As my birthday approaches, I can’t help but look back over the years. Just this past week, our 22-year-old serval Cleo had her geriatric wellness exam. It was emotional for many reasons. Most of all because she was the first cat to begin the sanctuary with me.
Luckily, Cleo’s as healthy as any 22-year-old cat can be. But that didn’t stop me from replaying in my head the years we’ve spent together.
I remember when I first got Cleo. Like others, I was under the false notion that exhibiting cats like Cleo would help save the species. I had seen so many animals poorly treated in the advertising world and later at pseudo facilities I volunteered at. I thought it was my duty to change the world.
But really, it was Cleo who changed it.
When she first arrived, she needed to be bottle fed every 2-4 hours, with an 8-hour rest for her to sleep. Given that I worked full-time at The Coca-Cola Company, that meant I had to give up my nights to care for her. Then get up for work as she went to bed for the day.
She arrived sick with coccidia, which only got worse even though I gave her medication the vet prescribed. Nights were spent in the emergency vet clinic, spending money I borrowed from my mother. I spent every spare hour researching how to help her.
I finally found a resource for African Servals and learned that, in the case of servals, they needed different medicine than a domestic cat. Over the 20 years of caring for servals, I can tell you their species is different in many more ways and thankfully, I’ve learned so much.
What Cleo Taught Me
Cleo taught me about patience, expense, fragileness, and even my own ignorance. But most importantly, she taught me about false expectations.
It only took bringing her out for an educational appearance twice for her to change my mind. This was in no way good for a wild animal. Others told me she would get used to it and acclimate to traveling so much in a crate. She’d get used to the harness, and even the roar of the crowd.
But after the second school visit, seeing an animal I loved scared and insecure….I knew I had made a mistake. I needed to learn a better way to help cats like her.
And I did.
The Hard Times
I had to move four times before we finally found the sanctuary site we’re at today. I had to learn hard lessons through zoning disputes and rebuilding. I had to experience what it was like being broke, not knowing how I would pay the next heat bill after I depleted all my savings to help the cats.
I had to learn the feeling of helplessness when I had to say good-bye to a resident I could no longer help. I felt the hurt when people close to me no longer believed in me. And for years, though surrounded by many people, I felt truly alone. I had sacrificed everything, even emotionally.
Cleo was there every step of the way. She made every move I did. She saw volunteers come and go. She had to say good-bye to her cat companions. But the one thing I tried hardest was to assure Cleo never felt alone.
My Life Today
This year, as I grow another year older with this birthday, I reflect on much more than the difficult times. I celebrate the hard times because they got me to where I am today. I’m running a sustainable sanctuary, with a future dedicated to help end the big cat crisis.
When a loved one passes, they leave a legacy, an opening for another life to be saved. And there have been so many we’ve saved over the past 20 years.
I am blessed Cleo is still beside me. But now, I also have a loving, supportive husband, family and friends who are my biggest fans. And I have all of you who remind me I am never alone. Every day I am grateful.
So, this year for my birthday, I am ready to focus on the future.
I never want another cat who arrives sick not to have the expert care they deserve.
I want our education and advocacy programs to grow, decreasing the number of cats in need of rescue.
And I want the people who dedicate their lives helping the cats to have workspace and overnight quarters for the long, long nights they put in.
My birthday wish? That you’ll help us build our new Animal Care & Education Center, since it’s our future!
I’m so grateful some of our generous supporters have already stepped up to help make my wish come true. They will match whatever you can give, making this dream a reality for so many other cats.
So I celebrate my birthday with thanks….thanks to you for caring about the cats…..and about me 💕