You may be familiar with the expression “Every day is a school day”. It’s a phrase that I am fond of, having come across it numerous times in pieces by writers I admire, most recently this piece in the New Statesman by Nicholas Lezard. I have not used it on these pages until now. This week, without expecting to, I have learnt what to do if a cat dies in your back garden.
We are a pet-free household. My wife and I have never wanted a pet, and probably never will. The absence of cats, dogs and other animals from our garden might be one reason why numerous cats have spent time there, basking in the sun, though not so much during our current heatwave. There are at least three different felines that have made themselves comfortable here in the last year or two, stretched out on the paving stones. I neither encourage them nor discourage them. I might feel otherwise if any of them had left us with cat-poo to deal with, but they haven’t. Live and let live.
This year’s weather pattern – a long, wet winter followed by a dry, warm spring – caused most plants to grow quicker and stronger than usual. Weeds, climbing plants, grass, bushes: everything grew rapidly in May and June. At the cemetery where my mother is buried, the grass was not cut for a few weeks. On the first weekend in June it had grown so high that most of the headstones were unreadable. In less than a month the place had become a meadow.
Earlier this week, in the back garden, cutting back some of the foliage that has continued to grow quickly during the heatwave, I nearly stepped on a cat, stretched out near the kitchen window. Its pose was familiar but the location was new. It was out of the sunshine. It looked like it was sleeping, but it was dead. There were a few flies buzzing around the body. I have never had to deal with anything like this before.
I would have liked someone else to sort it out, but have learnt that you have to deal with this kind of thing yourself. 45 minutes running web searches and then finally getting through to the local Environmental Health department taught me that their officers will not, under any circumstances, enter a private home or garden. They will remove a dead animal if you bag it up – in a clear plastic bag so that the contents are easily visible – and leave it on the street. They will then collect it within an hour, which is probably enough time to freak out any children passing by, enjoying the first few days of their school holidays.
I don’t have a clear plastic bag big enough for the job, and didn’t want to bag up the cat cadaver, so I called the RSPCA to see if they had any other suggestions, or could send someone more experienced in bagging up dead animals. Like the Environmental Health department, they will not visit a home to deal with an animal that has died. They only make visits for living creatures. They suggested asking the neighbours, checking for notifications on nearby lamp-posts and trees (“Missing Cat”, you know the sort of thing) or contacting local vets.
It didn’t belong to any of our immediate neighbours, and every lamp-post and tree nearby is free of notices. I called in at the nearest vet’s practice, my first ever visit to such a place. A friendly Scottish girl on reception heard my story and confirmed that, like Environmental Health and the RSPCA, the vet wouldn’t make a house call to remove the animal. But if I bagged it up myself and brought it back to the practice they could deal with it. They could check for a microchip and try to contact the owners. They could keep the dead body in a freezer until it was reclaimed, or cremate it if it wasn’t. And I didn’t need to use a clear plastic bag, any kind of bin-liner would be fine.
So, earlier this week, on a hot summer evening (the veterinary practice was open till 7pm), I worked out a method to get the feline corpse into a black bin-liner without having to touch it myself. First I covered it with an old bath towel, to act as a kind of shroud, and to stop the flies (and, by now, wasps) from buzzing around it. I folded the towel in at the edges, around the lifeless form, but the tail was still sticking out. I couldn’t bring myself to touch it, although I was wearing latex gloves inside gardening gloves. I ripped open two black bin-liners and arranged them on top of the towel, and tucked them in underneath it, and also used one of them to tuck in the tail. I used a shovel, gently working it between the ground and the towel and the ripped-out bin-liners at the edge of the cat’s body.
I worked the shovel further, preparing to scoop the body into another bin-liner, but fearful that the cat might not remain in one piece, if you know what I mean. Fortunately it held together, but I couldn’t scoop it confidently into a single bag. I used three bin-liners, two for the front part of the cat, and one for the back, before scooping the whole thing (cat, towel, five bin-liners) into another bin-liner, which I tied up. And, finally, I used a seventh bin-liner to transport the whole bundle down to the vet’s, a 10-minute walk away. Before I left the house my wife commented that I clearly wouldn’t be much of a serial killer. If it took me 30 minutes, and all that effort, just to bag up a cat, I probably don’t have it in me to dispose of a human body. She’s right.
As I walked down the road with my bundle (surprisingly heavy for such a small animal) a line from an old Hollywood movie kept going through my mind: “The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river.” I’m pretty sure it was in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”. In my case the cat was in the bag and the bag ended up at the vet’s. I got a follow-up email to say that the unfortunate creature had been micro-chipped and that they should be able to contact the owner. And I now have a method for dealing with a dead cat in my back garden.
Every day is a school day.