Valuing a single small life in the face of global disaster

Jim Gabour
2 June 2008


He was deserted by his mother at birth and survived by his wits as a literal infant. He begged for food from seedier neighbourhood hangers-on, those scarcely better off than he. He scavenged for meals through rotting garbage in restaurant dumpsters, running between shadows on the precarious New Orleans lakefront. He occasionally trapped a fish which had strayed into the shallows or found a recently dead crab washed up on the shore.

He slept in abandoned cubbyholes hidden in the maze of small, damp caves that criss-cross beneath the jagged concrete of Lake Ponchartrain water breaks.

He managed his own life for well over a decade, with help from no one. Then as he was trying to cross a street, once again scrabbling for food, he was hit and critically injured by a car. The vehicle rolled over him, and did not stop to help.

Neighbours saw his injury, ran to the accident site and tried to find him. But, like sole survivalists are wont to do, he had instantly gone to ground to try and recover on his own. Other than recent bloodstains, there was not even a sign of him to be found when that help first arrived. When by pure chance he was discovered weeks later by a rescuer, he was on the verge of death, had lost one eye, all his teeth and the use of a leg. His tongue was split down the middle. Untreated, his bones had fused incorrectly.

He was in constant pain, and tried as best he could to communicate that distress.

His volunteer doctor ordered him taken for rehabilitation to a wooded inland farm in Mississippi, a place that catered to such lost souls. He had really just been settling in there when, in 2005, hurricane Katrina came ashore just south of the place, inundating the coastline with a thirty-foot storm surge. Trees and dwellings were considerably thinned.

But he survived again, and even began to thrive, together with others of his ilk and age for the first time.

By December 2007 he had recovered enough to be offered for adoption on the internet, his story accompanied by a picture of his tortured, though admirable, face.

But an adoptive family was not considered a likely result. Even the rescue agency itself admitted that a crippled, toothless, and half-blind 13-year-old was a long-shot for adoption.

He now lives at my house.

My own 12-year-old, who had lost an eye on the same side to illness at birth, had died only months before, and through an improbable chain of events starting with his picture on the internet, the limping little boy came to live with me.

You see, he is an orange tabby too.

A loving presence

"Tigger" he is called. He was tagged as "Tiger" when adopted, but the old boy was much too loving and non-aggressive to be called that, and so his name was softened with another "g". He weighed twelve pounds, 5.4 kilos, when he arrived here on Marigny Street in New Orleans. He gained weight and then a feeling of safety, on a steady diet and much petting.

Now after months of stability and love, those measures of happiness suddenly are declining hourly over the last seventy-two. Something bad has entered his system, and his breathing becomes more laboured by the moment. At first the doctors thought a harsh uprising of asthma, and then, a possible heart-attack, sending some sort of embolism from heart to lungs. It is the weekend, his regular vet is not available, and the emergency clinic where he first was treated had him overnight in an oxygen tent.

In the process of diagnosing his condition and evaluating his current status they have performed a number of scientific and medical procedures, including taking a life-sized X-ray. They looked inside his thick orange fur and discovered even more of his history.

There is a bullet lodged in his side. It has been there some time and has scarred over.

Two of his spinal vertebrae were crushed in what were probably the jaws of a large dog.

He has many many other healed wounds.

All this violence attached to the touchingly affectionate creature that has slept purring with his head and front paws on my hip for all these past months. But I never realised just how far he had come, how much he had endured. Yet here was a creature still able to blot out past horror and simply offer himself as a loving presence in others' lives.

Today, this nervous Sunday morning, while I waited for word about Tigger's imminent transfer to a different, much better-equipped, and vastly more expensive critical-care facility, I looked at the headlines on the web, on openDemocracy, and in the newspapers. None of which was comforting.

I read the stories of so many lives lost to tragedy and terror, both natural and man-made, and became lost amidst the reported masses of unprovoked and undeserved pain and death.

There are so many of them, so many innocents taken up in the tide of misery and forged into a singular face - the cyclone victim in Myanmar, the quake casualty in China, the tortured child of Sudan. Too many. And too much pain for the "civilised" world to bear. For whose convenience they are transformed a solitary, horrific entity. Some unified image to haunt the nights of liberals worldwide. Who, like me send a pound, a euro, a dollar, and try to forget the individual faces. They are too much for the heart when considered one by one. Too much.

A feline respite

But this old tabby and his X-rayed contents have made me begin separating faces and lives, and stories. Maybe this is his function on earth, showing himself as a reminder for compassion on a personal scale.

Today, over my clean coffee cup, silverware and plate, in the security of my own locked and alarmed home, I once again am forced to realise the depth of true sorrow, of the loss of individual lives.

Our minds protectively do indeed perceive them as a single face, but they have many. Their stories, the vast majority of which are never even considered significant, much less told, are each profound.

Their worth is no less than the story of the politician, the intellectual, the philosopher. If faced with the choice, I would undoubtedly prefer the existence of Tigger in this world to that of the current United States president. Though I fear the cat and I both now owe W a debt of sorts. Saturday, before taking Tigger to the emergency room, the mail arrived with an "economic stimulus payment" - a check from the federal government made out to me for $600. Today, just hours ago at the ritzy veterinary critical-care hospital, I was required to put down a deposit on the Tig's bill: the hospital's finance person demanded I pay $600. I am not kidding. Exactly $600. Which, confounding George W Bush's economically subterranean policies, I gave to the hospital and did not spend at Wal-Mart.

No matter, George. All of us eventually die. Only the worth of the story remains.

Cat on a Bed

Tigger would tell them that they all matter, if he could. He himself matters, here in this hard place where creatures live and die at the whim of their fellows. Where the self-aware are ruled by the caprice of the planet on which they are allowed momentarily to exist. And occasionally use the litter-box. Then to not exist.

I spoke to the doctor just now. My tabby is awake and purring in his oxygen tent. I must go read him the Sunday paper.

Comics first.

He likes the way I explain the brightly-printed comics. There are speaking cats in those pages, felines who are in charge of their lives.

He is not well, you know, and to heal must have brief respites from the pain of reality.

As do we all.


Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in the latest edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here
A selection of Jim Gabour's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)

"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)

"Cry Oncle!"
(12 July 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Jesus pulls a right cross" (25 February 2008)

"Show me some ID, so I can kill you" (30 April 2008)
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