While long, the stories are admittedly both heartwarming and heartbreaking. This is 3+years of being a family, and I’ve tried my best to document our experience. Link’s section is understandably shorter, as he’s only been a part of my life since October 2018, and for six of those months, I wasn’t with him. If you have questions on how I trained Zelda and Link, the process of internationally travelling with a pet as an ESA, or any other bits, feel free to let me know in the comments below.
The stories of my lovely cats, including how we met, saved each others lives and became otakus.
Trigger warnings: death, suicide, self-harm, animal abuse
2016 was a particularly turbulent and difficult time for me. I was stuck in a place of planning for a future, and not wanting one at all. The death of my mother, my last year at university, a thesis lurking over my head as well as plans for graduate school, lu’au and hula practice, three jobs, and my plethora of mental illness left me completely exhausted. Most of the people in my life knew I was struggling and stressed. What they didn’t know was the extent. By mid to late April, I was completely shattered, had relapsed into severely self-harming and had a plan to commit suicide.
At 2:00AM I received a call from one of my friends saying she had found me a cat at a party. Its owners abused the cat and didn’t care if it stayed with them or not, and while my friend had rescued it from the horrid environment, she couldn’t keep it due to apartment leasing restrictions. At the time, I was entertaining the idea of adopting a cat for when I moved to the UK for graduate school as a companion. Still, it was a bit of a shock to be woken up on a Saturday morning, so I told her that we’d talk later that day I got some more zzzs.I later learned that this cat was about a year old. She was forced to sleep in her litter box; she was flea-infested and malnourished; she had a chest infection and cat herpes. She didn’t even have a name. I agreed to meet this cat, and then took her home with me. Her short fur was covered in black and brown specs, and it was difficult to discern which were fleas, their feces, or her blood. I gave her a bath in the kitchen sink, and she didn’t even put up a fuss. Just stood there and shivered.
After two days, she looked like this:
When I was thinking about what to name her, I got a phone call. My ringtone at the time was Zelda’s theme, and thus, she became Zelda. During these first couple days, Zelda didn’t make any sound at all. I thought I was getting a lap-loving, cuddle-cat.
And after two weeks:
Eventually, she gained more spunk and she began to trill, running about the apartment whilst making “brrrrt”-ing noises. So I decided to call her Zelda Sparrow.
And after one month:
Zelda traveled with me in the car a lot. During the last six weeks of university, I went home three times and each time, she would go with me. This meant a 3.5 hour drive, with a 15-30 minute break at a rest stop. I’d put a litterbox in the back seat, but she never did use it during these treks. During this time, she became accustomed to traveling: holding her bladder for several hours, the noise of an engine and being in a moving vehicle. She was honestly better at it than most adults, sleeping away on the passenger floorboard.
While caring for Zelda, I was obligated to care for myself: I couldn’t die when something depended on me to live. I managed to graduate with honors, get accepted to graduate school and plan my trip to England. There was a lot that needed to get accomplished, including training Zelda to be an emotional support animal. I was seeing a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and she agreed on writing me a letter stating that Zelda was crucial to my mental health. Being an ESA meant she’d be able to stay with me in the plane and at my university accommodation (they guaranteed housing to all international students, and thus had to accommodate my cat). To bypass quarantine, I had to get her a veterinary health certificate, microchip and pay a hefty fee, but it was worth knowing she’d be my partner in crime while across the Atlantic.
Once in Winchester, I took Zelda with me everywhere in one of my waterproof (inside and outside) shoulder bags. We’d go for walks to the city center and cathedral grounds where I’d write, or to cafes where I’d have a cup of tea, pubs where I’d be giving having a pint and meal.
And much like my mother, Zelda became my best friend.
We would watch anime, though for the most part, she would prefer to sleep behind the warm laptop:
Or on the spare pillow.
Or sit on the keyboard.
In January 2018, my visa came to an end, and I decided to go home for two weeks to meet my baby niece. I was living with my boyfriend and decided Zelda would be more comfortable at home with him, than making the journey back with me. It was only two weeks, and I would be home soon enough.
Of course, as so many of these stories go, I wouldn’t be home soon enough. I was denied entry at the UK border, and it would be another eight months before I saw Zelda again. During these months, the boyfriend and I broke up, though he enjoyed her company and agreed to care for her in my absence. I got a job over in the States and lived with my brother and his family. I binged-watched a lot of anime, started this blog and met JamageCtrl, the video editor and music creator genius behind this blog.
I retrieved Zelda from Winchester, and She, JamageCtrl, and I journeyed back up to Scotland. Once reunited, Zelda was admittedly very irritated with me. Where had I been? Why did I smell like another cat? Why was she no longer getting obesity-inducing portions of wet food?
Eventually, though, she forgave me.
We were kicked off a British Airways-operated plane, because BA doesn’t acknowledge ESAs as support animals, only service dogs. And so, not willing to leave her again, I extended my two week stay to sort out travel arrangements. While the Department of Transportation only requires foreign air carriers to transport service dogs, I booked with American Airlines, and under the air carrier access act, AA is held responsible if a passenger traveling under the U.S. carrier’s code is not allowed to travel with another type of service animal (e.g., cat) on a flight operated by its foreign code share partner. I had a letter by my doctor stating I needed my cat for my mental health. When I called AA to book the ticket, I explicitly stated I’d be bringing my service animal back into the United States. I supplied all the necessary documentation prior to the 48-hour notice requirement. However, AA refused to help me.
JamageCtrl and I decided that if Zelda was denied boarding again, she would stay with him in Scotland. As heartbreaking as it was for me to think of leaving her again, I knew I’d be returning in August for the second master’s program, and that she loved Jams very much.
What makes matters more complicated was my health took a drastic turn for the worst. I began to lose a lot of weight very quickly. I had a localized infection in my lower left lung– pneumonia. I was given antibiotics for the infection and was almost done with these when I was scheduled to fly back to the states. I insisted on having all AA operated flights, which involved several stopovers but meant I’d be able to take Zelda with me. I also told the agent I was flying with the infection and my health concerns, to which they said it wouldn’t be an issue, and should I need assistance at the airport, I only needed to ask. Once again I submitted all the necessary paperwork. While checking in, I was told American had changed my flights due to long delays, and that I’d be on two BA flights, so once again Zelda was denied boarding. On top of this, I would have to retrieve my baggage while in London, and re-check in with BA. Jams to Zelda back to the flat, and I boarded my flight.
My bags ended up being sent to the wrong area, so I waited an hour for them, and then I began the trek to a different terminal (I was in terminal five and was sent to terminal three) with my three heavy bags (one large suitcase to be checked, one carry-on and my purse) to a different terminal. This involved taking a train, and I fell trying to get out because collapsing was just a thing at the time. When I made it to AA’s counter (was told to check in there by BA), they printed out my ticket, and said I needed to check in at the BA counter, and head back to terminal five. I again stated my health, and asked if I could have my bags forwarded there from this terminal. The representative said BA should be able to do so.
At BA’s counter, they didn’t have a ticket registered for me, so AA had booked me on a BA flight without telling BA. Eventually, they sorted this out, but I was getting quite tired. The rep had me sit down, and notified her manager. The manager asked me some questions, apparently referred those questions to “a mental health personnel” and then said I wasn’t fit to fly. A BA rep explained this to an AA rep, and the AA rep said both airlines would honor my ticket, but that I’d need a doctor’s note in order to fly. I was getting short on funding at this point (I’d used the majority of my savings on the two months rent and the deposit for the apartment, as well as the living supplies and pantry items required until my new job started) and couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit in the UK, nor a hotel stay, nor a new plane ticket. I asked if I could get a flight back to Glasgow, as I didn’t know anyone in London. My travel insurance was no longer active as I was already there longer than originally planned due to another AA mistake. She said they wouldn’t be able to offer me a ticket. I asked about a hotel, and that was denied. Finally, I asked about the overnight bus or train, both of which they could not cover the cost.
I managed to pay for the overnight bus, and the rep, perhaps more out of pity than obligation, gave me two meal vouchers for a total of 20 GBP. I found a coffee shop and camped out there for 18 hours, then lugged all my bags to the waiting area to catch the bus.
The good news was that we were all together again.
I made it back to Scotland alive, but not by much. There was blood in my cough, in my urine/stool, in my vomit. I was collapsing almost every time I stood or walked. The symptoms were endless.
Needless to say, Zelda did her best to take care of me, and I finally got the lap kitty I wanted.
The three of us spent the holidays together with Jams’ family, making a journey via train and ferry. Surprisingly, she hated the ferry more than any other transportation method and proceeded to get lost, stuck in a loft crawlspace, to thwart our efforts of leaving on time.
He also made her a Scottish cat scratching post using some tweed scraps:
She experienced wood-burning amenities for the first time, which she really enjoyed.
As well as our standard bonding-time of video games and anime:
During this time, I was able to see a doctor, get ultrasounds, x-rays and blood tests done. Thank you Scotland for putting the care in healthcare. Meanwhile, Zelda experienced chickens and snow.
Once back in the flat, she investigated pubs, surveyed her territory and frequented bookshops.
I finally left in April, my health good enough to fly but still admittedly terrible. And I still had to leave Zelda in the care of Jams. While he’s the best cat-dad in the world, it’s still heartbreaking, and she still gets anxiety whenever she sees the suitcases come out, or if Jams is gone for too many hours.
In early October 2018 I was going through another round of changes: I had just signed a lease for my first apartment, I was transitioning companies and jobs and I was heading to the UK to pick up Zelda and bring her home while I tried to save up money for an MLitt program in publishing studies.
Did I mention this was my first apartment?
Like many first-time apartment users, I’d forgotten some essentials… things like a shower curtain, toilet paper and hand soap. So at midnight, I jump in my car and head to the only shop that’s open in a 15-mile radius: Walmart.
Now, this was really a get-in and get-out situation. So I’m crossing the parking lot at a brisk pace, when I see these two guys (late teens / early 20s) dragging a bag around, sort of kicking it. I ignore them, because honestly, we don’t need to talk about the kinds of people who hang out at Walmart at midnight. Except a hear this high-pitched squeak. The tiniest crying mew. I instinctively charged towards them, shouting “hey!” They ran off, and inside the bag was a kitten. Extremely young and scared, but at least physically uninjured. I took him home with me.
This was unfortunately a week before my flight to Scotland. So I had some family look after him while I was away. During this time, I received many updates, showing his growth and developing personality.
When I came back, I discovered Link was, and admittedly still is, corpulent. I think he’s part maine coon, and therefore is gonna be a big cat, but big-boned does not mean fat. At my dad’s, he’s had unlimited access to food, chowing down until he became a chonker.
Additionally, he wasn’t very good with grooming himself. Likely, no one had really brushed him. Cats are really clean creatures, and having been around Zelda’s constant bathing for the passed six months, it was really concerning. His rear was particularly bad and several times I had to take an animal wipe and clean him myself, which as you can imagine, was not a pleasant experience for either of us, and earned him the nickname “Stinky Linky”. He did eventually learn the importance of grooming, though and is steadily making greater strides in that form of self-care.
Something else I noticed was that he chittered or chattered. At bugs, at me, at anything that moved. And he’d meow at doors. And at me. And at anything that moved. In short, he was a very vocal cat, though he wasn’t the loudest one I’d ever encountered. Jams and I discussed many middle names, including Fletcher, Ervyn and Quarrie, but ultimately I went with Bayerd, or Bard, because of his talkative nature. His other nicknames include Link Lomond and Link Langhorne (because of his long nose).
Link hates it when people (besides me) open the door to my room. I mean, he properly hates it. He yells at them, while lying down, until they leave. He loves his quiet time, and will often take his naps with me during the day and is quite offended when people barge in without knocking. What a polite, lazy boy after my own heart.
To be fair, Link is more like Jams than me. He’s a very chill cat who loves to sit and watch a show. He never complains that much (apart from telling people to knock), and he’ll let me hold him for ages. This is super unlike Zelly who will rrrrREEEEEEEEEEEOOOWWW in protest for her freedom. Link takes more of a “cuddles are what you need? Alright, let’s cuddle for a bit.”
Another way that he differs from Zel is with the red dot. Zelda loves laser pointers more than life itself. I attached one to my keys so that if she escaped, I’d just have to jingle them and she came running. Link also comes for my keys, but he’s much lazier with the pointer. But he enjoys a good spin every now and again.
I’m currently in the process of training Link to be a psychiatric support animal. They’re a bit different than PSAs in that they’re trained to perform tasks, though they are treated the same by an airline. With Zelda, I trained her basic commands such as sit, down and paw. And while Link will learn those too, we’ve mainly been working on what I call “interruptions”. Basically, I train him to do an action when he sees me doing a certain action. For example, when I have an increased anxiety or a trigger, I tend to scratch my left arm (similarly, I’ll cut my left arm during a crisis). When Link sees me scratching my left arm and he paws my right hand, or taps my right hand with his paw. Afterwards, I’ll give him a treat or reward. It’s helpful to use clickers and commands with this, and to do it regularly like all other training.
Likewise, if I’m crying, I’ll give him treats. This is best done with smaller cries, obviously, since cats prefer quiet/calm settings. What it does is teach him that crying is a normal behavior for me, and that he should be attentive during this time (because he can get a treat). Simply having him close is a big comfort when I’m struggling, and when he’s purring and eager for goodies, it’s even better. It breaks my destructive thinking patterns and helps avoid crises!
His least favorite training involves something I never had to really “train” Zelda with: the car. He doesn’t even want to go inside it. Once he’s inside and the engine turns on, he will start screaming. After screaming for a bit, he’ll start panting.
Interestingly, once the car stops and is turned off, the cries will lessen, and eventually he’ll settle down for a cuddle and go to sleep.
Ultimately, we don’t know when we’ll be making the trip back to Scotland. I don’t currently have enough funds to afford all of the expenses, and Link still isn’t microchipped.
For now, we video chat every day and we settle for pixels and pictures rather than people and pets. I talk to Zelda and she’ll glare at me on the screen. Some days, it’s enough to know that the distance doesn’t mean forever, and that next time I come back, we’ll all be together again.
For more kitty photos, check out their corresponding instagram accounts!