Photo by Teri Ann Oursler, DVM
On a bitterly cold Valentine’s Day in 1996, I first saw Van Gogh and lost my heart. Unloved by someone, he’d apparently been dumped in the middle of a Wyoming winter.
I’d just picked up my oldest son at daycare and my van was overflowing as usual, as I took my 5-week-old baby, two dogs and a cat to work with me every day. We were sitting at a stop sign when a white cat stumbled across the road. His head was bleeding and he was weaving as he walked. I presumed he’d been hit by a car and of course I set out to rescue him. He was friendly and came when I called “kitty, kitty, kitty.” I picked him up with no problem.
Thinking he probably belonged to someone at one of the three houses on the corner, I started knocking on doors. A gentleman told me someone had abandoned the white cat two or three years previously and I could have him. I couldn't leave him, but I knew better than to put an unknown cat into my van with the dogs, cat and kids. I was standing there thinking about what to do when the cat bolted out of my arms. As he headed toward the ditch, he stopped and looked back at me for several long seconds. His stare was penetrating; he was trying to send me a message.
After quickly dropping off my menagerie, I hurried back to the clinic for a carrier. When I got back to the corner, there was no sign of him although I called and called.
In a normal day, I drove through that intersection twice a day, but for the next 2 weeks, I practically haunted it, driving through it far more than two times a day. I knew the cat might have died after being hit by the car, but I could not quit looking. One terrible time, I came across what I thought were his remains but it was white feathers, not fur.
Finally, two weeks after Valentine’s Day, I saw him. The white cat was sitting on the farmer’s black snow blower trying to get warm. It had been an unusually cold February; the previous night it was 40 below and it was 20 below at noon when I spotted him shivering in the winter sun. I slammed on the brakes and jumped out. Once again, he let me pick him up and since this time the number of bodies in my car was greatly reduced, I felt it was safe to bring him along without a carrier. We got in the van, and he jumped up on the dash where the defroster blew the warmest air.
At the clinic, I ran in and shouted to my technician to get a carrier. I was worried about getting him out of a car on a busy street, but my worry was needless as he was easy to get out of the car.
Luckily business was a little slow that day because taking care of him took up most of it. He was an unneutered male, mostly white with blue eyes, but his ears were flame colored, as well as most of his face. Bloody scabs were in front of both ears, where he’d scratched at his severe ear mite infection. His ears were frostbitten and deformed, thick and folded over. His face bore many scars from fighting. He was missing a notch out of one nostril, but it was healed. His feet and the end of his tail were frost bitten, with about two inches of the tail mummified. His eyes constantly moved from side to side (called horizontal nystagmus), probably the result of a blow to the head or the severe ear mite infection.
We anesthetized him to clean up his wounds, get rid of the ear mites, and neuter him. Neither his ears nor tail needed amputation. Afterwards, we watched him to make sure he was not in pain or bleeding, and that his feet were not becoming infected.
For the next 24 hours, I deluded myself into believing we would find him a home. By the second day, it was evident that parting was just not to be. We all fell in love with the tattered guy. We tossed around different names, especially fighter’s names, since the cat had definitely been in a lot of cat fights. With those folded, thickened and scarred ears, we finally settled on Van Gogh, and it was the perfect name as his ears were his most noticeable feature. Lots of people asked if he was a Scottish Fold and my answer was always, ‘No, he's a Wyoming Cold.”
After sloughing some frostbitten skin, the pads of his feet finally healed. The end of his tail eventually fell off, although that took several months. His eyes still shifted from side to side all the time, with some days worse than others, and you always wondered just how much he could see and how many of each!
Van Gogh liked clinic life, basking in all the attention and soaking up all the warmth he could get. In the winter he would lie on the heat vent. Eventually he spent his days directing surgery, helping clients write checks (he loved to rub his face on their pen as they wrote) and playing with any string or zipper pull dangling off their jackets. He greeted all patients as they came in. He would chase invisible mice up and down the hall and, of course, he always caught them! He could be found most afternoons in his cup bed, which was on one of the chairs in the reception area, catching up on his sleep. His morning ritual was to park on the treatment table so we could give him early morning loves, which was a great start to not only his day, but ours!
In addition to his above clinic duties, Van Gogh helped to raise many orphan kittens over the years. He was such a gentle cat with those ruffian kittens! Van Gogh also loved his fellow clinic cats, which was great since he was not heavily into grooming himself, probably due to his former wild lifestyle. The clinic cats groomed him every day, although some days we would have to give up and bathe, brush and vacuum him to help keep him clean. This occurred most often in the spring and summer when he roamed the clinic’s fenced back yard and rolled in the dirt. We call this “farming for cats.”
Van Gogh was our mascot for over 10 years. The newspaper even published a story about him. Clients loved to come in and pet him – and of course he just gloried in the attention. If you sat down, you’d find Van Gogh in your lap, preferring to be held over your shoulder like a baby.
Van Gogh’s terrible early life was a great lesson for children, who learned from him why it was cruel to abandon animals. Van Gogh and I went to a nearby elementary school several times a year to tell his story. At kindergarten classes; we would sit in a circle and he would walk from one child to the next, allowing everyone to pet him.
I explained that when Van Gogh was a kitten, he must have been loved and treated gently or he would never be so loving now. Someone violated his trust when they dumped him on that lonely road to fend for himself. He had given them his undying devotion; they gave him not a second thought. It was amazing how those kids understood the cruelty involved.
Not only did Van Gogh meet kindergartners, but first graders came to the clinic for tours several times a year. Van Gogh followed them from room to room, allowing unlimited petting. When the kids got to the treatment area, he set himself up on the treatment table so everyone could pet him. We used the stethoscope so they could listen to his heart, but it was always futile because all that could be heard was his purring. But then again, that really was listening to Van Gogh’s heart.
Van Gogh died nearly a decade after that Valentine’s Day. I euthanized him after a year's treatment for kidney failure. For the next year, I was constantly seeing him out of the corner of my eye. I really do think he was there, still directing surgery, catching invisible mice, and helping clients. Love works that way, and that’s why we celebrate it.
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email email@example.com.