Just over a year ago, I touched down in the sprawling concrete metropolis of São Paulo to begin a new chapter as a correspondent in Brazil for the FT.
It didn’t take long for my hopes of adventure to collide with a resurgence of Covid-19. To start with, my partner got stuck in a travel limbo that delayed her arrival from three weeks later to three months. By then, Brazil was entering the darkest hours of its coronavirus crisis. Restrictions on everyday activities in the southern hemisphere’s largest city turned much of it into a ghost town. In a country the size of a continent, for weeks we found ourselves largely confined to a 78 sq m apartment.
On top of trying to adapt to a new place and language, my partner also had to contend with a difficult separation. With a heavy heart she had entrusted the care of her beloved cat to a friend, fearing that due to advanced years the animal would not survive the transatlantic journey.
Her determination to fill the feline-shaped hole found an answer: a local charity was seeking volunteers to foster rescued street cats and their kittens. Given the temporary nature of our stay, adoption was out of the question, as my partner did not want to leave behind another cat when we moved on. (Being territorial by nature, she explained to me, cats grow accustomed to their terrain and do not like change.) Providing a short-term shelter, then, seemed the perfect arrangement.
We have now hosted more than 25 cats and kittens, usually for stays of about two months until they are permanently rehomed. The extra company has soothed the occasional sense of isolation which, pandemic aside, is an inevitable part of moving abroad. And their presence has helped us to feel more at home, lending a modicum of rootedness in a place you don’t belong.
Apart from a goldfish, I never had a pet. Yet, to the delight of my partner, I am now a convert. My phone contains a catalog of cat snaps and selfies with kittens (when I can get them to sit still for a second). Great minds have cogitated upon companionship of the feline kind and pondered their inscrutability; many a cat lover can recite Freud’s apocryphal quote about how time spent with them is never wasted.
For me, it’s all about the kittens. Bursting with curiosity, playfulness and wonder, everything is a game to them. They are possessed of an innocence that brings joy and, at times, vexation. In between my reporting on coronavirus, inflation and the endless telenovela of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, our gatinhos — little cats — have provided a welcome distraction.
When a case of Covid left me bedbound for two weeks, they kept my spirits up. Whether ill, stressed or listless, I discovered how you can pleasantly lose yourself stroking and talking to a cat.
Our first experience was not exactly auspicious, however. An impish and heavily pregnant young tabby, Ilza, gave birth to a litter who were as tiny as mice and, it turned out, very premature. Perhaps intuiting what was to come, their mother displayed little maternal instinct. While carrying her offspring to a new nest in the wardrobe, Ilza dumped the smallest on our bedroom floor, helpless and barely moving. Despite my partner’s best attempts at resuscitation, it was the first to die. Another followed, then another, and another.
In desperation, I took the two remaining kittens on an hour-long cab journey to a woman with a hallowed status among the other volunteers owing to her skills in hand rearing newborns. “Coitadinhos!” (poor little things) she exclaimed, squeezing droplets of milk from a pipette into their mouths. But it was in vain.
For all our English, the loss barely registered with Ilza, who was back to her old self in no time. (Rejection of kittens, we learned, is not unheard of and can happen for a variety of reasons, such as illness or deformity, mastitis or premature motherhood.)
In spite of our wariness, we gave it another shot. Our next guests were three bedraggled orphans so small they each fit in the palm of a hand. Ruffles was gorgeous and melted everyone’s heart. Nacho was boisterous but carinhoso (affectionate or loving). Horace was dim but endearing.
Thus began a cycle repeated with future gangs of gatinhos. Starting out as little fluffballs who tear around the spare room play fighting, after a couple of weeks we let them loose in the flat. Soon they emerge into rambunctious adolescents with only two settings: asleep or amok.
No bookshelf is too tall to be climbed, no ornament too precious to be smashed and no set of earphones or internet fiber optic cable too important to be chewed through. (It was rather embarrassing the second time we had to call out a telecoms technician to reconnect us.)
My partner jokes that my epitaph will read “It’s not for kittens!” — my frequent refrain when taking from paws shredded paperwork or clawed clothing.
It can feel perverse to pamper pets while not far away whole families sleep outside and millions go hungry
“I love seeing the shy and shy ones grow in confidence,” she says. Take Meryl. The runt in a litter of five mixed-breed Siamese, her stunted tail was twisted like a corkscrew. She squawked, tired quicker than the others and fell backwards when trying to jump.
Yet she turned out to be the most intrepid. After confounding our fears that she might not survive, Meryl was the first of her siblings to wander out on to our fourth-story balcony (replete with safety netting), and was always exploring a new nook or cranny of the apartment.
As a comparatively wealthy foreigner living in a society with visible poverty and even starker inequality, it can feel perverse to pamper pets while not far away whole families sleep outside and millions go hungry. If the experience of fostering cats has awakened a softer side of me, then perhaps this moral unease it also stirs is not a bad thing.
In the short time the kittens spend with us, witnessing their personalities blossom might be an inkling of what human parents experience (though with nowhere near the same level of responsibility, exhaustion and worry).
When the cats finally leave, the flat feels very quiet all of a sudden. We might receive a photo with their new adoptive family, but that’s it. In a way, these bonds may be like those we eventually form during our time here. If not permanent, then hopefully with a lasting imprint.
Adote Um Gatinho (Adopt a Little Cat); adoteumgatinho.com.br
Follow @FTProperty on Twitter gold @ft_houseandhome on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first