17th Apr, 2024

Written by Yvonne Jansen

Professional photography by FidoPhoto – Dog Photography 

I work with an international organisation. In 2014, I was based in Beirut, Lebanon. I was also responsible for other places, among which is a Lebanese town called Zahlé.

One day I had to go there and was sitting in the front seat of the car reading a document when, about 15 minutes into the trip, the driver suddenly stopped the car. He got out and scooped up a tiny ginger kitten sitting in the middle of a busy road in Beirut and brought it inside the car.

I said, “That’s nice, but now what?” He answered, “Someone in the office in Zahlé will take it.”

The kitten was around eight weeks old. Entering the office, nobody wanted a kitten; no interest was shown either in Zahlé or in Beirut. I called her Zahlé, because we’d been on the way to Zahlé, and in Arabic, it means “moving” – which was appropriate.

The start of our journey

It was meant to be. I’d been the only one in the car and, although we usually left at 08h00, for whatever reason we had to leave at 07h30 (it was the first and last time I left at that time). It was at the right time at the right place. Zahlé landed literally with her bum on my lap.

I wasn’t keen on taking a pet to my home in South Africa. There are thousands of dogs, cats and kittens sitting in shelters, so why should I import one? But I couldn’t bear the thought that she’d be thrown back on to the streets. I therefore decided to take care of her… but that was easier said or thought than done – and difficult to organise.

Coincidently, there was a pet shop on the ground floor beneath the office where I bought her food. The head of our office wasn’t very keen, to say the least, on having a kitten in the office. I left her on the balcony with the food. After a while, I thought, come on, and took her onto my lap under my desk where she fell fast asleep. When the head asked me: “How is the kitten?”, I looked outside and answered: “She’s fine!”

I was staying in our organisation residence with two other colleagues (within the organisation we have to share residences). I couldn’t bring a kitten inside – not everybody liked a pet in the house; I respected that, and it wasn’t my house. The best option available was to leave her at the pet shop. I asked if I could leave her there for a while until I found a solution, and I paid for boarding. I had to go back to Beirut and spoke with my flatmate. She was opposed to it – she didn’t want animals in the apartment.

The week after, I had to go to Zahlé again. The pet shop didn’t want to keep her much longer; understandable – it’s a shop and she wasn’t for sale, and the situation of her being in a cage broke my heart. I decided to take her back to Beirut where in the meantime I’d found a vet. It was only about 15 minutes’ walk from the flat where I lived. I left her there, bought her a stuffed kitten to keep her company in her cage, and paid for boarding until I convinced my flatmate to take her into the apartment. And so, our journey continued.

Life in Beirut

I came up with a plan: I promised my flatmate that I’d only keep Zahlé in my room, because I’d be taking her back to my home. She agreed and I picked up Zahlé after about a week. Not having a cat carrier, I put a shawl around my neck with her in it and she swung and danced to the speed of my feet.

As promised, Zahlé stayed in my room.

It wasn’t ideal but better than the pet shop or the vet, and it was only for another three months; then she’d have all the space she couldn’t possibly imagine. She was very affectionate, and on the first night she snuggled up under my chin. I organised food bowls, a litter box and toys, and she got used to it. Although I had to work during the day, I could fortunately see her for lunch. Over the weekends I stayed mainly with her in my room.

Preparing for the long journey

I contacted Global Paws in Honeydew, Johannesburg, who informed me about the travel requirements. A big thank you to them – they were fantastic in every step of the journey.

Zahlé needed vaccinations and a medical health certificate (which I did at the vet where she’d stayed), plane tickets and a big crate for going in cargo. Global Paws took care of the import paperwork. Again, I had to go back to Zahlé and went straight to the pet shop. They were happy to see me and happier when I told them I needed a big crate because I was taking her home. I left the crate in my room with the door open and food inside so she could get used to the crate.

It was a long flight. We flew together with Qatar Airways with a seven-hour stopover in Doha. I wanted to be in the same plane because it’s easier to arrive together and I could go immediately to the cargo section to pick her up as cats don’t need to go into quarantine. Having a pet in cargo, the stopover must be a minimum of three hours, and the only connection time available was seven hours in Doha. All went well and we touched down at OR Tambo Airport. When I picked her up, her crate was totally clean and well taken care of. On the back seat in the car, Zahlé passed out, exhausted but finally going home.

Finally home… but something is wrong

At that time, I had two cats, two dogs and a horse (all rescues). The dogs were fine, but the cats’ introduction took a little longer. She hissed at them, but there were no major issues; they largely ignored her.

After about a week, I realised Zahlé couldn’t see well. I’d had this impression already in Beirut, but it was only when I gave her meat chunks – she always searched around the bowl, but as soon as she put her nose in it, she ate. Thank God I didn’t mention it to the vet in Beirut, otherwise I couldn’t have taken her as she’d be considered “not healthy”.

It wasn’t very obvious. Her eyes are normal and crispy-clear; she jumped on and off my bed, slept next to me, played with small toys, etc. When we were in my home, I noticed that when she ran excitedly in the living room, she bumped into the table leg. She didn’t do what my other cats do; for example, she wasn’t jumping onto the kitchen counter or climbing up a tree; not rubbing her head against me… She bumped into the dog and hissed at him when she did. But she ran up and down the stairs without hesitation, on my bedroom balcony, and in the garden; she stopped at the edge of the pool, never falling in. When I had visitors, nobody noticed or they didn’t believe me – even today, they think it’s incredible how she goes around.

I took her to my own vet and they recommended that I consult an animal eye specialist. There, she bumped straight into the wall and failed every test. He confirmed that Zahlé is blind.

Her eyes are fine, but the information doesn’t reach the cortex. It’s called central blindness and surgery isn’t possible. Had it been her eyes, they could have performed surgery. He couldn’t tell if she’s completely blind or what she sees, but I think she might see light and dark, from what I observed in Beirut. She jumped at a green towel on a white door, and in the evening, she scratched her paws under the door when the light was on at the other side and dark in my room. From close, she sees nothing.

I burst into tears but said that I’d known her for three months, so it didn’t change anything. He explained that she’s perfectly fine; only when you have other cats that might take advantage of her disability would you have a problem. Fortunately, the other cats walked away when she smelled them and hissed. She doesn’t have other neurological problems; only once she had a seizure, which, fortunately, never occurred again.

Ten years on and still going strong

It’s been nearly ten years and Zahlé has no restrictions. She jumps onto chairs and tables; she puts her front paw on the chair to measure the height, and from there onto the table – she’s figured it all out. Once, I left salami on the kitchen counter and I saw her opening a drawer, jumping in and hopping onto the counter. She played with a ball with a bell inside, but the moment the ball stopped rolling, she stopped playing. At feeding time, she waits in front of her bowl. She opens cupboards. When I call her, she comes but she never looks at me; she always looks in the air because she doesn’t know exactly where I am. She goes outside to do her business, but when she covers it, as cats do, the sand goes in all directions.

She must have an inbuilt map – she knows exactly where she is. She’s very talkative, and when she feels lost, close to the stables when I’m inside them and she doesn’t know where I am, she’ll let me know. I clap my hands and she comes running towards me. She follows me around. When she’s outside on the grass, she walks slowly; but the moment she feels the bricks, she runs straight into the house.

Zahlé is the queen of the household. Occasionally, my dogs chase will chase a cat, but they never chase or touch her. What she loves the most is snuggling and napping in her favourite spot, on the scratch pole.

She’s an amazing cat and I’ve learned so much from her on our road together; she’s just a sweetheart and I love her so much. In the end I always think, “I saved her twice – from the streets and from her blindness; she would have never survived.”

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