We waded into a sea of faces masked in markings of black and white, gray and ginger, eyes shining through from a galaxy of their own. There were jewels in each look, some sparkling, others sadder from losing their luster. Tails were confident and questioning, like sails bringing ships into the harbor of our hearts.
We were immediately surrounded, surrendering to whatever fate had in store for us, too. It was almost Dickensian, so many orphans vying for our attention, the first tiny one put in my arms thinner than should be survivable but as hungry for love. How frightened he was, not to be held but let go, to the back of a cage somewhere to disappear in forever.
One cat sat in a chair as wobbly as her resolve, a queen holding audience for subjects curling and climbing and clamoring to be her favorite. It seemed the most natural thing for her to be covered with such a crowd, lying at and on her feet, piling into her lap, begging her embrace. She was as adoring as adored, her shoulders easily bearing the weight, her neck encircled, her composure finally crowned. She reached up to see who was so agile and awkward at the same time, a long slender creature with eyes closing tighter and contentment sounding louder.
Oh, that's Tilly, we were told. She was adopted and returned a few days later. Returned? Like a piece of clothing that didn't fit right? Or an appliance that didn't work? Well, the lady said she couldn't deal with such a loving creature. There wasn't any doubt. Tilly was affectionate. She would never give up on love, never stop believing caresses and kisses and kindness were what she was born for. She was soft and white with a pink nose and silky black cap framing her forehead and veiling her ears, a matching cape dressing her back and trailing down her tail. She was limp and lovely in my mother's arms, her eyes swirling green and lifting up.
The manager and volunteers at the Wyoming County No-Kill SPCA did their best, taking in every cat abandoned to abandonment, providing more than food and shelter, healing wounds, offering a place of belonging for days or weeks or years. They knew every name, each personality and all the stories that should have been too many to remember. They might have been glad of anyone to take some of the responsibility off their hands, but there was something more important to consider than seeing the numbers decline.
And so, more cats came than went -- left at the door and in the road, found in snow banks and ditches and barns, rescued from fighting and pregnancy and disease, given the chance to grow up and be cherished. What was it like when their crowded but companionable world was raided? How frightening was it to be counted and cataloged and taken away?
Perhaps it was all for the good, everyone finally paying attention and wanting to help. But accusations didn't acknowledge the good intentions that weren't ever lost, just overwhelmed because they were undervalued.
There's confusion in my heart over what the shelter did right and how it went wrong. And why we didn't take Tilly. We were reassured she would soon be adopted again and continued with our choice of a kitten. We left with the skinny one, who never let us doubt his happiness. And his brother, a munchkin, who a few days later almost stopped breathing but was saved for a lifetime of memories and a tale for another day.
Diane M. Denton, of Corfu, is a novelist, poet, artist and financial supporter of the Wyoming County SPCA.