Dumpster Kitten

My nomadic childhood as the self-anointed Mother Teresa of stray animals

Suleika Jaouad

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Art by Maya Erdelyi

I find the half-dead kitten behind a dumpster on my way back from the school bus. It lays motionless on the pavement, eyes sealed shut, gasoline-smeared fur glistening a burnt orange under the scorch of the Mediterranean sun. I scoop the kitten between cupped palms, careful to support its lolling head, and walk to the house.

In the heat, the white-domed roof shimmers; the sound of waves slapping sand beckon cool in the distance. I retrieve my tool kit and get to work in the courtyard, where palm fronds offer shade, mixing formula into a silky smooth consistency and filling the three-milliliter syringe. I nurse the kitten, dripping milk pearls into the tiny pink opening of its mouth and massaging its throat to help it swallow. I wash its ragged coat with a moist sponge, wrap it in a clean towel. Then I wait.

To say I found the kitten suggests I stumbled across it by chance, but this is not entirely the truth. As a rule, I never pass a discarded cardboard box without peeking inside or a dumpster without inspecting the parameters. While my brother and the other neighborhood kids are snorkeling in the sea or streaking across the beach in pursuit of a soccer ball, I am scouring the sidewalks, consumed by some kind of calling.

Thousands of feral cats and dogs roam Tunisia, where my father is from and where my family has moved back for the year, and I am determined to save them all. It is 1996, long before revolution will seize the country. My mother, an artist, has set up a painting studio in the garage of our new house in La Marsa, a seaside suburb of Tunis. My father, a professor, has won a Fulbright scholarship that allows my brother Adam and me to attend a fancy private school for the first time in our lives. We love the American School in Tunis, where the other students, most of them children of diplomats, hail from all over the world and move almost as often as we do. We are happy here, but I am careful not to get too attached — to the feeling, to my classmates, to my beloved third-grade teacher, Mrs. Ayari, to the strays. I know it…

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Suleika Jaouad

I write. I have a badly behaved mutt named Oscar. @suleikajaouad