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What about the kittens?

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image A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy reaches down to scratch a feral kitten in a crowded parking lot during a Riverview - East Bay football game in 2003. Today she goes by Emma Kitty. Mitch Traphagen Photo

“What about the children?” is a question asked cynically in this politically and socially divisive era. So I'm asking, what about the kittens?


There was no way the kitten was going to get out alive. The parking lot at Riverview High School for the Sharks and East Bay Indians football game was packed with cars. The kitten, only a few months old, would have been pulverized by the stream of traffic leaving the game. She was a friendly little furball and looking for someone to talk to, someone to scratch her head, someone to listen to her complaints — and that would have been her end. At half-time, she looked up at a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputy; he reached down to give her a scratch on her back.

She ran over to Michelle and I at the first, “Here kitty, kitty, kitty!” I stroked her fur while Michelle ran to the convenience store across the street for a can of cat food. She was hungry, but her brilliant green eyes were full of life. We made up a bed for her from a few towels in our car and I photographed the rest of the game. Afterwards, she curled up in my lap and slept on the drive home to Ruskin. She didn’t seem at all worried to be picked up by some strangers and loaded into a car.
Her two favorite words quickly became apparent: “Emma” and “Kitty”. We picked her up at the football game on October 3, 2003, and by the next day, she would come running towards us whenever those words were uttered together. Today, nearly nine years later, she still does. She knows she’s Emma Kitty, and everyone loves Emma Kitty.

It seems there is nothing we can do that doesn’t have an impact on something else. No one in those hundreds of cars at a football game would have noticed much more than a bump in running over that kitten. Had it not been for us noticing the sheriff’s deputy petting her in that crowded parking lot, there would be no Emma Kitty today. No one would have been to blame, no one would ever have known about it. The same thing happens every day; a new hospital is built or a shopping center, all good things that are needed in South Hillsborough, but in doing stuff like that, there is an impact. Critters that once called some vacant land home become homeless. They don’t understand the need for a hospital or a strip mall. They don’t understand anything about property rights, they just know they have lost their home, that some really big and scary machinery drove them from it.

Too bad, so sad, right? People are jobless, homeless and struggling to get by. Who cares about a bunch of cats or other critters? I think we should — at least some of us. And others should care about other things. I think we all need to do something to help, but that concept seems to be increasingly diminished in our national collective mind. I am very worried that as a society, as an era, ours will be hallmarked by selfishness and utilitarianism. “We can’t afford that!” is the cry for everything from human services to parks. In some cases that is correct — our government can’t. But as a society, we can’t afford to not have them.

President John F. Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” are more true and urgent today than when he uttered them during his inaugural address on January 20, 1961. Our government very clearly can’t do everything to make our nation better. It is up to us, the citizens, to make things happen. Some people do care about feral cats and are volunteering their time and effort to help them. Some people care about parks and nature trails and volunteer their time to build them. Some people care about art and bringing it to people who could never possibly experience it. All of those things enhance our lives in so many subtle ways that as a society we tend to take it for granted, sometimes to the point of mocking and criticism.

“What about the children?” is a question asked cynically in this politically and socially divisive era. It is uttered dripping with sarcasm, an ad hominem attack upon anyone who suggests a problem or a need to do something that doesn’t fit within the confines of austerity and utilitarianism. Because, after all, everyone should know that we just can’t afford to give a damn.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoBut we must. At least some of us must and the rest need to stop with the sarcasm. In my opinion it is the height of irony that those screaming the loudest with the complaints of “we can’t afford it” consider themselves the patriots when, in truth, they are advocating for the exact same utilitarianism that is a defining quality of communism. I’ve been in communist countries and I can assure you that we don’t want that kind of society — we don’t want that utilitarianism. It leads to a drab and soulless existence that would suck the very life out of our nation.

Nature trails, art, even getting out of the house to feed (and trap, neuter and release) feral cats is important to our society. Without that stuff, we would lose something that is indefinable and all be left at home with nothing more growing inside of us than anger as the talking heads on radio and television try to tell us how to think. Yes, what about the children? What about all of the warm and fuzzy stuff with value that can’t easily be calculated in a spreadsheet? For things that lack hard numbers, they definitely add up.

A new hospital is a good thing. A new strip mall brings much needed jobs. But let’s not forget that there is always an impact on something else. Let’s not forget that the incalculable warm and fuzzy stuff adds up, too. Or rather the loss of it leads to a place where Americans really won’t want to be, at least not if we hope to continue leading the world. Our government obviously can’t do it all, so what can you do for your country? Can you help out some homeless cats? Can you help to keep our souls alive in supporting public access to the arts? Can you help to replant some sea grass? Can you help your elderly neighbor with her groceries or taking out her trash? The list is endless and it is entirely up to you and your heart’s desire. Your effort (and your heart) is needed today more than ever.

If you feel you can’t, if your anger and cynicism have displaced compassion and the willingness to gamble on America and your fellow Americans by pitching in to help, then at least get out of the way. Get out of the way of those doing the impossible to make this a better place. Fight all you want about how your tax dollars are spent — that is, after all, a privilege and the American Way. But so is coming together with your neighbors to raise a barn — at least it used to be. The American Way is people working together for something greater than themselves, even if it doesn’t clearly and obviously add to their personal bottom line.

So maybe not everyone loves Emma Kitty, but I do. I’m glad we did something about it. She certainly didn’t add anything to a spreadsheet of my finances, but she has added much to my life. Sometimes, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Do what you can do for your country — even the smallest things matter — and you’ll see just how valuable you really are. I’m willing to bet on that.

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