Not long after moving into our house, my fiancée, Michelle, and I decided to get a kitten. We also decided to adopt one from the local animal shelter, because there are so many wonderful dogs and cats there waiting for new homes to call their own, and we had a new home to give.

The next weekend we drove across town to the shelter. Stepping beyond the glass front doors, we were instantly greeted with chaotic barks and yelps from unseen dogs sounding both large and small.

A young man behind the counter smiled. The name tag pinned to his green T-shirt read: Tim. “They know you’re here,” he said.

“They bark like that every time someone comes in?” I asked.

“Every time,” Tim assured me. “What kind of dog are you looking for?”

Both Michelle and I responded, “We’re looking for a kitten.”

Tim looked a little surprised. He had played the odds and lost. Most people coming through the doors of the shelter were looking to adopt a dog.

The barks and yelps grew louder as we followed Tim down a back hallway. But as we passed the door to the canine kennel, the barks and yelps became whimpers and whines followed quickly by a collective sorrowful silence.

And that sad silence seemed to prompt a wary meow, followed by another, as if to say, “They passed the pups and are coming our way.” 

As we walked into a room lined with cats in cages like some strange small petting zoo, the meowing became a competitive chorus. The kittens seemed to know instinctively to cry out for attention, sticking their small paws through the metal bars for a magical touch of a finger that might do for them what Dorothy’s silver slippers did for her.

In quiet contrast, the older cats—who had homes for so long and had lost them because their owner’s income had changed for the worst or a divorce had altered the family dynamic beyond all reason or their beloved older owner had recently died—remained stoically proud as if they knew their fate to be grave. And it was. It almost always is for the older cats.

Michelle and I stood there reading the cards on the front of the cages listing each cat’s name, sex, age and temperament.  Michelle looked at me with watery eyes that said, “Let’s take them all” — even though she knew we couldn’t. We had to choose one. One lucky cat.

A youthful paw touched Michelle’s hand through the bars of a cage. She asked to see the black and brown shorthaired kitten, and Tim obliged. The rambunctious little tabby was a handful to hold. He clawed and climbed his way up onto Michelle’s shoulder as if the higher he went the closer he would come to going home with us. The other kittens jealously ripped at the day-old newspaper lining the bottom of their cages. I found it hard to look them in their desperate eyes, because they seemed to know that being held somehow got them closer to being loved and thus taken home.

I bravely turned toward the door to let Michelle make the choice and just happened to see a kitten in a cage on the top row looking down at us. He lay there half propped up against the bars quietly watching as if we were yet another pair of humans who had come to choose the fortunate one of the litter—and he would have no part of it.

The card on his cage said his name was Sammy. He was a little older than we had planned to adopt and his hair a little longer. He’d already had a human home for a brief moment in time, losing it because his owner was unknowingly allergic to cat dander.

So, while Michelle was holding another one of the loud “pick me” kittens, I asked to hold the quiet one.

“Sammy’s a good cat,” Tim said as he unlocked the cage and took out the older kitten, giving him to me. I noticed then that his tail was only a few inches long, as if it had been crudely cut off—and then I just as crudely thought, maybe it was some kind of birth defect.

Nevertheless, Sammy remained calm in my hands, trusting me to hold him safely regardless of how his short tail might appear to me.

“He’s a little older than you wanted,” Michelle reminded.

“I know,” I said. “But he’s quiet and . . .” and something, I thought. Something I couldn’t express.

“Let me hold him,” Michelle said, her hands free of the loud kitten.

I handed Sammy over. Once in Michelle’s arms, he raised his head and nuzzled her on the cheek. It made her smile. “Well, you do that again,” she said, “and you’re going home with us.”

And no sooner said than done, Sammy nuzzled Michelle not only again, but twice more for good measure. And a bond was made right then and there—breaking the hearts of so many other cats that day. And secretly, our own.

We took Sammy to his new home and gave him a new name. Dignan. An unusual name to be sure. Most people I know, myself included, had no knowledge of its origin without having to be told.

“It’s from the movie Bottle Rocket,” I would say. Which usually got me, at best, a blank stare in return, until I explained that Michelle is a fan of Wes Anderson films and somewhat partial to Owen Wilson. That usually prompted a knowing nod. Not that they understood any better where the name came from, but that they were aware of Michelle’s love for movies.

The newly named Dignan spent his first week in his new home lying on the back of the striped sofa in the TV room, napping mostly or looking out the window just beyond, coming down to lie in our laps when we came home from work, purring as he was scratched behind the ears. I couldn’t believe how amazingly calm and quiet he was. A perfect cat, I thought, unaware that Dignan’s temperament had more to do with an infection hiding in his lungs rather than his true personality.

However, two nights later, at 1 a.m., it became clear that he was more than just a calm and quiet young cat. He was a sick kitten. His breathing was labored and his little burgundy colored nose was running. I didn’t think he would live long enough to see a veterinarian in the morning. Michelle agreed, and said we should take him to the all-night animal hospital. I didn’t know such a place existed.

I learned a lot that early morning.

Animal hospital emergency rooms do exist.

And love, even just a week in the making, is blind . . . because I didn’t see the very large sign that read Emergency Care Starts at $90.  

It didn’t take long for our new $50 shelter kitten to become a pricey pedigree pound prodigy costing an additional $500.

But we paid the bill and would have paid more to make him well.

Dignan is now a 13-pound cat. His stubby tell hasn’t gotten any less stubby. It turns out he’s a breed of cat called a Pixie Bob. Or as I like to say, to make him sound more manly, a Pixie Bob Thornton.

He’s not so quiet and calm as the near dead kitten led me to believe. But he’s still amazingly affectionate with Michelle every morning, nuzzling her as he did that day at the shelter to win our hearts so that he could come home with us. He’s also not a very agile cat — in fact, he’s quite clumsy when climbing anything more than a few inches off the floor. But he comes when called. And he greets us at the door when we return from a long day of work. He likes to play fetch with Michelle’s hair rubberbands, instead of a ball. And with treats in hand, he will sit, high five, offer his paw for a handshake, sit up and wave, lie down, roll over and play dead.

Which I thought was quite the accomplishment on my part
until I began to realize Dignan had trained me to clean out
his litter box every day.

Such a smart cat.

Double click the photo for more of Dignan.