuma, my guide from January, managed to come up with a driver who used to work for the clinic as one of their drivers who knew exactly where it was. Conditions are rustic, and very simple. Surgery is done outdoors under the watchful eyes of goats, cats, and chickens. An aging blind donkey listens to all the goings on. There is one doctor and one assistant, plus volunteers from around the world. There were four Danes there today, who came for three weeks. They were prepping for surgery when we arrived.
We were give a tour of the clinic, and were formally introduced to the donkey, several horses, chickens, a handful of goats, a few dogs, and a small array of cats, some of whom were recovering from surgery before they could be released. A few were quite vocal about their experience of being caged during their recovery period. Yes, indeed, the Zanzibar Veterinary Clinic already has a trap-neuter-release program although, as the vet confided in me, they tend to work with the cats that are easy to catch. I, of course, explained that I worked with ones who are not easy to catch, and than I could bring collapsible cages to assist in this endeavor if I came to volunteer. He says that they have neutered and spayed hundreds of cats from Stone Town over the years, but there are always more, since people often bring them in from rural areas to leave them in Stone Town near Forodhani Gardens where there is a nightly outdoor street fare where lots of food — grilled meats included — is sold. Tourists flock to the Gardens at night, and I would imagine that that most of the cats do quite well there. I fed them the night that I ate there and one was too picky to eat everything I offered him. So he obviously had a good thing going for himself there.
The Zanzibar Veterinary clinic is a quintessential Swahili shamba (farm), off the beaten track, at the end of a road that is impassable by a regular car during rainy season. It is a more rustic setting than those in which I have stayed in the past, but it also reminded me of the first Peace Corps training site where I lived on the mainland in Tanzania in the late 70’s. Of course, what is most alluring to me is that I could use my medical skills, help the cats of Stone Town, continue to improve my Swahili, all the while making a contribution in a part of Africa that still has a strong grasp on my heart. What’s not to like about the plan? I told the resident doctor that I would not be able to come until I retired from doing year-long assignments, but that I anticipated that in all likelihood this would be three or four years at the most. As our car bumped along the road leaving the clinic, I imagined founding another nonprofit Zanzibari Cats and soliciting donations in the U.S. to support my obsession and their well-being.
As I sit on the wharf in Stone Town watching the sky turn dusky blue as night falls across the small harbor filled with various wooden boats waiting for another day of fishing and tourist shuttling, I look over at the lights of Forodhani Gardens where people are now beginning to eat while cats wait silently in the gathering darkness for leftovers to be tossed their way. Life is good and, apparently, there are a lot of interesting things that one can do in retirement.