I give you folks a lot of fiction. Here, for a change, is a true story.
In 1998/1999, between my sophomore and junior years of college, I taught English in Taiwan. It was a fascinating experience that shaped my fiction. Foreign travel gives you the sense of being in another world. You have no idea what you’re eating. You can’t read. You can’t write. Toddlers know more Mandarin than you do!
I fell in love with the food, with the night market, with the friendly people and their singing speech. One thing bothered me a lot, though—the dogs and cats. They were everywhere—pitifully thin, mangy, often with half-healed injuries from fights or car accidents. Skinny puppies would follow me hopefully home from the park. Wild kittens would skitter across the road and then watch me with their runny eyes.
If you’ve read my fiction, you know I love animals. You also know that I can write some gritty stuff. In spite of that, the things I saw on the streets of Taiwan made me sick to my stomach. Some animals sustained hideous injuries and then dragged themselves around for weeks before succumbing. In the summer, nearly all the dogs were bald. I saw animals with active distemper staggering around, spreading the disease.
And everyone pretended not to see them. What could you do? You couldn’t possibly take them all home. If you fed one dog, you soon had 5 following you. The cats were wild. If you tried to do anything for the street animals, you quickly became overwhelmed. They were a city-level problem, not a personal one.
After a few months, I adjusted. I did what everyone did. I ignored the street dogs and the feral cats. I pretended not to see them. When a miserable dog with a prolapsed uterus crossed the street in front of me, I turned away. There was nothing I could do. It was not my problem.
Until one day as I was coming back through Kaohsiung Airport after a week’s vacation. I was standing between the domestic and international terminals, about to get on a bus, when I heard a kitten crying.
She was a tiny calico, no more than 8 weeks old, huddled against a concrete barrier. Some misguided soul had left her a plate of chicken bones. The bones were as big as she was and certainly nothing she could eat. I don’t know how she got into the terminal, but she would never get out. She was clearly too exhausted to crawl. She just sat there and cried.
I should have walked away. I had no place to keep a cat. I was leaving the country in a few months. The town where I lived was several bus changes away, and the bus didn’t allow animals. She probably wasn’t even tame. She might have a disease. Taiwan is full of homeless cats. Kittens die every day. I couldn’t save all of them. She was not my problem.
Only she was. Because I made her my problem. Because I opened my eyes and saw her. Because if I walked away from one more starving animal, I couldn’t have lived with myself. Because I couldn’t help all the animals in Taiwan, but I could help her.
I thought she might bite me, but I figured she was too tiny and exhausted to bite hard. I scooped her up, put her in my backpack, and got on the bus. She didn't bite me, and she slept all the way home.
Turned out, the kitten was tame and free of disease. She was also curious, smart, and vocal. She soon earned her name—Beetsway, which means “shut up” in Chinese. My little town grocery didn’t carry cat food (cats were not common pets in rural Taiwan), so I braved the meat market to buy her chicken. When she got sick, I badgered the local veterinarian (who had no medicine for cats) until he gave her puppy pills for diarrhea. When it was time to leave, I took her to the big city, got her shots and quarantine papers, and a passport. Beetsway was amazingly well-behaved on the 20+ hour transit back to Florida.
My Taiwanese street cat had many adventures with me, including a stent in Indian at veterinary school, before settling down to live with my parents back in Florida. She’s 12 years old now and a little arthritic, but still feisty. She’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known and also the tiniest—about seven pounds soaking wet. In spite of this, she rules the house—including the 70 pound Labrador—with an iron paw. She sleeps every night cuddled up to my father and greets my mother when she comes home from work.
Beetsway was with me during some of the most tumultuous years of my life. She is a loyal companion, who welcomes me every time I come home to the house where I grew up. I have never been sorry that I made her my problem.