Hello, blog! It has been awhile since I posted anything here. Here's a piece I wrote for the Gringo Grita, our Peace Corps magazine.
When people disparage this fine publication, they often say, “The Grita is just full of articles about people’s cats and stuff.” This is confusing, as in the past two years the Grita has only published one article about someone’s cat. (It was Joanna Carman’s cat.) A few more dog stories have been featured, but still, the average number of pet-related articles per issue is very low. Too low, I believe. To correct that, I am going to tell you about my cat, Duarte.
Duarte is, objectively speaking, the cutest kitten ever. He is small and fuzzy and has adorable white boots on his feet. He is very clever and has very sharp claws, which he likes to use to scale my back. (I never climbed Pico Duarte, but I have been summitted by Duarte many times.) I found Duarte sitting on the edge of the main road of my barrio. He was ridiculously tiny and diseased looking, but I picked him up and took him with me. My mom was visiting at the time, and she took him into Sosua to see the vet, who said he was about three weeks old--far too young to be separated from his mother. (You may have met Duarte at Thanksgiving. You may have inquired about my "pet rat." Please know that I have not forgiven anyone for slandering baby Duarte in that fashion.) My mom and I nursed Duarte back to health and now he is a happy, healthy, not-even-remotely-ratlike kitten.
Having Duartecito in my life has made me a much happier person. It’s hard to stay down when a cute little cat is rolling around on you and purring. However, he has also made me contemplate animal rights and human rights. Although I love animals, I do believe in an abstract way that human lives are more important than animal lives. And in an abstract way, I don’t think humans and animals have to compete. But here, in a very concrete way, I have taken an abandoned animal into my home and spent thousands of pesos on him. Duarte is only six months old and has been to the vet four times. He has all of his necessary vaccines. I buy fancy cat food to make sure he’s properly nourished. Duarte, one might say, has a better life than some of the kids in my barrio. My mom even sent him a care package with some light-up cat toys that any muchacho would likely enjoy.
I know that as volunteers we don’t have a lot of income. But I didn’t hesitate before taking out money from my American savings account to get medical care for my cat. Taking care of Duarte has only driven home to me how privileged I am. And it raises again the question I’ve faced throughout my two years here: what can I do? I can’t take every campo kid into the doctor. I can tell people about medical missions, and I can translate for them. I can buy cat food for one small cat, and I can help sort food donations for earthquake relief. But I can’t give every Dominican the same standard of life that Duarte and I have. This is extremely depressing—and it’s exactly the reason why I need a feline companion to cheer me up.
I think having Duarte is a good reminder of one of the reasons I came to the DR in the first place: to come see poverty up close and personal. If someone asked you to donate $30 to the Humane Society, you'd probably say no, thinking, "Gosh, it's a good cause, but I'll donate when I get back to the US and have a real job," and forget about it. But if someone asked you to pay $1000 pesos to get your own pet vaccinated so you can take him back to the US, well, you'd do it, if you're anything like me. And if someone asked you to donate money to UNICEF to "save the children," it would be pretty easy to justify not donating money. What children? Why do they need money? I could use that money to purchase things that I need, like Hello Kitty accessories. But when it's your own cute neighbor children drinking contaminated tap water, it's a lot harder to be indifferent. Our experiences here, in addition to the tangible benefits we're providing to community members (including stray animals), are giving us all a better understanding of our own privileges as citizens of a developed nation and of what poverty really means. It doesn't necessarily mean naked babies from Save the Children commercials, but it might mean not having access to medical care for your children, let alone your cat.
Although I am conscious of this disparity, I am still attached to my cat. I asked Duarte what he thought about this kind of global injustice. He said, "Meow." I suppose that's as good of an answer as any.