She wasn't cute or cuddly, sweet or thankful she'd been saved. She didn't come to me every evening and curl up in my lap and purr. Annie Oakley was fierce, combative, angry, irritated and worthy of your praise Go@d*mn It! She was a F^CK!NG LION-NESS (pun intended)! You were only safe if she was full and sleeping. Then she would let you pass. And if the moon wasn't just exactly right she would reach out and swat you, hiss at you, SCREECH at you if she damn well felt like it. Life is a beeaatch and she was the embodiment of said bitch in every way. But everyone has a story and her's is well worth telling.
Fourteen years ago, while I was on my journey to learn about how to find and buy the right horse for me, I stumbled in to one of those Hell on Earth places. It was owned by a kill buyer, a woman who haunted the Saturday auctions in Missouri and Kansas, buying horses for fifty dollars a piece because no one else did. She'd fatten them up and stuff them on to a trailer, haul them to Mexico and sell them to slaughter houses. But I didn't know that when I sought her place out. I'd seen an ad on line with these idealized pictures of green pastures and lovely Curlies for sale. I was interested in knowing more about them. They were one of the horses on my 'yes' list to bring home with me.
When I drove in I knew it was going to be bad. I'd read about places like this but wasn't really sure they existed. I was appalled that anyone would live voluntarily in filth, treat animals with such distain or even have the nerve to advertise her herd for sale with obvious lies.
The fields were mud wallers with too many horses in them, some starving, sick, injured and neglected. Their hooves were nightmares (pun horribly intended) and eyes were glazed with distress, pain and fear. Bellies were distended with malnutrition, coats were dull and, in some cases, were coming off. In one corner of the field, visible from the road, was a mare with a prolapsed uterus, head hanging and a too small colt at her side. She tried to nudge it back towards her teats despite the pain she was in but her baby was too wobbly. It kept falling over.
I had two choices. Leave and have nothing to do with this place or go in with my game face on and get as much evidence as I could so I could report what was going on here. I sat there on the drive for a moment trying to compose myself, cleaned up my face (I was crying!) and drove in. I saw things that day that were like a battlefield of wounded animals. I still see it clear as day. The mind holds on to horror sometimes, maybe to keep you alert, to keep you safe so you won't repeat the experience. As hard as I've tried to let them go, the memories are still there.
She greeted me like we were best friends and it was a great day to go shopping. Looking back on it, I'm pretty sure she was a psychopath, one of those people with a missing conscience and total lack of empathy or compassion. In short, I was in dangerous territory. I was there by myself with no way to call for help if I needed it. Her eyes were dead cold. She was the perfect embodiment of a predator.
I wasn't there long. I was loosing my composure. She thought she had a sucker on the line and, weirdly enough, bragged about her kill buyer status. The horses were terrified of her and so was I. On the way back to my car we walked through her barn at my request. I could smell what was coming before we went in but I wanted to have as much evidence as possible. In Missouri as well as Kansas the law is in favor of the abuser. Unless there are dead animals in multiples and a possible health hazard, the sheriff would do nothing.
The barn must be haunted now. I saw the kind of suffering that leaves a tear in the continuum. In the middle of the unspeakable were cats and kittens everywhere. They were horrible too; covered in fleas, malnourished and some lying in dark corners obviously dead. They tried to get out of the way but weren't fast enough. I still blame myself for what happened next. I was the one who took us in there. More may have survived if we'd just walked around the outside of the barn.
She said, " Thar's too many of these damn cats. Might as well just stomp on them." And that was what she started to do, laughing while she did it. Cats scattered as fast as they could but there were some who couldn't or they lingered, trying to protect their kittens. And I lost it! As I ran for the car I scooped up kittens, stuffing them in to my pockets and carrying as many as I could hold. I took off down the driveway, not stopping to put on my seatbelt or even to fully close the door until I was out on to the highway. My truck was full of crying babies and I was one of them. I cried so hard I had to stop at a Walmart, one of my least favorite places to shop, one I usually avoid. I couldn't see to drive safely and there were starving, hungry kittens clinging to me.
I ran in to the store, leaving the windows open a crack and thankful it was a cool, grey day, knowing the car would not heat up. After cleaning myself up, washing my hands over and over, I walked around the store buying supplies to keep kittens clean and warm, tiny bottles to feed them with and kitten formula. I was glad they carried those things, surprised in fact. I took them back to the truck and pulled frightened, hungry kittens out from under the seats, fed them each one at a time and put them down inside boxes employees had found for me, with blankets to keep them warm. Flea baths would have to wait until I got home.
I'd saved nine kittens, only nine. And it took two years to get that place closed down too. But that's another story. This is Annie's. She was the loudest of the group of bedraggled orphans I had scooped up. She fought with me, scratching me while she ate and, despite her distended over full stomach demanded more. She didn't stay in the box either. She pulled herself out and kept climbing up my leg, scratching and hissing, insisting I feed her more. It was a long drive home.
She earned her name when I sat her down and our half coyote, Newman, came up to investigate. He was one of the kindest souls we've ever had the pleasure of living with and ended up being the surrogate parent for the other kittens, all of them except Annie. Annie took one look at Newman, jumped on to his beloved, bushy tail and hung on screeching. Newman ran in desperate circles trying to get this tiny demon off of him but she was relentless.
" Feed me NOW! Or I will kill you dead. AAAARRROOOOoooooooo!" I couldn't tell if the aaarrrooo was coming from Newman or the kitten. But she did ride his tail until he fell over, exhausted and dizzy. She dismounted, not bothering to look back at him and walked in to the kitchen and demanded more milk NOW! Annie Oakley was home to stay. And I did what she told me to do because that was the way it was with everyone when it came to Annie.
I found homes for all the other kittens. I'd fed them, cleaned them up, wormed them and they had first inoculations. They were, all of them, sweet and funny. There were kittens everywhere and the way they slept on top of Newman made it easy to find them homes, all of them except Annie. She snarled, howled, hissed and fought her way to the front of the food bowls. I learned to keep her in a separate place so the other babies had a chance for nurturing and food without a fight. And I spent countless hours over the years trying to find a way to connect with Annie, to ease her endless need to fight.
Annie was the perfect embodiment of an animal with PTSD. Nothing and everything would set her off. Her only friends were Crazy Joe Cocker and, later, Apple. When Joe died of old age I thought we were going to loose her too. She spent two days laying on top of the place we'd buried him, hissing at me if I came near. I'd walk out several times a day, trying to console her. It was no use. She was abandoned and without her friend. Everyone loved Joe and Annie loved him most of all.
She disconnected even more but allowed us to inhabit the same house with her as long as her bowl of food was constantly full and she had fresh cream every day. She still had nothing to do with us, until I brought Apple home.
I don't know why she chose Apple. Maybe it's because everyone loves Apple too, like our Joe. From the first day Annie slept with Apple, groomed her face and followed her around. When Apple was trying to understand what horses were Annie showed her. Annie walked up to Lucky and hissed at him until he backed up. Then she stalked over to Apache and stole food from his grain bowl, standing right smack dab in the middle of it completely unafraid. Thankfully the horses have a sense of humor and were more curious than worried. Nothing happened so Apple learned to hang with the horses without fear and they accepted her because Annie told them to. In Annie's world it was all very simple. Do what she told you to do and you would be allowed to live with all body parts intact.
I never gave up on her. I fed her bowls of cream, cans of oily tuna fish, home made food. She never did gain much weight or grow very much. People thought she was still a kitten. I would pet her, she would scratch me. I'd talk to her, sing to her, croon to her but it was Joe and, later, Apple that she sought out for company. She was an independent soul who came and went as she pleased and she survived for fourteen years against all of my expectations.
And then, last Friday, she went outside one more time. She was so frail it worried me but I never refused her any request. She was a good hunter and liked the outdoors, knew how to take care of herself. She hissed at me as she passed, the way she always did, and then she did something she'd never done, not in all of those fourteen years. She walked out and then she came back to me, stood in front of me as defiant as ever, looking me square in the eyes. And then she came up to me and wound herself around my leg and purred. Annie purred for me! And then she turned around and walked down the drive and straight out in to the north pasture, disappearing in to the tall grass with her tail straight out and never looking back.
She's gone. Apple knows it. She's gone out for days searching for her and so have John and I. She died on her own terms, in her own way, fiercely independent. In her mind she was always a lion and never just a couple of pounds of cat that was so severely malnourished she never grew very big. Her spirit was huge though. And she had her way to the end with no regrets.
Annie was the embodiment of survival. She was wild in her heart and stayed with us because she chose to, not because we wanted her to. She left scars on my hands and my heart. The energy in the house has quieted down, too much. I miss her scrappy self. All of us do.
Goodbye little warrior. I love you, you fierce bad cat.
I am, ever yours, Nancy, bereft. Two cats in one week are gone and my place is too quiet.