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A Pet-Loving Family Searches For a Cuddly Critter

I never thought it would be so hard to find a kitten. For years I had been promising my daughter a cat of her own. We already had two big dogs, rabbits, hamsters, and fish, but Maria dreamed of cats. Her love of these felines could be seen in the posters on her walls, her glass figurine collection, and the stack of library cat books by her bed.

One late summer afternoon, Maria, her three sisters, and I headed eagerly over to the local SPCA to scout out the needy kittens looking for a home. We held kittens; we stroked kittens; we considered them and listened to soft purring as they settled contentedly into our arms.

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Maria made her choice, a pure gray kitten named Melody. I went to the front desk to fill out the long application. When I finished, the woman in charge read it over carefully, stopping with a frown at: ''Do you rent or own your home?''

When she discovered we were renters, she insisted I produce our lease, proving that we had the permission of the landlord to have this kitten. None of my verbal assurances would do, and so, leaving our application on hold, we were sent home to get our lease. It was a sad group that trooped out that door leaving Melody behind.

Unwilling to bother the landlord with another request for a pet, I began an intensive search of local and out-of-town want ads. The few kittens mentioned had all been taken each time I called. Even the pet stores were not selling kittens anymore it seemed. In a 50-mile radius, only one had three for us to see.

We went and found three saggy, sacked-out young cats in a large cage amid the flies and dusty shelves of a not- too-pleasant pet store. These were not the kittens of Maria's dreams.

Grasping for courage, I called the landlord and asked if it would be all right to get a kitten. My four daughters stood straining to hear the answer, and, at last, we had the magic words, ''Sure, a kitten would be fine.''

I wrote ''kitten'' on the dotted line on our lease under the heading ''Pets,'' and we raced once more to the SPCA. We spied Melody pawing playfully through the bars of her cage and hurried to the desk.

I waited eagerly while the lady in charge handed another person her newly adopted kitten in a box, saying, ''Here's your baby,'' and giving last-minute instructions such as, ''Clip the claws every nine days.'' I handed her our lease triumphantly.

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''Yes, this seems to be in order,'' she decided after reading the fine print. Winking at Maria, I heard her say, ''Let me just look over the application again.'' I was all ready to write the check and was shocked to hear, ''I'm sorry, you can't have a kitten.''

''Why?'' I asked in amazement, as if waiting for the punch line.

''We can't let kittens into homes with children under 6,'' she stated, glancing at little Madeleine, a friend of all creatures, especially her hamsters that have been held gently since her toddler days.

I tried explaining. I tried describing how for 10 years we'd lived on a farm and had lots of barn cats. I came close to tears as I expressed the sorrow of my daughter. There was no relenting, and we were turned away to once again go through those doors empty-handed, not daring to glance back at Melody. In two years we would be eligible to adopt an SPCA kitten, but Maria was not willing to wait, and Melody, we hoped, would somehow find a home.

We didn't have to wait long. Through that wonderful social invention called word of mouth, we got the kind of news we'd been waiting for. A friend of a friend had a neighbor who had found an abandoned 2-1/2-week-old kitten in a drainage ditch. She had been bottle feeding this kitten for two weeks and trying to find it a special home.

As we drove into the country to get the kitten, Maria was quiet, wondering, no doubt, if it would really happen. We walked into the kitchen and there was Tweakers, no bigger than a coffee mug, eight ounces of black fluff with a white chest and four white paws, like exclamation points. His eyes stared at us unblinkingly, like blue marbles. Tweakers won our hearts instantly and made us glad we'd had to wait.

While Maria cradled Tweakers in her arms and practiced feeding him from the bottle, we listened to his schedule, and I realized we were adopting a newborn kitten that needed a whole lot more care than Melody.

We've had Tweakers for just days now, but he has already found his niche. The small bed Maria made with her newborn blanket is his favorite place to sleep. She patiently warms up bottles in the microwave and mashes kitten food with her fingers to teach him how to eat.

And while she is at school, four-year- old Madeleine babysits the kitten, who is still no bigger than a bell pepper.

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