posted November 16th, 2013 by
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by P.J. Witte

May 3, 2001, I was living in Cluj- Napoca, Romania, studying for a Romanian language test with the windows wide open to embrace the warm spring afternoon. I heard the sound of a cat wailing in the distance, not an unusual sound as stray animals roam in abundance in Eastern Europe.

Soon I heard the sound again but now it seemed to be from across the street on a weedy hill which was home to squabbling hens and roosters. I set out to investigate and met Vali, the downstairs neighbor boy. We climbed the steep slope toward a circle of agitated fowl that were pecking at a small cleft partially covered by weeds.

There, crouching and making a pitiful sound, was a tiny black kitten. Vali immediately warned me not to touch the animal, but I was already bending in for the rescue. The creature leaped into my outstretched hands and clawed her way up and onto my shirt.

On closer inspection, we noted the peanut butter markings and caramel sprinkled black fur—our little find was a Torti. While the kitten clung to me, and Vali tried to dissuade me from the venture, I carried the trembling cat to my home. After coaxing some milk and giving her a bath, washing off the chicken stench, we set out to find a litter pan.

I found a copy paper box lid along with some sand and settled in to decide what was next. I put her on a towel for the night, and she never moved for the next 12 hours. She was exhausted from trying to stay alive on the mean streets of Cluj.

I knew finding a home for her was highly unlikely so my choices became euthanasia, returning her to an early death on the streets, or making her a part of my household. Clearly, the latter was my only real choice. Now I needed a name.

She was in poor shape, bony and parasite ridden, so I wanted a hopeful name. Zoe, which means “life of God,” seemed hopeful. Zoe it was. The vet estimated she was 8 to 10 weeks old.

Finding pet accessories was not easy in Cluj, but I did find a mini litter pan and some very odd litter. Since I could not find toys, I balled up tin foil and was surprised to watch her play with it. She quickly made a game of “paw ball” in my foyer, batting the ball at the wall and running to hit it again and again.

She also was quick to learn hide and seek. I would run and hide behind a door. She would find me and then run and hide behind a door. (I am not joking.) Every day she would greet me after work and want to play a game.

After the first night and every night until the end of her life, she slept with me with one paw stretched out to touch me. Don’t get me wrong though. This was no snuggly kitty. Zoe was very feisty and would snap and bat at you if she didn’t want your attention. I attribute her survival to that scrappy attitude.

In late summer, I unexpectedly moved back to the United States. My choices were to leave her to fend for herself or bring her home. The vet warned she was too young and frail to travel in baggage. Also, although she had her shots and her kitty passport, there was a rabies outbreak in our area, and it would be difficult to get her over the border.

Having no animal sedation, the vet gave me a children’s Benadryltype substance for the transatlantic flight. I also packed the mini pan, litter and some dry food. Zoe was in a nylon carrier. Happily, all three legs to Tulsa were open to an animal in the cabin.

During the eight-hour van ride to Budapest, Hungary, Zoe slept unmedicated in her carrier. Although I had told the driver I had her and had given him her papers, he didn’t mention her to the border guard.

I wish I had a video of us in the airport bathrooms. Putting litter in the pan, I would put Zoe in it. What cat eliminates on command? Sometimes the bathroom matron could come in and see me squatting in the corner with a kitten. No one thought it cute or interesting though.

Finally, in Amsterdam, I found an unused concourse and let her run around a bit. She was delighted to be out and enjoyed the large windows. Near flight time I found a single handicapped bathroom on the empty concourse and decided to give her the meds there. She freaked; I chased and had more of the sticky substance on me than in her. When we emerged there was a handicapped person waiting.

I felt awful and got quite the look. After seven hours in Amsterdam, we boarded for the long flight home. Zoe remained quiet until about an hour from landing. When she started to wail, the flight attendants took her in the galley and gave her ice cream.

We went through Memphis customs. I had marked the customs declaration where it asks about “having plants, food, or animals.” I was literally the last person to go through. The agent looked at my declaration and asked sarcastically if I had brought in a granola bar.

I was so exhausted I didn’t know what he meant at first. He pointed to the check mark. I sharply retorted, “No, I have a cat!” and gave him Zoe’s papers. I did not know what to expect bringing an animal into the U.S. I didn’t expect what happened. Nothing!

The agent never even looked at her and waved us through. I was relieved but also conflicted. Should it really be so easy to bring in a foreign animal? I knew she was fine, but how did he? He couldn’t even read what her papers said.

At last we boarded our final leg into Tulsa where we were met by family, and Zoe began her new life in America.

Zoe and I were together for 12 years and eight weeks. She was feisty and funny to the end. I was saddened to be in the position we all dread with our critters, of helping her leave this life. On June 28, 2013, I said goodbye to Zoe. It was an honor to have known her. I will miss her!

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