The Ballad of Orta, My Favorite Meeper

With the weather being so crumby lately for astrophotography, I thought I’d relay the story of my kitten, Orta. That’s a picture of her from a few days ago.

Orta exploring the carport.

I’ve always liked cats. I’ve always had friends that have them. I think they’re funny creatures. But I’ve also had an allergy to them. I tried adopting a rescue several years before but had to return her because my allergies got so bad. Since then, I discovered Cetirizine and that’s made me mostly allergy bulletproof.

I adopted Orta on Labor Day last year from a local rescue organization. I was looking for a female Siamese kitten. I called and searched multiple shelters looking for a kitten with those qualities. I prefer Siamese cats. I think they’re the most dog-like of cats. It’s a great hybrid. They’re very intelligent and curious and very vocal. When I’m alone with Orta she doesn’t shut up most of the time. Siamese also want to be around you, which might surprise some non-cat owners.

I eventually found Orta, who was named “Willow” at the time by the organization. She was a Siamese-mix and that was close enough for me. I drove her back from the shelter in the little carrier I brought. It was an hour card ride and she barely made a peep (or I should say, “meep” Orta makes a meep sound a lot). When I was introduced to her for the first time, she was very quiet and timid, except for when she wanted to get away and climbed out of my arms.

I actually had to make two trips to the organization to adopt her. She wasn’t eating and was losing weight. Her caretaker wanted to keep her for another couple of weeks to give her more deworming meds.

That’s her below not long after I brought her home the first time. Being my first new kitten straight from the shelter I knew she wasn’t well, but I assumed she would do better once she got used to her new environment and wasn’t kept in a smallish room with maybe a dozen other cats.

Sick kitten Orta.

I planned to keep her in this pet playpen I found on Amazon (similar to this one) when I couldn’t directly supervise her. I knew enough that kittens could get into trouble. I placed her carrier in the pen with her own brand new litter box, bed, food/water bowls, and a couple of cat toys.

The poor thing didn’t come out of the carrier. She stayed in it for a couple of hours, maybe. I would pop in to check on what she was doing periodically. Eventually, she got out and would just sit on her haunches with her little tail wrapped around her feet. She stayed like for what seemed like forever.

I was warned by her caretaker that she needed to eat and the best luck she had feeding Orta was with turkey or chicken baby food. So, I started to take her out of the pen a few times to hold her and feed her baby food with a spoon. She would lick a few spoons clean and then stop. She would then curl up on my forearm and proceed to “make biscuits” on my bicep. Her little claws had been recently clipped, so it didn’t bother me.

This continued for a couple of days. She still didn’t move around much at all in her pen. So midway through the second day, I opened the “door” on the pen to see if she would come out on her own. She didn’t move for hours and I got busy with some work. The next thing I knew, she was sitting quietly behind me on the couch.

I was excited to see her starting to explore, until I heard her sneezing. She was sneezing a lot. I went to Google and some of my cat friends for advice and the result was I needed to take her to see a vet; that she had a respiratory virus.

I took her to the Cat Car Center in town. It was a new place specializing in cat care. I dropped her off early in the morning and returned to work. I eventually got the call to come get her, as well as the diagnosis.

Her ears and eyes were infected. Her bloodwork showed parasites. And, perhaps worst of all, she had ringworm. I thought some of her fur looked a little thin, but I didn’t suspect it was caused by that.

So as a first time cat owner, or really pet owner outside of gerbils and hamsters, I had to learn how to administer refrigerated eye drops and eye salve to a kitten. How to give her ear drops. How to use a syringe to give her the anti parasitic/antu-fungal meds. And I had to resign myself to quarantining her for at least 5 weeks, while cleaning her sleep area every day. I also had to take her in for 3 sulfur baths. The vet and techs at the CCC were great about explaining and demonstrating everything to me, though.

Below is what Orta’s pen looked like. The big issue with ringworm is it’s a contagious fungus that spreads on the hair she sheds. Anytime I handled her, the best thing I could do was clean the exposed areas with soap and water and discard my clothing. I wasn’t at a significant risk. I’m a healthy person, so it was really unlikely I’d get ringworm from her, but I had to be sure I didn’t create an auto-infection situation for her.

Orta in her pen, wider shot.

So began our routine. The first couple of weeks were the hardest. I’d get up in the morning and hold her for a while. I’d pet her and let her make biscuits on my arm while I quietly prepared her meds. Then I would start. It only took a few days for her to catch on to what I was doing. It was a real struggle to restrain her in place while put eye drops in her eyes, followed by eye salve. The ear drops were even harder. There needed to be like five drops in each ear and each time you dripped one, she would struggle that much harder. Then I had to keep her from shaking the drops out immediately.

I discovered the best way to give her the anti-parasitic/anti-fungal meds was the mix it in with a bit of her baby food and let her lick the spoon clean.

In the afternoons after work, I would spend an hour shutting her in the bathroom, which she hated, while I methodically took her pen apart. I’d take her littler box out and clean it. Then I’d take the food and water and wash and refill both bowls. I would take her toys to the sink and spray them with bleach water, rinse them, and let them dry. As I readied the food and littler box, I would put them in the bathroom temporarily with Orta.

Then I’d remove the towels I placed on the bottom of the pen and put those directly in the washer while I readied two clean towels. I’d then take the pen outside, shake out, vacuum it, spray it with some Lysol, and let it air out a bit (in the sunlight when able).

Once all that was down, I’d reassemble the pen and go rescue Orta from the bathroom and then vacuum the bathroom. Even though the bathroom was roomier than her pen and had her toys and food, she hated being closed in there. I suspect it was either fear of being left alone or she didn’t like the buzz of the fluorescent light. I would even take time to play with her in there to get her accustomed to it, but it never completely took.

As the weeks progressed, the situation and Orta steadily improved. I gradually weened her off the baby food, except for her meds, which she had to take on and off a week for three weeks. She was eating her kibble on her own and getting friskier. That made it harder to give her some of her meds, but I was done with the eye drops after a couple of weeks and the ear drops not long after.

She would stink of sulfur after her periodic baths, but she wasn’t having a difficult time with them. In fact, she likes to play with water now, sticking her paw in the bathroom faucet when it runs or batting ice cubes around the kitchen. And yes, she had a kitty fountain.

The only growing problem I had was she became more and more eager to get out of her pen and explore her environment. Toward the end, she would jump and nip at my hand whenever I tried to zip it up. And once she learned she could jump on top of the netting when it was partially unzipped, she tried a jail break once or twice. I could actual see that she was angry with me.

The day finally came when the vet gave her blood work the all clear and I released her from the pen. She ran around the kitchen where I had been keeping her, desperate to get into everything. Over the next few days, I watched her explore the various rooms. Most of the time, though, she would stay in whichever room I was in.

Orta being curious.
Orta napping

I was concerned what behavioral problems might come about from keeping her penned up for so long. The only thing to really come of it is she doesn’t like to be held anymore. Yes, she’ll lay on top of me or on the inside of my forearm, but she wiggles and tries to get away if I do the same while standing. Though, I am able to carry her with both hands against my chest for a short bit of time.

She’s grown into a too-healthy cat. That’s her getting into my Christmas tree. I knew cats had a thing for Christmas trees, but I didn’t know how bad of a thing it was. I got her fixed and microchipped in early December and brought her home expecting her to be doped up and sore. Instead what I got was her slipping out of the room where I left her to nap and immediately climbing halfway up the trunk of my Christmas tree! The pic below is from a week or so later, after I was certain she was healed enough to be getting up to so much trouble.

Orta in the Christmas tree.

I saturated that poor Christmas tree with cat repellant, but Orta didn’t care. I actually watched her find a “hole” in the scent barrier and break through it to climb the damn tree. Eventually, she got somewhat bored with the tree, but never so much so I dared to hang my ornaments on it.

She’s very attached to me, follows me room to room, and chirps, twitters, and meeps at me constantly. She very rarely meows. She also loves to lick me and other people like a puppy. It was a little unnerving at first, because you don’t expect her tongue to feel like sandpaper. But I’ve gotten used to it.

She plays fetch when she’s in the mood, but prefers to play chase more. I guess in her mind it’s like eating just the middle of an Oreo. Why waste time with the cookie when you can have just the stuffing?

That’s her below with one of her many balls. I picked up a few packs of these little foam balls from the nearby grocery store. She loves it when I toss the ball down the hall and she can dart through both her cat tunnels in pursuit.

Orta with one of her balls.

By my best estimate, she should make a year in mid-July. For a while early on, I seriously considered returning her. The time and money I spent those first couple of months was prohibitive, but I’m really glad I stuck it out.

That said, I’d encourage anyone looking to adopt an animal to inquire about ringworm. It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to properly treat. You should know what you’re getting into and be prepared to manage it.

Lastly, people ask me where I got the name. Most of the time I tell them it came from a Russian ballerina. That’s not actually the case. That’s just what a friend from long ago told me about the name when I used it for a character in an MMO. No, the name really comes from the now classic Panzer Dragoon Orta game on the original Xbox. I played the hell out of the game, and yes, I did buy Orta a stuffed dragon. It’s her favorite kicker toy (other than me).

Orta with her dragon.

Shoulder to the Pinwheel

Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy

The next target I hoped to shoot was Messier 101, The Pinwheel Galaxy. I made my first attempt from my backyard, relatively early in the night. The Pinwheel Galaxy was low to the northeast and among a fair bit of light pollution. I couldn’t even get it to pop out on my tracking scope using the PHD2 software to live stack multiple, multi-second exposures. It was just too washed out. At a magnitude of 7.86, where the higher the number the dimmer the object is (Orion’s Sword is a 4), capturing this sucker would require a better sky.

I packed in my gear that night, frustrated, but a couple of weeks later with a cold front blowing through, one of the members of my local astronomy society wanted to take a trip out to the society’s dark site. Open to members, I had only been out to the site once before. It’s about 25 miles west-ish from my house and encompasses a levee that sits between a cow pasture and the Atchafalaya Basin.

Setting up on the levee at the “dark site”. Facing west-ish. The Atchafalaya Basin on the left and the pasture on the right.

There are alligators down in the water, roaming cows sometimes, and random locals and sheriff’s deputies going up and down the levee road at odd hours. It’s definitely darker compared to my backyard skies, but there’s sadly plenty of light pollution to the west, a clear indicator of the city’s existence. And more pollution has encroached around the edges as developers drop down new subdivisions.

I’d have visited the site more often on my own, except for a couple of reasons. One is I don’t trust my forward-drive sedan to handle steep dirt, levee roads. If I get stuck out there, I could be stuck a long time, alone. Second, it’s hard to feel safe on your own out there and you really shouldn’t. People, whatever there intentions, come and go through the dark hours of night, and you do need to be aware of the wildlife. Not only are there crocodiles, but you have to be aware of bears, coyotes, and just about every animal that makes the Basin it’s home. It is also within cows to be mean, too.

The third reason would be bugs, which I hear get pretty awful, but I’ve only been out on cold nights. An experience for another time, I suppose.

But how dark does it get? The first time I went, I was a little disappointed. A front had come through so the night was pretty clear, but not perfectly so. I don’t remember if there was moonlight or not. Back then I didn’t realize how much of a problem moonlight could be. So, I could see a lot of stars and some nebulosity of the bright nebulas like Orion and The Pleiades.

This second trip, I got out to the site maybe half an hour before sunset. Traffic was awful on the Interstate and it took longer to travel there than I hoped. A cold front had passed through but the area was dry and on the levee where we do our observing, a constant cold breeze blew ALL night.

The sun slid a little lower as I unloaded my car and started setting up my gear. That’s when things got eerie, but in a logically fascinating way. The sky directly above looked a starless black relative the deeper blues and pinks of the sky around it. And it was as clear as I had ever seen a sky be. Staring up at it was unnerving and gave me this weird sensation of vertigo, like I was going to fall into the sky! I reasoned it must be because I had nothing for my eyes to focus on to give me any sense of depth or perspective. It clearly had nothing to do with Outer Gods and the myriad of other terrors in various stories by H.P. Lovecraft. All of that said, I don’t know if anyone else has ever experienced this before, but it was pretty cool.

Eventually, the other society member arrived and we set up our gear. Both of us had targets in mind for the night, but neither wanted to be out into the early a.m. hours. And when it got dark, it got as dark as I’ve ever seen it as an adult. I could just barely make out the faintest glow of the Milky Way with my naked eyes (and contacts). That’s how dark it got!

I collected a few hours of data (exposures) and spent the night freezing my butt off while I snacked on jerky and mixed nuts. The other issue with setting up at a remote site to do astrophotography is you have to find some way to occupy your time while your camera and laptop do the hard work. I brought a pair of binoculars with me to try to view some other objects, but ultimately relied on conversation and an audio book, “Magelord” by Terry Mancour. It’s book 3 of the Spellmonger Series.

I got glimpses of the exposures being snapped and was thrilled with the clarity I was seeing in the images. I actually shot these at ISO 1600, instead of 800, to try to bring out more detail of the galaxy. I also did 6-minute exposures. Normally, 5 minutes is sufficient, but at the dark site 6 minutes was making things pop.

While the 6-minute exposures worked better than they had any right to with the wind, the higher ISO setting came back to bite me. I didn’t have my trusty porchlight on the levee to use as a light source to take flats and a poor combination of rainy weather and a busy schedule have kept me from being able to set up my gear again, at home, to take those flats. My scope has a ruler on its focusing tube, so I can see precisely which focused I used at the dark site to capture my flats the next time I set up. I did do some quick and flat-less processing of my data as soon as I got home and stopped shivering. I just had to see what I had!

Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy
Messier 101, The Pinwheel Galaxy, processed quickly without flats. Data collected at dark site.

In the meantime, I recycled my most recent flats from my work on the Messier 51, The Whirlpool Galaxy. They aren’t a perfect representation of the flats I would have gotten that night at the dark site, but they should be close enough as far as focus and dirt go. The set up and focus would be the same from my Whirlpool Galaxy imaging. The problem, however, is I took those flats at ISO 800, not ISO 1600. Still, I’ll share the results below.

Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy
Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy, processed with “fake flats”. Data collected at dark site.

I plan to reprocess this image from scratch when I can set up again and grab some new flats. I forgot to balance the color before I did the color-preserving star mask. So, the stars are a bit red-shifted thanks to my Eos Ra’s sensitivity to infrared light.

Unfortunately, as the season marches on, I’m going to lose some of my better targets until the fall. So, I’ll have to figure out what to shoot next, when all I really want to do is take another crack at Messier 33, The Triangulum Galaxy and Messier 31, The Andromeda Galaxy, again.