My nomadic childhood as the self-anointed Mother Teresa of stray animals
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 is only a matter of months before we will up and leave again.
At eight years old, I’ve lived in seven houses on three different continents, and I’ve been the new kid at school more times than I can count. My parents can’t seem to stay put for longer than a year or two, and we change zip codes and addresses more frequently than a gang of bank robbers on the run. I speak several languages fluently, but I have accents in all and can spell and string together a grammatically correct sentence in none. When my brother and I are at an airport, we play “eeny meeny miny moe” to determine which of our passports to use. I have triple citizenship: Switzerland is the motherland, Tunisia is the fatherland, America is the birthland, but I don’t experience any one of these countries as home. This is the curse of the mixed child who grows up betwixt and between cultures and countries, creeds and customs: too white or too brown, too exotically named or too ambiguously other to fully belong anywhere.
With Coke-bottle-thick glasses and a gap between my two front teeth big enough to fit a milkshake straw, I am not exactly popular. I feel a kinship with animals that comes more naturally to me than it does with most humans. I am especially fond of mutts — the weirder looking and less adoptable the better. Like me, they are perpetual outsiders — a little too wild for their own good and eternally searching for a place to call home.
When adults ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I reply with all the earnestness in the world: the Mother Teresa of strays. I take myself and my vocation very seriously. I spend my allowance on kibble and kitten formula, flea collars and wound kits. I memorize all 320 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club and force my parents to quiz me on their behavioral traits, health needs, and life expectancies. I pore over veterinary science textbooks with a flashlight, reading long after bedtime, my already poor eyesight growing weaker with each moon.
In a yellow clothbound notebook, I keep meticulous records of my rescue missions. Each stray gets its own entry with a photograph and detailed notes on their estimated age, condition, and personality. Always, I give them a name. “Dumpster Kitten,” I dub my latest patient. It takes a few tries, but soon the kitten’s mouth latches onto the syringe. When the syringe is empty, I hold the kitten upright with its puffy belly against my shoulder and pat its back with the pad of my index finger. The kitten emits a tiny burp and meows. Victory, it will live.
Not all of my rescue missions go as well. Some border on overzealous, and I’ve been known to inadvertently kidnap neighborhood pets, mistaking them for strays. Others end in trips to the hospital, like the time I tried to rescue a German shepherd tied to a stake in the middle of an abandoned field and it bit my outstretched hand. (It turned out the German shepherd was being quarantined on suspicion of rabies.) Then there are the missions that end in carnage, like when I bought a pair of sickly, coal-feathered birds at the souk with the romantic idea of freeing them in the nearby park. (They refused to fly, scuttling under a bush, and when I returned a while later, I found a cloud of floating feathers and a constellation of blood spots splattered onto the dirt where a hungry stray had made them a snack.)
But today, today is different. A swell of pride fills me as I hold Dumpster Kitten, watching the rise and fall of his tiny rib cage as he sleeps. I desperately want to keep Dumpster Kitten — to give him a proper name, to bring him inside the house, and to make him a bed out of a cardboard box and pillow — but I don’t bother asking my parents. I am under strict instructions to stop sneaking flea-infested critters into the house. We move around too much to own a pet, and my parents don’t want the extra responsibility. Perhaps, one day, when I am old enough, they always say.
Pacing along the length of the beach, cradling my tiny bundle, I search for a home for Dumpster Kitten. I come across a woman. She is sitting on a bench, dressed in the traditional white sefsari cloth draped around her plump torso and head. Her cheeks are round and dimpled, her eyes lined with the fine wrinkles of someone who has spent a lifetime smiling. I approach her and explain the situation. “Pas de problème,” the woman replies, rolling her Rs. I give her formula, syringes, and aggressively detailed instructions on how to care for a newborn kitten before handing over the bundle.
As I walk home, I catch fragments of song in the sea breeze. I look back and see that the woman is singing softly in Arabic as she rocks the bundle against her bosom. I am happy Dumpster Kitten has found a good home, but a part of me can’t help feeling a bit sad. My nomadic childhood has made me pragmatic about goodbyes. I know better than to think I will ever see the kitten again. I know, come fall, all of this — the beach, the white domed house, the fancy school—will pale into memory.
I cling to my calling for a while longer. At age nine, we move to upstate New York, where I spend each afternoon volunteering at the local veterinary clinic. At age 10, I dedicate my weekends to walking mangy old dogs at the animal shelter. But like most childhood callings, soon this too will fade. As I get older, there are concerts and college, summer travel and boyfriends, graduation and a deadly illness that spreads through my blood and bones like brush fire. There is less and less room in my life for strays. But that constant sense of searching stays.
One balmy spring day, in my mid-twenties, I walk past an animal rescue organization in downtown Manhattan on my way home from chemo. The sun breezing my bald head feels good, and in this particular moment I am in decent spirits, but there are so many reasons not to walk through that door. The leukemia has whittled away my curves, my hair, my strength, my ability to have children, my dignity, and so much more. I sleep 14 hours a day, and walking just a few blocks is a challenge. I can barely take care of myself, let alone an animal. But I can’t resist. There’s a mutt — an ugly terrier puppy with sparse white fur the color of dirty snow and a mischievous gleam in its eyes — that catches my attention. I know better, but I ask to hold him anyway. Small enough to fit in the palms of my hands, my mind rides the rails of memory back to Dumpster Kitten — to that eight-year-old girl — and it hits me that I don’t need parental permission. My life is riddled with unknowns, but at least there’s this: I am finally old enough to own a pet of my own. I sign the adoption papers on the spot.
Together, this mutt and I, we have many addresses and many adventures over the years. Reeling from heartbreak and the end of treatment, for a couple months we live on the road, sleeping in a car under the golden arches of McDonald’s parking lots, on the couches of strangers, and in a tent on the pine needle–dusted floors of forests. Meandering from place to place, we live out of suitcases and highway motels, off the grid in a log cabin in Vermont and in a cottage in Florida that once belonged to Jack Kerouac. At the moment, we live in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side with bars on the windows and hexagonal tiles that are coming undone from the bathroom floor, but come summer we will move again.
As a kid, and still now at age 29, I fantasize about buying a piece of land, somewhere I can settle and call my own, with enough space to take in a couple more strays. I don’t know if this will happen — I don’t even know if I’m capable of staying put in one place — but I like to think it could one day. Either way, as of late, I’ve noticed the searching feeling doesn’t haunt as much anymore. This mutt and I, we’ve found a sense of belonging in each other. Wherever I am, wherever we go, the sound of the wap-wap-wapping of his nubby tail on the floorboards means I’m home.