Whether I’m painting Old World Portraits or giving my dog a belly rub, my life is largely about animals. That’s why I spend a good bit of time each week volunteering for organizations who help the ones who are down on their luck. I’ve been doing that for nearly twenty years. I currently volunteer for a small, all-volunteer organization that traps, neuters, and returns feral cats. We provide food for feral cat caretakers who can’t afford to buy it themselves, too. My volunteer work keeps it real and personal for me. I am regularly inspired by people who decide to be kind to animals, even ones they will never get affection from. And I am humbled and amazed by the lives of the feral cats I get to learn about. Today I wrote my monthly article for a local magazine called AnimalLife. Here it is.
The Long Life of Sly
Though Animal DREAMS is an organization with a mission to help feral cats, it’s rare to know the details of any particular feral cat’s whole life. This is one of those rare stories.
Before Animal DREAMS was even an official organization, the volunteers who later started the nonprofit did a feral cat Trap, Neuter, Return project in Great Barrington behind a busy place of business. The cats were fixed and returned to live in an old abandoned barn on a property whose owner was agreeable to letting the cats stay there. A dedicated volunteer began feeding the colony. By 2008, another volunteer, Barbara Crocker, started helping the original elderly volunteer, and eventually took over the every-day feeding of the cats. On a wintery day in 2009, Barbara went to feed the cats and found that the barn had collapsed and the cats had scattered. Over the course of three weeks, all of the seven cats were trapped by the Animal DREAMS founder and held until new cat shelters could be put in place. Sylvester, or “Sly”, one of those original cats, was the most wary and the last one to be caught. The mother cat of the colony was found to be very ill and euthanized, one cat was friendly enough to be adopted into a home, and five cats were returned.
By 2013, Barbara had built a cat shelter that could only be described as luxury accommodations. There were three cats remaining; Crybaby, Munchkin, and Sly, and after so many years, Barbara had been joined by two other volunteers, Sara and Doug. They relieved Barbara from her 7 day-a-week feeding schedule. Of the three cats, Sly was still the least likely to warm up to people. Eventually Crybaby died of natural causes, and then Munchkin, who was looking unwell, was euthanized due to end stage liver failure.
So began a new phase for Sly, the remaining cat of the colony. We can only guess that he was a little bit lonely living his solitary life, because he began to enjoy visits from his caretakers. Of the many cars that came and went from the business near their outdoor home, Sly immediately recognized the vehicles of his caretakers and would run to meet them. Doug would bring a brush, and Sly happily walked back and forth against it to be groomed. Barbara, Sara and Doug had regular meetings to assure that Sly was getting the best care, which included more frequent visits, vet care and additional protection during winter weather.
This brings us to the last phase of Sly’s life. Several months ago, the caretakers found out that the area where Sly lived his entire life was slated to become a parking lot. At the same time, it became clear that his health was declining; A visit to the vet revealed that he has lymphoma and a hyperthyroid condition. Barbara decided to bring him to her studio to live. There, he has lots of privacy and five cat beds, one of which is heated. Sly is not agreeable to thyroid-supportive food, or daily thyroid medication no matter how it is administered. The caretakers feel it best that he be allowed to eat his favorite food and continue to live life on his terms. He gets to see Barbara often, and his other caretakers visit him too. He does not enjoy overt attention from them, but purrs when they are near. He sleeps very soundly, in a way that Barbara imagines he might not have been able to do outside, where he had to be alert for danger. Sly is not expected to live much longer. But with the help of people, he has lived a good life for 19 years, and he will leave this world peacefully.
Barbara thinks of Sly as a legend. We think he is too. But there would be no story or legend to tell, had it not been for the long line of people who recognized the dignity of his life and who did the day-to-day business of looking out for his welfare.
P.S. I am proud to say that my dad, Doug, is one of the people who cared for this cat colony.