Copyright 1999, Sarah Hartwell

Cat shelter workers get to go places in a veterinary surgery that regular owners only see on TV vet programmes. For example the cat ward where up to a dozen patients are housed in metal recovery cages. It has been known for me to take one of my pensioner cats for a check-up and leave the surgery with my own cat plus an equally elderly cat which the vet/nurse/receptionist had persuaded me to adopt, complete with a cardboard carrier which they had persuaded me to purchase in order to transport said elderly cat and which, they assured, would "come in useful" in the future hence they were sorry but I couldn't have a discount on the carrier. However, this tale does not concern any of my cats, but a cat adopted by a fellow cat welfare worker Jen.

Jen had gone to one of the several vet clinics used by the shelter (with so much work, it becomes necessary to use several vets) to pick up some spayed cats. Unlike regular cat owners whose cats are taken up to reception, she gets to collect the cats straight from the ward so she can leave by the back entrance where her "Animal Ambulance" is parked.

One of the vet nurses, came out of the cat ward as Jen was walking down the corridor and asked, "Jen, have you met Stumpy yet?"

Jen followed the nurse into the cat ward, knowing that she was going to have to find "room at the inn" for another little waif. The nurse pointed at a little tabby and white cat and Jen wiggled her finger (scrubbed!) through the wire cage. Stumpy began to rub and wrestle Jen's finger and then sniff and lick it.

"Be careful, he " the nurse warned.

"Ouch!" said Jen as Stumpy bit her finger, drawing blood. He then began to purr and rub her finger all over again.

"Do you notice anything different about him?" asked the nurse.

Jen didn't notice anything immediately. Stumpy was cute and lively, but looked perfectly normal. By now Stumpy was rolling over on his back, wrestling the square of Vetbed fleece used to line the beds. The name alone should have been a dead giveaway.

The nurse opened the cage and got Stumpy out on the cat ward floor. Stumpy didn't have any back feet - he had a couple of white pads, like paw pads just under his hock. The nurse put Stumpy on a towel to show Jen how the cat moved. He stretched out his neck, sort of tucked his legs back a bit (or hunched his body forward) so that his front legs were closer to the middle of his body and waddled about on just the two legs. He looked ungainly, like a duck out of water, but he was walking about on his two front legs. The back stumps waggled about, but did not touch the floor. His tail was surprisingly muscular and he used it for balance a lot more than a regular cat.

"What has happened to this cat?" Jen asked.

"We thought it might be a birth defect where the legs didn't develop properly for some reason or the mother might have been inexperienced and bitten them off when cleaning him. The vet did an X-ray and the whole lower leg bone is missing, but there are a few toe bones where the paw tried to develop. Those are vestigial paw pads attached to his hocks so it's either a congenital abnormality or a genetic problem."

Jen knew that Stumpy had no chance of being adopted. The vet had already asked a more local shelter and they said that the cat was unadoptable and should be put to sleep to make room for whole, healthy cats. The nurse had persuaded the vet to hold off the euthanasia for a week and the vet had agreed just so long as no emergency case needed the cage. Also, Stumpy had a real zest for life and was otherwise healthy so the vet was sure someone like Jen could be persuaded to take the cat.

Jen asked if any of the other cat workers or vet staff had shown any interest in Stumpy. The nurse told her that no-one was interested in a cat with no back legs, even if he could walk around and play. When Stumpy rested he sat down like a little kangaroo with his two half-length back legs sticking out forwards and his tail acting as a counterbalance behind him. Jen agreed to take him, except for one thing - she hated the name Stumpy which made him sound like a freak. She renamed her two legged cat "George Stubbs" and told people he was named after the great painter of horses.

To my recollection, Jen owned George Stubbs for four or five years. She thought about sending to the USA for a wheeled cart to replace his back legs, but Stubbs had already worked out his own way of getting around and could even get up and down stairs. On the way up, he sat on his rump and heaved himself up from step to step with his strong front legs, flipping onto his belly when enough of him was up there and sort of wiggling sideways to get his stumpy back legs onto the step. Usually one of the family heard him scrabbling upstairs and carried him the rest of the way. He came downstairs one step at a time by placing his front feet on a lower step and sliding his bottom down till it landed with a "plop". Mostly he did this by himself as he seemed to think it was great fun - if Jen or her family carried him downstairs, he demanded to be taken upstairs again so he could slide down himself (actually he often wanted to be carried upstairs simply so he could have fun sliding down again).

George Stubbs' steering was a bit erratic because of the way his weight was distributed. If he tried to turn too quickly, he ended up toppling over onto his side. Whenever this happened his face took on a sort of "I wonder how that happened?" expression. Whenever he toppled over, invariably as a result of trying to run round at top speed, he just picked himself up again, tucked his legs into position and carried on. He went on supervised outings in the back garden and made creditable attempts to climb the apple tree, but with no back legs to brace himself with, he immediately plopped back down on his bottom. This was sad to watch and the only time he disability was a real handicap to him - he so much wanted to climb that tree. The other thing he couldn't do was jump, but he could haul himself up onto upholstered chairs and onto Jen's bed.

Sadly whatever caused his half-length back legs also caused some degenerative problems. Stubbs stopped wanting to move around. On the day that he stopped eating, Jen made the brave decision to have her two-legged wonder cat put to sleep.

George Stubbs the two-legged wonder cat had five good years of borrowed time, but Jen knew that when Stubbs lost his zest for life, it was time to let him go. He is buried under that apple tree so that his spirit could climb it, even though it had defeated him while he was alive.