The back story that goes along with this portrait is what makes the image so special to me. It’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but it’s so meaningful to my family and me that technique, among other things, were insignificant to me in the moment. This is the longest blog I’ve ever written. But if you like a feel good story, or are an animal lover, I encourage you to read on. Besides the portrait, I’m also including photos of the animals involved.
Over the past few years, my family has been feeding a couple of stray cats that come around regularly. One we call Wolverine, the other we call Alice. Wolverine has a cool story all of his own. We saw him regularly, if not daily, for the better part of a year. Suddenly, he stopped coming around. We were worried and that year, right before Christmas, I looked to the heavens and said “All I want for Christmas is to know that Wolverine is OK.” Sure enough, after not seeing him for literally months, he showed up on our deck on Christmas day. In typical Wolverine fashion he ate, then left. He doesn’t want our affection, just our food. But we like him and we’re good with that. I considered that appearance somewhat of a miracle. These days, we don’t see him very often, but he always shows up right around Christmas. This year was different.
In the spring of 2012, a little gray and white cat started coming around. She was shy and it took her about two weeks to start trusting us. I actually had to make the first move with her. She wouldn’t come on our deck, even to eat. But when I saw her sitting on the neighbors steps one day, I walked over and let her get a sniff. Once she realized I wasn’t a threat, she started coming around regularly. Not just to eat, but to hang out. If I was outside for any reason, she wouldn’t be far behind. My daughter decided to name her “Alice,” after the famous Lewis Carroll character.
Alice had a great disposition and we all looked forward to seeing her on a daily basis. Once in a while she’d disappear, but never for more than two or three days. And as the weather cooled off, we started discussing bringing Alice into the house and how best to introduce her to the dog and cat we already share our home with. In December, before we could act on it, Alice stopped coming around. After a few days, we began to worry. After a week, we were upset. She was little, she was sweet…and she was a scaredy cat. She wasn’t a fighter, she was a runner. My hope was that someone else had taken her in. And right before Christmas, we had given up hope that we would see Alice again.
On Christmas Eve, Wolverine appeared on our deck. He came right up to the glass, looking in. As usual, I brought him out some food. I put it down, but all he did was look at me, then look off to the distance. As silly as it sounds, I got the feeling that I was supposed to be looking for something. I know, I know, insert Lassie music here. Finally, Wolverine ate a few bites of food. Not much, just a little bit. Then he looked at me, looked off in the distance again, meowed and walked away. And that’s when I saw little Alice, clearly injured, slowly making her way to me. I guess it depends on what you believe in, but to this day I can’t help but believe Wolverine had led Alice back to us. That was the last time we saw Wolverine for a while.
Alice was favoring one leg, but she wouldn’t let us get a look at it. We didn’t know if it was broken, or something else. We brought out my wife’s old robe and put it on a deck chair so Alice could lay somewhere more comfortable. Instead of laying on it, she worked her way underneath it and slept for several hours. But while we weren’t looking, she disappeared. This went on for a few days. She would eat and leave, which complicated our efforts to get a look at that leg. On a snowy December 29, I decided to do something more for her. I created a makeshift shelter out of the table on our deck and a plastic tarp, to keep her out of the wind and snow. We put down my wife’s robe, to keep her off the cold wood. She ate, stayed for a little bit, then took off again.
On January 4th, I created something a little more substantial for her. Just a large box, but very well sealed, that would do a better job of keeping her out of the wind. With the heavy robe in it, I knew the combination would do more to keep her warm and dry. That was the first time I got a good look at her leg and the last time she left our deck for any reason other than to go to the bathroom. I also reached out to my old friend, Dr. John Ammeraal, who is a veterinarian at the American Animal Hospital in Randolph, NJ. You see, normally I would have rushed Alice to the vet. Unfortunately, my wife was laid off back in June and we’ve had to tighten our belts. As much as we wanted to help, we knew that we simply couldn’t afford to take on what looked like it could be a very expensive trip to the clinic.
When I reached out to Dr. Ammeraal, it was not to ask him to take care of Alice. I was trying to find a clinic that donated their services. I figured John would probably know where we could take her. We were willing to give Alice a home, we just couldn’t take on that bill. Alice needed help and we were determined to find a way to make it happen. I was doing the research. I found many places that will help offset the cost of pet care for families who need it. But in every case, they wanted to see a history of good care of the animal. They didn’t want to spend money on a stray. That’s not a complaint – I understand and fully appreciate what those foundations do. They wouldn’t last long if they donated to every stray that came along. But to us, Alice was no longer a stray. She’d been with us every day for months. Even though she didn’t come in, we still felt like she was part of our family. We were ready to give her a good home. But we needed to find a way to get her the help she needed.
I couldn’t believe it when John’s response to me was “I’m willing to donate my time to help.” Not that I wouldn’t expect John to be that kind of guy, but I really didn’t want to put him in that position. But in the end, it was Dr. Ammeraal who came through for her. He braced us for the worst case scenario. After hearing about what we could see of the wound, his expectations were low. He was being realistic – while John was willing to donate his time, there’s only so much that can be done for an animal. Especially in the name of charity. On January 9, I dropped Alice off at the hospital and waited to hear back from Dr. Ammeraal. The first few text messages I received and even the first call did not paint a pretty picture.
Alice was hurt far worse than we imagined. The leg wasn’t broken, but the damage done around it was horrible. Simply put, there wasn’t much left. Amputation may have been an option, but we couldn’t ask him to do that. The amount of time and aftercare required for something like that, there was just no way. It looked as if the best thing for Alice was going to be to say goodbye. I asked John to do whatever he thought would be best for Alice. We’re animal lovers and when I was younger, I worked at a shelter. These situations absolutely stink, but I knew we had to think about more than just the injury. We had to think about Alice’s quality of life, even if she pulled through. It was still heartbreaking, even though we had been prepared for the possibility. She was just so sweet and still young…I had a knot in the bottom of my stomach and I was filled with regret. I couldn’t stop thinking “If only we’d brought her in when we first talked about it…” I felt that weight on my shoulders and couldn’t help but blame myself. John sent me photos of the wounds and I believed there would be no opportunity for recovery. It wasn’t just the wounds themselves, it was the infections that had rapidly spread around them. The infections ran deep and had probably done as much damage as the actual injuries…maybe more.
Then the phone rang again…
Dr. Ammeraal had been going over things with another Doctor at the hospital and had been convinced to clean the wound up as best he could, then send her home with us. He would do everything he could, but it was going to be on us to handle the aftercare. Daily cleaning, medicine, whatever needed to be done. We agreed without hesitation. Alice stayed at the hospital that night and came home to us the next day. Dr. Ammeraal had stitched up one of the wounds, but the others needed to be left open so they could drain. He provided us with antibiotics to fight the infection and instructions for cleaning the wounds. Alice’s appetite was good, but she wasn’t drinking any water. I sent John a text, because the lack of water intake concerned me. We knew that she could quickly become dehydrated and that could potentially seal her fate. He instructed us to add a little juice from a can of tuna or low sodium chicken broth to the water. That did the trick – water intake was no longer a problem.
And wouldn’t you know it? Just a few hours after Alice was back with us, Wolverine showed up on the deck again. We hadn’t seen him since he brought the injured Alice to us and we haven’t seen him since. He didn’t even stick around to eat. It was as if he was just checking on us, to make sure we were taking care of her.
Each day, we got inquiries from friends who had been following Alice’s story on Facebook. Everyone wanted to know how she was doing. All we could say was that she seemed to be improving daily, but we still couldn’t bring ourselves to get our hopes up. We were facing and preparing for the worst case scenario, while doing our best to prevent it from happening and hoping for the best. Each day, her personality started coming back more and more, as did her strength, The wounds seemed to be healing nicely, but we still didn’t know what was happening on the inside. In my mind, it was going to be up to Alice. She was going to have to want to heal.
We tried a couple of times to let her check out the kitchen (with the other animals locked up as far away as we could get them), but she would go straight back to her little house. No interest at all in being out in the open, or even investigating. She loves getting attention, but wants to be in her house while she gets it. To date, she hasn’t shown any aggression of any kind towards us, even when being held by the scruff of her neck and given her medicine. We are yet to see her claws and the only time we’ve heard a hiss from Alice was when the dog was checking her out through the lid of her home (an old baby gate).
On January 15th, Dr. Ammeraal asked me to bring her back for a followup. He couldn’t believe how much progress Alice had made in such a short span. He was very pleased to see how good she looked. She’d gained a pound, the injuries were healing nicely and it was such a relief when he finally said “She’s going to make it.”
There’s still a long way to go for her to completely heal, but at least now we now she’s a survivor. It is highly unlikely that she’ll ever regain use of the injured leg, but that’s OK. If she can deal with it, so can we. And who knows? She’s already surprised us with her ability to bounce back. Maybe she’s got another surprise in her.
I can’t thank Dr. Ammeraal and the fine people of American Animal Hospital enough for what they’ve done for Alice and for us. Alice has a new lease on life and it’s thanks to them that she does. To volunteer themselves the way they did to help Alice…well, truth be told, I tear up a little just thinking about it.
If you’re in the area and are in need of care for your furry friends, I highly encourage you to bring them to this fine group. I’ve had pets almost every day of my life and have never dealt with a kinder, more caring or friendlier staff.
Info only for portrait of Dr. Ammeraal:
Location: American Animal Hospital, Randolph, NJ
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