Street Talk: If cats could talk

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The seagull was in bad shape. Staring out from its cage with those tiny black eyes, it seemed to know it. One of its wings was completely gone, in all likelihood the result of a dog attack. A seagull with one wing can’t fly around in search of food; it can’t escape predators. A one-winged seagull is doomed.

It had to be put down. “It’s too bad,” said my new hero, Richard Burton, “but at least he won’t be at the mercy of dogs.”

Very compassionate. And it was a marvel that Richard could think about the gull at all, what with those three dozen cats and kittens running wild in the ruined house. He’d been at it for hours already, plucking cats out of the stench and loading them up. Those cats would get treated, get adopted, get on to normal cat lives instead of dying in the funk of that terrible house.

There were the three kittens Richard found near death inside a washing machine. How do kittens get inside a washing machine in the first place? It’s a mystery and there are theories. But sleuthing isn’t what the animal damage control agent came to do. He came to save the cats and so far, it was six down, about 30 to go.

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It was getting dark out on the spooky end of West Burrough Road. If you don’t believe in haunted houses, you should visit that last house on the left. Ghosts? My God, yes. Ghosts everywhere. Not the ethereal kind that float and moan, but more earthly specters. The empty food cans, the blood-spangled walls, that simple child’s drawing, so sad and incongruous hanging on the wall.

The house at the end of West Burrough Road is as haunted as any I’ve seen. The spirits of misery and sickness are everywhere.

And then there are the cats. Cats everywhere, scratching and whimpering inside the walls, burrowing inside shabby bedding, hiding beneath floorboards. It was growing dark and Richard was working alone inside the reeking house with a thousand things just waiting to trip a man up and impale him.

Oh, well, I thought. Some days you’ve just got to earn your money.

“No,” Richard said. “I’m doing this one for free.”

For free. In my writer’s head, I imagined the newspaper headlines. I imagined the gasping horror among our readers and then eventually, once the revulsion wore off, the appreciation. Richard Burton was going to be hailed as a hero. Animal lovers would send him flowers. There would be discussion about erecting a statue in his likeness in a town square. Selectmen might be moved to offer Richard a key to the city. And who could blame them? Here was a guy doing work so grim and ghastly, most would outright refuse to do it. They might hire someone to come in, clean the place and round up all those cats, but that someone would likely demand hazard pay or some local equivalent.

Richard Burton was doing it for free. Bring on the respect and adoration.

Only it didn’t happen that way. When the newspaper hit the streets in the morning, plenty of people wanted to talk to Richard, it’s true. But they weren’t tracking him down to express their gratitude. Most of them wanted to holler.

As shocking as conditions were inside that terrible house, I think I was even more stunned at the way the only protagonist was treated. As soon as the story hit the streets, the shouting began.

One police officer suggested Richard might be arrested for trespassing. The head of a department was fuming. Never mind that Richard had been called in by the Coastal Humane Society to help. Never mind that he was working in unpleasant and unhealthy conditions, at no cost to anyone. Never mind those three kittens that would have died slow, dark deaths inside that washing machine.

When people in high places feel as though a ball might have been dropped somewhere, the first thing they look for is someone to blame. And on that Thursday morning, as Richard was still washing the stench off himself and checking carefully for ticks, he was labeled — not a hero, not a good guy, not a Samaritan — but a trespasser. No good deed, as the saying asserts, will go unpunished.

I talked to Richard a few times that day. By middle afternoon, he still didn’t know whether he would be arrested. I had my own suspicions that he would not, in large part because of the public relations mess that would have followed. “Arrested: Rescuer of kittens and friend to animals everywhere.” If you’re going to make that bust, you might as well go straight after Grizzly Adams, Ace Ventura and — I mean, what the hell? — that little kid who befriended The Yearling.

I like to believe that most people, those uninvolved in the public-relations tangle, saw past all the bickering and recognized the main points of the sad saga. An old man, described as kind by those who knew him, had suffered long and was dying. The army of cats and kittens he left behind were in great distress. And a respected animal handler had stepped in, not because it was going to make him rich but because it was the right thing to do.

It was one of those rare stories with no bad guy, but damn if some people didn’t try to invent one. The complex and combative nature of man once again on display.

And we wonder why cats won’t talk to us.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can talk catty with him at mlaflamme@sunjournal.com.

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