The Cat with Magic Ears

It was the middle of July in 2016. I had just walked in the door from work. Renee was 11 months out from her heart transplant, and I was running a day shelter I had founded. It had been a particularly bad day. I had a lot of them that year. I was getting something to drink in the kitchen when she called me into her studio.

“I want you to hear me out before you say no,” she said.

Over the winter, our orange tabby Tony had caught a blood clot in his legs, and we had to take him to the vet in the middle of the night and have him put down. Tony had been Renee’s cat – they even shared the same heart disease, called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is very common in cats and very rare in humans. In the days after her coming home from transplant, Tony had laid in the bed next to Renee as if he knew she needed more comfort than normal. His loss had been felt very keenly.

So she had been crawling the pages of the local no-kill shelter, looking at orange tabbies. It was just window shopping – we knew we lived in a small house, and the two cats we had were already pushing our limits.

She showed me a picture of the most bedraggled orange cat ever. He had deformed ears and terror in his eyes, and his hair was thin. He looked like a stuffed cat that had lost half his stuffing. She told me his name was Pepe, and he had been at the no-kill shelter for more than a year. Because he was ancient and ugly, nobody wanted him. He also had a healthy dose of anti-social behavior.

I reminded her that we had said we were a two-cat house, and we already had two cats. Since he had been there a year, she asked me if we didn’t adopt him, who would? I think he might be a lost cause, I said. That has never scared you off before, she said.

I asked what the fees were. She told me that she had already reached out to the shelter, and since Pepe had been so hard to rehome, they would waive all the fees if we came up that Friday.

So that Friday, we went to pick up Pepe, the cat with the magic ears.

If anything, he looked worse in person. He was so skinny, and his fur was patchy. He and several other cats had been dropped off at the shelter the year before. At some point, Pepe had a horrible ear infection that ate away at his ears and damaged his hearing. He had been covered in fleas when they left him at the shelter. He was afraid of people – the shelter folks believed he had been beaten in his past.

He lived in a giant walk-in cage with other cats but was cowered under some boxes, hiding. He looked virtually catatonic. He didn’t want to be held or petted or played with. He came out of the boxes long enough to eat the snacks we gave him, and then he went back into hiding.

The shelter tried to be realistic with us.

“He has been horribly abused. He doesn’t like to cuddle, and he isn’t really affectionate. But he is special and needs a home where people will love him.”

So we signed the papers and agreed to take care of him for the rest of his life. Our first clue to how hard this was going to be was fighting to put him in the cat carrier and his screaming once we shut the door. We had to wrap the carrier in a towel to calm him down, and while most families have pictures of the adoptive parents holding their new kitty, we have one of us holding a towel-covered pet carrier with dazed looks on our faces.

We gave Pepe his own room at the house, with a closed door so he could be comfortable before we introduced him to the other cats. He promptly found every hiding place in that room and spent much time just staring into space. If you tried to pet him, he would attack your hand and then go hide again.

It went like that for about four months. But in the mornings, we would find his toys scattered, and his food had been eaten, so apparently, he was having a ball when we weren’t looking.

Eventually, things changed. He began to come out of the room, began to play with the other cats, and even would sit on the couch with us. He was our very introverted kitty – he wanted to be near us, but not actually touch us. As introverts ourselves, we understood this.

He was still very shy when we loaded all the cats into cat carriers two years later and moved 12 hours away. But I swear Pepe in Mississippi was a whole new cat. He was no longer the tentative, shy cat. He was full of confidence in our new home. Instead of hiding in the corners, he would lay in the sun on the rug in the middle of the floor. Our vet suggested that moving had put all the cats on an equal footing n the new house. Literally, the pecking order had changed.

In any event, for the next year, Pepe thrived. He gained weight, his coat filled out, and he would even climb in your lap and purr. The cat they warned might never love us back was affectionate and loving. It was the best year.

Things started to go downhill in the fourth year he was with us. His personality was still the same, but he wasn’t eating. The vet told us he had a horrible infection in his teeth and gums, and because of his FIV, he didn’t have the resources to fight it off. They gave him antibiotics and hoped for the best.

He recovered – for about six weeks. Then we had to go back for another round of shots. Each round, he had lost more weight, become more lethargic, and ate less and less. In the summer of 2020, it became obvious we were fighting a losing battle.

We had a foster son living with us at the time. He identified heavily with Pepe, and while the other cats would run and hide from him, Pepe tolerated his hugs. The night before Pepe died, we all sat with Pepe on the floor of the living room, and we petted him and told him we loved him; and that night, when I tucked the boy in bed, we talked about how when you love something or someone, you have responsibilities as a result. We had promised to take care of Pepe, and helping him die well was part of that.

I told the boy that you have to do the right thing for those you love, even when that is not something you want to do.

The next day a neighbor watched the boy while we went to the vet for Pepe’s last visit. He was purring in our arms when he got the shot. At that point, he was skin and bones, less than half his body weight when we had gotten him.

That was 23 months ago. A few months after Pepe died, the Boy went back to his family. Pepe is buried in the backyard, under a headstone Renee and the Boy made together.

I think about Pepe a lot. This cat that they told us would never have the tools to love us ended up loving us after all and taught us a lot about love along the way. He taught a hardened, traumatized boy in the foster system how to love, and he purred in our arms as we watched him die.

Shortly after we got him, when he was having such a hard time adjusting, we decided that if all he gets is to spend his remaining years in a loving home filled with kitty treats and toys and with people committed to loving him even when he doesn’t have the resources to love us back, that is a lot more than he would have had in the first place, and a lot more than any of us deserve. But for a few years, we got a lot more than that, and so did he.

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