Louise spent a year swearing Ming wasn’t hers. It was four years ago, and the Tyler School of Art graduate was fostering the then-8-month-old black cat at the home/studio she rented on Letterly Street in Fishtown. She’d split the responsibilities with a friend, Beverly, though Ming had mostly lived out of Louise’s house. “I resisted for a year, I think,” Louise says, “because I didn’t want to be an irresponsible parent.” She’d fallen in love with the animal but, due to her art residencies, which required a lot of travel, she didn’t think she had the time to care for it.
It’s hard to blame her. It wasn’t just the regular doses of medication Ming needed, for worms, that worried Louise. The cat was also missing a hind leg.
Louise didn’t think he would live very long. A couple months later, though, while hanging out in the basement and staring longingly at the outside concrete, Ming did something drastic: He broke a loose glass panel in her basement window, hobbled outside and sat in front of the house.
Pretty soon, Ming became a regular fixture of the street and the area. Two neighbors who’d taken in several stray cats over the years, including lifelong animal lover Mary Kratofilow, helped care for Ming while Louise was away.
A neighbor myself, I’d see Ming hanging out on front stoops along Letterly Street while I was coming home from work or walking my dog in the afternoons. Ming carries himself in a nonchalant manner, hobbling to and from porches, setting up camp under cars and softly purring as other feral cats in the neighborhood—many of whom have not been even quasi-adopted—strut by, pointedly refraining from challenging to the handicapped feline.
This is a cat that’s been referred to as a “miracle of a man,” whose missing leg remains a mystery, and whose lack of self-awareness is inspiring.
When I meet Kratofilow, one of Ming’s humans, at her home on Letterly Street, she first introduces me to the four cats she’s taken in over the years: Sweetum, Isis, Ashes, and Dexter. They range from indoor to outdoor cats, and each has their own set of problems. Isis, for instance, was suffering from gingivitis when he was found; Kratofilow had to bring him to the University of Pennsylvania veterinary clinic and get all his teeth taken out. Unable to eat solid food, he’s curled up on Kratofilow’s screened-in back porch next to a bowl of destroyed canned chicken that she’s specially prepared for him to eat without having to chew.
Ming, meanwhile, is sitting on Kratofilow’s screened-in front porch, where some holes in the screen point to the other problem many of the cats on this block run into: the opossums. There are at least two of them, and they have a penchant for shitting all over people’s back yards and roofs. Those holes in her porch screen, Kratofilow claims, means one got in just last night. The problem, she explains, is that the cats hanging out back there scare the opossums, who, by instinct, proceed to wet themselves on her porch.
Kratofilow has lived on this block since she was nine years old. She spent 35 years of her 43-year waitressing career at Silk City Diner on Spring Garden Street, and, according to Louise, she’s the “Saint Francis of the block.” As we speak, Kratofilow does her best to build Ming up in my mind. Despite his obvious handicap, she says, she’s seen the three-legged critter scale fences, catch pigeons and scare away other neighborhood feral cats looking to claim new territory.
“He has no self-awareness that he’s handicapped,” adds Louise. “And everyone goes up to him and says, ‘You poor thing, you poor little thing,’ and he’s just like, ‘I’m fine.’”
Though art is still a large part of her life, Louise is now studying to become a nurse, and she looks at Ming as an inspiration in her journey toward a new career.
“I work with sick people, and how you place your sickness or your illness is a placement of how you manifest your symptoms,” she says. “If you have a really positive attitude about your outcome, you’ll do better. You need a lot of positivity—and that’s how I feel about him. He has three legs, but he runs, he jumps, he plays.”
Dogs and cats who seem totally unconscious of their handicap—whether it’s a missing limb or something else—may be just that, but psychological science and theory around the issue seems to show it’s a bit more complex.
After all, part of the reason why certain animals have certain rights in our society is that we understand they have sentience: the ability to feel and perceive pain, to suffer. And suffering, argued 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is an even more important criteria for a living creature to enjoy basic rights than is the ability to reason, or to talk. In writing about animal consciousness and sentience, Bentham compared this idea to France’s recent discovery that the color of one’s skin “is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.”
Loyola University Chicago psychologist James Garborino takes this historic idea farther in his book, The Positive Psychology of Personal Transformation. In it, he argues animals’ lack of self-awareness may actually be an even higher form of enlightenment than we humans can normally experience. As he writes specifically about a dog with three legs: “The three-legged dog shows no sense of self-pity because of his disability ... the three-legged dog simply acts within his physical reality. This is an important way in which the acceptance contained within the definition of reality differs from ‘resignation.’ Resignation implies a chronic mourning for loss—perhaps a sad acceptance of reality coupled with longing. That longing is what is absent from the three-legged dog’s acceptance. He is fully what he is—apparently not besieged by regrets for what might have been or jealousy when he sees what other dogs have, namely four legs.”
This state of being, Garborino notes, seems to exemplify one Buddhist definition of enlightenment: to accept reality exactly as it is in each moment.
“To me, if I ever get depressed or bummed or down, I just look at my cat and say, ‘He’s making it; what am I worried about?’” says Louise. “I deal with sick people all the time, and it’s fascinating to see how people deal with their illnesses. And I see Ming and his lack of consciousness [reflecting] that.”
As a result of people feeling bad for Ming and wanting to care for him, Louise believes he’s consequently become a very friendly cat. If you scratch his right ear—which, she says, you can see Ming attempt to do himself every so often—he’ll be your friend forever.
There are two theories as to how Ming lost his leg. The unlikely version is the one people tend to suggest first: that someone hurt him as part of some sort of ritual sacrifice. To dig up the likelier reason, I wanted to trace Ming back to his roots. Louise recalls there was a woman who worked with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation who’d been involved in Ming’s babyhood, so I contact them—and eventually get a call back from Laura Semmelroth, who’s the person who first saved Ming.
Most likely, Semmelroth opines, Ming’s right hind leg was mangled during birth, perhaps stuck in his mother’s umbilical cord. The mother, instinctively seeing this as a hindrance to her spawn’s survival, then chewed it off; it’s an unpleasant thing that’s been known to happen.