Our cat Nelson. Pippa’s Paddock holiday centre Sicily.

It was one of those beautiful dusks. After a warmer than usual April day, sunset brought with it, as it always does in the Madonie mountains, a cool welcome breeze. I was driving the large old Jeep homeas I rounded a bend. These country roads are always littered with bits and pieces of anything and everything. Mostly bits of leaves and twigs, some debris from broken cars, someone’s paperbag that contained lunch at midday….

horse riding in Sicily

Nelson in one of his “fat” stages…

I thought nothing of it as I saw what may well have been a little bit of dark rag. For some reason, I steered to put a wheel each side and avoid driving over and squashing It.  Why on earth I should have done that, heaven knows. “Pips”, I turned to my 16 year old daughter, for whose sake the journey was being made as I drove her home from her afternoon out with friends in town. “Please climb out and go and check that thing in the road. Something tells me it’s a hurt animal, probably a bird. Perhaps we can help it.”

Pippa doesn’t need telling twice. She always rushed to help any injured or distressed animal, and out she went to return with the minutest kitten ever. Not only was he tiny but he was immensely ugly. The poor fellow was completely blind and both his eyes were bulging out so far it looked like they would pop out any minute. He had obviously struggled to keep up with the competition for his mother’s milk against his stronger siblings and now he had been abandoned by his mother as he appeared to be a completely lost cause. I was sure that putting him down painlessly would be the only way to go. Still, Pippa comforted the twitching little body as best she could and he seemed to settle down and resign himself to his fate, perhaps even enjoying a bit of clearly harmless embrace.

Once home we gave him some warm milk. He had obviously only ever drank his mother’s milk and didn’t have a clue how to lap it up. We had to put the saucer away after he had managed to spray milk everywhere except into his stomach and I reckoned a small Italian coffee cup might do it. It took a few minutes, but eventually he figured he could stick his tiny head in as far as it would go and rather than drown, the milk would find its way past his throat and into his belly. He drank ferociously. In every other way he was a strong little creature, but, my goodness, was he ugly! One eye was so bulged out that I really believed it would pop right out at the slightest knock. We decided to rig up a cardboard box for the night. With some comfortable rags at the bottom of the box and a full belly, not to mention his weak state, we reckoned he would fall right asleep.

horse riding in sicily

Fighting fit days after his amputation.

He wasn’t having it. I suppose, even blind as he was, he was used to the free feeling and was able to sense his confinement. He fought like a tiger with a strength which amazed us for such a tiny creature. And his claws were sharp. Simply closing the box has no effect. He could push it open and again I feared he would wrench one of his eyes out. I was surprised. It touched my heart to see how much will to live this small thing had, even in the face of such hardship and little odds of a decent life. We put a pile of books, quite heavy ones, on the box and he scratched and pushed all he could interminably. But the books were heavy….  I said to Pippa that we should settle down and watch some TV and he would soon fall asleep from exhaustion. Minutes later, we heard a thud and the books were pushed to the ground and this super gremlin emerged bristling and ready to take on the world…

OK, we took up the challenge and loaded even more books. Again he fought and scratched and pushed… He wasn’t giving in without a fight…  But the weight was far too much this time, so we went back to our program. Another thud !   Oh dear, this time the lid had caved in and the books were lying inside the box. I was sad. Super gremlin must have died fighting to the end I thought, crushed under what was meant to be his final prison. Poor sod. Life deals out some bad cards to some individuals at times.

Pippa rushed to clear the box out. We heard a faint cry. He was alive! So Pippa held him on her lap for a while whilst we watched TV and he seemed to settle down a bit more. When it was time he had to go back to his prison cardboard box, this time suitably reinforced, and we again went through the fight till he gave up.

The next day I started ringing vets. This proved to be another eye opener in rural Sicily. No vet was willing to come out “just for a cat”! They figured they would be the laughing stock of the town. Money or payment had nothing to do with it. It was a question of pride.

After talking to 4 vets I managed to convince one to do it as a “personal favour” on condition no-one was to know it had ever happened. I swore myself to secrecy! I had visions of Marlon Brando…  And he absolutely turned his nose up at the slightest suggestion of payment or reward. Imagine if word had leaked out that he had even got paid for it !!!

I told the vet (who shall forever remain anonymous) that the kitten was blind and would need to be put to sleep, but that he musn’t suffer. That was most important. He looked at the small creature. A few seconds and he diagnosed the problem with some unintelligible words and declared that, in these situations, one eye is always worse than the other. The vet reckoned that if the worse of the two was removed surgically the kitten might well regain some sight in the other. I voted for giving the critter a chance. He had demonstrated enough abilty to fight on and had earned the right to try.

Well, we unceremoniously placed Nelson (by now I had baptised the creature after Lord Admiral Nelson **) on a table out on the terrace and I was enrolled as the main assistant. At my suggestion that the kitten be sedated whilst having his eye pulled out, there was a mild surprise, a slight grunt and a begrudging injection which only partially had the desired effect. I won’t go into sordid details but Nelson was anything but anesthetized. By the end of the operation my hands were as scarred as poor Nelson’s wretched face.

Nelson cried in pain for about 24 hours. As the days passed he gained some strength and started to keenly drink milk and eat some light food. We were pleased to note that the vet had been spot on and his sight with the remaining eye came back almost immediately and improved within days.  He loved a cuddle but only on his terms, when he wanted it and for as long as he wanted it. Then off on his independent strolls. His wild birth heritage was not to leave him.

As the weeks rolled into months Nelson started to venture outdoors and was soon master of his territory. To my amazement he proved to be an incredible hunter. Clearly having just one eye was not to be a major handicap. He soon learned to climb up really high into the trees to terrorise the poor sparrows and even learned a way of sitting hidden in one spot on a tall branch and leap at birds as they flew past, catching them in mid air with his paws and holding them in his mouth in time to land on four legs! Try as I may, I couldn’t convince him to leave other living creatures alone and he has remained a unfailing hunter ever since. There was nothing anyone could do to take away his prey and I would risk deep gashes to my hands on the many initial occasions I tried. Serpents, rats, even chickens and rabbits far bigger than him were brought home to be shown off to us and eventually devoured by him – even though he always had all the cat food he could want for…

Today, four years down the line, Nelson is the perfect cross between a home and a totally feral cat. In the mating season, on freezing cold days and nights, he disappears for days on end, chasing the ladies and fighting for his territory. The first year he did that he returned after a week or so. I was convinced we had seen the last of him. As the weeks marched on he became constantly weaker and thinner. No time to eat, he would chew just what seemed one mouthful every two or three days and rush out impatiently. He lost so much weight and was covered in deep scratches and clothed blood but would let no one approach him. At the end of the season, we all thought he would die. He was so weak, he slept all the time and ate very little. But slowly, very very slowly, he got his strength back.

Nelson still does this every year, but after that first season, I think he wins more fights and paces himself better. He still is emaciated and weak by the end of winter but not to the point wherein we fear for his life. I see him in his wanderings as far away from home as 3 to 4miles. I know it’s him with his unmistakable one eye. When winter is over, and the frenzy dies down, Nelson transforms himself back into this house cat that sleeps all day and eats himself fat in preparation for the next long round.

One day his dangers will spell the end of him. He is as tough as they come. Notwithstanding his disability he takes no pushing around from anything nature throws at him; is a capable hunter; has learned to avoid traffic; and all else there is to learn. This he has done alone without the usual mother cat’s help, which is so important with kittens. When that day comes, Nelson shall have lived a full life and faced it like a man of a cat ! horse riding sicily

**   Admiral Horatio Nelson was one of Great Britain’s greatest Naval Officers. He had one eye blown out in battle and lost his right arm in another,  but fought on for a brilliant career with the bad eye covered with a famous eye patch. Admiral Nelson lost his life in the battle of Trafalgar in which he was victorious.