What I Owe to a Cat Named Patti

Patti was one of those cats that came to the shelter, stayed a couple months, and then left, without my hardly knowing it. I knew which cat she was, but it never crossed my mind to really interact with her.

Then, a couple months after that, she was returned for house-soiling. House-soiling is one of the worst reasons for a return (in my opinion) because if a cat can’t use its litter box, it can’t live in a house—it’s as simple as that. The adopters had tried different types of litter, different boxes, etc., but something was making her not want to urinate in the proper location and they eventually gave up.

She was a pretty cat—about a year old, tortoise shell coat, and she was shy, but friendly. Upon her return, I took notice and was sympathetic. But again, it didn’t go much further than that.

The first time Patti was in cat playgroup during her second stint in the shelter, she hated it. She sat under the bench in the adoption center and hissed any time a cat came near her. She was a nice cat on her own, but all she did all day was sleep, or sit. Mostly sleep. But I went to visit her now and then, giving her pets and attention. I liked her, definitely. But she didn’t stand out much more than any of the other cats.

Then something happened, which made me take notice.

A Cat Named Murdock

It was the summer of 2011, and I was single, worked part-time, and was spending as much time at the shelter as I could. I was quickly becoming the “cat lady” among my friends, so it wasn’t so much of a surprise when I received a text message from Sonja telling me she had found a stray cat outside her apartment and didn’t know what to do with it.

I was coming back from a work event all dressed up, and called her back.

“Let me get home so I can put on some pants, and I’ll be right over with a carrier.”

When I arrived, Sonja was sitting outside with the cat. She explained that it had been on the doorstep to their apartment, shoveled down some food, and was following her and her then-fiance (now husband) around. It had been in the stairwell of the house-like apartment building but had been let out again. Both Sonja and her neighbors had cats, and couldn’t let this one into their apartments.

I looked at the cat. Its coat was thin and brittle. Its ears were ragged. I couldn’t tell at the time, but it was covered in fleas. This cat was clearly a stray (and not owned by someone in the neighborhood). It also had one other problem.

“It was following me and then all of a sudden it couldn’t move its back legs,” said Sonja. Although the cat currently seemed to be fine.

I got some food and tried to bribe the cat into the carrier. It was too smart for that one. I knew I didn’t want to risk getting bitten or scratched by the cat, despite that Sonja’s fiance had been able to pick it up earlier. I asked for a towel.

Slowly, I got closer to the cat, threw the towel over it, picked it up and tried to put it in the carrier that Sonja was holding for me. But it managed to wriggle free. It dashed around the corner and into someone’s backyard.

It was getting late, and it was dark. But I couldn’t let that cat go. Something told me it needed my help. So Sonja and I followed to where it had run off, and found it huddled under a vehicle. It was no good trying to drag it out; neither of us could reach.

So we began a stake-out. Twenty minutes went by until finally something startled the cat out from its hiding spot. I took another can of cat food and put it on the ground, and the cat immediately began chowing down. It was testament to how starving this cat was, that it still wanted to eat.

This is our last chance,” I whispered to Sonja. Again, she held the carrier; I held the towel. I held my breath and imagined the cat escaping once more, losing all trust in us, and us never seeing it again.

I gently put the towel over the cat and grabbed around its middle. I quickly put the cat into the carrier, and we closed the door before it could escape.

“Yes! I’ll take it to the shelter first thing tomorrow,” I said.

The cat spent the night on my porch (in the carrier, as I couldn’t allow it into my own apartment with my cats and didn’t want it to try to escape from three stories up). The next morning, I brought the cat to the Animal Rescue League of Boston, where it was admitted and given the name Murdock.

Murdock at the Shelter
I had a plan that I would take a photo of Murdock every day at the shelter, and document how he/she (I had no clue what gender the cat was) progressed until finally—hopefully—it was adopted.

The second day, I went into the shelter after Murdock had settled into one of the back rooms. Jane, another volunteer, was there, giving some much-need socialization to the cats.

“I brought this one in,” I told her. I explained how I had found and captured Murdock.

“And do you know what you’ll do if they can’t treat him?”

At the Animal Rescue League of Boston, you can put any animal you bring in on “hold”—in other words, if for any reason the cat were deemed unadoptable, you would be notified and would have the chance to take the cat back.

“No,” I said. “I can’t take him back anyway, but I think it’ll be fine.”

I was excited about Murdock. Here I would be able to see the whole shelter process from beginning (rescue) to end (adoption).

“There’s a lot of flea dirt on his bed,” I said.

“Write it on the medical board.”

So I did. I left, hopeful because the fleas meant that Murdock would be seen by the vet sooner.

The next day, eager to see how Murdock was doing, I rushed over to the shelter. I went into the backroom, looking for his cage. But Murdock wasn’t there. Perhaps he was in the examination room, or they had moved him.

I went up to the front desk. Diane, another cat volunteer, was behind the computer.

“Could you do me a favor?” I asked. “Could you look up where Murdock is? They moved him, I think, and I can’t find him.”

Diane looked at me. “Sure.” She typed his name into the database, and she frowned. She looked at me again. Her next words clearly caused her some anguish.

“He was PTS’d.” I froze.


“He was PTS’d this morning…” she was reading his file. “Fractious on exam, bit the vet tech, and unable to give him a full examination. But it looks like Murdock most likely had some neurological issue, which is why his back legs didn’t work right.” She studied my face. “Did you asked to be notified?”


“Next time, you can asked to be called in the event a cat gets euthanized.”

I just nodded and gulped back some air.

“I’m sorry, Liz.”

“Do they know at least what gender he was?”

“Umm,” Diane’s eyed wandered over the screen. “Female.”

I walked through the adoption center; I felt dizzy. I did this, I thought. I brought her into the shelter.

Guilt ran through me, and then anger, and then grief. My mind rushed over the past few days. Of course it had been a possibility. Murdock had had some major issues; I knew that. But for some reason I had never imagined that it would be her. That she would be the one not to make it. And I was the one who had brought her to her death. Me.

There, in the middle row, was Patti, curled up on her blanket.

Patti,” I whispered. I opened her cage and reached in a trembling hand. She immediately began to nuzzle it.

I stroked her all along her back and scratched her cheeks. My whole face was hot and wet, but I kept concentrating on petting Patti, loving Patti, crying on Patti.

“Patti. I love you.”

“Are you okay?” A staff member walked by.

I nodded. “I’m fine,” I said.

I kept stroking Patti. She kept nuzzling me.

Patti’s Progress
From then on, every time I went to the shelter, I would visit Patti. I would pet her and say sweet things to her. I made sure she came out to every playgroup.

“She doesn’t seem to like it much,” I admitted to the other playgroup leader, Michelle. But I figured that at least it would get her out of her cage for a while.

But the third week I brought her out, she seemed to have a change of heart.

She wandered up onto the adoption desk. She sat and watched the other cats pounce around.

“Look, Michelle! She’s not under the bench!”

I brought out a crinkly gold ball and tossed it to her. She looked at it. Then she gave it a little bat with her paw.

“She just played!”

Michelle was busy with all of the other cats. “Good,” she said from across the room.

I threw around the gold ball a few more times, and Patti jumped from one shelf to the other.

“Patti!” I cried in celebration. I gave her lots of pets.

The fourth week, she did the same.

“You’ll get adopted soon,” I kept assuring her. “My sweet, sweet Patti.”

Later that week, an older woman came in looking for a cat. She was with a couple of other ladies, and they wandered the adoption center, surveying the animals we had to offer. One of them pointed to a cat in a bottom cage, who was energetic and nice, but a bit feisty.

“Can we see her?”

I put the cat into a run with the woman and the cat (whose name I can’t remember) ran around. She didn’t like being held and squirmed when I went to pick her up. She was clearly not the right fit for this woman.

“I think I have someone you should look at,” I said. “Wait here.”

I went to Patti’s cage and gave her some pets. I scooped her up in my arms, hugging her to my body, and as I approached the visiting run, all of the women said, “Ohhh.”

Patti settled into the run and was rubbing against the woman’s legs.

“I think we have a winner,” she said.

I walked into the main adoption area, and found Amy and Michelle talking near a bench.

“You guys,” I said. My whole body was vibrating. “I think I just got Patti adopted.”

I scrubbed several cat cages that afternoon, my heart in a state of pure elation.

“She’s on cloud nine,” remarked Amy, nudging me toward another dirty cage, grinning.

Putting the Pieces All Together
I haven’t seen Patti since that day. But the mark she left on me remains deep.

Through Patti’s success, I was able to deal with Murdock’s loss. Murdock was a cat who had been through hell and back, and finally had come to ask for help. She wasn’t healthy. She was skinny, covered in fleas, and at the very least had neurological issues, that could have been a result of disease or (my own theory) being hit by a car.

Two days after I brought Murdock into the shelter were the hottest two days of the summer, with temperatures breaking 100 degrees. I don’t think Murdock would have survived them. And I’ve learned that you can only follow the cat’s desire, which is not necessarily your own. Murdock wanted help, she needed help. Sadly, a peaceful death is all we could offer her.

Before this, I was just a simple volunteer—I came in, had fun with the animals, and left each week happy to have helped.

But everything changed the moment Murdock had to be put to sleep. I had become invested in something that didn’t work out. And not just something, a living creature, who despite my hopes and dreams for a better life for her, was unable to make it. It crushed me. But then Patti was there to pick up the pieces, and with her triumph I learned exactly what it’s like to work in the field of animal rescue.

There are hard times. But there are good times, too. And you need both in order to keep on fighting.

Patti is my triumph. And although I’ll never know what became of her, or how she’s doing now, a year later, I hold onto the hope that she’s living a better life. And that the little but constant encouragement I gave her is what helped her find happiness.

Photo by Christine Barton.

11 Replies to “What I Owe to a Cat Named Patti”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences with Patti and Murdock. Although, on one level, we recognize all we can do for an animal is mercifully put an end to their suffering, it still hurts when the animal is one that we’ve personally interacted with. I hope it never gets easier for us to make those decisions – that we never lose our humanity. Your story is particularly poignant, coming shortly after I received word that two cats I had worked with had to be PTS because of kidney failure … and two other cats I had worked with had been adopted.

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I cried several times. I volunteer at the local shelter from time to time. Even though, it’s a no kill shelter, the sad stories of some of the animals still tear me up regularly.

  3. Patti resembles my cat – in looks and behaviour – initial shyness, very cautious approach to play. So nice to read, she found a forever home now. And – I adopted my Kessy last year too.
    So much for the good story.
    The lady from my cat shelter told me a sad story, too, concerning the sister of Kessy: She looked like Kessy (or like Patty) and had found what was to be meant a forever home – and then the husband with whom she had bonded died. From that day on the sister of my cat was so devastated, she started not to use her litter box. She had to return to a foster place of the cat shelter organisation and was as shy as ever. I just hope she had Patti’s luck. I could not take her, too, not in a rented appartement, when you are unsure if the litter box is used properly. (Besides – two are ok, three are a crowd. No more cats than I got hands to caress them.)
    This is not as sad as the story of Murdock, as there is still hope for that cat, while Murdock had to be euthanized. When they are so ill, we’ve got to let them go. Even make them go, to end the suffering. Still it brings tears to my eyes. Every time I hear that about a cat. Since the ill keep accumulating in cat shelter organisations, every volunteer working there has my deepest respect, as they encounter euthanasie a lot more often than me – or any ‘normal’ cat owner. (There is nothing like a ‘normal’ cat owner, is there?)

  4. I’m wiping my tears. There’s been some unnecessary drama I’ve encountered where I’ve been volunteering. All I can do in my heart of hearts is know that when I get to be there with the cats I can love the ones who are ready to receive the love I have to give them. That’s all I can do. The bad stuff happening with the humans is on their shoulders and not part of me. Or the cats. Yet they are there. Thank you for sharing your AMAZING talents and blessing others with sharing it.

    1. Yes, it’s all about the cats, not the people! If you can, find a couple other volunteers at your shelter to chat with and form a “group”. I find it’s very helpful to have people around who are going through the same experience 🙂

      1. That’s an awesome idea…if only I could. This place is run…how shall I say? Differently than I imagined. There’s staff/volunteers. Big difference. The lines don’t seem to cross in my opinion from what I’ve observed so far. 😦 But I’m not giving up!

      2. I think many shelters are run that way. Even at the ARL, there have been times when the volunteers and staff have seemed worlds apart. But after slowly building up a group (exchanging emails with other volunteers seems to be the easiest way to do it) and sharing information about cats and other shelter issues, it becomes much easier to bridge the gap!

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