This is the recovery story of two small kittens, found sleeping out in sub-zero temperatures beside a country road, eyes crusted shut, bellies full of parasites.
Kifli (left) and Guba (right)
I have never rescued stray cats before. Injured pigeons, sure. Lost hedgehogs, of course. But growing up in England and then living in New Zealand, both huge nations of animal lovers, stray pets were just never a thing. That is not to say I've never seen stray animals. While travelling in Asia and South America, you often encounter injured and abused animals, but it is so frequent that any rescue plans forumlating in your mind quickly dissolve into a feeling of powerlessness.
With Guba and Kifli, things felt a little different. It was on a recent trip to track and photograph beavers that my partner and I encountered the two in question. During Feburary, in the tiny village of Dédestapolcsány in Northern Hungary, a stone's throw from the Slovakian border, population 1500, we spotted two small kittens playing among the frost along the side of the road. Getting a bit closer, seeing the condition of their eyes, fur, tummy, and their constant sneezing, the seriousness of their situation clicked into focus.
WARNING: Potentially upsetting images
These may have been the worse looking stray cats I had seen before. With their eyes fused almost completely shut and no mother around, visions of them stumbling into ongoing traffic came into my mind, and I wondered how they were surviving the below -10°C winter nights of the past few weeks. Clearly they still possessed some vision, as the grey kitten approached us immediately and began purring in our presence, but it was questionable how long that would last. In any case, it was clear they would die before ever reaching adulthood.
Guba approached us immediately
Walking back to our hostel, we decided to take action. Working within the COVID-19 curfew, the next day we would make a 3-hour return journey to the nearest town and buy a cat carrier, food, shampoo and a lot of towels. We checked on them again in the meantime and suprisingly learned they had owner, who appeared out of an old boarded-up house wearing ragged blue overalls with a cigarrette in his mouth.
The man had a distant yet polite disposition, he told us that the cats belonged to his granddaughter (who hadn't been around for a while) and seemed unperturbed when giving us permission to take them away. Whether they really did belong to his granddaughter or it was an excuse to cover his inaction, the conversation reflected the general attitudes towards cat care in rural Hungary. The kittens were not starving, layers of dry food of various ages was left lying on the doorstop, but this is where the level of care ended. Cats and dogs are rarely neutered in rural areas, and it's a safe bet that most animals never see a vet in their entire lifetime. The fact that these attitudes overlap with the lowest income regions of the country is no coincidence, and vet fees may be felt as an unnecessary premium. However, it may more likely be a question of ignorance: cats are not valued highly, vet checkups seem redundant, and neutering is seen as interfering with nature.
The next day, armed with a swanky new pet carrier, we returned to scoop them away. First line of business: bathtime. Their eyes were full of gunk, fur was matted and full of dirt, and their tails were frozen together with faeces. Not a pretty sight. But with surprisingly little effort, I was able to clean them up and let them open their eyes much wider than before.
We chose to name them after traditional Hungarian baked goods, naturally. Following their colours we had Guba, named after a grey poppy seed cake, and Kifli, after the eastern version of a brown croissant. Together they made gubakifli, a sweet pastry.
Guba had a fever and was shaking, and poor Kifli was having constant diarrhea. They both ate readily and although Guba showed promising behaviour by exploring his surroundings, Kifli was the opposite, remaining fixed to the spot that he was put down on. Taking them to a vet, we also discovered they both had eye infections, ear infections, respiratory infections, tapeworms and various other parasites. They were generally in a life-threatening condition, and Kifli's right eye in particular might be lost soon if not treated. We were prescribed five types of medicine, which had to be given to each kitten multiple times a day.
A week into treatment
After a few days of treatment, including daily baths and a relocation away from Dédestapolcsány, they were starting to show more energy. Up until now they had to be confined to their cat carrier when not supervised, but now were given an entire bathroom to occupy. Plus a litter tray, which quickly became the new play area of choice.
Their eyes started to clear up slowly, and they gained more and more energy. For the first time, they were actively playing with us, just as kittens should. A second vet visit revealed they were much younger than we had guessed, only around 2-3 months old.
Eventually they were given full run of the house, and run they did. Galloping up and down two flights of stairs across two hour blocks, followed by an hour of rest and recuperation, they became if anything, a bit too energetic.
Free of parasites and eyes clearing up, only a thin layer over Kifli's right eye remained from their previous condition. Otherwise, they acted like completely different cats, and were gaining weight fast.
Guba became a slow, loud-purring, cuddle-seeking, growl-while-eating angel, while Kifli used his new-found energy to run around like a rabbit maniac.
We never rescued them under the impression we could keep them. As they grew into top tier cats though, it became much harder to let them go. Still, before we knew it, it was time for rehoming. They now live with a new family in a big house, with four children to keep them busy.
Now vs then
It is extraordinary how far a little bit of money and time can go. All-in-all, Guba and Kifli went from living in constant pain and discomfort, quickly approaching a certain death, to being healthy and having a loving new forever home, in a matter of three weeks. It doesn't take much to make a difference #AdoptDontShop ∎