In 2010, I adopted a kitten off the street and she’s lived with me ever since. I’ve taken her to the local veterinary clinic and made sure to keep up with shots and other health care needs. She lives a quiet life in my apartment and has an enclosed patio that I let her use for fresh air and her litter box. One of her favorite activities is to sit on top of my TV and look out the front window towards the entrance of my apartment.
My apartment building itself is constructed like a small fort, in part to deter crime. The main gateway/door is metal but has a large enough space in between the bars to let animals through. Many of the neighborhood cats (strays or owned by others) congregate outside my apartment because it is a safe place. This is great entertainment for my cat because she likes to make mean faces at them and attempts to start fights through the glass window. I don’t let her outside – so there’s no chance of danger to any of the animals – making it fun to watch sometimes.
Last Thursday night was pretty normal. My cat was perched on the TV with her tail purposely hanging in the way of the screen ( 🙂 ), and I noticed her jump up suddenly when there was a slight “Meow” heard outside my door. Initially, I thought it was just a random stray coming by the window. After watching my own cat’s weird reaction to the other animal, however, I decided to look for myself.
Lo and behold, a kitten – about the size of a softball – was staring back at me. It looked malnourished and terrified, and seemed to perk up when I made eye contact. My first inclination was to leave it alone, since it was possible it had wandered off from its mother or was owned by one of my neighbors. The next day, however, it was still at my door, ever more terrified and very hungry.
As I said above, I’ve been in this situation before when I adopted my cat off the street as a kitten. Immediately, my emotions start to run high and I have a hard time controlling them. Instead of focusing on a plan to take care of the animal, my mind just becomes a blur of anger, sadness, despair, and guilt: why on Earth has this kitten been abandoned? Who would do such a thing?
I was initially very annoyed with my upstairs neighbor because he set up a cup of milk at the foot of my door, as if to say, “I’m feeding it, but it’s your problem”. He’s a native Costa Rican and a bit of a prima donna, and likes to act macho. I already knew he didn’t care for animals because he cursed in Spanish once when I was bringing my own cat’s litter box out for cleaning, which I do every two days so that the patio doesn’t start to smell and my cat doesn’t go to the bathroom inside.
Unlike my own cat, who was initially terrified of me, this kitten followed me inside my apartment, right up to the refrigerator. He/She seemed to be socialized with humans already and familiar with the concept of being fed, leading me to believe the kitten was definitely abandoned on the corner of my block. I marched the kitten back outside and setup a bowl of milk and gave it a small can of cat food to eat. The food was scarfed up in minutes. Later, the kitten curled up in a ball outside my door and slept.
Now what am I supposed to do? I’m officially leaving Costa Rica in 5 weeks. My plane ticket has been booked and I’m only allowed the one pet I already have. My apartment lease in Florida has been signed and notarized with provisions for one indoor cat. Even if I were to adopt the kitten on the spot, it would still have to be taken to the veterinary clinic for a thorough exam, spaying/neutering, and shots. Then, of course, I would need them to clear it for exportation to the USA, a process I’ve already begun with my current cat.
Thinking all of this through really jammed me up, because I felt like someone needed to take responsibility for this animal. I was really angry that people would do this to a helpless kitten. Adult street cats learn the hard way how to fend for themselves, but a tiny kitten has literally no chance of surviving unless it finds a dumpster for food and a hiding place. On top of that, it has to avoid getting sick in the process. I’ve heard from other expatriates in Costa Rica that it is common for people to drop unwanted animals off in nicer neighborhoods, with hope that someone would eventually take care of them. Well, I guess it was my turn again. My useless upstairs neighbor ignored the kitten completely and offered no help whatsoever.
I immediately called my current vet for advice. I knew from past visits that they sometimes take stray animals in until homes can be found. Unfortunately, I was informed that if I did this, I would need to pay for one month’s room and board upfront. If the cat was adopted at some point during the month, I could return for a pro-rated refund. Quick math showed 30 days of care added up to $480. I know they have a business to run, but please, that’s an outrageous request to make. Their only other suggestion was an animal shelter about located about 30 minutes away from me.
I looked the shelter up online and saw that it was indeed in operation and still accepting animals. They request a small donation if you bring a cat or dog to them. This seemed like a viable option, except for one thing: my vet said that if the kitten wasn’t adopted in 30 days, it would be put down. I tried to verify this on the website, but it wasn’t clear that they had a “no-kill” policy. All the same, what could I do? Now, in addition to a feeling of increased responsibility, I was faced with the desperate reality that my intention to leave the kitten at a shelter could very likely be lethal. Now I’m emotionally on the hook for a dead kitten?
STOP. Think reasonably. Turn off the emotions for a minute. I live in Costa Rica. While it is a country that is definitely improving economically, there are still many people in poverty. Furthermore, just like any other place in the world, people in this country go through hard times and financial difficulties. It’s entirely possible that this kitten was let loose in a desperate act to save its life because the owner could not care for it. There are also well known cultural issues about spaying and neutering animals. Perhaps this kitten was part of a litter that was unwanted? Additionally, one must realize that pets in Costa Rica aren’t treated like a member of the family. It’s common for people to own a dog, but leave it tied up outside their home permanently as a cheap burglar alarm. I need to understand that different people think and act differently. I can’t change them, I can only do what I think is right given the extent of my own resources.
That sets up a spectrum of options, now that I’m caring for this kitten and making a decision about its life. On the cruel side, I could scare it away and ignore it. I could have it euthanized. On the extremely generous side, I could take care of it in my remaining weeks here, get it ready for exportation, leave it at the veterinary clinic while I transition into my USA apartment, and then fly back and pick it up for full adoption. Given my current financial situation and need to settle down in the USA again, this wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be extremely difficult. So I come to the realization that the best choice, all things considered, is bringing the kitten to the shelter for a potentially normal life if adopted, or potentially shortened life if put to sleep.
OK decision made, but heart broken. I didn’t sleep well that night and woke up teary at times. The next day, I called and requested directions to the shelter. I couldn’t bear asking what their policy was regarding putting unwanted animals to sleep without falling to pieces, so I just said I’d be bringing a stray kitten and a donation for their animal refuge.
Off I went in my car to the shelter, a harrowing drive due to bad streets and literally no road signs. On top of that, the kitten was crying, and I was on the edge of tears every step of the way. I told myself this was best I could do, and at the very minimum it was a second chance for this kitten to be adopted by a (hopefully) loving family.
When I arrived at the bustling shelter, I was relieved to see that it was adequately maintained. Stray kittens were kept in a large cell as a group, with a big bowl of water and food. The hard part was going into the office among 30 locals and uttering in broken Spanish that I was handing this animal over to them. I had to sign a contract that I relinquished ownership of it. What do I put down for a name? Nothing, I just wrote “no tiene nombre – gatito de calle” (it has no name – street cat). I signed on the dotted line. The minimum donation was equivalent to $12, but I handed them $100 to show them that I had good intentions and wasn’t some American jerk getting rid of a cat he didn’t want. What else could I do? Next I brought the kitten to the handlers in the cat section, and they put it in with the rest of the group.
I gave the kitten one last look and slowly walked off. The car ride home was even more emotional than the ride to the shelter. On the verge of tears, full of guilt, regret, anger, despair, helplessness. I thought about pulling over and letting it all out, but the traffic was horrendous and I had to push forward. When I got home I nearly vomited and retired to my room and stared at the ceiling for a couple hours. What a horrible feeling.
I try to do the right thing in life, but along the way I have failed miserably. I make my living off people betting their rent money on the New York Giants. People could understandably be critical and say I’m no better than the person abandoning an animal. People first? Right now there are people in Africa digging through heaps of trash for food. Shouldn’t I get my priorities straight and emotions in check? Broken up about the fate of a stray kitten but indifferent to human beings? In Greece, where the economy is in ruins, people are leaving unwanted children in baby hatches. What about them?
There are no easy answers to these moral and ethical dilemmas. All I can say is that I am questioning what I should really be doing with my life, and in this contemplation, which values and beliefs I should follow. There’s more to be done than trying to get rich when there is so much suffering. You can deny it; you can ignore it; you can take no responsibility; but it is still there.
You don’t have to be the world’s most perfect person to make the right decision. For now, just try to do what’s best for others – human or animal – given the limited control you have over your own life. In the end, I suppose that’s all that matters.
The animal shelter I used in Costa Rica is called A.H.P.P.A Animal Shelter. Here is the Costa Rica Animal Shelter link – click here. They accept unwanted animals or strays in exchange for a small donation. They also have many animals available for adoption. English and Spanish are spoken. IMPORTANT: I can not independently verify whether or not this shelter has a “no-kill” policy. I received conflicting information from two different parties. Please call them first to see what their rules and regulations are.