Imagine the American Embassy in Amman. You may have trouble, and I can’t help you out with an image because no one is allowed to take any pictures, but, trust me, it is SOLID. As impenetrable as something civilian/non-war zone can look. Smooth stoned creamy walls, squarely set upon each other, small windows that call to mind the slits in ancient fortresses just big enough for an archer to aim out of. But beyond the placid stone that separates the embassy from the world outside, there are road barriers, uparmored Jordanian military vehicles with helmeted soldiers sitting in turrets behind glossy machine guns, civilian guards in uniform manning gates, dogs sniffing under vehicles that enter (and this doesn’t even include the inner sacrum of the embassy, where the US Marines stand behind bullet proof glass with their hands on Battle Star Gallactica key boards that activate alarms, automatically close doors, and do all sorts of high tech things I can’t even make up).
Now imagine two women, one American with hair blowing into her eyes, wearing jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, one Jordanian in her hijab and long trench coat covering her from ankle to wrist. Both are about 5’2, and one holds a long, unweildy metal trap, the other an animal carrier that seems large enough to hold a class of kindergartners. They are crossing the barriers and saying hello to the guards, walking into the bomb proofed entries and banging their cages through the metal detectors. And the guards actually let them in. About an hour later, now sweating and reeking of tuna fish, the women depart the embassy, back through the metal detectors, past the two separate guard shacks that check IDs, past the two parked uparmoured vehicles with the bored soldiers peering out. This time there is a howling, scratching, incredibly angry cat in each cage.
The women will take those cats to the American’s house in an effort to neuter, flea dip, give them shots, check for bites and wounds and random cat diseases. First they will try to inject a sedative through the cages but inevitably that doesn’t work, which means they will have to get each cat into a soft black fabric bag, tighten it until the cat is a hissing ball stuck at the bottom, unable to move or bite, and give it the shot. But of course this is never easy, and one or both cats will manage to escape and run through the American’s home, knocking down family pictures and plants and eventually hiding behind the couch, where it will occasionally vomit from whatever knock-out drug made it into its system before it escaped. But when it is finally unconscious, the vet will stretch it out on the dining room table, perhaps tying up its little paws, spread eagle, and she will operate right there, scapel and scissors, gauze and rubber gloves.
You see, the vets in Jordan do house calls.
Let me backtrack a bit.
For those of you that don’t know this, I am a crazy cat lady.
I have had a weakness for strays, from the flea bitten to the off-kilter human variety, my entire life.
When I was living in Texas, during my husband’s most recent deployment to Iraq, there was a time when I was feeding and housing seven cats. But, through a combination of kindly neighbors coerced into adoption, coyotes, and an untreatable brain tumor, I was down to a more manageable two cats by the time my husband returned.
He was relieved. I was slightly disturbed by the high feline turn-over, doubting whether I was doing these poor animals any good if the majority seemed to die on me. But since my husband was adamant about the two cat limit, I promised I wouldn’t try to ‘save’ any more strays.
Then we came to Jordan, and in the process of moving had to leave our two surviving cats with families in the States.
One of the first things I noticed about life in this new country was the stray cats (of course). Every dumpster you walk by has some wretched little animal mewing and digging for food. At night the howling of cats can resonate as clearly as the loud-speakered call to prayer.
And then, a mere two weeks after my daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy to wage war with NATO, leaving me and my little cat problem alone and unchecked. When the man deploys, I collect cats. An army wife left to her own devices can get into worse trouble, no?
There are a group of strays that reside in the embassy. They have their own little bowls that kindly employees fill daily with food and water. The embassy cats had it pretty good, lots of free wheeling tom cat debauchery and unbridled kitten making.
Until I came along.
At first I just pet the cats when my daughter and I happened to be there for some kind of appointment or play-date. Then I started carrying a ziplock bag of cat food around in my purse, making a point of going to the embassy when I couldn’t think of anything more entertaining, as if it was my own personal petting zoo: “Let’s go feed the kitties!” Then, I swear to God, one of the smaller cats, just out of kittenhood, started waiting for me each day. I would see her sitting at the gated entrance exactly as I had left her the night before. When we left, she would try to follow me through the guard rooms with their metal detectors and I’d sadly shoo her away. When I tried to touch her, she would crawl up into my lap and nuzzle my neck, purring like a maniac. That’s when I noticed her ear was bloody. That’s when I knew, embassy or not, she wasn’t safe from those Toms.
So I brought her home. My husband returned from his Italian deployment a few days later (did the threat of a cat invasion bring him home early? Perhaps.)
The embassy recommended a vet, the lovely Dr. Faiza (who surely had no idea what she was getting into with me). Now every couple of weeks, she and I go to the Embassy and catch cats. We bring them home to my apartment and she operates on my dining room table. They sleep off their meds in my guest bathroom and usually my poor, beleaguered, infinitely kind husband has to help me bring them back onto the embassy grounds a day or two later for release. Each time my husband has to try to explain that we are not randomly releasing strange cats into the embassy, but that these are the same mangy animals we snatched the day before, new and improved and neutered (not an easy task to explain in arabic).
We still only have one cat (at least living in our current home, I know that technically that brings our totally up to three when we are reunited with our cats in the states, but come on, I think this is a step in the right direction for me!).
One of our friends refers to our home as The House of Cat Horrors. I have also had more than one friend say to me, “Oh my God, please don’t tell me the vet operates on the same table where you just fed us lasagna.” Uh, yes, the dining room table is just the right height for ball removal, sorry folks. So glad you liked that lasagna, come back again real soon.
And cats? They tempt me where ever I go. They tried to crawl into my backpack when we were in Petra last week and I took more photos of the Petra kittens than I did of my daughter in front of the ancient Nabatean site. My husband wasn’t happy that I fed them his coveted Slim Jims, but I know he was relieved I didn’t even try to take one back with us to Amman.
I am learning. I came, I saw, I neutered. But I will not take them home (well, except for the one)…