“I could feel every bone in the kitten’s body. I could not only feel the raised bumps of her spine, but the individual rounds of each vertebrae. The kitten’s head was too big for her body, a sign of malnourishment. She also had the most beautiful blue-green eyes I had ever seen. But, they were coated with so much pus and goop that she could barely open them.”
Read Coconut Mutts Founder/Director Kelsey Johnson’s bittersweet account of a tiny kitten that sparked a big idea.
It had been a week of record breaking temperatures in American Samoa. With temperatures reaching into the 90s and 100% humidity, the heat index soared to a whopping 116 degrees. The sun scorched the island. People huddled under whatever shade they could find. Plants began to wilt and grass lawns began to turn brown. In talking with my friends who grew up on the island, many would shake their heads and say they had never seen this kind of hot weather during this season. As a result, the skies were brilliantly blue and the Pacific Ocean calm. The views were spectacular.
We headed to the north side of the island toward the village of Vatia and a short hike known as Lower Sauma. The trail started on a ridge that overlooked the famous Pola Island. Green rainforest and deep blue ocean. Exotic birds such as the white tern with 12 inch long delicate tail feathers flaring behind them and red-footed boobies skimmed the rainforest treetops.
I immediately started to sweat at the trailhead. My neck was slick with it. Beads rolled down my face and I could feel my shirt gradually getting soaked and sticking to me. We hadn’t even started hiking yet.
As we were checking water bottles and applying the final coating of bug spray, Joe called from a cluster of tall grass nearby, “There’s a kitten over here,” he said.
“Catch it,” I called, afraid it would run away before we could see if it needed help.
Joe was bent over brushing the two foot tall grass away with his hands as I walked up.
“I think it ran off,” he said.
I started to help him search anyway and within a few moments I saw something move.
“There it is,” I pointed near Joe’s feet.
The kitten was tiny and perfectly matched the color of the dry grass. Joe gently scooped up the animal with one hand and passed it to me.
The kitten cried and struggled to get out of my grasp. She was calico and fluffy, which is unusual for a Samoan cat, most are short-haired, which is more practical for the island heat. The fluff made the kitten’s size deceiving. She must have weighed only a few ounces. I could feel every bone in her body. I could not only feel the raised bumps of her spine but the individual rounds of each vertebrae. The kitten’s head was too big for her body, a sign of malnourishment. She also had the most beautiful blue-green eyes I had ever seen. But, they were coated with so much pus and goop that she could barely open them.
I talk softly to her and stroked her chin gently with my pinky finger. The kitten began to calm. My friend Kersten had a handkerchief in her pocket. She pulled her aviator sunglasses down on her nose and began to delicately wipe the gunk out of the kitten’s eyes. She also poured some water into her palm which the kitten lapped up.
The hiking group gathered round. Some began asking what we were going to do with her while we went on the hike. I was baffled at first.
“What do you mean,” I asked. “I’m going to carry her.”
This was met with an outpouring of other ideas including sticking her in metal garbage can or putting her in the car until we got back. I said no to both.
“It’s really not a big deal,” I said. “She’s not exactly heavy and isn’t trying to escape. Watch.” I gripped the kitten gently under her shoulders and removed my other hand. She remained crumpled in a fetal position – her tiny body tucked in on itself and frozen in position. She was so weak and dehydrated that her body literally couldn’t relax and was frozen in place. It reminded me of a body in rigamortis.
I took her home that afternoon. I named her Jojo, after my friend Joe who had scooped her tiny body out of the grass with his giant hand. She laid curled up in my hat on the front seat of the car on the drive home. She fell asleep shortly after I began driving. I petted her gently underneath her white chin and while I could not hear her purring I could feel her little throat vibrate as she purred happily in her sleep. When I got her home and took a closer look at her I could see that she was even thinner than I once thought. Her head was too big for her body and the fuzzy long hair deceived my eyes into thinking that she had more weight on her than she actually did. She was covered in fleas and dirt. The fleas look huge on her tiny body. I started picking off the ones that I could see and pinching them between my fingernails until they gave a satisfying crunch.
At first I mixed up some kitten formula for her. The kitten would not touch it. That alarmed me. This was the first animal I had rescued in American Samoa who did not eat immediately attack their food. Thinking maybe she had been eating solid food for a while without her mother’s milk, I put down some solid cat food in front of her her. I heard a low rumbling noise and looked around for a few seconds for the source of the primal noise, until I I realized that the kitten was growling at her food. I cleaned the kitten as best I could and tucked her into a carrier with a tiny litter box constructed out of a small cardboard box and a towel that she could sleep on.
Later that night I went to the airport to pick up my best friend, Jess. It had been a couple of months since I had left Seattle and since we’d seen each other. After we hugged and jumped up and down like we were teenagers again I asked her, “Guess what I have back at the house?”
She smiled and said, “Kittens!”
I had told her about two kittens I had already been fostering, but she was surprised to learn I had found another one just a few hours earlier. Instead of insisting on drinking from a freshly cut nui or having some vailima under a coconut tree (as most island visitors do), Jess said, “Let’s go back to the house. I can’t wait to meet her.”
The next day Jojo got her first bath. Jess did the honors in the kitchen sink with a little bit of dish soap since there’s no animal shampoo on the island. With her body soaking wet I could finally see how thin she really was. Without her fur you could almost imagine that her skin was so thin that you could see through it to the organs inside her body. She dangled from Jess’ hands, long limbs and big paws. Her turquoise eyes watched me as I gave her bits of wet cat food while Jess picked the remaining fleas out of her coat.
Over the weekend we gave her water and food and watched her start to open up to us and the other kittens. She was perfectly content to lay snuggled it the crook of our arms or on our lap or beside our heads as we slept. Finally Monday arrived when the vet clinic was open. We dropped her off in the morning so she could get dewormed, fluids and examined by Dr. Kristen. When we picked her up that afternoon she snuggled inside of Jessie’s shirt and immediately went to sleep. Dr. Kristen took a moment to talk to us saying that Jojo seemed very weak and that further tests may be needed in order to determine whether or not she had feline leukemia or another disease. This news was disheartening as by this time Jessie and I were completely in love with the kitten. As soon as we got back to the house and had internet access, we began researching feline leukemia and trying to prepare for what could be done for Jojo in the future.
Later that evening we noticed that Jojo was not as active as she was over the past weekend and she was even having problems standing up. We thought maybe that she’d had a long day at the veterinary clinic and was exhausted, which would be expected for a kitten that was this weak and just recently rescued. But as we looked at her more closely and kept a watchful eye on her for the next hour we noticed she was not improving. We called Dr. Kristen and gave her an update. Dr. Kristen said to try and give her some food and water and see if she perks up in an hour and to give her a call back thinking maybe the cat was dehydrated. After an hour, Jojo continued to become weaker and was unable to stand on her own. Jessie and I were both crouched down on the tile floor over her and examining her trying to see if she had a hidden injury. Finally, Jess looked at me and whispered, “I think they’ll probably have to euthanize her.”
We called Dr. Kristen back and she said to bring the kitten back first thing in the morning. Jojo fell asleep first on Jessie’s bare stomach and then on mine that night. Our hope was that the food and water and love would take effect if she was given enough rest and a safe place to heal. At about 5am, I woke up to Jojo mewing softly. I quietly turned over on the bed where she was resting on my pillow. I gently stroked the space in between her ears. She couldn’t focus on my face and let out a pitiful soft meow. I gently woke up Jess and said softly, “Jojo’s not doing so good.”
Jess sprung out of bed and crouched down over the kitten careful not to pick her up, but her hands hovered over her body assessing and listening.
“Oh Jojo,” Jess said. “I don’t think she’s gonna make it, Kelsey.”
My chest got tight.
“I’ll call the vet,” I said.
Dr. Kristen was up and getting ready for work and she said she would meet us at the clinic as soon as possible. Jess hurried into the bathroom to get ready. All the while, Jojo mewed – not so much in pain, but in heartbreaking confusion. I hovered over her feeling helpless and wanting so badly to take away her pain or whatever fear she was experiencing. I slid my hands gently underneath the towel she was laying on and as I lifted her up I whispered, “I love you.”
Then she died.
I drew her gently to my chest and sat on the bed, tears streaming down my face and landing on Jojo who was now quiet and still. It is an overwhelming thing to see a life escape. I felt hopeless and furious for not being able to keep her tiny life anchored in her emaciated body. I took a breath and called to Jess through the bathroom door without moving from the bed. I watched the bathroom door jerk open and saw Jessie’s wide eyes look at me.
“She died,” I sobbed.
I watched Jessie’s shoulders slump and her face crumple as if someone had punched the air out of her body.
“Oh no,” She sobbed and rushed over to the bed where I cradled Jojo. She wrapped her arms around us and we cried as our tears fell on the yellow towel and Jojo’s tiny calico body.
“It’s just so sad,” Jess said as her voice wavered.
We decided to bury her in the front yard on the bluff that overlooked the coconut trees to the Pacific Ocean. We found an old shoe box and gently laid Jojo on the yellow towel inside the miniature, makeshift coffin. Jessie went about collecting flowers throughout the yard. Red and yellow hibiscus. Long pink flowers. And small white ones with purple centers. I found a shovel and started attacking the ground as Jess nestled the flowers along Jojo in the box. The sun was coming up and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I began to sweat. My shirt sticking to my back as I hit rock after rock with my shovel. Jess took over after a little bit because digging into volcanic earth is no easy feat with the sun hitting your back and tears streaming down your face. We put the lid on the shoebox and gently lowered Jojo into the ground. After replacing the dirt and grass on the new grave, we put rocks on top with more flowers.
We decided to say a few words. I can’t remember what we said, but I do know that during that time, with the sun rising over the turquoise South Pacific Ocean and the wind rustling through the coconut and banana trees, that something change for me and for Jess.
I called Dr. Kristen and told her what happened. She assured me that there was nothing else that we could’ve done because the kitten was already so weak. Our families assured us that we had done our best and that Jojo received so much more love than she would’ve on her own. Our friends assured us that we gave her a better life, and even though it was short, “it was so much better than her dying alone starving and unloved in some bushes.” Through spurts of tears, we began having the first conversations about what we could offer to help them. Many people – Dr. Kristen, the clinic staff, other organizations, foster homes and village volunteers – on the islands try to help the animals as best they can. But resources are slim. And it does not have to be that way.
We spent the day quietly in each other’s company. Jessie suggested we go on a hike. Even though I did not feel like it, I knew that she was right. And so we got in the car and once again drove towards the village of Vatia to try and calm our hearts with the paradise that surrounded us, even though we felt ugly inside. As we were driving along the narrow road in the middle of the rainforest, we saw a small creature trotting towards us on the road. It was another animal who was abandoned and sick.
We never made it to the hike. Instead, I pulled the car over and felt the ugliness lift slightly as I set one foot on the pavement and then the other and began walking toward another animal in need of help.