Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Kittens, Cats and the Commons

A few weeks ago, a cat and two half grown kittens showed up in a friend’s yard.   My friend doesn’t have pets and isn’t really an animal person.  I have sometimes teased her by saying it is her only major fault.  She called all the usual places that help you with feral cats and they were all swamped.  The municipal shelter said they had more kittens this year than any other time in their history.  Most places recommended trapping them, fixing them and then releasing them back to her yard.  A few people said you could try to tame them and find homes for them, but that would take a long time and is often impossible with truly feral cats.  My friend was open to trapping and fixing them, and marginally open to releasing them back into her yard.  

To make a long story, which is also not the point of this blog post, short:  we were able to trap the mother and one kitten. (The other kitten took off and remains quite wary).   I took them to a wonderful organization called “Fix Our Ferals” which runs a clinic devoted to spaying and neutering feral cats as well as giving them shots, fostering young kittens and the like.  I brought the kitten and the mother to my house to recover.  They hunkered down in their cages and hissed and spat when I put food in for them.  They ate voraciously but without any gratitude.   I knew the mother had to be released—she showed no signs of being tamed.  The kitten was another story.  He let me pat him and even let me hold him.  He wasn’t happy about it, but seemed to know I meant well.  Ultimately though, the time and effort it would take to tame him, even if that could be done, was more time than I, or the many people to whom I tried to give him, had.  After much thought, I released them both in my friend’s back yard.  We have continued to feed them. 

What I was struck by during this whole period of taming, trapping, neutering and releasing, was the fact that these cats will never understand what happened to them and, particularly, will never think that we did this for their own good and the common good.  To be sure, cats don’t think like that.  They are not regaling the other ferals with how they were betrayed by people who fed them, then kidnapped and tortured them, held them against their will and then, for some reason, let them go.   The mother is not bragging that she never gave in and never stopped hissing.  The kitten isn’t describing how he hoped he would be able to escape when I took him out of his cage, but the time was never right.

The point is how do we get the kind of distance we need to see the big picture of what is really the common good?  In a perfect world I suppose there would be no feral cats.  All cats, like all people, would live in loving homes.  But those of us who work for the common good must be realists, and we must not let the best be the enemy of the good.  If we wait for perfection we may not take the opportunity to do the little we can to make minor improvements.   A big danger is assuming that we see the big picture and not just a big version of our own biases.  There is no one answer to the question of what is the common good, but finding the answers must include conversation and discussion with a wide range of people who have a variety of viewpoints.  In the case of these cats, I talked to a range of people each firm in their opinions about what should happen, which ranged from euthanizing to releasing in a more wild place.  I read studies about feral cats and I discussed all of this with my longsuffering partner and several friends.   I don’t know if I made the absolutely right decision, but I feel confident I made the least wrong decision. 

But the bigger issue is that I had to challenge my assumptions and biases several times during this process, especially including the assumption that I would find the absolutely right decision, know it when I found it, and then make it.  Everyone, feline and human alike, would live happily ever after. That did not happen and probably rarely can.  The common good is a not a constant, but a constant search; a letting go of old ideas, of trying on new ones, and a willingness to live in uncertainty.  For “I’m right and full steam ahead” people like me, that is the bigger picture.