Cats and Paradise – Sliema, Malta

Cats and Paradise

Sliema, Malta

little Fiona herself in her new home
little Fiona herself in her new home
Everyone talks about paradise – that dangerous, perfect utopian El Dorado existing only in our minds as hope. We sketch pictures in our minds of a clear sea that matches the sky in a flawless blending of blue; palm trees, flowers blossoming reds, pinks, oranges; fancy umbrellas with two beach towels dotting the starlight white sand; an island secret to most and loved by only the luckiest ones. Paradise – it’s never our home, it’s just an escape. Do people really want paradise? Do we really want everything we’ve desired since we knew how to snap photographs of distant scenes and change our realities? What we know becomes that which bores us, and what we desire is what we don’t have.

I considered this idea during the first few weeks of our international adventure while watching a snowy white cat in the window directly across from our first room in the Days Inn hotel (we were working as foreign camp counselors at an English school on the island). The beige building across from our window was a bustle of bodies doing laundry, cooking, knitting, and chatting each time we checked to see what our neighbors were doing. The white cat, however, was doing exactly the same thing my blue-eyed Siamese does frequently and noncommittally at home – nothing. Just sitting, paws propped in the dusty window, watching. Curled into a comfortable, warm, stretched, contented ball, eyes closed, paws still, body along the length of the colored balcony, the cat just sat. Every single time that I checked.

Being content and finding happiness: it’s the same concept that brought me to foreign language, comparative literature, traveling. Something the humanities thrive on and something the sciences deny. Something so uniquely human, something so close to us that we hardly understand it ourselves, it’s culture that makes us and breaks us. How does this happen? I looked at the lives of Maltese, American, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Norwegian, and found merely countries. In their own ways, they adopted a universal routine, a cuisine, an art, a language, a dress, and a music, just for themselves.

And why? Are they merely just blatant expressions of mankind’s eternal woes and problems, usually stemmed from love, emotion, the human experience? Animals behave in relatively the same manner throughout history and country, plants grow, mammals procreate, illness consumes, evolution happens…and then there are humans. Humans sing, dance, write, laugh, adorn and decorate their bodies. Even the millions of ways I’ve seen body alteration associated with acceptance, normalcy, rebellion, eroticism, conformity, or organization, I can’t begin to imagine where these ideas came from. Cats, all animals but ourselves really, don’t find this necessary. Perhaps they don’t see the point in self-expression to a listening world, or perhaps they’ve already achieved a state of perfection. That white cat in the window looked entirely satisfied every time I peeked from my window while his owners argued angrily, called the police on our students, threw towels over their windows so we couldn’t see inside, and spoke in unhappy voices. What were they missing from their lives that their cat had already found?

Marta's volunteer mission underway
Marta’s volunteer mission underway
Philosophy about animals is sporadic and uncensored. In the first place, there are the stark animal-activists, the vegan existentialists who thrive on public demonstrations and exposing the horrors and the cruelty of the meat-packing industry. This is not altogether wrong, except it seems as if they accomplish very little. There are those who hunt and who revere the smell of animals like our animalistic nature intended us to do. There are taboos specific to every culture. What is strictly forbidden can become a delicate desert. Trash becomes treasure. Every attitude, every peacemaking effort with animals, every call to action, is a response from our supposed mindset that we have the ability to control and decide for animals.

It makes me wonder, therefore, how animals perceive home. How they perceive life, love, experience, and death. Is it all completely foreign to them, like our physical sense of awareness until we are truly acute enough to sense ourselves? It could be that some animals have more a sense of place than others; that could also be, however, my inclination to correlate cute, fuzzy paws with home and weird, scaly snakes and bug-eyed fish with something else. Whatever the case, I surely think for any animal that curled in a warm lap would be better than crouched in soot underneath a cooling car.

However, we know that where there are rags, there are riches. In addition to the white ball of fluff nestled in the window, we soon realized that a tiny orange kitten was quietly stalking the borders of our hotel. She was so tiny, in fact, that curling your fingers into an “O” around her belly would still leave room for her torso to squirm around. She was a calico feline – the utmost sort of mixed cat-with a bright shiny face, matted orange fur, and green eyes. Her orange fur, discolored by ash, dirt, dust, and soot, was caked in mud and matted thick. Her eyes, alert and astonishing, followed movement with the speed of a cheetah, fast and furious. Why this tiny treasure had decided to stalk the Days Inn was beyond me; however, as she attacked the unidentifiable rubber meat we donated from our dinners as I would a homemade chocolate cake, I’d say she had her hotels covered.

It was Magda’s idea, of course, to put the meat-products to good use by donating it to the worthiest cause we could find. She, my friend and co-worker from the Netherlands, was an animal lover so devoted to her cause that she couldn’t leave the hotel without stashing a few scraps for cats she met along the way. A homeless kitten was perhaps the most worthy and pitiful cause on the market, having already plucked out our heart strings like a violent violinist in concert. Her generosity towards animals, as sweet as it was, was fierce and passionate, just like her personality. I was beginning to understand that her complex personality stemmed from a lifetime of animal loves, cats in particular.

Every morning I found her caressing her little friend, stroking her matted fur and cooing in her ears. The little kitten devoured the affection about as much as she did the chewy meat-products we piled for her each evening after dinner. She would wind her emaciated tail around Magda’s legs and gallop towards her each time she noticed her freckled-face benefactor approaching. Soon after, I fell for our orange feline too.

After we discovered that she was pregnant, Magda decided to move in and implement some kind of intervention tactic. This cat was now her cause; a friendly challenge. Besides, our tiny feline was in no condition to bear children. As Magda said, “I’m not going to let some macho chauvinistic male-cat rapist get away with causing these teenage pregnancies!”

Magda, as I’d also discovered, had also recently met Marta, who we aptly dubbed the Cat Lady, a nice-looking Audrey Hepburn sort in her day. She lived around the corner from the Days Inn and voluntarily feeds and houses 42 counted cats. The uncounted ones, the ones still without identity but yet not without mouths, were still to be numbered. Her house swarmed with cats like ants on a dropped gumball. Her intuition with cats and her devotion towards them was the perfect answer for a group of foreign cat-evangelists who had decided to save the increasing homeless population on the Maltese Islands.

One morning soon after, we devised a way for Magda to skip the morning duties in an effort to allow her adequate time to catch the cat. We flubbed an excuse that she wasn’t feeling well and that we would cover for her, so that she could pioneer the saving of the first Maltese cat.

After loading the kids onto the bus, Magda crept from the confines of the Days Inn with bait in tow – last night’s fish in mayonnaise. A quite smelly, decrepit sort of meal, yet perfect for luring a cat to an unexpected destiny. I think it’s like the circle of life – maggots eat trash, cats eat food humans wouldn’t touch, we daintily dash our perfectly-arranged dishes with salts and spices.

the international team (author is 2nd from right on bottom)
the international team (author is 2nd from right on bottom)
As if right on cue, our little friend snagged the fish and found herself holed up in a hospital awaiting an abortion. Six tiny kittens were aborted that morning in an effort to save just one, and one little kitten found herself a permanent name. Magda returned with Fiona Melita Joy Guminska, a disheveled, tired, emaciated mother, befriended by our animal-rights activist and pitied by everyone in the Days Inn vicinity. The Cat-Lady temporarily provided housing for little Fiona, and Magda applied for her passport.

In less than a few weeks’ time, a filthy, starving mother-to-be became a beloved pet on a vacation. And in less than a few months’ time, Magda had established Kitty Appeal, a non-profit rescue organization dedicated to the care and adoption of the thousands of homeless Maltese cats.