Caveat: This is a long one, 20 years is a long time. Do not attempt to read it at all if you do not like cats.
You should not have released an intact male back into the city. My new acquaintance, and part of a network of “cat people” in San Francisco who dedicate themselves to feeding existing cat colonies in the city and engaging in catch-neuter/spay-release activities designed to help control the feral cat population of the city, admonished me for my action. As well-meaning as it was, it was wrong.
You should have had him neutered before you released him. You need to get him back and have him neutered.
And how will I do that? I wondered.
And so began my more than twenty year love affair with feral cats, and a new pastime — feral cat rescue. The year was 1996.
Moon, as I eventually came to call him, was a big white grubby-looking (it is difficult to keep white fur white in the city) male cat of whom I had first become aware on a cold, damp rainy night when I found him crouched on the porch of the apartment below mine coughing and sneezing his heart out. He had a terrible cold. His nose was running, his eyes were red; he looked more forlorn than I could endure to watch. I lured him into my apartment with food, not a difficult task given the way he undoubtedly felt and, after consuming a hearty meal he took up residence behind my toilet in the bathroom where I had stashed him to keep him out-of-sight. I didn’t know how my landlords would feel about my having a cat and I certainly didn’t trust him on the wall-to-wall carpeting. He spent nearly a week there, hissing and spitting at me from behind the toilet every time I used it.
He was a ferocious beast, I concluded, clearly a menace to have around. I dosed his food with echinacea and he continued to consume every delicacy that Friskies and I could come up with with great gusto. He couldn’t be that sick, I concluded. Eventually the sniffling stopped and he was raring to go, ready to return to his life of walking the streets of my neighborhood, with his unusually long white tail held high as he skipped happily down the street on his way to conduct his daily affairs. What they were I did not know, but they probably involved chasing after any unspayed females he could find and having a fight or two with any new males who dared venture into his territory.
Those were the days when a trail of cats appeared on my back porch for snacks. A few raccoons also thought the open food dish was for them, although they got the water dish filthy washing their hands, or their food, I am not sure which, as they ate. Many of the cats were tame and it finally got to the point where I would attach a ‘cat-o-gram’ to the neck of each visitor — a tiny pink piece of paper with a note saying “if this is your cat, please call me” — with a thin piece of gold elastic so that I could decide who actually needed the food.
I got your message from my cat. Is my cat bothering you? Over the year, several bemused cat owners called me upon receipt of my cat-o-grams to find out what was going on. I learned who had a home and who did not. I learned their names, and named the ones who returned with their cat-o-grams still intact. I always wished I could see the faces of the people whose cats temporarily joined the ranks of feline Western Union and came home sporting a pink piece of paper, a message from a secret admirer who wanted to know if they were already loved.
In preparation for what I considered to be “mission impossible”, I walked into a neighborhood veterinary and explained my predicament with the white cat. At that point, he still did not have a name.
If I get the cat into my bathroom again, will you come catch him and neuter him? Of course, at my expense.
Much to my surprise, they were happy to oblige. And so, with their phone number in my pocket, I set out to recapture the infamous big dirty white cat. It didn’t take long. Soon he was once again hissing and spitting at my naked behind whenever I sat on the toilet. A day later, after only few minutes during which a mysterious sounding scuffle could be heard, the vet tech proudly carried him off to shed his manhood and have a bath. But this was not the end of the story. Little did I know, the fun was just about to begin.
This cat is FIV+, a solemn voice informed me over the phone. He should not be released back into the city.
I was horrified that my act of good will might mean the snuffing out of what had appeared to be a perfectly happy life on the streets, that terrible cold nothwithstanding.
What does this mean?
FIV is the feline version of HIV. However, most cats live a normal life with it; it does not shorten their lifespan and only spreads through mating and fighting, both of which is less likely to occur once an animal is neutered.
It was clear that they did not want to put him down, but legally, they were not supposed to release him. They needed me to say that I would keep him, probably regardless of whether or not I actually would.
You know…. the vet tech hesitated for a moment… you could socialize this cat. I didn’t even have to sedate him to give him his bath. He let me do it without ever trying to bite me.
How could that be? He hissed and spat at me whenever I came near him.
Like people, cats have respond to fear by attacking, fleeing, or freezing. Hissing and spitting are displays of fear, they may or may not be a sign than a pending attack. Quite the opposite, in this cat’s case, he was just hoping you’d get out of his way, which you did. In many ways, he was very easy to handle. And once the hormones are out of his system in a few weeks time, he will be much calmer overall and, with socialization, could make a nice pet.
Socializing a cat? What does that mean?
And so our journey together began. I named him Moon because, once washed and dried, he was brilliantly white like the moon over our heads the night the vet tech delivered him back to me. His plight, and what I learned through helping him, led to many other cats, both feral and homeless domestics, finding their way into my care over the coming years.
The process was always the same: Initially housed in a large three story cat pen, with shelves, food, water and a litter box on the bottom, the cat would have time to get used to people, and to other cats in a safe place and we would have time to get used to them. Eventually, released into the general population, there were never any fights among members of my household. An outdoor cage was built, with access through a cat door, so they could all go outside without running away. Eventually, after a few years, the cage was dismantled, and everyone was free to come and go as they wished. No one ran away; everyone always came home. People sometimes forget that feral cats are very savvy. If they find a regular source of food, they will always come back.
Some remained fearful and unwilling to be touched for their entire lives. They came home for food and a warm bed and, in the winter, they often did not leave at all. But they never really trusted me completely, not the way a domestic cat does. Always wary, they watched my every move, and were ready for flight at the slightest hint that I might have something other on my mind than just walking by. Others adapted over time and wriggled their way into my bed as well as my heart.
Anyone who wants a “pet” cat should not bring home a feral one. The reality is that, even after more than a decade together, several of my cats still flew as soon as I came close to them. Trips to the vet were often preceded by an arduous process of chase-down-and-hang-on-for-dear-life with great huge leather gloves covered in staples to protect my hands while holding them at arms length to avoid flailing claws and biting jaws, until I could I drop them unceremoniously into the cat carrier. After which, we both had to sit down and recover. Fear is contagious. To be sure, as they aged, many of them mellowed, but a few remained, to the end, the “wild bunch”.
No, if you want to feel loved and hear the soft sweet sound of a cat purring against your chest, you do not adopt a feral cat. I did not rescue any of the cats with whom I shared my home to be my “pets”. I brought them home so that they could have a better life than they might have otherwise had on the streets where I had found them, and I believe that that they did. They, in turn, taught me how to love unconditionally, without any expectation of reward or recognition. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, all of this cost me a pretty penny over the years. But, for some reason, I don’t mind spending money if it means saving a feline life. I am convinced that at some time in the not too distant past, I was probably incarnated as a cat. It would certainly explain my ambivalence towards dogs, as well as my compulsion to nurture cats. One of my colleagues who came to visit when I was living in San Francisco, announced that in a past life I was very wealthy and had many servants whom I treated very well.
It is they, as cats, that have come back to accompany you in this lifetime as an expression of their gratitude, she explained. An image of me situated in a scene out of Jane Austin, walking with full skirts in front of a huge mansion, with gardeners galore, and a butler at the door, arose out of nowhere. Given the number of lifetimes we all have lived, and will live, I would presume that both explanations of my present affinity to that which is feline could be true.
For a few years, I expanded my rescue operations to include feline leukemic cats who had to be housed together in a separate part of the house, due to it being highly contagious and almost certainly fatal within a few years time, at most. I would spend part of the day with them, and part of the day with the healthy cats. Luckily, I had a house big enough to do this. One of my most favorite cats of all time came to me as a kitten, born with feline leukemia. I had rescued a lovely long-haired male tabby from my neighborhood in Bloomington, Indiana who turned out to be positive for feline leukemia and I wanted a friend for him. So I left word at the local shelter and when one came through, they called me.
Seamus, a small gray tabby, was one-of-a-kind. He died before his second year, of some feline version of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He worshiped me, and I adored him. He would climb up my back as if I was a tree and loved nothing more than to be carried around in a sling around my neck. I have never done this before with a cat, and I don’t know why I did with him. But, in the end, because of our unique tradition, I was able to carry him close to my heart until the very end. It was as if, even in the beginning, we had known what was to come and had been preparing ourselves all along. I was devastated when he died, just before reaching the end of his second year. It was he who taught me that every year a cat lives is a blessing, and that the length of one’s lifetime is not a measure of its worth, or the size of the imprint it will leave upon another’s heart.
In some ways, Moon was one of my greatest achievements. Despite being warned that I would never be able to let him loose because he would run off, he became a loyal bed buddy who had the freedom to come and go as did the other cats. But it took years for him to come around. One of my fondest memories of him was when I first brought him back to Vermont and liberated him from his cage into his own room, complete with a newly installed screen door so I could see what he was doing and he could see me puttering around the house. There was a double bed in the room, with a soft fuzzy red blanket over it. When I next walked past the door and looked in, he was reclining at the head of the bed, perched smack dab in the on the pillows that lined the top under the red coverlet. He was wearing what I swore could only be a huge smile on his face. He was the white king on a bed of roses. He was home and he knew it.
My feline guests (you cannot “own” a cat) came from all walks of life, and many parts of the country (even a few from overseas). They had names from the cultures where I had lived or whose histories I had studied. Mystery (black), Aristotle (black and white), and Socrates (tabby and white), came from Tokyo, abandoned as kittens in front of a sushi house not far from my apartment just a few weeks before I left the Japan after having lived there for four years. Moon, Sebastian (gray and white), Tux (black and white), and Simon (tabby) came from the streets of my beloved San Francisco where I lived for a year. Riley (white with gray blotches) and Stanley (black and white), and much later Samson (orange and fluffy), came from the woods of Vermont behind my home. Sydney (black), Samantha (black) came from Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived for a year and where the local shelter euthanized over 7000 animals a year.
I met the people who were dropping Sydney at the door to the shelter, a neighborhood stray, they thought she was pregnant. Upon hearing from someone else walking into the shelter that they automatically euthanize pregnant cats, I took her before she ever went through the door and stashed her in my car. One certain death averted. Still, because I had her already waiting in the car, I only took one cat from inside the shelter. I left the one that I thought was handsomer because I thought s/he would be more likely to find a home. But I don’t know that this is what happened. To this day, I still regret not taking her/him but at the time, two seemed enough. A multitude of cats later, I had realized that one can never have too many cats, assuming you have a big enough house and a forest to play in. Even the risk of losing one’s life to a predator is preferable to a lonely death in an overcrowded shelter.
Sweet William (long-haired tabby) found me himself at home in Bloomington. He was positive for feline leukemia and was the reason that I adopted Seamus. Several months after I had left Bloomington, I got a call from someone at the shelter. They had another feline leukemia cat and if I would take her someone from Bloomington was ready to drive her to Madison. Serena, a black and white, outlived her two feline leukemic buddies, William and Seamus. When I went away to medical school, I found a woman in California who had a male cat with the disease for whom she wanted to find a companion. By that time, we were living in Vermont. I flew her out to Los Angeles to be with him. I never knew how much longer she lived, I only know that dedicated “cat people” in several different parts of the country all had gone out of their way to make the years that she had remaining good ones. Whoever she was, she had accumulated some pretty powerful karma at some point in her previous life.
I adopted Sassafras (black and fluffy) when I went to the shelter to see if they had found Sydney because she had gone missing. They showed me Sassy thinking she might be my missing Sydney, only to then inform me that she was slated for death at just five months of age simply because she had a broken hip…. yes, it was was healing just fine, we don’t adopt out damaged cats, we have too many healthy ones looking for a home. She was only five months old! I persuaded them to break their rule and left with a different black cat than the one for whom I had been searching. For many months after I got her, she listed to the left when she ran but eventually there was no evidence that she had ever been injured. Another needless death had been averted.
Eventually, Sydney came home. She was an occasional wanderer as it turns out. Her last excursion before her final disappearance many many years later lasted six weeks. Only one other cat, Aristotle beat her record, with an eight week absence. As will Aristotle, I had given her up for dead. Still, pitifully, I would go out every day and call to her across the pond since she would always answer back if she was on her way home. One day as I called, I heard a faint answering cry from the other side of the pond.
It couldn’t be! But it was! As if in a slow motion movie, I ran down the stairs and around the pond while she came racing towards me to leap into my arms like a lost lover returned from the war. It was one of my more memorable cat-coming-home moments. There is something particularly heart-warming about the return of a beloved pet presumed dead.
Somewhere along the line in all my cat-rescuing shenanigans, I adopted the Swahili tradition where one names all their children names that start with the same letter. My family in Mombasa had selected the letter “S” for their twelve children. I decided to do the same, although I did wonder whether it would be insulting to them to know that I named my cats in the same way that they name children. Last year, after more than twenty years, I found out that they did not mind. They only smiled.
Seamus and Serena came from Madison, Wisconsin, where I also lived for a year. Wherever I went, a carload of cat carriers accompanied me. We picked up Sophie on the road somewhere between Vermont and Indiana, at a vet’s where she had lived in a cage for over six months after having been surrendered by her owners. She was later killed by the neighbor’s dogs and, on that day, I swore that I would only adopt those cats whom no one wanted so I would not feel so terribly guilty if something happened to one of them. She had been originally surrendered by her first owners because they had two Rottweilers and were afraid for her although she had grown up with them.. I should have realized then that she was unafraid of dogs, but I also never thought that the two old house dogs that lived in the neighborhood would ever gang up on her. Certainly that experience taught me that dogs are not to be trusted, a belief of mine that persists to this day.
All of my feral cats, with the exception of Moon, came from the University of Bridgeport campus where I went to medical school. Located near a park, many people abandoned pets there and they were many strays on campus rooting through dumpsters looking for food. I couldn’t stand seeing this so I started feeding them. At one point, the university, distraught with the situation, threatened me if I continued to feed them. They didn’t yet understand that the cats would be there regardless of whether or not I was feeding them. And so, for awhile, late at night after classes, an astute observer would see me crawling under the campus just to put food and water out where it wouldn’t be seen. Eventually, of course, after I wrote a letter explaining that, contrary to their belief, I was actually helping them control their stray cat population by, literally, taking dozens off the campus, and making sure that any remaining ones were neutered, they changed their minds and gave me a site where I could set up a shelter and feed the campus population regularly while I continued to take as many as I could off the campus. A couple of years after I graduated, I got a frantic call from someone in campus administration. The cat population was increasing, could I help them?
Sumi (“ink” in Japanese) and Sacajawea (yes, who led Lewis and Clark across the Rockies, I invited one of my cat caretakers to name her) were part of a litter of kittens living in bushes by the administration building at the university. A man in the building fed them regularly and I agreed to take over when he went into the hospital where he later died. That is when I began to take cats home to Vermont. Sumi eventually became a loving cat, Sacajawea remained wild until she died of lymphoma, some ten years later, we two of that original litter. I got one guard to adopt another brother to keep another cat company who he had adopted earlier when I was keeping him in a cage at his house until I could transport him to Vermont. A kind man, who lived alone, enjoyed their company and when I later went to visit them, I could see that they were well-loved.
Shai (“gift” in Hebrew), was rescued from a fire escape where he had managed to get stuck. Sick with a viral infection contracted from his mother, Sheena, a beautiful calico, he survived after being treated and spent several months in my dormitory room with me as a stowaway. His brother was not so lucky. Their mother kept them in the eaves of an old building where it was impossible to reach them. I would see him on the roof in the sun sometimes, his nose running and looking miserable. Eventually he was gone. As wily as she was, she was my nemesis. I simply could not get her to go into a have-a-heart trap, no matter what delicacy I placed in it. I caught a raccoon and, one night, a huge opossum who, since it was daylight by the time I found him, was fast asleep and would not leave the trap even thought it was wide open. I had to wait until the next evening for him to saunter out on his own when no one was around to see the embarassing situation into which he had gotten himself. I’d never seen one that big before.
Solomon and Shelby, siblings who were white with grey splotches, lived in the maintenance building; the worker were glad to see them find a good home. Shoshana, white with black blotches, hailed from the same area where Sheena, Sumi and Sacajawea lived.
I found Sean, a beautiful smoky gray kitten, one evening, after dark, where I he was taunted by some children. He was almost dead from “flea bite anemia”, worms and ear mites. He lay in a bed of dead fleas at the vet’s after being treated and they did not expect him to survive but, a month later, I sneaked him into my dorm room to join Shai. It was easy to take them in an out of the dorm, one by one, in a knapsack. Of course, many of the other women on the floor knew they were there, but university authorities never found out. Eventually they too went home to live in Vermont with the other cats. The college was located by a park where cats were regularly abandoned. For awhile it seemed like I was bringing home a new cat every weekend. Friends took some of the younger tame cats and kittens.
Two black and white cats Sherman and Sally, and one black cat, Sanjiv (long life in Hindi), were all being fed by a man who lived off campus. He must have been supporting more than a dozen cats and was clearly not a wealthy man. His heart was apparently even bigger than mine. Two more black and white sibling kittens, Shane and Sheila appeared one night, completely tame and abandoned. I plucked them up and stashed them in a cage in another student’s apartment until I could get them to Vermont.
By that time, my mother and brother, who lived in a house attached to mine were in the swing of things. They took the tame adult cats, I kept the wild ones. There were others that I fed on campus but, much to my regret later, did not try to bring home. I always felt like I had let them down, particularly after one mysteriously disappeared.
Shoshana fell in love with Moon. Like Simon, I actually hadn’t planned to trap her. But she meowed at me whenever I was around, so I thought she wanted to come. And maybe she did. But like Sheena, she remained wild for the remainder of her life, although she was not aggressive when we had to catch her to take her to the vet. I always wondered if she had been telling me to go away instead of asking me to take her home with me because I was taking her comrades.
Shoshana followed Moon everywhere. She even risked sleeping on the bed with me because that was where he slept. Devastated many years later when he died one spring, she refused to come into the house for the entire summer. Luckily, by that time Sanjiv (“long life” in Hindi), a rather beat-up old black cat from Bridgeport had come to live with us. Apparently, like his predecessor’s he was the cat’s meow as far as Shoshaa and, once again, she had “her man”. She followed him everywhere, and when he decided he preferred living with my brother, she waited pitifully outside the door day after day until my brother finally relented and allowed her to join Sanjiv in his new home. Unlike Sanjiv, she was feral and difficult to handle in the event that she needed medical care. When my brother moved to his own place, she and Sanjiv went with him to live out their days in one another’s paws.
Salik (a Muslim name meaning “follower of the spiritual path”, Sudarshan (“handsome” in Hindi), Sikudhani (“I don’t believe it” in Swahili) also came from the campus, each with their own stories to tell. None of them, for various reasons, stayed for very long.
Sukha (“happiness” in Hindi) was found with four unnamed kittens who eventually went to loving homes in a house on the edge of campus. She decided that she didn’t like living with me in Vermont and found an older couple who lived nearby and who had lost their cat the year before under a pile of snow that fell off their roof when she was under it. They had begun calling her Percy, because of her persistence. She courted them for months without their feeding her, coming home only when unable to subsist on local rodents, to scarf down a meal after which she would head right back out again to haunt their yard. Of course, I did not know any of this was happening at the time; I just thought she liked wandering the woods and entertaining herself with what she found there. Then one day I got a call asking if I was missing a cat. No, I’m not….The light dawned when they described her. I realized that they were talking about Sukha.
Could we keep her? We haven’t fed her but we’d like to keep her. We lost our cat last year and she looks just like her.
Who am I to argue with what could very well be an incarnation of their cat? Certainly, she didn’t want to live with me.
From the moment they began feeding her, I never saw her at the house again, not even a courtesy call. When I went to visit her, I understood her choice. With them, she was the only cat, worshiped by a loving retired couple who lived in a huge house with heated tile floors. She knew what she was doing. And she reminded me that whether or not a cat lives with you is entirely a matter of their own choice.
Sonia had belonged to a group of students who, upon graduation, had simply all gone home and left her. One of the most loving cats I have ever known, all she ever wanted was to be cuddled and pet. She went to live with my mother. Neither of us could figure out why anyone would just walk off and leave such an easy-going, companionable cat.
Push came to shove when Sheena, mother to Shai and at least three other dead kittens of which I was aware, once again became pregnant. I wasn’t about to let her have another litter that would eventually die on my watch. Again, I tried every delicacy known to the pet food store. Time after time I failed and she got fatter and fatter. Time was running out. Finally, although she was pregnant, I stopped feeding her. Two days later, she was in the trap eating what I had finally put out as if her life, and the lives of her children, depended upon it. They probably did. Ten days after she arrived in Vermont, she gave birth to five kittens, all of whom were ill with the same viral infection which had claimed the lives of her earlier litters, with the exception of Shai whom I had been able to treat. With the help of the vet, we treated them and they all survived — Sakura (“cherry blossom” in Japanese), Shomari (“forceful” in Swahili), Sadhu (“holy one” in Hindi), Sapna (“dream” in Hindi), and Sir Frederick.
I felt that Sheena’s capture, which resulted in the kittens’ grand rescue, was a grand achievements in my career as feral cat rescuer. It had become a battle of wits between Sheena and I but, in the end, I did not have to sit and watch helplessly as another litter of kittens grew up and then died from whatever it was she transmitted to them at birth. By the time they were ready to leave the nest, they had stolen our hearts and we kept all of them. Freddy and Shomari chose to live with my mother, Sapna, Sadhu and Sakura stayed with me. For Sapna and Sadhu, as second or third generation ferals, they never quite lost their hyper-vigilance. But because Sakura had a heart condition, she was handled more, as a result, she eventually attached herself like a dog, following me everywhere. When I was away at school, she attached to my mother. When I came home, much to mom’s chagrin, she reattached to me and that was the last she ever saw of her, even though she still lived right next door.
Sheena remained wild and wily for almost eighteen years. She outlived all of her children, except for Freddy who is only alive today because my brother literally pulled him from the jaws of a fisher cat in the middle of the night when the cat caught him by the side of our pond and accidently fell into it. With critical wounds, including a broken jaw, he still lives with my brother, a testament to a cat’s resilience, a man’s love for his pet, and extremely good veterinary care.
It was Sheena who showed me that, regardless of how scary the world might me, it is always smart to stay alert…. and remain close to your food source. She taught me that knowing that I was providing a safe haven for a feral cat had to be enough in-and-of itself, that I could not expect any outward displays of affection (heaven forbid!) in return. Loyalty yes, a snuggle, no. For years, I longed to pet her lush mutli-colored coat but could only watch her in vain. Unlike Moon, her response to fear was to attack, and by golly attack she did. She was the only cat with whom I had to risk life and limb in order to provide medical care. Luckily, later in life when the infection that she had carried all her life and had passed on to her kittens started to get the better of her and she needed another course of antibiotics, she would resist me less. That was how I knew she wasn’t feeling well. A ten-day injection would fix her right up and she would be her ready-to-attack self once again. In the end, I was always happy when she was feisty because that meant she was feeling good. She liked her life even if she couldn’t show it in the way that a domestic cat could. She had friends to keep her company, and a warm bed at night and plenty of food. Through all those years, her appetite never wavered, even when she was sick. That she chose to stay despite being free to go was her only way of letting me know that, well, yes, despite all outward appearances if you try to touch me, I like living here.
Shai was, apparently, a “ladies man”. He grew to be an immense orange snuggle bug. By night, he slept with me, by day, all three of my feral ladies — Sheena, Sacajawea, and Shelby — would pile on top of him. We were all devastated when he disappeared one night, probably caught by the huge wolf who showed up outside my door a month later presumably looking for another tasty morsel. If it had not been for the last Bridgeport immigrant, brought in just before I graduated, I am not sure what the ladies would have done.
Siddhartha was a young male cat with the reputation around campus of being a vicious fighter at the cat food station. When I first saw him, he was limping, with a severe leg injury that I imagined was very painful. Upon delivering his angry self to the veterinary, I was informed that he had osteomyelitis, an infection deep in the bone of his foot. My choices were to amputate or euthanize. I decided to think about it overnight. Being in medical school, it occurred to me we do not euthanize people who have osteomyelitis. So I looked it up. Sure enough, a six-to-eight week course would clear the infection in a human. Why not in a cat? Upon raising this possibility to the veterinarian, they seemed surprised, but agreed that it would be possible, but how could it be done with a feral cat? Very easily, in fact. Since he had to stay in a cat pen for his first month at least at the house, probably more, given his reputation for fighting, the meds could be given to him in his food. I hoped that his temperament would improve once the testosterone was out of his system, his belly full, and he was no longer in pain. But, just to be safe, I decided to name him Siddhartha, after Siddhartha Gautum, the man who eventually became known to the world as Buddha. This was the only time I ever gave a cat a name in the hopes that the name would somehow influence the personality of the cat who he was to become. I hoped that the name would teach him to live a peaceful life, instead of a violent one. .
Siddhartha ate everything in sight with great gusto. In addition to be in pain, he had apparently been starving. Six weeks later, the x-ray showed no sign that there had ever been an infection in his foot. By then, he was well on his way to becoming a chubby bodhisattva, to whom all of my female cats would flock the minute he was freed from his cage. Never again did he show any tendency towards aggression. As a feral, he remained cautious but, over time, he discovered that being petted felt pretty darn good, almost as good as when his lovely ladies all draped themselves over him in adoration as he slept. Once again, Shelby, Sheena, and Sacajawea had “their man” and a sense of calm contentment in the household once again prevailed. I was the only one who no longer had a bed buddy. Unlike Shai, Siddhartha was still very much a “cat’s man”. While he was willing to steal the hearts of Shai‘s feline ladies, he was not yet interested in stealing his place in my bed. Despite living with over a dozen cats, I usually slept alone.
Over the years, critters in the woods took some of the cats, while disease and age took others. Each time my heart broke and I swore I wasn’t going to get any more because it was simply too painful to lose them. I could never decide whether it was easier to have them die in my arms, or to have them simply vanish in the night, in all likelihood with a quick death at the hands of another predator who, like the numerous rodents they caught, just happened to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the reality is that they all lived much longer, and certainly much more happily, with full bellies and a warm bed, than they would have ever lived on the streets. For me to not provide them with shelter simply because I would be eventually be grief-stricken when they left was obviously too selfish of an idea to worthy of serious consideration. Most feral cats have a lifespan of only 4-5 years. The cats that graced my home, even including most of those eventually taken by predators, lived for over a decade, some almost made it to their second one.
In those days, I was a true “cat woman”. (I’ve never understood why that moniker is considered by many to be pejorative.) In Wisconsin, when I took my feline leukemic cats outside for supervised walks on leashes, everyone else would follow. They numbered nine by that time. Together we would sit in the tall grasses or among the trees on the neighboring lot and engage in our various personal interests — sniffing grass, looking for mice, soaking up the sun, climbing a tree — all the while keeping one another in sight. I’d never seen anything like it, and it never happened quite like this again. For some reason, having two cats leashed symbolized that we were a team, and needed to come and go together. When it was time to go in, everyone trailed along behind me and the two leashed members of the clan, and we all returned to the house together. Of course, in typical cat-like fashion, everyone pretended that they were doing their “own thing”, but to even the least observant passerby there was little doubt that I was the Pied Piper of cats.
Most of them came most of the time when they were called. My deaf cat, Sebastian, would come home when I flashed the porch lights at night. He was no dummy. He knew he had a good thing going and wasn’t going to miss a night in a cozy bed or draped across a cat tree. I can still see Samson, a big fluffy orange cat who is patienting awaiting my return to the States, flying down the hill and across the garden when I called him. Originally homeless and struggling through snow drifts during the winter to find food, he embraced his new role as a “house cat” with open paws and always came tearing home lickity split if he was within earshot when I called him. If ever I felt the need to feel wanted, all I needed to do was call him.
Simon, a local street cat in San Francisco, who most certainly did not know his name, came running down the street the day I called him for the first time, after deciding at the last minute to adopt him and bring him to Vermont to keep Sebastian, his local buddy who was deaf and quite afraid after being brought into the house, company. To this day, I am embarassed to admit that I ever contemplated leaving him behind. Clearly, he thought he had a home already, even though I did not. It was one of those “memorable cat moments” to see him running down the street towards me as if my call was what he had been waiting for his whole life. In the spring and summer in Vermont, he would bring me a live frog every evening which I, in turn, would carry back to the pond behind the house. One day, many years later, he never came back. To this day I see him gently carrying yet another frog to me unharmed so that I could take it back where it belonged. I like to think he died quickly, presumably in the mouth of a Fisher cat (really a type of weasel), while happily engaged in his nightly ritual.
Over a period of twenty years, I probably homed, or found homes for, over forty cats. My most recent, Shyam (another name for Krishna), found me in the parking garage of Orlando International Airport, the day after I moved into my home in Florida. I grabbed him, stuffed him into my rolling carry on and walked through the airport with a mewing suitcase that no one seemed to notice so that I could get to the Southwest ticket counter before my flight left and cancel my flight so we could go home while I did what was necessary to bring him to Vermont a few days later. As luck would have it (or divine destiny?) we actually had a home to which we could return. I hadn’t wanted to go back to Vermont yet anyway. Interestingly enough, it was the first and only time I had ever been late for a flight; if I had been on time, I would probably have never seen him. He was a hit on the flight, and spent most of it asleep in the arms of the little boy next to whom I had asked if I could sit. Do you mind a cat? It’s always a safe bet that a parent will welcome an endearing distraction for their child on an airplane.
Yesterday, the last of my feral rescues, Shelby, died in Vermont. Her kidneys were failing and she was tired. She died in the company of a woman who used to help me care for them when I was away at medical school and who always “fills in” for me when one of my cats has to be put down in my absence. You might ask why she does this for me, but she says that it is always an honor to be present when they leave. I am just happy that they are not alone when they depart, that they know right up until the end how much they were loved and how honored I have felt to have them grace my home and open my heart. My brother still has a two of the early domestic rescues, and friends have my two more recent domestic rescues, but the original crew of wild ones, aka the “wild bunch”, whose presence had transformed my house into a home for decades, is gone.
And so it is, today, that I dedicate this post in their memory, and in remembrance of yet another part of my life that has passed into the swirling winds of time leaving only sweet memories of past adventures, and of companions who touched my heart with their paws and their purrs and who taught me what seva (selfless service) is really all about.
I thank you all, dear ones for choosing me to be your keeper while you were here. It has been both a gift and a privilege.