As I turned to head for my car, I heard the voices of prisoners behind the bars on an upper level. “Goodbye, Pinto,” they called.
I was a freelancer for the New York Times, and also a volunteer in a Sing Sing writing workshop. The Times had assigned me an article about how inmates at two Westchester County prisons not far from my home – women at Bedford Hills and men at Sing Sing – were able to humanize their lives within the confines of a maximum security prison.
It was 1977, six years after the Attica rebellion, when prisons started opening their doors to reporters and volunteers. Restrictions had been loosened, and the media became more interested in what was happening inside the walls. The Bedford Hills women told me about how they altered their drab green uniforms to make them more stylish, how they rubbed Vaseline on red and blue magazine photographs and spread the colors on their lips and eyelids.
Some men at Sing Sing said they made paintings, kept fish tanks in their cells, and had pet cats. The cats had found their way into the prison yard through holes in the old stone walls, and eventually into the cell blocks, where prisoners lured them to their cells by offering tidbits of food. One prisoner mentioned he begged gefilte fish from the Jewish chaplain.
After I finished the article, the paper sent a photographer to Sing Sing, and when my story appeared it was accompanied by a picture of a young prisoner standing in front of the bars of his cell holding a small black-and-white cat. Coincidentally, this prisoner – the owner of two cats – was also in the writing workshop.
A few days later I received a letter from him saying he’d heard on the grapevine that a cat purge was in the works. “They say they will give the cats to the SPCA,” he wrote, “but we know they’ll put them in burlap bags and toss them into the Hudson.”
I got on the phone to the warden. “Are you getting rid of the cats because of my article?” I asked. He said no, the article had nothing to do with it. Cats had begun to overrun the cellblocks, creating a nuisance and unsanitary conditions. They had to go.
After more back-and-forth with the warden over the next few days, he finally said that I could take the prisoner’s two cats out of the prison after the next writing workshop.
Toward the end of the session, as the inmates and I sat in a circle of folding chairs discussing that week’s readings, the cat-owning prisoner left the room and came back carrying a medium-sized cardboard carton with the top closed. When the workshop ended he placed the box in my arms. The inmates filed down the corridor, back to their cells. I walked the other way, escorted by a guard. When we reached the locked bars at the end of the hallway the guard shouted, “On the gate, two cats, out on parole,” and the lock clicked open. One more gate and I was in the lobby and out the door.
I settled the box in my car’s passenger seat and drove the twenty minutes to my house, where I tipped the cats out of the carton and led them to their food, water, and litter box. Pinto was wearing a brown leather collar embossed with his name, which must have been created by his owner in the prison crafts shop. I went to bed, and in the morning the cats were nowhere to be seen. After my teenage sons had left for school and my husband went to work, I searched the house, and finally found the two crouched together behind the television set in the living room.
They gradually relaxed and we began letting them outdoors during the day. But a few months later, when my sons were returning from school, they discovered Missy’s body on the street in front of our house. He’d been hit by a car. From then on, when Pinto went outside he seemed more cautious; he spent his time relaxing under a rhododendron bush in front of the house, and we kept a close eye on him.
He grew into a solid, beautiful cat, loving, intelligent, and sweet-natured. But whenever a visiting man with a heavy tread walked into the house, Pinto cowered in fear, no doubt recalling the prison guards who had stomped around the cellblocks.
When Pinto was fifteen, my husband, Roy, and I retired from our jobs, sold our suburban home, and moved to a log cabin in the Adirondacks. We worried about letting our cat outdoors, fearing he would wander into the woods and disappear – captured by a coyote or becoming hopelessly lost as he tried to make his way back.
But he figured things out and seemed content with his rural existence. In summer, he sat under the pine trees and among the wildflowers, watching chipmunks and red squirrels speed past. On cold winter days he sprawled on the tile hearth in front of the woodstove. He was making a better adjustment than I was.
I often felt lonely and isolated, especially when summer ended and our downstate family and friends stopped visiting. I felt out of place in our small town, where the residents had lived for generations. Sometimes I cried with frustration, railing at my husband about our ill-conceived move.
Pinto was my comfort. When I sat at the kitchen table with my morning coffee, he hopped onto my lap and stayed there until it was time for me to start my day. In the evening, as I lay on the couch reading or watching TV, he curled up on my stomach. In bed, he stretched his warm body next to mine and purred me to sleep.
Two years after our move, Pinto developed a malignant tumor on his side. His vets, Diane and David, removed it and he recovered, but before long another tumor appeared, this time inoperable. He gradually became thinner and weaker. When we let him outdoors, he seemed bewildered. One day he wandered in the wrong direction, and I discovered him crouched on a fallen tree.
From then on when I let him out I followed him as he moved slowly across the grass, stopping now and then to rest in a sunny spot. Then I’d pick him up and carry him back into the house. In the evening I’d carry him to the couch, sit down, and gently lower him onto a soft blanket I’d folded on my lap. Soon even that made him uncomfortable; he chose to spend his days lying on a towel behind the open bathroom door.
Roy and I could see that he was suffering, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to choose to end his life. Some mornings as we watched him trudge into the kitchen for a few bites of breakfast, one of us would say, “He seems to look better today,” and the other would agree. But of course we were fooling ourselves.
The vets would only lay out our options, leaving us with the final decision. But one day David said,” Pinto has been kind and loving to you for eighteen years. Now you can do something kind for him.”
The next day, David and Diane helped Pinto die. Afterward, I wrapped his body in a soft cloth, placed it in a box, and buried it at the top of a small rise that overlooked the cabin. I collected smooth, grey stones from the woods and built a cairn to mark the grave. When our young granddaughters came to visit, they painted bright flowers on the stones, and on the biggest one they printed in brilliant red letters: PINTO.
A few years later we sold our log cabin and moved back to the suburbs. We left behind the chipmunks that ate sunflower seeds from our hands and the hummingbirds that darted past our faces on the way to their feeders. And we left Pinto’s decorated grave.
On trips to the Adirondacks to visit friends, I could never bring myself to return to our cabin to see if the new owners had preserved the grave or had dismantled the colorful stones and tossed them into the woods.
Memoir reprinted from Celebrating Animal Rescue,
Splattered Ink Press, available on Amazon