"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Zombie Story

A few months ago, a guy showed up late one night with a tiny black kitten.

He had found the kitten on the side of the road. The little one was only a few weeks old with just-opened eyes and had a mangled hind leg that looked like it had been chewed on by something. He was responsive but hypothermic, and obviously needed prompt medical attention. It was no small miracle that this kitten was alive to begin with.

The kitten, the night he arrived at our hospital.
The guy couldn't keep him nor be financially responsible for the kitten's care, but he did leave a deposit to help out with his initial expenses. Our ER doctor that night assured the man that we would figure something out. A couple of the techs at work have fostered kittens even smaller than this one and one of them even works with the local SPCA. 

The kitten was examined, placed on a heating pad with warmed fluid bags wrapped in towels to warm him up, and started on antibiotics. He was surprisingly responsive given how cold he was and the fact that the mangled leg was indeed gangrenous. He also had some wounds in the inguinal area of the other hind leg that looked very infected. He smelled overpoweringly like rotting flesh. 

I am a sucker for black cats. I have always wanted one but have never been chosen by one. I am especially a sucker for black cats with white whiskers, like this tiny fella had. I refused to touch him because, like everyone else, I figured he was going to die because of the infected leg. I didn't want to get attached. Not touching him allowed me to maintain my emotional distance while others braved the awful smell to fawn over his cuteness.

Our ER doctor talked to Karina, our tech who works with the SPCA, to take over his foster care. Karina has worked with bottle baby kittens for 15 years. She knows more about feline neonate care than most doctors. She is also Aengus's foster mom, the one who raised him from the time he was an orphan newborn kitten until we adopted him at 4 months of age. She does a FANTASTIC job bringing up well-mannered socialized cats.

Karina acquiesced, got Zombie covered under the SPCA's care, and made arrangements to have his leg amputated at a clinic that worked with the shelter, a surgery that was already risky given his diminutive size made even more risky by the presence of the raging infection in his body. But if the leg wasn't amputated, he was going to die anyway: he had gone from being hypothermic at 97 degrees to very febrile at 104. Surprisingly, he was alert and eating and taking everything in stride. 

All of this took a grand total of two days. The surgery would happen on the third day since the kitten's arrival to our hospital. 

Karina works nights in our intermediate care ward and had been bringing the kitten with her so she could bottle feed him every few hours. The night before his surgery, she brought him back to the ER so one of our doctors could look at him: he was progressively developing more open sores throughout his body, similar to the wounds on his good leg. She was wondering about changing his antibiotics to something stronger.  He was still eating with a voracious appetite (again, surprisingly!) The doctor decided that since he was already having surgery the following day, he should stay on what he currently was on. She had a feeling all of the sores would heal once the awful bad leg was removed. 

The doctor examined the kitten, cleaned the sores, and took a closer look at the gangrenous leg...and the paw of the affected leg came off in her hand, a disgusting black dessicated piece of flesh. We were beyond horrified but the kitten didn't even notice: that's how rotten that leg was. 

He had surgery the next morning. The leg was amputated uneventfully and the doctor had just finished suturing the tiny stump back together...when the kitten died.

He died while still anesthetized. Cardiac and respiratory arrest. Fulminant death.

He was supposed to be a DNR (do not resuscitate) simply because he was so critical going in. Nobody had really expected him to survive the amputation. The doctor did CPR anyway. And the little kitten came back to life. 

Karina picked him up 3 hours later and what did the revived kitten want? Food. He wanted food. Kind of like zombies when they come back from the dead.

Karina brought him in to work with her during her next shift and the difference in the little one was amazing: not only was he eating, he was doing his best trying to play and walk around (albeit very clumsily) on his one hind leg. The sores on his body had already dramatically improved after the main source of infection had been removed.

Now that he had survived all of that, we had to figure out a name for the kitten. The decision was unanimous by all of us that had been involved with him so far: 


What else would you call a creature that came in half rotten, died and then came back to life?

Karina got injured at work and had to take some extended medical leave. So we didn't see Zombie for a few months other than the occasional picture she posted of him on Facebook.

When she returned to work she brought him with her.

Hello 3 month old kitten!

Yes, I had to grab him so he'd hold still long enough for me to snag a picture!
I made a huge fuss over him and initially he seemed a little startled, "Who the hell are you?" It didn't take a lot of convincing to get him purring, rubbing and begging for pets with both hands. He was freaking adorable. The infection he'd had throughout his body had left no scars whatsoever. 

And then he bumped my face with his and rubbed his cheek against mine.

Not only am I a sucker for black cats, I'm even MORE of a sucker for cats that bump their faces to yours. You'll catch me making out with any feline patient that will do that, but none of my own personal cats have been prone to this particular gesture of affection.


Charles loves animals and has a thing for underdogs, though I knew he might not exactly be thrilled over the idea of a third cat in our tiny one bedroom apartment. However, he also has a thing for zombie movies. He has a huge collection of them. Any new zombie movie that comes out must be seen at the movie theater. 

My text to him would start, "So there's this kitten named Zombie..."

C'mon. It's a great story!

Karina was thrilled over the idea of us possibly adopting him. Charles came to work one evening to meet him in person and, well, there was just something about that 3-legged sleek black ball of purring happiness that was irresistible. 

"So this means we'll have 2 and 3/4 cats," Charles said.
That was a yes. ;)

Zombie still needed a couple of his kitten vaccines and Karina had a lot going on, so it was a couple of weeks before she could bring him to us. 

Because he had already died once under anesthesia, everyone involved in his care had decided to wait as long as possible to neuter him, at least until he is 5 months old, which will be in September. Until he is neutered he can't be officially adopted. So in the meantime, we took him on trial to see what Aengus and Astarte would think.

I take things slow with cat introductions. I failed at my first adult-kitten introduction (Shakti and Oonah, who had to be kept separated until I moved with Shakti to the US), succeeded at my first adult-adult introduction (Shakti and our Manx Dio) and failed at my second adult-adult introduction (Dio and Astarte. She is the most easygoing cat in the universe and he decided he hated her. He would try to kill her on sight. Granted he had a screw loose; I seriously thought he'd been oxygen-deprived as a kitten). The failures were mainly due to rushing introductions.

When we adopted Aengus, I was fully aware that he had been socialized with older cats and respected their body language, that he was a happy cat with a sense of humor, and that he had a similar temperament to Astarte's as a younger cat (she was a riot!) Within 2 weeks we had them together all the time while we were at home; separated when we were outside of the house. After a month I felt comfortable leaving them together unsupervised. It was a success.

Sharing the box where my first pair of winter boots arrived in...
Happy kitty body language at dinner time.
Astarte in all her snaggle-toothed glory. Sign of a happy cat despite the new family addition. It is normal for resident cats to temporarily go through a grumpy/pouting phase when a new cat is brought into the house. She's a pretty easy-going cat overall and the perk of adopting a kitten that respected mature cat body language was that he would give her her space when she asked for it. Once she realized that, she was absolutely fine.
All of these were taken our first winter in the Northeast. We adopted Aengus shortly after moving to the area. This was when we were still living in Alexandria, VA.
Aengus is now 2 years old and Astarte is 14 and a half. He is still very much an adolescent and LOVES to play. Astarte, old lady that she is, was not really up to that rambunctiousness. I've had to fill in, playing tag and hide-and-seek with the tabby kitty to give him an outlet for his excess energy so he wouldn't harass Astarte.

Quiet time
Zombie reminded me a lot of Aengus at his age personality-wise, plus he had had the same kind of socialization with cats of all ages as Aengus had as a kitten. (Karina has a small pride of fosters of varying ages, some of them special needs cats that neither her nor the shelter have been able to find permanent homes for). In addition to that, he was just such a happy little guy that I figured everyone would get along.

I let Aengus and Astarte sniff the carrier with Zombie still in it when we first brought him home. Astarte ran and hid while Aengus got all fluffed up. Of course: the little guy moved funny and smelled funny, having come from a different home. I set Zombie up in our bedroom with the door closed but placed a bowl of dry food right outside the door: if the cats wanted to eat, they'd have to be within smell of Zombie. Positive association: food = good, food = kitten, kitten = good. It is a majorly useful thing if you have food-motivated cats. Mine are on scheduled mealtimes; dry food only gets left out free choice when we are out of town. So this was a very special treat indeed.

48 hours after he arrived home, Zombie's alien smell had diminished and he was starting to smell more like the other two: like laundry softener from loving to lay in the clean laundry and on our bed. Cat psychology is both fascinating and challenging. Alien smells are a major source of disturbance in kitty cat relationships: it is common for them to not recognize a housemate if he smells different, like when the housemate returns from a hospital stay for example. I've gone the extra mile of bathing a resident cat and a newcomer just to get them to smell the same and accelerate acceptance. I didn't do it this time around; I figured it wouldn't be necessary.

I was right!

Once a day, Charles would sit on the living room floor playing with Zombie on his lap while I played with Aengus around them. Aengus would stop occasionally and watch Zombie playing. I'd allow it, watching Aengus's body language: his coat remained smooth (no raised hackles), his tail stayed up with the tip curled (sign of a happy kitty; equivalent to a dog wagging its tail) and his pupils were normal (angry kitty pupils will constrict; fearful kitty pupils will dilate. Note: playful kitty pupils will also dilate. You have to take the rest of the body language and situation into account), ears pricked curiously. I'd then throw another toy across the living room to catch Aengus's attention again and he'd continue playing with me. Cats that play together (even if it's not directly with one another), coexist happily together. More positive association.

The third time we did this, Aengus didn't want to hear about the toys. He went straight up to Zombie in Charles's lap, his whole body saying "Happy curiosity". Zombie stopped playing and looked back at Aengus, purring loudly. Aengus stretched his nose forward to the little black kitten's and they touched. Aengus drew back quickly, chirped, and took off running, Zombie running off after him with his three legs in an instant game of tag.

It was like they'd known one another forever.

For the next 30 minutes, they ran around the living room like two dogs, taking turns chasing one another, chirping and purring at one another. We call Aengus "Sir Chirps-A-Lot". I've never heard a cat chirp and trill as much as he does. It's his preferred method of communication. He chirps at us all the time: "Feed me here!" as he circles around the spot where I place his dish on the bathroom floor; "Pet me! I'm so cute!" as he stretches up against a wall, standing on his hind legs so he can be closer to you while giving you goo-goo eyes; "Come play with me!" as he hops in front of you then takes off running. He chirps when you toss his toys, he chirps in response when you talk to him. One of my favorite games with him is this: he will be lounging somewhere in the house. I'll come walking up to about 10 feet from him and then suddenly stop. He'll look up at me. I'll go into a mock crouch and slooowly sloooowly creep towards him. His pupils will slowly dilate as I get closer...and then he'll chirp and take off running. If I don't chase after him, he'll come running back up to me, tail up, and chirp again, inviting me to play.

He is just a little bit ridiculous.

Aengus photo bomb!
I was laughing watching this same kind of interaction between him and Zombie.

I eventually had to put Zombie back in the bedroom because I didn't want him overdoing the running on his one remaining hind leg. He can build up to playing longer. Neither of them knows when to stop...

Playing "Who is the Greatest Hunter"
So that's how it's been. Aengus and Zombie get playtime once or twice a day depending on our schedules. When Zombie is in the bedroom, Aengus pretty much hangs out in front of the bedroom door most of the day...I think he definitely approves of his new little brother.

With all the toys.

"Oooh! Tail!"
"What are you doing back there?"
"Nothing. What are you doing?"

Astarte was grumpy for the first 48 hours and found excuses to hide under the futon. She was still eating and purring at us when touched, so it wasn't the end of the world, but I brought out the Feliway diffuser and that helped her feel more at ease. She'll curl up in her cube on my desk or under the futon while Zombie and Aengus are romping about.

At feeding time, she's fine being around him and will watch him curiously. He has gone up to her and tried to rub his face against hers which took her completely by surprise the first time: she backed up and hissed. Since then I've caught her touching noses with him. And he's done his best to try to impress her.

"I'm a very well-behaved kitten, see?"
This morning Zombie disappeared. I went looking all over the house for him. Aengus was just chilling and didn't seemed distressed about his absence. I finally looked under the futon...and there he was. Curled up less than a foot from Astarte, who was sleeping peacefully.

And Zombie is, well, adorable. He reminds me of the good zombie in Warm Bodies.

Welcome home, little man!


  1. Oh. My. God.

    He is adorable!

    I'm sucker for black cats, special needs, tuxedos.. Man. He's a keeper! And that they get along so well! So very happy for your little clowder. :)

    1. "Clowder"! That was the word I was looking for!
      And yup: all of the above too! He definitely fills the Very Special Kitty quota on all counts. :D

  2. I am so happy for you! What a wonderful story. Please keep us updated.

  3. Omigoodness. This story is freaking adorable. I love this kitty!
    I've also been super lucky with kitty introductions.... never had any problems so far with my five. Granted, the last three that I've brought in have all been pathetic/sickly/tiny, so they were sort of welcomed in by the healthy grown ones (especially the one who likes to play mommy cat).

    1. He is so so awesome!

      Having a kitty that likes to play mommy cat always makes new introductions so much easier! My mom's cat back in PR was that cat. We had no problems at all with our first three thanks to her. She was all, "Oh, another one? Bring it here. I will lick it and groom it and love it." Every multi-cat home should have a kitty like that!

  4. Awwww he's adorable! And I love happy stories! :)

    1. Me too! This one seemed perfect for sharing! :)

  5. I feel like I got a sneak preview on this at RBTR... and I'm THRILLED you're keeping him :) Now I neeeeeed to meet him... OMG <3

    1. I wish we had a larger apartment so the 6 of us could just hang out in one place, especially since Carlos and I are at exactly the halfway point between you and Liz! We'll figure something out!

  6. Love this. . . . perfect addition to your household and Carlos absolutely cracked me up. 3/4 cat indeed.

    Here's to the type of people who welcome strays into their homes. <3

  7. This is probably one of the best adoption stories I have ever read ! Thanks for sharing <3 Sounds like Zombie has a wonderful new home :)

  8. Warm Bodies is the only zombie film I've seen - it was great!

    I wish we could have a whole lotta cats but even though there are no predators here, there is a road that cars often speed on directly in front of our house. I worry a lot, but our cat has such a great life roaming our land, I can't take that from her.

    You said something interesting about cats - that the meow is especially for humans. I think it's true, but am curious why my cat sometimes meows outside when there's no one around. I started paying attention and it seems she does it when she's just eaten a mouse, or if she has to go poop. Weird huh? It's like a bodily function announcement. It's a really annoying baleful meow, as opposed to the quieter "wake up and feed me" meow in the morning.

    Wish she were affectionate, but the vet says her natural nervousness might help keep her alive out there.

    I love the classic tabby pattern your Aengus has. It took me forever to find a tabby cat in Germany, and I had to pay 75E - there doesn't seem to be an unwanted cat/kitten problem here.

    Do you speak Spanish to the cats?

    1. I know exactly the meow you mean. My mom's cat (the mommy cat in the household; she was not related to the other two but she played mother to them) in PR would make that same sound when she'd "catch" something (most often a toy, sometimes lizards; they didn't go outside because of the dogs). Our other two cats would go running to find her. If she had caught something edible, like a lizard, she'd eat what she wanted and leave the rest for the others, who would wait their turn. I've heard of other cats doing this too. Which is especially interesting since they tell you that domestic cats are loners. Though of course, each cat is so different that it's hard to generalize why some of them do the things they do. It's funny that yours also announces when she has to poop!

      Interesting that you had difficulty finding a tabby kitty in Germany, and that you had to pay so much for one. Are they good about neutering animals over there? I'm wondering if maybe that's what's contributing to the lack of unwanted cats? Though I feel like you mentioned on the blog once that unneutered animals were the norm?

      Haha yes, I do speak in Spanish to the cats. All the time, enough so that they recognize certain words. Their nicknames reflect it too: Aengus gets called "Gatito" which basically means "Little Cat", even though he's not little at all anymore. He's a solid 12 lbs. Astarte's nicknames are "Gatcha" which is basically a loving way of calling her "Cat" that my brother and I created ("female cat" in Spanish is "Gata") and "Gateau". The Gateau nickname has a story: I was in college taking French and we were having problems remembering that in French "gateau" means "cake", whereas in Spanish "gato" is "male cat" or just generic "cat". Pronunciation between "gateau" and "gato" is slightly different but similar enough to have been confusing. Astarte was the sweetest and goofiest of our initial three and one day I just started calling her "Gateau" (with the proper French pronunciation) for cake. She has responded to that nickname from the start and it's basically her name now. "Astarte" gets used when she's in trouble...it will stop her in her tracks! Zombie will probably end up with something too...all of our cats have always had multiple nicknames that each knows and responds to. And then some people try to tell you that cats aren't smart! Haha...

  9. Love Zombie! From literally falling apart to super handsome, great rescue! Is he able to jump up on things with his leg missing? I've only known 3/4 (love it) dogs, they've done fine. And so glad your cats are accepting. There is a new kitten next door and my old crabby kitty wants nothing to do with her, lots of hissing and growling. I equate it to a 90-year-old woman not wanting to play with a 5-year-old!

    1. Hahaha yup, I can totally see how that would happen re: old kitty vs kitten! That's usually how it goes.

      He's just starting to get the hang of jumping now, though he can't jump very high. He needs to gain some upper body strength and learn to trust his one hind leg. For whatever reason they left a tiny stump on his amputated leg...I honestly don't understand why the whole thing wasn't removed. I think it causes more trouble because even after all this time, he will still forget he doesn't have a full limb there. It's kind of sad when you see him trying to scratch his left ear with his little stump. But oh my gosh he's fast! Faster than Aengus with his 4 legs!

      We get a lot of clients that come into the hospital with animals with broken legs from being hit by cars. Sometimes they are simple fractures but often they are far more complicated than that and require orthopedic surgery (aka inserting plates and pins) to repair. Not a lot of people have the thousands of dollars required for that kind of surgery. With serious fractures, the only other option is amputation. Which is FAR less expensive because it can be done by a regular vet! No orthopedic surgeon required. I can't tell you how many people would rather euthanize the animal than amputate. We need to talk them into it to get them to even consider it. It astounds me. I can understand if it's an older large breed dog that already has arthritis, but most cats and dogs really do adjust amazingly and live long, fully functional happy lives!

  10. Yes, it is illegal to neuter a dog in Germany without a medical reason, because the Germans are usually up to the challenge of managing their dogs. You never see packs of dogs running here like I did as a child in South Park.

    Cats, though, can be neutered at random. It's amazing how many stallions are about as riding horses in Germany. I rode one once cuz the horse I was there to buy was too nuts.

    You mentioned cat training. I have a question for you but I'd love to do it private. Can you email me? eli_barnett at hotmail

    I'm jealous of the cat dynamic you have now. But appreciative of the little cat presence we have, when she concedes to give it. Today she let me hold her for about 20 seconds in the yard, before she clawed me.

    Couldn't help but think about your kitten all day. What a story.

    1. E-mail sent! :)

      Fascinating about the dogs. Do breeders there need some sort of license in Germany? I believe it's required in some parts of Europe.

      These guys are all pretty unique. When I was in tech school and my friends would come over to study, they would be astounded by how friendly the cats were. They got to learn about feline body language and how it can vary from one individual to another. For example: Astarte is always twitching the tip of her tail. They tell you that means a cat is angry. With Astarte, it means she's thinking. Her tail tip is always going when she's awake. She swishes her entire tail when angry, which is very rare. It took my friends a while to realize that they needed to take into account everything else that the cat is doing. I guess part of the reason why I love them so much is because they are so complex!

  11. I always learn so much from reading your blog, didn't know half this stuff about Cat body language or smells etc (though I am extremely allergic to them so that has limited my interest in cats)

    He's super cute, glad he found a wonderful home with you

    1. Cats are soooo different from dogs but are pretty cool once you get to know and understand them. I hear you on the allergies! My FIL can't walk into our house without taking a couple of different allergy meds, no matter how clean the apartment is. He's that allergic!

      And thanks! :)

  12. Awww Zombie is adorable! What an amazing story

  13. Love this story. Zombie is adorable. It is interesting how people end up with or adopt pets. I adopted my cat, a barn cat, by dropping a 30lb hay bale on her out of the barn loft. I rushed her to the animal hospital and with one surgery and a $2000 bill later I am the proud mom of a very cute kitty named Anne.. I will save the details for a post one day. Thanks for the idea!

    1. That sounds like a really awesome story (since it obviously had a happy ending!) Can't wait to read about Anne!

  14. Ickle Zombikins. Must cuddle the bathroom kitty. Because he may forever be the bathroom kitty to me. ;-) Little purrmonster.

  15. You have three absolutely gorgeous cats!!! Welcome to the family Zombie!

    P.S. I also loved the movie Warm Bodies. :D