I received a phone call from a landlord the other day. I was surprised to hear from him because the last clients of mine that he'd rented to had become a nightmare for him. They were a group of friends who'd seemed to operate well as a unit. But when the young woman left, the two guys proved incapable of maintaining any standards. They'd invited friends and acquaintences to camp out on their floors, and the place had been trashed. They let food containers, empty cans and bottles and dog feces accumulate on the balcony, and they got into arguments with other tenants, some of whom had threatened to move out. One of the visitors had bombarded a middle-aged woman with obscenities when she refused to admit her to the building. It turned out that the woman was a relative of the building's owner. And random street kids had begun to stop by at all hours and even to scale the balcony when there was no quick response to their shouts for admission.
So while this landlord had previously housed two other pairs of my clients, who'd done well and had never drawn negative attention to themselves, the last situation had soured things, and it went without saying that he wasn't likely to take in clients of mine again. Though the relationship had ended respectfully, and with sincere good wishes and empathy of both sides, I hadn't expected to ever hear from him.
Except that now, several months later, a problem had arisen relating to one of those other rentals, that had seemingly gone so well. My clients had left the building some months before. The couple had broken up, after one of them suddenly spiraled into mental illness and returned to the streets. The remaining individual, had quickly fallen behind with the rent, and in order to make up the shortfall, invited a cousin to stay with her, with the landlord's reluctant consent. When my client found the situation unworkable, she too left, leaving the apartment in the hands of the cousin. He too fell behind in the rent, but took no successful action to do anything about it, eventually abandonning the apartment and all its furnishings, which the original young couple had received free from a local furniture bank.
The reason for the landlord's call wasn't any of this. He didn't hold me accountable for the actions of the cousin, nor for his arrears. And though he'd lost some income on non-payment of rent, and would pay out more to have the belongings cleared and the apartment returned to rentable condition, this scenario wasn't too far off the routine run of things in the low-end rental market. The reason for his call was something a bit less usual.
The tenants, when abandonning the apartment, had left four cats behind. When the property manager entered the premises, after posting notice, he found two malnourished adult cats and two kittens. It was a wonder the animals weren't dead. They were found during a period of stifling heat, and what water and food might have been left out for them was clearly long gone. The landlord was calling for my help.
Technically, the cats were now the landlord's responsibiliy. According to the Landlord Tenant Act, the animals were to be treated like any other property. If the landlord wanted to 'dispose' of 'the property', he had to post notice, then 'maintain the property' for 30 days. Not surprisingly, this landlord wasn't willing to do that. Even if he did keep the pets for the month, there would still be fees he'd have to pay to turn them over to Animal Control or the Humane Society. The landlord confided to me that, if he couldn't come up with any better solution, he'd simply have the cats put out to the street, to fend for themselves.
And so, I took the matter on. To make a long story short, I was able to reach an agreement with the landlord, and with a helpful supervisor at Animal Control, that 'for the well-being of the animals' I would pick them up from the apartment and deliver them to animal control as 'strays'. This was done, and the personnel at Animal Control took them in without question, though with an eyebrow raised at the notion that I'd 'happened upon' four stray cats. But they, like I, recognized that, in finding a way around the technicalities of the law, we were saving four cats from certain misery or death, and giving them a shot at adoption.
What sticks with me about this episode is trying to imagine the frame of mind that led someone to abandon the apartment with four live cats locked inside. And, it led initially to some thoughts about my own clients, supposing them somehow culpable, though, so far as I know, they had nothing at all to do with this.
But this situation made me angry. I wanted to assign blame. I found myself judging, and I determined that anyone capable of such callous indifference to innocent life was undeserving of support in their own struggle toward fulfillment. I wanted the suffering of those cats to be a lesson - a lesson underscored by a like suffering - to those I judged indifferent to any suffering but their own.
But I cannot go forward from that place. It's too narrow, too locked in, by the rigidity of judging, by the harshness of a zero-sum mentality, by the brittleness of my own certainty as to the state of the mind and soul of another. How to judge? How to assign blame? How to assess sin? And, if there is some kind of blindness operating here, is it a condition of the eyes alone, or a disease of the soul?
Is this a convoluted, intellectual path to negotiate over a few abandonned cats?... Maybe. And maybe it's not far enough. I haven't come out where I imagined when I began writing this piece. It was originally intended to suggest an uncomplicated moral lesson. But now that seems more difficult to arrive at. And not quite honest. I have only to remember my own obsessions, my own locked-in preoccupation with complaints, mistreatment, with real and imagined pains, to also remember how such things can swallow up the very sun. I can imagine (because I can remember) that the person who left those cats did so convinced that it was the most generous, humane and hopeful act possible. The intention to give moral instruction seems pretty arrogant, and beyond the point. Anyone can be judged guilty. But does that in itself change anything?