I’ve learned a lot from a cat named Coal.

Coal was surrendered to the Humane Society of Sarasota at the age of 9 by a family who could no longer afford to care for him. He had been at the shelter for several months, and adopting him out was proving difficult. In addition to being an older cat, he carried two additional challenges. He is a black cat, a “tuxedo”, actually, and suffered what shelter workers call “Black Cat Syndrome”. Apparently some people are superstitious and do not want black cats. The second challenge, however, was the largest to overcome. Coal is blind.

Due to that condition he was kept on the floor of the shelter’s nursery, since he was unable to jump onto the different levels of a standard cage. My wife and I were taken into the nursery, a small room lined to the ceiling with cages containing young kittens. In the center of the concrete floor was a small pad, a couple toys, and dishes containing food and water. Sitting on the middle of the pad was Coal. Coal, as a tuxedo, has a definitive “Columbo” persona; in as much as he perennially looks as though he slept in his suit. Looking at him for the first time does take a bit of adjustment. His right eye appears for all intensive purposes to be missing, although we were to learn there is a small malformed eye deep in the socket. His left eye appears as a bright blue marble, completely scarred over. When we walked into the room, his whiskers twitched, he looked and stepped in our direction, and the sound of deep purring was immediately evident in the room.

I picked him up, and discovered that, with no bearings from sight, he has a tendency to twist his body to face firm against you and literally hug you as you hold him.

This may be a complete shock to you, as my testosterone infused blog exudes on a daily basis the very essence of studly manly manliness, but I am a complete softy for cute and fuzzy animals. As I stood there, being hugged by this blind and loudly purring cat, there was not a doubt in my mind he’d be going home with us.

We had concerns. We live in a two story house. Would he be able to learn his way around? Could he find the box? How would he manage with other cats in the house? (We now have 4 – one cat shy of being the crazy cat people on our block)

Bob Wilson holding CoalWe didn’t have to worry long. Within 3 hours of arriving home I found Coal standing at the top of the stair landing as he explored his new surroundings. In mere days he had the complete lay of the land, knew the rooms, where the lanai’s (Floridian speak for screened in porch) were, and most importantly, where the boxes were. He settled in quickly, even holding his own with one of our other cats when she challenged his encroachment on her turf. It is also possible his appearance and failure to directly engage her visually was a cause for her aggressive actions. He would have none of her guff, and it was remarkable to see a blind cat chasing down a sighted one, with surprising accuracy at that.

He put her in her place, and that was that.

Several months ago, during his annual checkup, the vet discovered some sores in his mouth, and scheduled Coal for a teeth cleaning. Unfortunately they discovered a massive infection during that procedure, and all but 4 teeth had to be removed.

We were devastated at first, extremely concerned about how he could adapt, particularly because his diet consisted of dry food. Our vet assured us that he would indeed be ok, and in fact had probably already adapted the way he ate the food, since it was now apparent he had been in pain for some time.

And the vet was right. Coal is fine, and my blind and almost toothless cat appears to be living a happy and normal life. I’ve learned some things from him, as watching him adapt and overcome has given me ideas on surviving the challenges of impairment.

  • Know where the walls and obstacles are. When you are aware of your surroundings and situation, avoiding pitfalls is the easiest way to progress on your path.

  • When you do hit a wall, adjust slightly and try again. Remember that wall for the next time you encounter it.

  • With some minor accommodations, you can go anywhere. Our house has several pet stairs, giving Coal access to sofas, beds and other favorite resting places. It is a minor adjustment that gives him the same benefits as the other cats in the house.

  • When someone gives you a lift, give them a hug for the effort.

  • Slow and steady gets you where you need to be.
  • Impairment does not always mean you can’t do things, it just may mean you have to do them differently.
  • Don’t give up. There is kibble out there for those persistent enough to find it.
  • Don’t take crap from petty associates. If they treat you differently based on your impairment, stand your ground and defend your cause.

We were very lucky to find Coal that day. Actually we were doubly lucky. After we committed to adopting him, they told us he had been surrendered with another cat, who was one year younger and blind in one eye. They had been together since the younger cat’s birth. That cat, named “Big Bang” (we have no real idea why), had been in medical isolation since surrendered due to a rash that we eventually would find was caused by a treatable neurological condition.

We got him one month later, when he was released from isolation. They warned us that Coal and Big Bang had been separated for several months, and may not remember each other. They told us the smells of the shelter and medical ward may have changed the cats ability to recognize each other.

The picture below was taken the first evening Big Bang was in our home.

Clearly any worries about re-acclimation were unfounded, and this gave me the biggest lesson of them all:

True faith and friendship can survive time, distance and disability. It is a concept so simple, even a blind cat can see it.

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