SKIATHOS, Greece — I thought it was an old dishrag, maybe a wadded up ball of socks. But it stopped me. Something about it stopped me. What was this gold fuzzy thing doing above a rain gutter next to a sidewalk on a tiny island in Greece? I looked closer. The ball of socks had ears.
It was a cat. A kitten. And it wasn’t moving. It wasn’t breathing. Its eyes were closed. It’s dead. A dead kitten on a gutter.
Repulsed, I turned away. Two old women sat nearby on their ground floor porch. Marina, my girlfriend, told them there’s a cat here.
“Yes, it was left there this morning,” one said as if it was a paper bag. By whom? She shrugged, not knowing, nor caring.
I am a devout animal lover who genuflects before every stray cat I see. I’ve petted homeless cats in half the countries in the world. Seeing one dead, a kitten that never had a chance, pulled at my heart to where I couldn’t talk.
I did squeeze out one Italian word.
“Andiamo.” (Let’s go.)
I said that when Marina started walking over to pick it up. I wasn’t worried about her catching a disease from a dead animal. I just didn’t want to break down after watching a dead kitten lay limp in the palm of her hand.
But women have maternal instincts. She broke from my hand and bent over. When she picked it up, a remarkable thing happened. It moved. It moved its tiny, little arms and legs, one of which looked deformed, horribly bent under its scrawny body. It was as skinny as a baby bird in an oil slick. Its elongated neck was as out of proportion as E.T’s. The way his ears dwarfed his tiny head made him look like a bat. I could put my thumb and middle finger around his torso.
And he was near death.
He didn’t meow. His eyes were fused shut from mucous. He didn’t fight to break from our hands. He just moved his three tiny workable legs and his head up and from side to side, straining to see who was helping him. He didn’t need to mew. We knew what he wanted to say.
“Please save me.”
I raced up the steep hill to our hotel room where I poured a small cup of milk. As I was leaving the hotel, Marina arrived. She had the kitten in a red plastic bucket lined with soft paper. We took it out on our balcony. For the first time on that balcony, two days into our week-long Greek vacation, we didn’t look at the spectacular view of the Aegean Sea. We kept working to keep alive this tiny little creature that didn’t have much time.
I put some milk on my index finger and stuck it by his tiny mouth. He pulled away, seemingly frightened. I did it again. A tongue no bigger than a piece of long-grain rice flicked at it. Then it flicked again. And again. I put more milk on my finger and soon his muzzle had a nice wet, messy, white coat. It was starving. But it was also in pain. The leg looked as if he’d been hit by a bicycle or bitten by another animal. This cat needed a vet. Fast.
I went to our hotel bartender, a smiling, conscientious man in his late 20s named Apostolis. He spoke excellent English and I told him our dilemma in rapid-fire English too fast for most Greeks. Apostolis immediately went into action. He tried calling the one — that’s right, ONE! — vet on the island. While waiting for him to pick up, Apostolis warned me that he once tried reaching the vet when a sick bird landed by their pool. The vet didn’t answer for three days and the bird died. This is the first time he’s tried reaching him since.
He didn’t answer. And the next day was a Sunday.
But wait, Apostolis said. Skiathos has a cat shelter. He called one number. No answer. He called a second. No answer. He called a third. “Hi!” I heard him say. He had reached Sharon Hewing, a Brit who has run the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association for nine years. They talked for a while in English and Apostolis told me I could bring the kitten in tomorrow. He handed me the phone and Sharon told us of a special non-fat milk and to get some kitten food as soft as possible. She would get the kitten to a vet on Monday.
A nearby petfood/scuba diving store (Yes, they combine all services on the islands) had what we needed and we made the shuttle run down and up the hill. We gave the kitten a little more milk but he didn’t have strength to eat the food. Soon he was fast asleep, curled up in an impossibly tiny ball in the corner of his box, warmed by the soft island air. I looked close. I wanted to make sure his little chest moved. Yes, it moved. He was breathing.
We went out for the evening hoping he’d wake up.
We cut our evening short. At dinner, Marina started breaking down. I was comforting her while holding back my own tears. The only two times I’ve cried in the last 15 years was when I left Rome the first time in 2003 and when my cat, Sport, died in 2001. I’d known this cat for four hours. It felt like four years.
When we came home, we raced to the balcony as if chasing a burglar. The kitten hadn’t moved. However, it was still breathing. We went to bed hoping that we saved its life. The next day, when Sharon saw him for the first time, we’d know if we had.
We were awakened by the distinct, ear-piercing — and beautiful — sound of a kitten mewing. The kitten took a little milk off my finger. We got it to stand. He kind of wobbled, not only because of his bad leg but because he was no more than two or three weeks old. It needed its mother.
He was stuck with us.
One thing we noticed. He responded to love. He couldn’t open his eyes but when we petted him — all we needed was one finger to stroke him from head to tail — he stopped crying. By now, Marina and I started feeling like adoptive parents, blessed with this opportunity to save a little animal’s life while bracing for the heart-crunching possibility of failing. As we hovered over the basket, I told Marina we needed a name. She looked at the kitten and thought for a second.
I thought she said, “Hussein.”
“Hussein?” I said. “You want to name a kitten after Saddam Hussein?”
“No!” she said. “UH-sain! Usain Bolt. Because of his leg.”
“OK!” I said, rising quickly to the idea. “But let’s call him ‘Bolt.’ Because that’s what we hope he runs like when he gets well.”
A taxi drove us down the hill and east into the hills high above the sea and away from the tourists who flock to Skiathos’ 65 beaches. We walked down a short gravel road to a single-level house that had one distinct difference from the others on the island.
It was crawling with cats.
Small cats. Tom cats. Baby cats. Beautiful cats. Ugly cats. Blind cats. On benches. On grass. On wood pilings. Inside the small house, cats were scattered everywhere, playfully fighting for space in a showroom full of kitty furniture: multi-level kitty condos, round cushioned baskets, elevated platforms. Dozens of small dishes of catfood and water covered the floor. The smell was surprisingly unoffensive. It smelled like the inside of a Purina factory.
Sharon is a tall, handsome, deeply tanned Brit who took Bolt in her seasoned hands. What she said nearly hit Marina and I like a Fiat.
“I don’t like the future of this one,” Sharon said.
Bolt didn’t have a broken leg. Those heal. The leg had a horrible infection. Sharon spread his hind legs and the inside of one was covered in thick yellow pus coming out of an open wound. It looked like vanilla cream bursting from a cornetto. Sharon notably gasped. When a woman has worked with homeless cats for 11 years and she gasps, you know you have problems.
Sharon went to work. She took some solution and rubbed his eyes for 10 minutes until the mucous was gone. Then, after her last swipe, little Bolt opened his tiny brown-green eyes, maybe for the first time. He looked up at me. He looked up at Marina. He didn’t make a sound. We didn’t need one.
“He knows,” Marina said.
Sharon took seemingly half a roll of paper towels and cleared out all the pus. She injected a needle with what looked like dark rum. It was betadine and it went right into Bolt’s bum. Twice.
Sharon didn’t mince words. “We’ll see what the vet says tomorrow,” she said. She added that unlike many strays found on Skiathos, this one wasn’t dropped off by a sick, heartless human who no longer needed a kitten to entertain his kids on holiday. He was likely abandoned by his mother, maybe because of its handicap. Maybe it was abandoned and another animal bit it. At this point, it didn’t matter.
She introduced us to Chrissy Tuffin, a fellow Brit and cat lover who frequently visits from her home near London and helps when she can. She’d take Bolt to her place nearby and then to the vet. As she drove us back to town, she was verbally moved by our gesture of picking up a near dead kitten atop a gutter.
“You two did a heroic thing,” she said.
We didn’t feel like heroes. Our next 24 hours felt as traumatic as Bolt’s. But at least he was in knowing hands and was surrounded but future furry friends. The next morning we waited for a call from Sharon after the vet visit. They did find the vet and he gave a good-news, bad-news scenario. Bolt will live. However, he’ll probably lose the leg. Sharon kept us on looking at a half-full glass.
“He’s doing much better,” she said. “You should see him. You won’t recognize him.”
After Chrissy picked us up and brought us back, she took us inside the house where some of the other 200 cats lazied around. One kitten kept bopping herself in the face every time she pulled and let go of a stuffed mouse attached to a rubber band on a pole. Two cats jumped on my lap in an unsubtle seduction trying to get me to take them home.
But I wanted Bolt.
Chrissy went into the bathroom where they kept him calm and quiet and brought him out in a little cage. He was standing. Albeit he stood crookedly but he was standing. And he was heavier. In fact, in 24 hours he had grown by 25 percent. Well, he went from 400 grams (14 ounces) to 500 grams (18 ounces). Italian pastry weighs more than 400 grams. But little Bolt was moving quickly away from death and into the right direction.
I held him in my hands. Marina and I rubbed our fingers along his back, again and again and again. I put my ear near his face. Yes, I heard it. Little Bolt was purring. Maybe for the first time in his life, he felt contentment. If any of you heard a huge rush of wind last week. That wasn’t a hurricane in Florida.
That was Marina and me exhaling in Greece.
The Skiathos Cat Welfare Association (https://www.facebook.com/Skiathoscatwelfare/?fref=ts) is one of those amazing organizations that saves lives no one knows about and many don’t care about. While there a group of English school children handed over 57 euros they raised. Marina and I contributed 50 each.
Sharon started SCWA after moving here in 2004 and realizing the huge cat population not only didn’t have any caring organization, it didn’t even have a vet. It’s a non-profit outfit that gets no assistance from a Greek government in a country where cats are considered as disposable as potted plants. Chrissy brought out three tiny kittens, all about Bolt’s age but fatter and healthier.
“These three were found tied up in a bag in a garbage bin by a couple of tourists,” Chrissy said as she fed one with a syringe. “They would’ve suffocated.”
As I set Bolt aside, I thought about a suitable penalty for any sick cretin who would do something like this. I settled on covering them with wildebeest urine and throwing them in a lion cage. I contemplated this as I sat out on the scruffy lawn and let the hordes of cats pour over me like throw rugs with paws. Jack, who had tried to seduce me the day before, was asleep on my stomach, another was digging into my petting hand with his chin. Another rubbed my face with his from the side. I was a kitty magnet. I looked at Marina and she was covered with fur and paws and tails, too.
Sharon always had cats in Nottingham, England, and couldn’t have picked a better island than Skiathos. It’s known as the “Cat Island.” We found cats resting in window sills, begging for scraps under restaurant tables, feeding on sidewalks, nursing kittens under protective benches. That doesn’t mean they’re loved.
“Many people here use them to catch rats,” Sharon said.
That night, I talked to Marina about our next plan. I wanted to adopt Bolt. I wanted to bring him back to Rome. My landlady once said I could have one but so much is involved. What inoculations does he need? What does Italian law allow? How will he get to Rome? Will he fall off my fourth-floor terrace? But this was the biggest question of all.
How would I like having a three-legged cat?
Over a Greek salad and souvlaki, Marina asked me why I’d even second guess myself. She was right. Why would I turn my back on a cat I loved because of one flaw. We all have them. Why should this flaw keep him from ever having a happy home? The decision was made. I would bring him back to Rome. We just didn’t know when. Sharon said he must gain more strength over “the next few months” before he’s even strong enough for surgery. Hey, who knows? They may even save the leg.
As we spent the last few days of our vacation in this impossibly romantic corner of Europe, Marina and I realized something. While we helped Bolt, he helped us. We’ve been a couple for more than a year and managed to stay afloat through the cultural differences and the slowly evaporating language barrier. Teaming up to save a helpless kitten raised our love to a level that can’t be reached through romantic islands, gifts or hotel rooms with views of the Aegean Sea. Our emotions went through a meat grinder, getting minced for 24 hours but coming out so upbeat even overcast weather our last day couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces.
As she dropped me off at my apartment in Rome, we hugged each other like we were never going to let each other go. I felt like Bolt was in the middle with us. I whispered in Marina’s ear, “Abbiamo fatto bene, amore” (We did well, love.)
“I love you, John.”
“Ti amo, Marina.”
Postscript: On Wednesday, Chrissy sent me an Instant Message saying, “Hi John. I have just heard from Nina (Bolt’s new carer) that little Bolt is now walking around Sharon’s house, he is well and happy & beginning to play, bless him.”