ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He rolled up to Embudo Hills Park in a grayish green pickup, dropped off a white cardboard box and drove away.
Maureen Jorgensen, walking her dogs around the park at Lomas and Monte Verde NE, didn’t need to open the box to know what was inside – and neither did her dogs.
The box was meowing.
“I looked through the air holes and saw it was a kitty, very scared, crying, scratching at the box,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
She was a half-mile from home that frosty March 16 day, she hadn’t brought her phone and it was starting to snow.
And there was the matter of her dogs.
“But there was no way I was just going to leave that poor thing out there,” she said. “She didn’t deserve that.”
It should have been this little black cat’s lucky day. But it turns out that not all cats have nine lives.
Jorgensen said she saw two men in a car and had them call 311 to ask the city Animal Welfare Department to send out an officer. She waited, but no officer came, at least not before Gloria Caetano did.
Caetano and her husband were walking their German shepherd and offered to take the cat to their daughter’s home, because, again, there was the matter of their dog.
“So much meowing, from the moment they brought the box in the house,” daughter Kelsey Caetano-Anolles said. “That cat was skinny, small, malnourished and extremely hungry. She ate an entire can of cat food.”
The cat was also injured, a front leg grotesquely broken and bent, her tail sliced open, her abdomen scuffed.
“It was so heartbreaking to see her condition once she started walking,” Caetano said. “This was not just a broken leg. She was limping with an extremely damaged leg, which was bent in places a leg should not. This wasn’t an accident that had just happened. Instead it seems that this owner had let this cat suffer for several weeks.”
Even in her obvious discomfort, the little cat was joyful.
“She was so sweet and gentle, flipping over to show her belly to me for rubs and being playful,” Caetano said.
They fell in love with her. So did many neighbors who read about the rescued cat on Caetano’s NextDoor post.
But the cat belonged to someone. Inside the box, the Caetanos found a note. Her name was Hera, a good cat, hit by a car, it read. Her “mom” couldn’t afford a veterinarian, but maybe someone who found her could. The Caetanos were willing.
But two veterinary clinics told them they couldn’t treat Hera without the owner’s permission and suggested they take her to Animal Welfare.
“So we went to the city’s Eastside shelter,” Caetano-Anolles said. “And we instantly felt regret.”
The family was told that Hera was microchipped and would be returned to the listed owner.
Carolyn Ortega, director of Animal Welfare, said the goal is to reunite pets with their humans except in cases of abuse and neglect, and neither were indicated in Hera’s case.
“A vet on staff evaluated the cat and it appeared the cat was hit by a car and that it was recent,” Ortega said. “We had no reason to believe the injuries were purposely done.”
The owner was contacted and arrived shortly after to reclaim Hera and sign a document stating that she would seek medical attention for her cat within 48 hours, Ortega said.
Instead, the cat was relinquished at a “shelter partner,” she said.
Ortega said little else about the woman and the man in the truck at the park – apparently the woman’s ex-boyfriend – because of an ongoing investigation that is “possibly likely” to result in criminal charges.
On March 20, Hera was returned to the shelter. On March 22, she underwent surgery to treat her wounds and amputate her leg, too damaged to be saved.
The Caetanos called the shelter regularly to check on Hera. Still outraged, they encouraged others to join them in demanding that the city do better.
They were heartened that the surgery had gone well and that already many were lining up to adopt her.
But sometimes best intentions are not enough.
Hera was resting after surgery when shelter staff left for the day. Nothing seemed amiss, Ortega said.
They found Hera the next morning, dead in her cage, strangled by the IV tubing that had wrapped around her tiny neck.
“The whole clinic staff was just devastated,” Ortega said. “It was just an awful freak accident.”
The Caetanos were heartbroken, too. But they were also horrified that post-op animals are left alone overnight at the shelter. There is no night crew, no surveillance cameras or alarms.
“After everything she went through in the past week, she was left unattended and died a needless death, all alone,” Caetano said. “Do not let Hera die in vain. Something needs to change.”
Well, maybe it will.
Ortega said her staff is evaluating how Hera’s case was handled and whether policies and practices need to be changed to prevent another tragedy.
“There is always room for improvement,” she said. “All we can do is learn from what happened and try to turn this into a positive for other animals.”
And there is always a need to remind people that if they can’t afford veterinary care for their pet, there are better ways to deal with that rather than tossing out the pet for others to find.
“If you love your pet and want help, tell us,” Ortega said. “Maybe we can help.”
Hera didn’t get nine lives, but perhaps she can help other cats have a few good ones. She deserves at least that.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.