Much in Little – An Essay by Karen Winkler

Translated from the Latin multum in parvo

Professor Higgins and Karen on their comfy chair

Professor Higgins and Karen on their comfy chair

Professor Henry Higgins, as he is known, was born to a feral mother in the month of October and is the offspring of Norwegian Forest Cats. His ancestors travelled with Vikings as mousers.  He is a descendant of adventurous, intelligent, and proud cats. His line is built to withstand cold weather and climb sheer rock.  It is unknown how or why he was brought to the shelter as a mere baby.

When the shelter called to tell me there was a kitten ready for foster, as scared as I was of the responsibility, I said yes. The staff handed him to me packed safely in the carrier. Although I hadn’t even seen him, I had already named him.

When I got home, I opened the carrier door and waited.  Professor Higgins came out in a poof of cat hair. He had a full mane, and his long fur was electrified making his whole body shimmer. I gasped at his absolute beauty. I consciously thought: This is temporary. I cannot keep him. I repeated: I cannot keep him.

He had a white face and huge green eyes outlined in black. He had a pink nose except for a small, uneven black smudge. His kitten paws were huge in relation to his body, though only the size of the tip of my thumb. His cellophane-like kitten claws were piercing, and stuck like Velcro. His tiny pink kitten mouth was a straight line filled with lethally sharp teeth, each the size of a grain of salt. I could close my fingers around his bendable ribs. He weighed 1 pound. He was a tiny 6 inches from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail, and looked fragile enough to break. When I touched him, he was so soft it felt like I was touching air but, he was completely capable of walking, running, jumping, eating solid food, using the litter box, scaling curtains and legs, and roaring. He was sturdy, confidant, demanding, bossy, and fearless. He was a miniature lion. In mere minutes, my living room became his whole world, and his whole world became my fascination.

I was mesmerized by his tiny body and his every action. He walked and I announced, “He’s walking!” He ran and I announced, “He’s running!” He turned his head and I announced, “He’s turning his head!” He began to announce his activities as well. He mewed before he pooped. He mewed louder if he needed to be cleaned after pooping. He mewed loudest when he was hungry. If I squeezed him even slightly, he mewed. If I kissed him, he mewed. He mewed so much I once had him leave a voice mail message for a friend.

He ate his kitten pate from an antique silver baby spoon. He ate what I ate by tipping my dinner plate with his front paws and putting his whole face in my food.  When he went insane over hummus and seitan, it was kismet. He carried a lime green 8 foot ribbon with him everywhere he went. He tolerated wearing a multi-colored striped turtleneck sweater that made him look like an organ grinder’s monkey. He was part daredevil and part acrobat, launching from the highest level of the cat tree, twirling, grabbing his ribbon, racing on the ottoman, jumping to the back of the couch, skidding across the coffee table, ending in a tiny mass of kitten fur, tail, and ears.

When he was ready for bed, he kneaded my shoulder and neck until he passed out.  I marveled at his complete surrender to me. He trusted me so thoroughly to keep him safe; it felt as though his life was in my hands. I traced his closed eyelids with my fingertip, plucked at the wild hairs in his ears, touched his tiny teeth, inhaled his kitten smell, and he didn’t even twitch.  I then fell asleep myself curled up in my puffy chair with Higgins cradled in the crook of my neck. Higgins was my cat.

As Higgins got bigger, I was less afraid of squishing him during sleep, and because my neck couldn’t take the chair any longer, I started sleeping in the bed, again. The very first night in bed, Higgins stretched flat out on his belly – tail, front and back legs fully extended, chin on my chest.  As he became sleepier his body got heavier.  At some point, I turned on my side rolling Higgins with me. His body was so limp it was as if he had no skeleton. I instinctively pulled him tightly into me. I held him so tightly it must have been difficult for him to breath. He didn’t leave though; instead he pushed his body harder into me. This became the nightly routine.

As soon as kittens weigh 2.5 pounds, they are big enough to be neutered and adopted. After a few weeks of fostering Higgins, I was faced with the reality that he would end up in someone else’s home.  The thought was unbearable, but I had to give him up.  This was my first foster, and too soon to keep one. A foster parent’s job is to prepare kittens for their forever homes, not adopt them. Owning a cat may make it more difficult to foster other litters, because he/she might behave antagonistically towards the kittens.

On the scheduled day I was to take Higgins to the shelter, I sat on the floor clutching him to my chest, rocking back and forth and sobbing. Higgins was still so tiny I could hold him in one hand.  My boyfriend could not stand to see me so distraught. He sat on the floor rocking with me and said, “Keep him.” The staff wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. There would be other fosters I’d feel as strongly about, and I couldn’t keep them all. I wouldn’t keep them all, but Professor Henry Higgins was mine. The shelter made it official, and it is among my very best decisions.

I have continued to foster, and Higgins plays an integral part. He plays rough with the foster kittens by stalking then chasing them down, running them over, tumbling them, and batting them aside. He’ll swish his tail to encourage them to pounce. He lets them eat first except for hummus. He holds their heads down while he licks it off my finger. He sits atop the 6 foot cat tree and watches them. A flick of an ear or a slight change in his eye direction commands their attention. He cleans them by running his tongue across their eyes, their ears, their mouths, and inhales their kitten smell. He allows them to knead and nurse at his belly until they pass out exhausted. After he has taken care of his kittens, he comes to me. He is bigger, weighing 12 pounds, and clearly a King. I marvel at his kindness and patience, and have a deep respect for his parenting skills. I still see a miniature lion.

Higgins is 4-years-old now. Habits of his kittenhood still exist. He is fearful of the cleaning person. He panics at the sound of the doorbell or the screen door slamming shut. When he feels it necessary to completely let loose, he thunders through the house, which makes it impossible to believe he is the same cat who climbs his cat tree as if weightless. He communicates by mewing.  Now it means “Where are you” and “I’m throwing up a hairball”.  It can occasionally mean “Stop kissing me”.

I love it when I come home at noon, and he drags himself out of bed to share lunch with me. He eats Vegan when we dine together. Instead of pushing his face in my plate of food, he tilts his head and waits for his share. He touches my knee or hand with his paw to request a treat. His body sways nonchalantly as he walks through a room. He is a gracious host to Cat, Non-Cat, and Dog people alike, allowing them to stroke his great mane. Even they are taken with his gentle soul and beauty.

It is fascinating to watch him solve a problem like locating, and then opening the kitchen cabinet to retrieve the treat bag all on his own. It is baffling when he sits with his back touching the scratching post, yet chooses to drag his nails down the entire length of the sofa arm. He is irresistible when he drops at my feet and rolls on his back.  It is joyful to scoop him up, cover him with kisses, and bury my face in his stomach. If I never left my house again, he would be all the company I would need.

Our favorite spot is the puffy chair. He’ll lay on the arm or the back, and we occasionally fall asleep there together. Higgins prefers to sleep in the bed and paces when he’s ready to go up. Now lying on top of me, he is as long as my body. I am touched by his vulnerability. I trace his closed eyes with my fingertip, pluck his wild ear hairs, feel his teeth, inhale his smell, and then I sleep. When I turn on my side he rolls with me, and lets me pull him in tightly. He leaves at some point during the night to sleep alone. But, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning I wake, and his face is almost touching mine.

 

About Karen Winkler


Karen volunteers as a feline foster parent with Animal Care and Control Team Philadelphia and a dog handler at the Bucks County SPCA. She was selected to work with the BC SPCA Behavior Modification Program to work with dogs who need additional socialization and training prior to adoption. She assists with dog training classes for the Humane Society of the United States Pets for Life. Karen has a Certificate in Canine Management and Training from Kutztown University. Karen is working on a series of essays about her volunteer experience with animals. She hopes sharing her experiences will motivate others to volunteer, foster, and adopt. Karen has been Vegan since 2007.

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