Fostering kittens again

Photo by little plant on Unsplash

It’s been a long time since we last had foster cats or kittens in the house, the reason being that I’ve usually ended up adopting them permanently. Having promised my husband that won’t happen again, last week I took in two more from a local animal welfare charity. It’s against the rules to post their photos online so I’ve used a stock image.

My first experience of fostering in New Zealand, over twenty years ago for a different charity, was quite informal. A litter of four small kittens was delivered to the door and I was left to get on with caring for them until they were old enough to be adopted. I kept one, Felix, a dearly loved cat as described in this post.

Nowadays, the role of a feline foster parent is much more tightly controlled. The online application process requires obtaining a criminal history check, answering multiple-choice quizzes based on the content of a 30-page manual, and submitting photos of the proposed foster room setup. After completing it successfully, I got a call from the volunteer coordinator and arranged an appointment to drive out to the nearest rescue centre.

I returned home with two kittens, a black male and a tortoiseshell female. They are about 10 weeks old and before being made available for adoption they will need to complete medication for an intestinal infection, receive worm and flea treatments and vaccinations, and gradually transition to a different diet. Looking after them involves providing fresh food and water, changing litter trays, and sessions of play and cuddles every few hours. I am also giving extra attention to our two adult cats who are being strictly kept apart from the kittens but are keenly aware of their presence. Leo seems frightened of them whereas Magic seems hostile.

Fostering these kittens is a big responsibility and time commitment, but also a delight, because they are as lively and affectionate as can be and it’s going to be hard to give them up.

A canine memorial service

A group of dogs who were bred in Auckland’s Guide Dog Centre meet every week for a “play date” in one of our local parks. Most of them are Labradors, either black or yellow. They include puppies in training, working dogs both active and retired, and those who were withdrawn from the training programme and are living as family pets. I was introduced to this group through Ireland, a four-year-old black Lab in the “withdrawn” category, who is owned by a local family. I am his “dog-sharer” who walks him almost every afternoon, as described in a series of my recent blog posts.

Three of the long-term canine members of the group have died in recent months. Two of them were near the end of their natural lifespan, which for Labradors is 10-12 years. The third, who was a little younger, had developed heart failure. Today we gathered in a beach-side reserve to honour their memories. The weather pattern of sunshine and showers mirrored the bittersweet mood of the occasion. There were tears as each of the bereaved owners delivered a short eulogy to their dog, but there was pleasure in sharing food and drink with friends while watching the younger Labs chase each other round the grass and jump into the water. Like a human memorial service, it was a significant event.

When I lived in England I volunteered with the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) to provide telephone support to people who were distressed by the loss of a pet. Through that work, as well as through my personal experience, I learned that the death of a beloved companion animal can be no less devastating than a human bereavement. Those who do not love animals find it difficult to understand grief of such intensity, and may make hurtful remarks like “It was only a dog” or “Why don’t you just get a new one”. A lost pet cannot simply be replaced in the same way as a worn-out garment or an old car. Having said that, many owners will find comfort by bringing another animal into their homes when they feel ready to do so.

Ireland visits Mt Cambria (Devonport dog walks #4)

To quote from a local tourist website: “Mt Cambria Reserve is quiet retreat in the pretty seaside town of Devonport. The attractive landscaped garden sits in the remains of Mt Cambria volcano, which was a quarry for scoria rock between 1883 and 1985. Mt Cambria Reserve is situated behind Devonport Museum on 31a Vauxhall Road and is an ideal spot for walks and relaxing picnics.”

Ireland can smell a picnic

Ireland has to be kept on a tight lead when picnics are in progress – like most Labradors he has an insatiable craving for food. But provided there are no picnics, Mt Cambria is a lovely place for dogs to run free. It’s quite a small park, dotted with clumps of trees, and has a steep slope at the back.

Ireland rolling down the grassy slope

From the top of the park is a view of Mt Victoria, another good place for dog walks as described in an earlier post.

A highlight of Ireland’s week is his “club day” when he spends an hour rushing around Mt Cambria with a group of his canine friends while their owners look on.

Ireland visits Mt Vic (Devonport dog walks #3)

Ireland the Labrador loves walking up Mount Victoria/Takarunga, known by Devonport locals as Mt Vic. Of unknown age, it is the tallest volcanic cone on Auckland’s North Shore, though being only 87 metres high it is really a hill rather than a mountain. The wooded lower slopes are surrounded by old houses, churches and a primary school and there are several access points.

Mount Victoria viewed from Cambria Park

We usually approach the site through the historic cemetery, dating from the late 1800s, where the Maori warrior and peacemaker Patuone is buried alongside early white settlers.

Mount Victoria cemetery

Mt Vic was once a Maori pa (fortified settlement) and the remains of old terraces and kumara pits can be seen alongside the walking tracks that now encircle the site. Ireland seems fascinated by the place and sometimes, perhaps drawn by sights or smells or spirits of the past, he dashes up the steep grassy hillside and on one occasion took half an hour to return. At other times he freezes on the path as if hypnotised.

Ireland transfixed

On the summit, with its panoramic views of Rangitoto, the Hauraki Gulf, Waitemata Harbour and Auckland’s CBD, are various modern structures: mushroom-shaped vents for an underground reservoir, a signal station for shipping, a disappearing gun. There are a few older military remains on Mt Vic and a delapidated army hut, known as the Bunker, is the venue for the local folk music club.

The Bunker

After completing the steepest part of the walk, Ireland and I stop for a rest and a snack.

Ireland hoping for another biscuit

Ireland visits a maze (Devonport dog walks #2)

Last week I wrote about taking Ireland, my dogshare Labrador, to North Head. Another of our favourite places to walk around Devonport is Ngataringa Park. Developed in the 1990s from an old landfill site, this is not a formal park but mostly consists of large fields which provide an ideal space for dogs to run and play and roll in the long grass.

Various local landmarks can be seen from the curved path that runs through the park. Auckland’s harbour bridge, viewed from across the tidal estuary with its mangrove swamps. Mount Victoria, or Takarunga – the highest volcanic cone on the North Shore – and another good place for a dog walk. The massive new retirement complex being built on a nearby hill overlooking the site. There is a skate park in one of the fields, and a piece of artwork, a pair of wooden statues called The Guardians.

At the far end of the path is a maze, intended to represent the interweaving between Maori and Celtic cultures. Beside it, a network of small circular paths bordered by stones is hidden in a group of trees. This is the halfway point of our walk, and while I have a rest on one of the rustic seats made of driftwood, Ireland eats a few biscuits and then waits patiently at my feet.

We can either go back the same way that we came, across the fields, or take the lower path which is shaded by an arch of trees.

Ireland visits North Head (Devonport dog walks #1)

As Auckland’s lockdown continues and we are told to stay within our own postcode area, the highlight of my daily routine is a walk with my dogshare Labrador, Ireland. There are several interesting places nearby and one of our favourites is the hill called North Head, or Maungauika, which forms a prominent landmark at the end of the Devonport peninsula.

Dogs are permitted here – on lead

The hill is encircled with a network of paths and from the higher ones there are spectacular views of Cheltenham beach to the north, Rangitoto and the islands of the Hauraki gulf to the east, the Waitemata harbour and Auckland’s CBD to the south. It was a wonderful location for watching the yacht races during last summer’s Americas Cup.

Cheltenham beach
Rangitoto

North Head was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions about 50,000 years ago. About 1,000 years ago it became occupied by a Maori tribe, then after European settlers arrived was put to use as a coastal defence site. During the late 19th century a number of large guns were installed to deter a feared Russian invasion. Fortifications including more guns, searchlights, tunnels and underground rooms were added, using prison labour, to cope with subsequent threats during the two world wars. The army left the site in the 1950s but a naval training school remained on the summit until 1996. The site is now managed by the Tupuna Maunga Authority and open to walkers and their dogs (on lead).

One of the many guns on North Head

Remains of the old military installations can be seen around the site. Some of the tunnels are open to the public, others shrouded in mystery and rumoured to contain aircraft or military secrets. At present however all the tunnels are closed due to Covid restrictions, as is the colourful toilet bock.

Ireland denied access to tunnel
The toilet block

I find North Head a fascinating place which carries an air of mystique. It features in Carmen’s Roses, the first short novel I wrote after coming to live in Devonport.

Cat poems

Watching the movie version of Cats prompted me to look out the few pieces of doggerel (catterel?)  that I’ve written to various feline companions over the years – not up to TS Eliot’s standard, but cat-lovers may enjoy them.

THE GINGER TOM

This is dedicated to Orange Roughey (O.R.) who was rescued as an aggressive stray living wild on the mountain behind our house, and after a long and tumultuous period of rehabilitation turned into a cuddly domestic pet.

The ginger tom is curled up on the bed
He dreams of catching bird and mouse and rat
He purrs when loving owners stroke his head
A life of bliss for the domestic cat

Orange Roughey cropped

FOR FELIX

This is a sentimental poem written after Felix, a much loved black and white cat, died from an undiagnosed illness.

We loved one another for fourteen years
Remembering you now brings back my tears
You came as a fragile rescue kitten
As soon as we met my heart was smitten
Although you and I were perfectly matched
Other admirers would often get scratched
I was the mother that you never had
Nursed you with care when your health became bad
Although the vets were so clever and kind
They could not help as your vigour declined
Why you were so sick nobody could say
Sadly I watched as your life ebbed away
One night when I lay awake on the bed
A cold breeze told me your spirit had fled
I laid you to rest in a garden tomb
Where irises and sweet violets bloom
Passage of time will perhaps dim the pain
Till on the Rainbow Bridge we meet again

Felix on flowerbed

TRIOLET TO RESCUE KITTEN MAGIC

Magic, also black and white, was abandoned under a hedge as a young kitten and came to us in a fragile state. A triolet is a short poem of eight lines, containing two rhymes repeated in specific places.

Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade
Once left to die out in the cold
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Now you live safe within our fold
No need to be afraid
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade

Magic in box

HAIKUS FOR THREE CATS

Daisy is no longer with us, but Magic and Leo are alive and well. The three-line haiku format originated in Japan.

Magic soft as silk
Black and white ballerina
Light as a feather

Magic on cyclamen bed

Leo chunky boy
Loving his cuddles and play
Mackerel tabby

Leo on flowerbed

Tortoiseshell Daisy
Sleepy purring dowager
In her sixteenth year

Daisy with flowers

***

I think my novels are better than my poetry and the latest one You Yet Shall Die (available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords.com and other online retailers), a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, features several cats.

Don’t kill the dog … or cat, or horse

In a blog post called Don’t Kill the Dog, crime writer Tess Gerritsen describes her fans’ outrage over the killing of animals in her fiction. The death of a cat in a novel about the Holocaust, and the death of a dog in a horror movie that also featured mutilated human bodies, provoked a tirade of anger and distress. The suffering of the people portrayed in these works did not arouse protest. She advises “…you must never, ever kill a pet in your novel. You can torture and mutilate any number of human beings. You can slice and dice women, massacre men on a battlefield, and readers will keep turning the pages. But harm one little chihuahua and you’ve gone too far. The readers will let you have it.”

Why do so many of us get upset about animals being hurt in books and films, while caring much less about the people? Although this response may seem difficult to justify, I can empathise with it. seldom feel distressed about the fate of the human characters in the crime novels I read, though I do dislike anything too graphic or violent, preferring “cosier” murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. But I cannot tolerate the idea animals being abused or killed. I have perhaps become more sensitised to animal cruelty in recent years through voluntary work at the SPCA, having seen some of the appalling things that people can do to their so-called pets, whether as a result of ignorance or through deliberate sadism.

Animal abuse in the media is bad enough when it is fictional. Far worse is the suffering of real animals involved in the film industry. For example, countless horses died during the making of Western movies during the 20th century. The situation is better today, with some modern films using CGI animals rather than live ones, and in some countries with monitoring by organisations such as the Humane Society of America. Such monitoring cannot always prevent accidents, or control what may happen off set. The disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” can be difficult to believe.

Depiction of animal cruelty in the media is not only unpleasant, but can convey the message that this is a trivial issue, and a valid topic for entertainment. I will not knowingly go to see any film that contains scenes of animal cruelty. If such a scene unexpectedly turns up while I am watching I close my eyes, then sometimes leave the cinema. If I come across animal cruelty in the middle of a book I stop reading it, as recently happened with an Icelandic thriller I had been enjoying up to that point. These individual protests make me feel better but probably have little wider effect.

Having said all this, I have to admit that the plots of two of the novels that I wrote some years ago involved the accidental poisoning of a cat and a dog respectively. Even though both animals had made a full recovery by the end of the stories, I rather regret it. There is no animal cruelty in my latest novel You Yet Shall Die, but the plot does feature a rescue kitten modelled on my own pet Magic.

Magic jumping

       

Dogsharing

From today’s Telegraph newspaper:

Dog owners have lower blood pressure, are less likely to be obese and are on average 2.2lbs lighter than people without canine companions, scientists have discovered. 

A study by the Mayo Clinic and Italian researchers showed that people with dogs are far healthier than those with either no pets, or those who own a different animal.

Dog owners also earned more, exercised more, were more likely to be women and were less likely to have diabetes.

Overall, all pet owners had a better lifestyle than those who did not own an animal, but those with dogs were found to be the healthiest. 

I don’t have a dog of my own, but for over a year now I have enjoyed a part-time relationship with a young black Labrador dog called Ireland. He was registered with The Dogshare Collective  when one of his human family suffered an injury and was temporarily unable to walk him. I started taking him out in the afternoons, and have continued doing so although his owner’s injury is now recovered.

Ireland was bred to become a guide dog for the blind, but due to a minor defect in his own vision he was withdrawn from training and made available for adoption as a family pet. Large, friendly and exuberant, he loves playing with other dogs and like most Labradors he has an insatiable appetite. We go to the local beach, and once a week to the “playdate” in the park, where he spends an hour rushing round with all his friends of guide dog stock.

There are many people who, for various reasons, cannot have a dog of their own but would like to help to look after someone else’s. And there are many dogs who, often because their owners are out at work all day, could benefit from some additional exercise and company. Organisations such as The Dogshare Collective offer the valuable service of putting these two groups in contact with one another.

    Ireland labyrinth edited

There are no dogs in my latest novel You Yet Shall Die, but the story does feature some cats. Please have a look on Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk or Smashwords.com.

Daisy rest in peace

Daisy with flowersToday we had to say goodbye to our eldest cat, Daisy, who has died at the age of about seventeen years. Her coat was dark tortoiseshell, and she had a distinctive ginger stripe on her forehead.

Daisy came to us for foster care when she was a young mother with three tiny kittens. Her previous owners had dumped them all at the vet clinic. As always happens with our foster cats, we ended up adopting her after the kittens were old enough to be rehomed and she had been desexed.

Daisy was a strong character, who liked human company but barely tolerated our other cats, and would attack any dog who visited the property. Her greatest enthusiasms were playing the piano, especially the bass keys, and licking the cream from our breakfast porridge bowls.

Her health had been gradually failing in recent months. Her kidney function was poor, so she was on a special renal diet and needed to drink a great deal of water, but still appeared to enjoy life. Yesterday evening she suddenly went downhill, dragging her back legs and hardly able to walk. We made the harrowing decision to book her in for euthanasia next day, and I did my best to keep her comfortable in a quiet room overnight. By morning she was semiconscious, and died peacefully at home a few hours later. It was a mercifully quick and natural death.

Now Daisy is buried in our garden along with the other cats who have shared our lives since we came to New Zealand – Cindy, Floella, Felix and Homer. We will miss Daisy very much but still have our two lovely four-year-olds, Magic and Leo.

Update one month later:  I was very touched to receive, from our friends at Auckland SPCA, this photo of a new kitten with similar tortoiseshell colouring who has been named after Daisy and is now up for adoption.

Daisy Jnr