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The Day I Killed A Cat

In July 2003, my dog Jordan was killed by a car (Irresponsible People: Hit And Run). It’s been almost 12 years since then, and the pain of that awful day - that awful moment - is still strong in my heart and mind.

In July 2015 I found myself on the other side of this terrible equation. This time, I was not the person whose animal had been killed by a car…I was the person who killed an animal with my car. A major difference was that this time it was NOT a hit and run - unlike the vile person who killed my Jordan and just drove off, I stopped.

That Horrible Moment

It happened like this:

While driving to work and taking the same route I always take, I heard a loud BUMP at the front of my car. Odd, I thought, as I didn’t see an object on the road.

As I continued to drive, I looked in my rear vision mirror - I was curious to see what object could have been completely invisible, but made such a thud when it came into contact with my car. To my horror, I saw a cat writhing on the road, struggling to get up, but unable to.

I quickly parked my car, and jumped out. A man happened to be crossing the road at the time, so I asked him if he recognised the cat. As we both hurried towards the cat (who, I was soon to discover, was called Missy), the man told me where he thought she lived.

This kind young man and I crouched down next to Missy. There was not a mark on her, but she was clearly dead.

Taking Missy Home

The man, who introduced himself as Kyle, stayed with Missy while I raced back to my car to get a towel. I soon returned to wrap Missy up, and Kyle was nice enough to accompany me to the house where he thought she lived.

My pulse was racing, and I felt sick and panicky as we waited. I knocked a few times, but it seemed that there was no one home. Kyle and I started to walk away.

I decided that I would take Missy with me to class: I’d keep her wrapped in the towel, and then go back to the house and knock on the door again once class was finished. If my employers didn’t like this, bad luck, I thought - I was NOT going to leave Missy. It was bad enough that she’d died a violent death, alone on the road; I wasn’t going to disrespect her by just dumping her body on a doorstep, hoping it was her home.

The Door Opens

As all this was going through my mind, there was movement behind the front door. Someone was home! The panic rose in me once more - I was about to tell someone that I’d killed their cat. The words "I can’t believe this is happening, I can't believe this is happening, I can't believe this is happening" kept running over and over again in my mind.

An elderly woman opened the door.

“Is this your cat?” I asked her. She looked at the cat’s face.
“Yes,” the woman answered. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s dead,” I said, as gently as I could.
“This can’t be my cat,” the woman said, denial already setting in.
“Are you sure?” I asked, as I opened up the towel for her to see Missy’s entire body.
“Yes, it is her,” the woman said. She stared at Missy. “What happened?”
“There was an accident,” Kyle said, before I could say anything.
“An accident?” the woman said. “But she’s not dead. She can’t be dead - her eyes are open. Why are her eyes open?”
“That’s just what happens when animals die,” Kyle told her.
“I’m very sorry,” I said.
“What do I do now?” she asked.

I explained that she had to decide if she wanted to bury Missy in the backyard or have her cremated. I advised that she talk to her vet about the options. She told us that she didn’t know the vet’s number, but that her daughter would be home soon and she could call the vet.

I asked if she had something that she wanted to wrap Missy in, and she went inside to look. While she was gone, I thanked Kyle for staying with me - I was so grateful for his presence throughout all of this.

The woman came back with a towel, and we went to the sofa to transfer Missy from my towel to hers. I covered Missy’s body, but left her head uncovered. It’s strange that, knowing she was dead, I behaved as though she was sleeping - tucking the towel around her, and nestling her amongst the cushions.

The woman told us that her daughter would be back in about an hour, and I asked if I could come back after my class. She told me I could. I also asked if I could leave my phone number for her daughter to call me, and she found paper and pen for me to write down my number.

Before we left, I glanced over at Missy, and saw that her tail was hanging out of the towel. I went over to tuck it in.

Confession

Out in the street, I thanked Kyle once more for being there. He had no obligation to stay with me, but he had stuck around - clear display of what a good-hearted young man he was. I expressed guilt that I hadn’t made it clear to the woman that it was my car that caused the accident - my car that had hit and killed Missy.

“I honestly didn’t know how to say it,” I said to Kyle. “It was hard enough convincing her that poor Missy was dead, let alone explaining that it was me - the person standing in front of her holding her dead cat - who’d caused her death. I’ll make it clear to her when I come back.”

Kyle and I parted, and I went to teach my class.

After class (somehow I made it through!) I headed back to the woman’s house. The woman’s daughter had already been and gone, and was now at the vet’s with her two distraught sons and Missy.

The woman started to talk about what had happened to Missy, and about the car that hit her.

“My car,” I said, looking the woman straight in the eyes. “It was my car that hit her.”

Her eyes changed immediately when I said those words. Her eyes changed from wondering (“How did this happen?”) to realisation (“You monster! YOU did this!”). In that split second, I went from being the witness, to being the accused…from ally to enemy.

There was silence.

I didn’t know what to do. What was the respectful thing to do - stay or leave? The woman was a stranger to me, and I had no right to be hanging around her house until her daughter came back…then again, some people want company during these times - even the company of strangers. Maybe even the company of the person who caused the death of their loved one.

I settled on something between staying and leaving: I asked the woman if she wanted me to accompany her for a walk along the street to get out of the house for a short time. She told me no, because of her hip. Fair enough, I thought. More silence. I decided that it was best that I should go, and I asked that she please get her daughter to call me.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, as I departed. She watched me get in the car and drive off. I waved to her and she waved back. I thought of going to Kyle’s house just a few doors up to thank him again, but decided against it. Maybe I’d go to visit him and say thanks once more sometime in the next few weeks.

A Mixture Of Feelings

On and off during that afternoon and into the evening I remembered Missy. I kept picturing her writhing on the road, then quickly coming to stillness, and dying alone on the cold concrete. I could feel the weight of her soft, lifeless body in my arms, and see her unseeing eyes staring at nothing.

I felt a mixture of emotions: numbness, sadness, guilt, and (you might be surprised to know) anger.

The numbness I felt was the natural initial response to a traumatic event. I was understandably sad because Missy’s life had been cut short in a violent and tragic way. I also felt guilty because it was my car that had hit her - I wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol, I hadn’t been speeding, or driving recklessly…but it had been me behind the wheel of the car that had killed her.

And underneath all this, I was angry at the people who were supposed to be Missy’s guardians, for allowing her to wander as she pleased (as so many people with cats foolishly do). Now I was going to feel bad for the rest of my life about my part in Missy’s death - not because I’d done anything wrong, but because I happened to be driving on that street the exact second Missy decided she was going to run cross the road.

The Daughter Calls

I received a phonecall that night from the woman’s daughter.

“Thanks for calling,” I told her. “I’ve been expecting your call.”

She responded by telling me that it took her a while to call me as she’d scrunched up and thrown away my number, and it took some effort to find it again. I interpreted that as her way of telling me that she was angry at me (why else would she scrunch up and throw away someone’s number after an event like this?).

The woman’s daughter asked what had happened, and I recounted what had occurred. She asked me if I hit Missy with the front of the car or the back of the car.

“Well, I can’t be sure," I replied. "Because I didn’t see Missy at all. But I think it was the front of the car, because that’s where the thudding sound seemed to come from.”

Silence.

“I’m just struggling to understand how it is you didn’t see her,” the woman’s daughter said.

Wait a minute, I thought, Is she implying that I had seen Missy and deliberately run her down? I thought that, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t want to add to this woman’s trauma by starting an argument.

It was clear from this question and the comment about scrunching up the paper with my number on it that she wanted someone to blame…and I was the obvious candidate. But, as I said, the last thing I wanted was to add to this woman’s grief by saying anything to that effect.

The Blame Game

It was upsetting that the daughter was trying to put the blame on me, when she was the one who let her cat roam unattended. If the finger of blame was going to point in any direction, it can’t be at the driver who hits the wandering animal. If the blame is to go anywhere, I’m afraid it has to go to the person who’s supposed to care for and protect the animal in question, but who instead let them rove. And I do realise that it’s very common for people to let their cats wander. It’s the accepted thing, you could say. But that doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing or the right thing. (Once upon a time the accepted thing was to hit your children - but just because it was acceptable, didn’t make it right.)

Despite what I thought, my response was this: “Cats are quick.” Which was the truth. Cats are quick, and the fact was that even if I’d seen Missy darting out, I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to stop quickly enough to not hit her. (Another thought I had later, was that cats are very low to the ground and hard to see when sitting in a car - no matter how low the car is. But I didn't think of that until later.)

The thing is, if I’d seen Missy daring out and tried to swerve or screech to a halt, I may have ended up hurting or killing both Missy and myself. And if there had been a pedestrian around I could have hurt or killed them in the process too. Which is not to say that I’m glad that I hit Missy without seeing her; what I am saying is that allowing cats to roam about on their own is dangerous for everyone: animals, drivers, and pedestrians. (This goes for dogs too: although it’s not acceptable to let dogs roam in the way it is to let cats roam, there are a lot of irresponsible people who are lax about keeping their dogs on their property.)

There was more silence after I said, “Cats are quick”. I asked her how her sons were doing. She told me that they were devastated. More awkwardness followed, and the daughter began to bring the phonecall to a close.

“You have my condolences,” were the insufficient words I used to end my side of the conversation. I’d repeatedly said sorry to both the elderly woman in person and also to her daughter over the phone. There was little more I could say, especially as the daughter's aim seemed to be to find a way to blame me.

Anger Takes Over

After the phonecall, the same emotions as before persisted: that mixture of numbness, sadness, guilt, and anger. But now the ratios had changed - my level of anger had increased.

I felt extremely irritated by the daughter’s mission to find a way to blame me. With the increase in anger came an increase in guilt: I wasn’t the one who’d lost a loved one, after all, so how dare I be concerned about my feelings? That’s how one side of me felt. The other side of me felt that I had every right to be angry and be concerned about my own feelings: I hadn’t done anything wrong, but had ended up killing a cat. And I felt terrible about it. But all I’d done was drive to work!

Did I Do All The Right Things?

My partner, John, assured me that I’d done the right things in the aftermath of the accident. I’d stopped, I respectfully wrapped Missy up in a towel, I’d taken Missy to her home, I repeatedly said I was sorry, I’d given the woman my number, I visited afterwards, I admitted my involvement in the accident, I spoke to the daughter when she called…could I have done more? I’m not sure.

Maybe I should have stuck around until the daughter came back from the vet. Or maybe I shouldn’t have gone to work at all, but stayed with the woman until her daughter came home. It’s impossible to know the perfect thing to do in an awful situation, so I doubt anyone truly gets it right. I still don’t feel like what I did and said was enough but, for what it’s worth, I really did do my best.

While I’ll be forever sorry that I ended Missy’s life, she was the victim of an accepted but unwise custom: the custom which dictates that it's okay to let cats wander about on their own. The people who should have been keeping her safe let her run free, and although running free should be the natural state of any animal, it simply cannot be so while they live in amongst the dangers we humans create (like cars) that they can’t be expected to properly understand.

All I can say now is: I’m so sorry, Missy. Rest in peace, sweet girl.

Post Script

I asked my friend, Marika, to read this Dog Blog to give me her opinion. While I'm quite knowledgeable about dogs, I'm almost entirely clueless when it comes to cats (except with regards to the very basics). My friend, Marika, on the other hand, is very knowledgeable about our feline friends, so I wanted her opinion on what I wrote - particularly the part where I criticise people who let their cats wander. I had a niggling feeling that my analysis - while possibly correct in theory - wasn't correct in practice. As you'll see when you read Marika's words below, I was indeed misguided regarding my outright criticism of allowing cats to wander, and I think it's important that Marika's response and counter-argument be read side-by-side with what I wrote above. Here's what Marika had to say: 

<<I was bawling and heartbroken after reading this! Not just for poor Missy, but for you, you poor thing, what an indescribably awful feeling it must have been!

I also felt sick to my stomach that the cat's family blamed you. You went above and beyond to give Missy as much dignity as possible AND to face the family. You kept the cat until someone came to the front door, considered taking Missy to work if no one answered, and even when that lovely guy Kyle gave you an "out", you still made an effort to go back a second time, check on the family, and explain that you were the one who hit Missy. How many people would be that kind and courageous?

Hey, I get that they would be too shocked and heartbroken with grief to think clearly, but blaming you when you were clearly caring and compassionate?

Now with keeping cats indoors...hmmm...this is where it gets tricky. You are, of course, right in theory. But here's the rub: cats, by nature, are hunters and general busybodies. It's not just a need to be active, it's actually programmed into their DNA.

If you got a cat from kittenhood, you would train her to be an indoor cat and/or have an enclosed garden area so that kitty gets fresh air and a runaround without escaping. But then suppose you adopt an adult cat (which, of course, we want to encourage), it depends on what the cat is used to. Usually shelters will include in her profile whether she is indoor only or prefers outside.

Just on that: when adopting a cat, it's important to think about where you live; so, for example, if you live on a very busy or main road with heavy traffic, an indoor cat would be a better choice. But if you end up adopting an outdoor cat, remember cats are truly creatures of habit who (unlike dogs, who live to please their families) live to please themselves.

So if you adopt a cat who needs to go outdoors every now and then, it's best to let them because, believe me, you will not get a moment's peace otherwise. They will make your life a living hell! They will use every form of psychological and physical torture they have in their arsenal: from keeping you awake at night, to tripping you up by running in front of your legs (timing it so that you won't see them until it's too late). And they will NOT give up until they get their way!

On the upside, "outdoor cats" do in fact have road sense. Cats are generally freaked out by loud noises, and don't actually seek to run into traffic. Their preferred method of exploring their neighbourhood is via backyards, climbing fences and trees. I know this from personal experience as well as theory; most of the cats I've known or lived with in my life have been this way - even my cat Maxi, who is not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to certain things, has some road sense.

One thing that I do stipulate is that, unless there is an escape-proof yard, cats should be kept indoors at night, for their own safety - as well as that of native wildlife. Cats do have an innate concept of time so, for example, my Maxi normally sticks to an 8:30pm curfew. This is something that you can get even the staunchest outdoor cat to compromise on.>>

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SAY NO TO PUPPY MILLS! SAY NO TO ANIMALS IN PETSHOPS! SAY NO TO BREEDERS!

Adopt a homeless animal instead - they all deserve a second chance

It's estimated that 130,000 dogs and 60,000 cats are killed every year in Australia because there are not enough homes for them all. And the global numbers amount to millions upon millions every single year.

Puppy mills are a major contributor to the terrible problem of overpopulation. Puppy mills are essentially 'dog factories' where dogs are forced to churn out litter after litter, with no thought for the welfare of the dogs and all thought for profit. The dogs live in appallingly dirty, cramped conditions all their lives, and when they no longer serve their purpose they're killed, dumped or sold to vivisection laboratories.

Petshops fit into the picture because puppy mills are generally where petshops get their animals from. Furthermore, having animals in shop windows encourages impulse purchases, and adding an animal to your family should be a conscious, careful decision - NOT one to be made while shoe shopping.

Breeders contribute enormously to the tragic statistics above too. And it doesn't matter whether they're professional breeders or backyard breeders, and whether they breed for profit or not, because while there are homeless animals sitting on death row in shelters, any and all animal breeding is utterly irresponsible.

Now, here's where you come in. You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. You can either buy animals from puppy mills, petshops or breeders and be part of the problem. Or you can adopt from a shelter or rescue organisation and be part of the solution.

If I haven't convinced you, visit your local shelter to see the homeless animals. Let their innocent faces convince you that adopting is the only responsible choice to make.

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