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Grayush: The Pavarotti of Cats

excerpt from
"My Street Cats" by Raphaella Bilski

About ten years ago, right after our pergola and the cat pergola were built, Little Mama gave birth in one of the neighborhood gardens. A week later, Little Mama moved the four kittens that had survived into our famous basement with a door opening onto the cat pergola. As I've already described, the basement is located about five feet underground, so the kittens were safely hidden deep in the earth. Just to remind readers, the basement door is usually closed but not locked. To get her kittens down the hole, a mother had to push the door firmly with her front legs or her entire body, and this was probably what Little Mama did. Afterward, in order to nurse the kittens, the mother needs to go down into the basement herself, stay there with the kittens, and then emerge from the basement to get a breath of fresh air.

I found out that there were kittens in the basement when I heard cries emerge from its depths one morning. I went outside and saw that the basement door was a little ajar and I immediately moved away. I didn't want to fling open the door to see who was there lest I frighten the mother and her kittens. At first I didn't know who the mother was, but after waiting patiently beside the large window facing the cat pergola, I saw Little Mama jump into the basement.

I was relieved because Little Mama was one of the rare females that let me touch her and didn't run away. I thought that if she were to need help with the kittens, she would cooperate. For three weeks, it was business as usual: Little Mama went down into the basement several times a day, fed and bathed the kittens, and later she went up to the cat pergola and lay in one of the cat beds or in the sun, where she had clear sight of the basement.

However, it seemed that feeding four kittens was hard for Little Mama, because after three weeks I began to hear cries once again emerge from the basement. This time the cries didn't stop. I went outside to see what was happening and saw Little Mama lying in the sun, ignoring the cries. I gathered my courage and opened the basement door. Little Mama didn't move an inch. I took one more step and climbed down into the basement. I was greeted by the sight of a bundle of four kittens lying on top of each other. I picked them up and examined each kitten. They didn't appear to be sick, but they were very small. I climbed out of the basement, brought up one kitten after another, and fed them outside. At such a young age, they ate baby formula and a little bit of special meat I prepared for kittens.

When I finished feeding the four kittens for the first time, Little Mama came over and rubbed up against me, as if in gratitude. I stroked her a few times and then she jumped back into the basement, carried her kittens back into their dark home, and stayed with them down there for quite some time.

And so, for the next few weeks, Little Mama and I continued the joint task of feeding the kittens. I fed them outside because I wanted to bring them out of the darkness, but each time Little Mama brought them back down into the basement. I waited for Little Mama to decide that it was time for them to emerge once and for all. The kittens remained small and weren't yet big enough to be inoculated.

One morning, when I went down into the basement to bring the kittens up for their meal-by now they were eating more of the special meat I prepared-I saw that two of them were suffering from eye infections. From experience, I knew that Little Mama and I, not to mention the kittens, were heading for trouble.

And so the routine continued. Every day, three times a day, I fed and administered medicine to the four kittens. Finally, I decided that the dark basement wasn't doing them any good and I took the initiative to bring the four kittens into the cat pergola and firmly shut the basement door so Little Mama wouldn't be able to bring them back down into the darkness. The kittens remained outside and the sun helped at least two of them; they started showing signs of improvement. Their eyes opened, they ate more, and they even began to play. The other two, the weakest of the four, slowly faded away despite all my efforts. I couldn't save them.

With two kittens left, one gray all over and the other a tabby, Little Mama redoubled her efforts to care for them. They were still nursing, but they received most of their food from me. When they were three months old the tabby vanished, no one knows where. Only the gray kitten remained. Grayush grew and developed but remained a relatively small cat. He suffered almost every possible affliction. One time he developed a rash and his whole body was covered with sores, which remained with him throughout most of his nine years. The sores would disappear for a while and then return. As he grew older, the sores appeared less frequently. Grayush also developed allergic rhinitis. He would constantly sneeze and he suffered from a runny nose and sometimes a cough. The amount of medicine that Grayush consumed during the nine years he lived was greater than the total amount of medicine I gave all the other cats in my community.

To put it bluntly, in addition to being weak, Grayush was a decidedly unattractive male. I didn't foresee any brilliant future for him, but I hoped that the leader of the community wouldn't view him as a threat and would refrain from chasing him away. And that's just what happened; Grayush remained a permanent resident in the cat pergola and in the yard.

Grayush
One night, when he was three years old, I heard magnificent singing coming from the yard. It took me a moment or two to realize that this was a cat's mating call. Until that evening, I had never heard such singing before, and no other cat has managed to sing so beautifully since. I tried to guess which cat possessed this fantastic talent. Only a few days later, when I saw Grayush sitting on a tree branch producing melodious sounds, did I realize that this beloved cat of mine, despite and perhaps because he was so wretched, was in fact not miserable at all! As readers probably know, mating calls are extremely significant for females being courted. They also matter greatly when a male faces another male to fight for a desired female.

What Grayush lacked in appearance, he made up for with his magnificent singing. The result was that after Stripy's reign as leader of the community ended, Grayush became the leader and held the post for two years. The cats preferred him to a large and beautiful male that came from outside the community and wanted to take on the leadership after Stripy passed away. Grayush did nothing but raise his voice in song. After he did that a few times, the strange cat gave up and left the stage to Grayush. All the residents of the yard- the older females, the kittens, and the young males that made up the leader's "warm-up act"- accepted Grayush's leadership with love. It was clear that his voice cast a spell over them all. Since Grayush wasn't at all violent, his leadership was the most peaceful reign the community had ever experienced. Cats from outside the community that tried to usurp his place gave up once they heard him sing. Sometimes the entire community would sit and listen to Grayush vocalize and sing.

Grayush guided the community's life peacefully, cooperating fully with me. Our relationship, which we'd had since his kittenhood, remained very close. He came to me every morning when I went out into the yard, and he let me know if there was a problem with one of the cats-for example, if a cat had been in an accident, or if there was a new litter and the mother couldn't find a good spot for them. Grayush had various methods of letting me know when problems arose. Either he would lead me to the problem, like a sick kitten, or he would stand next to the problem, such as a new litter or a confused mother, and emit special sounds and make sure I came over. Afterward getting my attention he wouldn't leave my side until I adequately addressed the problem. In this way from a weak and incredibly ugly cat there arose an intelligent and empathic leader.

There were many things that Grayush learned on his own, likely because he had been alone for most of his kittenhood. He learned to keep himself entertained by acquiring new skills. For example, when he was little, he didn't join the gang that tried to learn how to climb up onto the roof of the pergola. But when he was one year old, he tested his strength by climbing up the tree next to the pergola and then jumped from the tree to the roof of the pergola. The climb was the relatively easy part for him, as it was for most cats. The problem, as I've said before, was getting down from the roof, because the only way to do so was while facing down and not being able to judge the distance to the ground below. Grayush tried to gather his courage and jump from the roof to the tree. He assumed a jumping position several times, and at the very last minute he got spooked and changed his mind. He began investigating other possibilities and decided that it might be possible to get down from the pergola without looking down by using the wooden beams that were part of the pergola walls. As readers have seen, many cats used this method. He began descending backward until he finally reached the ground, trembling with fear. The next day he successfully climbed up to the roof again, and once more tried to gather his courage to descend via the tree. But he got spooked again. Since I knew from the previous day that he had an alternative way down, I didn't worry that he would be stranded on the roof for long. Indeed, once he realized that he still wasn't brave enough to descend in a way befitting a cat, as was the method employed by many cats in the yard, he once again used the beams to get down. The story repeated itself daily and I often got to see how Grayush tried to overcome his fear and jump to the tree but balked at the last moment.

One day I was sitting in the study next to the kitchen when I heard strange and unfamiliar cries. I immediately ran to the large window overlooking the cat pergola. I saw Grayush sitting in a tree facing down and his tail held high. I realized that he had finally found his courage and jumped into the tree. He lingered there only to let everyone know that he had succeeded. This was before he started singing with his amazing voice. But the sounds that came out of his mouth were cries of joy or victory and they were also pleasing to the ear.

In time, when Grayush became the leader, he taught the art of climbing to kittens that struggled to climb onto the roof of the pergola, and particularly those who struggled to climb back down. I noticed that he always taught them both methods of descent.

Grayush was also a different leader from his predecessor when it came to feeding arrangements. He was more like Nonny, who personally took care of kittens during mealtimes. Grayush helped weak cats reach food first. He did this in his own gentle and considerate way. He would walk with a weak or scared kitten toward one of the plates, and with determination, but without any violence, he would push away a big fat cat from its spot near the plate and make room for the weakling.

It was evident that Grayush remembered his own hardships as a lonely kitten and whenever he saw a cat standing by itself in the yard or in the cat pergola, he would approach it and start to play. More than once, I saw Grayush running around with a kitten in search of a beetle or a lizard as he encouraged the kitten to try to catch the bug. They wouldn't kill it, but play with it as if it were a ball.

Grayush kept his position as leader for two years until he was seven years old. Afterward he decided for himself that being a leader was too difficult for him. His colds became more frequent and he often required medical attention and several days in a warm bed to recuperate.

With grace, he simply stepped down from his role as the leader of the community.

But since Grayush continued to sing magnificently even though he was no longer the leader, a few months passed before another cat dared take up his position. His successor was a male from a nearby territory that looked like a lion, hence his name, Leo.

For two more years, Grayush continued to live a comfortable and pleasant life. Leo treated him with respect, and he was surrounded by adult cats and kittens that loved him and frequently rubbed up against him. During those years he became close friends with Beauty and Colomina, cats that, like him, were also in retirement: he from his role as leader and they from their role as mothers. It was touching to see two or three of my "old folks" rubbing against each other in the sun, accompanying one another along the path leading to nearby houses, or eating together from the same plate.

It was the first time my female cats stopped giving birth because of old age rather than disease, an accident, or being spayed. And it was also the first time a leader of the community continued to live there after his term had ended. Because they were retired, the friendship between these three cats was very special and contained elements of shared idleness and mutual assistance, like guarding food.

I witnessed a similar friendship between old cats only between Kitsushi and Geezer. As I mentioned, Kitsushi left the territory once she stopped giving birth and Geezer left with her, or so I guessed, because he disappeared and made way for Nonny. Two years after the couple left I saw them together in the beautiful garden of close friends of mine. It turned out that I was right and the two had chosen to grow old together. It was such a touching sight that even my husband, who rarely shows emotion, was moved. Geezer looked sick and weak and Kitsushi hadn't changed a bit. When they came to me as adults, I had no idea how old they were, but it was clear to me that Geezer was at least ten years old.

The following summer Geezer's body was discovered in one of my neighbor's gardens. The municipal veterinarian who came to examine the body said that he had died of old age. As I've already mentioned, I continued to see Kitsushi by herself in my friends' garden until she disappeared.

When Grayush was nine years old, he suffered from a runny nose and began coughing quite frequently. No medicine could cure him, and his stomach became strangely bloated.

When the cat catcher came around to trap cats to be neutered or spayed, I asked him to catch Grayush and to have him examined at the animal hospital, not neutered. Grayush was examined and I was told that his overall condition wasn't too bad given his age, but that his runny nose had become chronic and couldn't be treated. As for the swelling in his stomach, I was told the tests that they'd managed to run showed nothing. But Grayush's condition worsened and his stomach became so distended that he looked pregnant.

I faced a difficult dilemma. Should I take Grayush to the vet once more to have him thoroughly examined, or let him live out the remainder of his days in his territory? It was a hard decision to make. Despite what I'd been told by the animal hospital, my conscience wouldn't rest and kept bugging me to bring Grayush to the veterinarian again.

To this day I still don't know whether I made the right decision or not, but Grayush helped me make it. In spite of his runny nose and bloated stomach, he continued to live a regular life. He ran and jumped, which made me put off the visit to the veterinarian.

And then, all at once, I saw that Grayush stopped jumping onto tall objects and that he was having a hard time jumping over the fence in the yard. He also started drinking a lot. It seemed to me that his condition was deteriorating by the day. I could no longer hesitate. I took the cage and without a fuss put Grayush inside it. He was simply too weak and powerless to resist. I drove with him straight to our relatively new veterinarian, the one who didn't put animals to sleep unless he was convinced that they were beyond saving. He examined Grayush and determined that the cat should be left at the clinic to undergo more thorough tests.

Grayush remained there for more tests and after a few days, the veterinarian called to say that Grayush's kidneys were damaged. This meant that he could only live for an indefinite period of time in a cage while connected to an IV. There was no way to manage the condition, let alone cure it. It wasn't clear how long he would live in the cage. I looked at Grayush, who at nine and a half years of age found himself in a cage with an IV. I saw a cat dejected by his situation. Again I didn't know what to do. Should I prolong his life, though it wasn't clear for how long-probably days, or at best, weeks-by keeping him locked up in a cage and hooked to an IV in a strange place, or should I end his suffering?

The veterinarian didn't interfere. He waited while I sat down and thought. In truth, my reasoning was quite simple. If I were Grayush, what would I prefer: to die in my sleep or to live as in invalid in pain and discomfort in a cage, away from nature?

I made the decision for Grayush, and with all my heart I hope that I made the right choice. I asked the vet to put him to sleep. I stroked Grayush, the ugliest and most charming of cats, one last time before he was given an injection to render him unconscious before the lethal injection was administered.

With a heavy heart, I drove back home. The entrance, my parking space (where Grayush spent many hours sitting on the roof of my car), and the yard seemed empty to me. I couldn't stand being home and I fled the house and roamed the streets.

I walked along the streets in my neighborhood with tears streaming down my face, and I kept thinking how difficult it was to feed and care for more than twenty cats. One has to go through so many tragedies, both large and small, when caring for street cats. And then I remembered Grayush singing in his magnificent voice and I began to smile as I cried. I forced myself to remember that Grayush had had a good life and knew how to enjoy every second of it. The pain remained, but with it were all the good memories that made me feel that caring for street cats was indeed a worthy moral endeavor and that as such it was no wonder that it was not only wondrous and amazing, but also difficult and exhausting.


Some of the cats in the community:

black cat two cats

black and white cat

Dr. Raphaella Bilski is a political scientist, teacher, writer, & previous adviser to three of Israel's Prime Ministers. But mostly she's an animal lover, with a passion for street cats. You can see Raphella talk about her book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQEzhUsdQwc.

"My Street Cats" is available at your local Amazon shop, Barnes & Noble, or here: http://www.amazon.com/My-Street-Cats-Personalities-Behavior/dp/1888820721.

All profits from the sale of "My Street Cats" go towards the continued care & Trap-Neuter-Return of Jerusalem's cats.