By Bev Schellenberg
My eight year-old son has wanted a pet since he was old enough to say “dog.” However, our household is already complete with four humans, my daughter’s cat, Angel, and our family dog, Cinnamon, a behaviourally-challenged Miniature Dachshund-Miniature Pinscher cross. With his ninth birthday quickly approaching, my son began pushing the equality principle: Since his sister got a cat for her birthday, where was his pet?
I argued that for his last birthday he’d picked an artificial life form — a Nintendo DS with virtual pet games included — but this was met with resistance. Apparently sleeping with a plastic handheld game is not the same as cuddling up with a warm, fluffy pet. When it became apparent he was angling for a ferret or a Beagle, but would try out anything that breathed, preferably male, and nothing swimming in a tank, I checked out the SPCA website and came up with a plan: we’d foster a pet.
I explained to the kids that the process was simple. We had to fill out the online forms, be accepted as a foster family, and then wait until a foster animal needed a temporary home. My son thought trying out a pet, and potentially rescuing one in the process, was a great idea. The form was simple, although one of the questions was a bit odd: Why did they want to know if we had a separate room for the pet to sleep in? How spacious did they think our house was? Nonetheless, soon both children were contemplating what we’d do if a horse needed shelter, or a goat. I didn’t mention that I hadn’t checked those boxes on the application form. Because my daughter’s present dream is to have a duck for a pet, I had, reluctantly, ticked the bird option. Trying to sway the vote, I made a point of emphasizing the value and cuteness of kittens and cats, and how well a feline would fit into our home.
The phone call from the SPCA was eye-opening and just a bit scary: Marlene, one of the foster coordinators, said we should be prepared for moms and their kittens, or kitten siblings. Suddenly I had visions of being overrun by puddy-tats, a condition only slightly preferable in my mind to a rodent infestation. One or maybe two, sure. More? It was starting to look like a Disney movie, something like 101 Kittens, that I didn’t want my family to be starring in. But we’d signed on, so we waited.
The wait was less than two weeks. Marlene left a message at my work, saying that a part-Siamese, part-Tabby “little girl” had been found in a park in Surrey. She’d been taken home by well-meaning folk who’d unwittingly fed her cow’s milk, not realizing it’s unhealthy for kittens. Fortunately, the rescuers realized something was wrong and took the undernourished kitten to the SPCA, where, after she had been examined and fed properly, the now five-or-six-week-old kitten was healthy enough to be fostered. We had to make the decision that day.
I rushed to the school, interrupted my daughter whose entrepreneurial project had just culminated in her selling-out of the 27 kitten stuffies she and I had made, and confirmed she’d be okay with a real live kitten joining us. I also asked my son, who initially, confused by his sister’s project, wasn’t sure whether I was talking about a stuffed or real kitten. He said he preferred a boy cat, but was okay fostering a girl. I then arranged with Marlene to pick up up the kitten, whom she described as “really vocal.” After three weeks, we’d have the choice to keep the kitten; otherwise, she’d be put on the kitten adoption list. I told my son if he wanted to keep her, he could.
Driving home from the SPCA, as I glanced at my glowing son and the tiny fluff ball asleep in his lap, I noted that both had the same sky blue eyes. Surely they were meant for each other.
We moved Harmony into my son’s room, since she was his responsibility. Granted, the kitten was a lot of work for a boy whose tasks had thus far been limited to homework, piano practice, and basic household chores. Harmony needed to be fed five times a day, and weighed at the end of each day. Still, I wasn’t expecting his response. Soon after she moved into his bedroom, he moved out. Describing Harmony as “too busy,” he said he couldn’t take her being up at all hours of the night, whining and crying. He moved into the master bedroom.
It’s true; she was a very loud cat, which was compounded by Cinnamon, the dog, whining at the door of the bedroom to be let in. Angel, on the other hand, avoided the bedroom entirely. And the culture of our home began to shift. Suddenly it was no longer a house of humans, but of creatures. There was an additional litter box. We’d lost the use of one room. It became apparent that Harmony — possibly ill-named — had been the tipping point.
Over the next three weeks, we drove her back to the SPCA for two sets of booster shots and three deworming treatments. Healthy, she roamed the house. The two cats agreed to ignore each other, but Harmony and Cinnamon played themselves tired every day. She even appeared to enjoy playing games, like “navy men,” with my son.
The phone call from the SPCA came. We had to decide whether to keep Harmony or put her up for adoption. My son and I had a long, tough discussion. “It’s like my head and my heart are fighting,” he said, “and I don’t know what to listen to.” Ultimately, it came down to the fact that the kitten was fun, but he felt she was too much work and too disruptive. Harmony would be moving on.
The moment Harmony appeared on the SPCA adoption site, calls started to come in from prospective “parents.” Giving her to someone else was going to be difficult, though, especially for my daughter. Initially, she planned a defensive maneuver: “We’ll tell them [the adoptive couple] about how she scratches our hands, and chews on us, and peed in the corner by the chesterfield for awhile.”
Talking to the coordinator helped; she assured us that farewell tears were common, especially for first-time foster families. By the time we’d collected the bed, blanket, hot water bottle, carrying case, and toy to return to the foster program, we were all more prepared.
The adoptive couple called us an hour in advance to see if we could come early, and then met us in the SPCA parking lot, anxious to see their new family member. By the time we got into the office, I couldn’t help but feel, just a little, like I was handing over a member of our family to another family, hoping we were making the right choice. We explained that she liked to sleep covered in a blanket, that she got along especially well with dogs but only tolerated cats, and that she was very vocal.
The tears came after we left the SPCA office, empty-handed. They came when we returned home and Cinnamon searched for Harmony. They came when my son returned to his quiet room.
I had a good laugh, though, when I received an unexpected email a week later from Marlene, the coordinator. Harmony is doing well, she wrote, and the family is thrilled with her. However, somehow, someone made a mistake: Harmony isn’t a girl after all. Actually, she’s a boy. But, she hastened to add, the family still wants him.
Good for you, Harmony, I thought. Now give them their bedroom back.