They say it takes a village, and wow, am I lucky that Mendocino County has such a great village to help with animals in need. I had a huge scare recently when my beloved soul-cat Athena began acting strangely, growling at her own stomach while cleaning herself. I did a bit of research and feared the worst, a condition I had never heard of in all my years as an animal rescuer, because I have never, before owning her, had an unspayed cat in my life. Her condition, called pyometra, which is engorged sex organs that become infected, sometimes occurs in unspayed females that never breed, and it is fatal if left untreated. I took Athena to the local Ukiah vet at Mendocino Animal Hospital and they got her on antibiotics, and we scheduled a spay, hoping that would be the end of Athena’s problems. I expected the surgery bill to be about $200, the price of a regular spay. But once the doctor did an ultrasound the following week at her appointment and saw Athena’s condition, the new bill was estimated to be over a thousand dollars.
I don’t have that kind of extra money; most of my dosh goes toward feeding our rescue animals here at Pixie Dust Ranch. While Athena was in surgery, I was texting, calling, and emailing the local charities that help animals. I was blessed that three local agencies helped me within hours of hearing my story. I couldn’t be more grateful to the Mendocino Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP), Second Chance, and the Eileen Hawthorne Fund, and to my wonderful friends who also generously chipped in on an emergency-activated Go Fund Me. Things were very dire for awhile and I was an emotional mess until I learned the outcome of the surgery. I’ll cut to the chase: after a crazy few days of vet visits, tests, phone calls, research, and finally the surgery, and a second trip to the vet for additional stitches, Athena is home safe and recovering well.
So the question remains: Why didn’t I, an animal rescuer who knows better, not spay her female cat?
Athena came to us as a young orphaned feral kitten to the original coastal Los Angeles suburb location of Pixie Dust Ranch. My neighbor there, Karen, who did not get the memo that I only take in exotics, not cats, showed up with a brown towel bundle and bloodied arms. She said she and her family had caught a ferocious orphaned kitten that was now wrapped up in the towel, and asked if I would take it. I told her, no sorry, we don’t take in kittens, just exotics and farm animals (my most recent rescues were an exotic 3-foot-long Asian walking catfish, a pygmy hedgehog, and an orphaned baby male peacock). I told her I did have a few local cat rescue phone numbers I could give her. I asked her how old the kitten was, wondering if it would need to be bottle fed so I would know which rescue to call.
My daughter Cassidy heard the conversation and came to witness yet another animal in need of rescuing on the front porch waiting to be let in. Curious, she stood behind me. We hadn’t had a new cat in the household for a few years, and the reason is, back when I was bottle feeding orphaned kittens for Redondo Beach Animal Control where I worked during the summers during my college years, we adopted not only a couple of kittens but also, a rule: To keep a cat, it must be a black male that “shows up” (like this kitten, brought by someone, or one that just appeared one day, which has happened to us a couple of times). Or the cat had to be a split-faced calico, since the first cat I could ever truly call “mine” that we kept was a white tortoise-shell calico with a half-black, half-orange face that came from my first-ever rescue litter. That was it: all the sweet Siamese, ornery orange, and graceful gray kittens that came through the front door had to go back out, spayed or neutered, and with new owners. We also deemed three the magic number so we didn’t become the crazy cat people: no more than three cats were allowed to be living in our household at once. These rules actually worked fairly well over the years, with occasional lapses.
You may be able to imagine my utter shock when the brown towel was removed and lo! There she was! A split-faced calico spitty kitty who looked like she wanted to kill us all, and in fact had tried to kill Karen and her two adult children who rescued her off a major street on the back side of the hill overlooking the ocean. I gasped, and my daughter said, “Mom!” And I reached out and took that naughty little feral bundle, after having just tried to send Karen back on her way while taking the kitten with her. Our old family rules applied once again.
“What just happened?” Karen asked. I said, “If that were a tabby you’d be heading back to the car with her!” and then I explained the long-standing household rescue rule for cats. I had no need for a kitten, I didn’t really want one, and we were pushing the “three cats only” rule as we already had three in the house because Cassidy herself had sneaked in a GRAY TABBY named Cleopawtra who broke all of the house rules. But Cleopawtra was temporary, I told myself, because Cassidy was an “early adult” and was transitioning her housing from the family home to living on her own. Cleo would go with her. (I think this may be an excellent time to report that Cleopawtra currently lives with me here in Philo in our community house, and previously lived with Cassidy’s dad Mike before that in Comptche. The plan of Cleo staying with Cassidy never panned out. However, Cleo’s a chipmunk chaser and keeps rats and mice at bay, so she’s become a welcome addition to our home here at Pixie Dust Ranch). Rules be damned!
Athena was the most feral and angry kitten I have ever met, and I have dealt with hundreds of kittens over the years. We set up a play area in the bathtub for her with a cardboard “hidey” box, but she lived with me in my bedroom, which at that time also housed a pigeon named Jack Sparrow, a dove named Penelope Pigeon, and an albino parakeet named Luna. On the other side of the screen in his aviary was Athena’s soon-to-be-best friend, Rad the Peacock. In the bathroom, here this tiny little spitfire would hiss at any human who dared enter. We used that bathroom exposure technique to get her used to humans, and eventually, the hissing stopped. But that sassy kitten would never back away even from huge human beings. She claimed, by snarling, dominance over any space that she deemed her own. Luckily she was just opinionated and vocal, and she never physically harmed anyone except the original family who caught her from the wilds.
Gaining the respect of this kitten, aptly named after the warrior goddess Athena, was the most challenging animal relationship I have had. And I say that as someone who takes a wild adult male peacock to schools and Boys and Girls Clubs as an education bird. Even Rad the Peacock, though we have a very challenging relationship, did not require the nuance that winning over Athena did. Now Athena is six years old and my very intelligent and beautiful feline soul mate. We have a life dance we do well together. She understands most of what I say and there’s a tight bond between us, like with “ride or die” friends. To break that trust would break my heart.
Though Athena has been in my life since the summer of 2016 and is completely comfortable with me, she is still wary of most people. Athena has had a very unusual sheltered yet simultaneously “out there” existence. She has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles with me in five states and various vehicles, from basic SUVs and sedans to three different schoolbus RVs. Athena was there as a kitten when our goat Buttercup the Curse Slaying Goat broke the Cubs Curse at Dodger Stadium in October 2016. Athena has awakened in the vast unpopulated desert and, wearing her harness and leash, has rolled in morning desert sand, and she has done a morning stretch on an ancient redwood tree off highway 128 by the Navarro River. She has been to the ocean, to lakes, to the high Sierras. She has been in the vehicle at numerous concerts, from concerts in June Lake to the Hollywood Bowl to a music festival in Ventura. And no one has ever seen her. She has a private “hidey home” in each vehicle and she stays low by day and comes out at dusk like a sneaky night tiger. Over the past six years, I would say maybe only a dozen people I know have ever seen Athena in person, even though she is popular on social media because I am her obsessed mom, always taking her photo to share this beautiful being with the world.
Here’s me, the most overprotective cat mom on the planet, facing my feline baby girl’s potential demise because, well, I’m an idiot. I didn’t spay her as a kitten because of her fear of strangers, and also because she has led a very secluded life and no male cat could ever access her, as we also traveled then not only with the peacock but also a ginormous fluffy white dog. I really was afraid that Athena would lose my hard-earned trust if I took her in a box and left her with strangers for surgery. I didn’t know that not spaying my cat could cause her future serious health issues. That made no sense in my mind; spaying cats is technically unnatural. It’s the most natural thing in the world for a cat to be “intact.” However, it is not natural for an intact cat to not have kittens. Basically, Athena’s condition was caused by her not having sex, as awkward as that sounds to say, and not breeding her, which may have prevented that medical issue. I have spayed and neutered every other young dog and cat that has come through Pixie Dust Ranch’s doors, so this situation really is a slap in the face to what I stand for as an animal rescuer. Lesson learned! Luckily Athena survived her surgery, which as mentioned was more complicated than anticipated. The vet staff truly are miracle workers!
A big shout out to the staff at the Mendocino Animal Hospital in Ukiah who were so cooperative every time I spoke with them and dealt with them and were very easy-going about the different grant monies coming in. They even were pleasant about the fact that I hovered nearby, parked out front like a stalker while Athena had surgery. They saved my beloved cat, and their willingness to work with me and make that surgery happen so quickly makes them my heroes, as well as my generous Go Fund Me willing-friends (this is the first Go Fund Me I have ever created for Pixie Dust Ranch. It really is unbelievable how giving people can be! Special thanks to Athena’s “angel donor” Clarice). And these wonderful local people behind SNAP, the Eileen Hawthorne Fund, and Second Chance, whose admin members called me and talked to me on the phone and immediately chipped in, give me hope. These local groups are full of the kindest, most amazing people I have talked to here in Mendocino County. We are certainly blessed to have such committed, caring individuals in our local “village.” We are so grateful, and Athena and I thank these dedicated souls from the bottom of our hearts.