In rescue work you will eventually come across that one animal that is your great achievement, the one that you manage to rehabilitate against all odds. The one that steals your heart, soul and lifts your spirit.
For me, this rescue is Riley – not because of what I did for him but because how he struggled to overcome his past, how he blossomed and who he eventually became.
This is probably why actually writing his story is so hard for me as nothing I would be capable of writing would be sufficient to fully describe the cat he was when I met him or the cat he became.
I didn't know Riley until he was four months old. I met Riley at the lowest point in his life but at that time, what I didn't know was that his previous life had been torture day in and day out.
He was raised in a closet. He was never given a name. He wasn't allowed out unless his teenage owners took him out to beat him. He was forced to live in darkness, his own feces/urine and if he was lucky - he would be tossed cat food cans which were left there to rot as garbage.
Eventually the kids tired of him and decided to get rid of him. So they took Riley out and cut his nails off to the base. They then kicked, punched and threw him until his ribs and pelvis broke. His internal organs were bruised and his kidney was lacerated but that was not enough.
So the kids took him to a nearby construction site where they were working on a building. The workers had a huge "kettle" of roofing tar - the kind that is heated to about 200 degrees Celsius. They used the tar broom left there to tar Riley to the ground, instantly burning his skin - trapping him to the ground as it dried into his fur/skin. That was enough. They left him for dead and went home.
Fortunately for Riley, a worker forgot something at the site and returned to get it. While there he heard a very faint moaning sound. He found Riley, dug him up (as the tar was attached to the ground) and took him immediately to the vet.
That is when I got the call. The team knew that IF this cat made it, it would need intensive after care. I was new to the list but I was the only one able and willing to take this cat on. The description on the phone didn’t even come close to preparing me for what I saw when I entered the exam room of the vet office.
When I met him, it was hard to believe the "thing" was alive let alone a cat. As I stared down at the mass of black tar and matted blue fur I couldn't help but think I was in over my head with this one - as the smell of burnt flesh, blood and tar were overwhelming and his small pitiful cries of agony were heart wrenching.
We worked for three hours to get the tar off of his body. We had to use diesel donated by the local refinery (as advised by the chemists at the refinery) to remove it.
Once the tar was removed, we saw what we were left with. Numerous third degree burns, blisters and raw skin. His whiskers were melted and his nose was fused shut. His eyes were virtually untouched but swollen (we later found out that his "owners" wanted him to see his own demise so they said). The pads of his paws were blistered and swollen.
As the vet worked at treating the wounds, I comforted him and helped where I was needed. After 7 hours, we had him stabilized and fully vetted - we knew the extent of his injuries and had a treatment plan for him.
I took Riley home with two bags of medical supplies and a 20 page handout on after care. It was that first night together at home, that I named him.
I chose the name Riley because of its meaning: it is of Irish and Gaelic origin, and its meaning is "courageous" and I felt that if any cat needed a courageous name it was this little guy.
We set about warding off infection, syringe feeding him water/food, giving him his medications and cleaning his wounds. He was a timid but great patient. No matter how much pain he was in or how many times a day I had to handle his broken little body – he never complained, lashed out etc. He knew I was trying to help.
It took seven months of intensive care and many set backs to bring him around but he made it - physically he was near perfect (he would have some organ damage the rest of his life but was going to be ok). He became known as the "little cat that could".
However, despite his great progress, the vets predicted because of his early lack of nutrition, organ damage – he would probably only live 2-4 years but we thought 2-4 years would be better than nothing and we forged ahead.
Although physically stable, mentally, Riley was a mine field. He was only comfortable in small, closed dark spaces. He would hide in drawers, closets, under sofas, in the dryer or even the fridge - just to be "safe".
Riley also associated pain with attention and he would intentionally bash his head on corners (the wall, end table, etc) - until his head bled and then rush up to me for attention.
Our vet didn't know what to do. Riley was depressed, anxious and exhibiting self-mutilation behaviors - a little out of most vets comfort zone. However, our vet had attended a seminar with a behavioral specialist from Toronto who has dealt with cases like this through training as well as medication.
He took Riley's case pro-bono and Riley was put on an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug. I was also given training advice on how to build his trust, confidence and self worth.
It took another year of 2 hours per day working with Riley to have him come out of it and be weaned off of his medications.
Our vet thought that I took the confidence building with him a little too far as Riley became a little "emperor" feeling very entitled and special. He began to expect special treatment and adoration from everyone.
I was just happy he was well. He was happy. He would purr. He would need my stomach and groom me. He would interact with visitors and more importantly he would play with Foster!
Riley and Foster developed an intense bond. They were never apart. No matter how many rescues we had or where we lived - the boys were together, a team. Foster was the greeter, gentle giant and Riley was the mini-dictator.
Riley would accept any rescue so long as they obeyed his rules. When a new rescue would come in - Riley would strut up to them and WHACK them on the head. If they submitted - all was well. If they didn't he WHACKED them on the head until they did (usually it didn't take more than 3 WHACKS).
Riley was impeccably clean. He would groom himself for hours each day. He also had a funny habit of biting his nails (I honestly think he was sharpening them!) when he was mad/upset.
Riley also took to our Chihuahuas like Winnie the Pooh to honey. He loved play fighting with Rupert (until Rupert starting winning using cat like fighting skills!). Then play fighting wasn’t as much fun anymore for him.
When we moved to the farm, Riley loved it (after he got over the initial shock of being a barn cat).
His fur got a bit thicker, he would smell of freshly cut wood and he would patrol the property like a little sentry. He loved to watch over “his” horses, “his” barn but most of all he loved the freedom of being outside. He would run up to the hay loft when we were putting the hay up/down so that he could stick his head out of the loft window and with the sun on his face, the wind rustling his fur – he would survey his “kingdom”.
He carried himself with grace and dignity. He had a calming self assurance about him that put people at ease. He was very comfortable being Riley – something that took him quite a long time to accomplish.
He became a fixture here at the farm. He would greet the visitors, new rescues etc. Yet few knew about the past trauma in his life. No one would have guessed how far he had come; no one realized the dark side of this open/friendly soul.
In September 2007, Riley went missing. We knew that something had happened to him, likely that he went off to die with dignity in the woods.
He beat the odds – he survived an impossible situation, overcame his fears and blossomed into an amazing cat. He also lived for 7+ years. Not bad for a cat given 2-4 years to live.
Every day he amazed me. To see him happy on the farm, compared to the memory of him the first time we met. He was a miracle, a true inspiration. I am so proud of him.
Of course, even now, I secretly still hold out hope that I will see him run across the pasture to me. I know that this won’t happen but Riley was my “one”.
My special rescue who taught me that you can never give up, that you can always forgive but most of all that no matter how dark the world may seem – there is hope.
February 14, 2000 – September, 2007
RIP Riley - - you will be missed, more than you will ever know.