The real-life story behind Stolen
Many years ago, I worked as a research assistant at a large Canadian university in the city of Toronto. My office was in the basement of an old Victorian house. It was August – most of the university was on vacation. This particular day was swelteringly hot and as was the case with many old buildings on that campus, it was awash in bad smells. However, this day the smells were particularly awful. I followed my nose to a part of the basement I had never really paid much attention to – a short hall behind some piled-up chairs, right beside the freight elevator. Past the chairs was a dead-end corridor with one door which opened into a room on the right side of the hall. The smell was coming from that room.
I opened the door.
Inside, in small room, illuminated only by daylight coming through a single window in the far wall, was a bank of six stainless steel cages. In the cages were six cats. They had neither food nor water. And they were very, very ill. I didn’t know it at the time, but they had URI – Upper Respiratory Infection. Their eyes were gummed shut with pus, their noses were running, their breathing was so ragged I could hear it across the room. And the smell was coming from their litterpans, which were overflowing.
First I cried. And then I became mad as hell. Who was responsible for these cats and what were they doing here?
I drove to the nearest 7-11 for garbage bags, litter, paper towels, a jug of water, and cat food. I emptied each litter pan, refilled it, put food and water in the empty stainless steel bowls attached to each cage door, and cleaned the cats’ pus-filled eyes and noses, all the while trying to ignore the fact that several of them were rubbing on my hands as I tended them, licking me, purring, grabbing my arms. What the hell? These were clearly people’s pets. How had they come to be here?
Then I went upstairs to make some phone calls and I was not polite in my enquiries. Finally, I reached the Psychology Department where, after several transfers, and interminable minutes on hold, I learned that the cats were being held for a “benign learning experiment”, but that their keeper had gone on vacation and, oh, dear, must have neglected to arrange for a substitute. I lost my temper with the bored-sounding young woman on the other end of the line. How could any kind of reliable data be gleaned from sick animals, I yelled. And how was it legal to be experimenting on people’s pets? I was told the experiment and the cats were none of my business. I yelled some more. It was Friday, I pointed out. Who was going to come and take care of them on the weekend?
I stomped around my office, trying to decide what to do and as I did, my phone rang. It was the head of our department. The Psychology Department had called him and ratted me out. I was told in quite frosty terms that I was not to make further inquiries about the situation in the basement and, moreover, to stay out of that room if I wanted to keep my job.
I called my friend who made costumes for the Medieval Studies Department and we hatched various desperate plans. We had just about decided that we were going to spring the cats – come back with carriers and open the cages. But then what? I had two cats of my own and she had one. How could we bring sick cats into our homes? And it was getting to be five o’clock on a Friday. Which vet would even look at them without an appointment?
As I was trying to decide what to do, my phone rang again. It was my boss – the principal investigator of our research project. She was on vacation, but had been contacted by the head of our department about my nose-poking into affairs that did not concern me. I’d embarrassed her, she said. Forget the cats, say nothing about them to anyone else, or be fired. Your choice.
So I backed down. I decided that it was more important to keep my job than to do the right thing. And what would the right thing have been? Calling the local television station and the newspaper. Blowing the whistle on animal abuse. Dragging the university through the mud. But I didn’t do any of that. Why not? I was a coward. It was not a pleasant thing to learn about myself. Then, fall came, and as the weeks went on, I tried to put the whole situation out of my mind. Eventually, I did quit. Things were never the same between my boss and me. Nor did I have the same feeling for the university that I had previously loved. I carried the memory of that situation, its wrongness, and my cowardice inside me for many years.
And now? I may still be a coward – I suspect I am -- but I won’t back down. It’s way past time to tell the truth, no matter what. So for you guys in the cat room – a tabby, a tortie, a black cat, an orange cat, and two black and white cats, someone’s pets who were loved and lost, Stolen is for you.