The World’s Loneliest Cat

Hey. I know how bad things are right now. Seriously bad. We’re facing a pandemic while at the same time riots are breaking out all over the country in response to yet another killing of an unarmed black man by police during an arrest. Unemployment is at a record high, and here in the US, health insurance is tied into your job–if provided by your employers at all, that is. Our administration has taken “rising to the level of incompetence” to a whole new height that has already resulted in the death of over 100,000 citizens and possibly the death of our democracy as well. The world’s climate is changing with devastating results at an exponential rate, murder hornets have appeared in the US, monkeys attacked a lab tech in India and made off with samples of COVID-19 in their escape, and we’re expecting an onslaught of seventeen-year-locusts in our region. The last time these buggers hatched, it sounded like you were on the set of a B sci-fi movie from the 50s.

So why am I here talking about cats?

Because I need to. And maybe you need to read it. So bear with me here as I muse about the funny little cat that has taken up residence at my house.

He’s not the first, by any means. Before I met my husband, back when I first bought this property, an ugly and quite evil-tempered cat had a litter of kittens under my porch. I didn’t even realize they were there until kittens began popping out of a hole in the boards like adorable whack-a-moles. By that time, however, it was almost too late to start the trapping process. I only managed to catch one–and he is living out his senior years with a friend of mine now. The only girl kitten in the bunch got hit on the road (we’re sadly too close to a busy road for my comfort), and the young males dispersed like wild animals. Mom cat sneered at my efforts to trap her, and disappeared.

Only to return the following spring with another litter of kittens. This time, I managed to trap her, and had her spayed and vaccinated for rabies. While she was gone, I was able to catch the kittens. I found homes for all but one, and that one became one of my house cats.

 

The Evil Momma Cat tamed down after spaying (I’ve always maintained hormones are the root of all evil), though she remained largely a wild animal. She took up residence under my porch and I began feeding her to keep her out of the road. A year later, one of her sons from the previous litter showed up, and though it took me forever to catch and neuter him, I finally managed to do that as well.

Both cats remained “porch” residents, doing their best to keep the mouse population down and in general, behaving as though they lived there. I worried about them during various polar vortexes (and bought a dog house for them) and medicated them when they got injured. They were tame enough I could boost their rabies vaccines when needed and occasionally put flea stuff on them, but they weren’t pets by any means.

Over the years, other cats have shown up. All males. All like wild animals. I eventually trapped, neutered, and vaccinated them as well, and became more attached than I should. I was devastated when a cat I’d spent 6 months taming got hit by a car, and I still haven’t gotten over losing my favorite cat, the namesake in Ghost of a Chance, to the same.

I made up my mind then and there. I would not get attached to these ferals. I wouldn’t feed any new ones that showed up.

My plan worked for a while. But then I faced a big dilemma: my husband and I decided we could no longer put off the major renovations needed for the house. What would we do with the porch cats? There was no way the destruction/construction wouldn’t run them off, and by this point, the two resident ferals were getting elderly. The safest bet seemed to be building cat condos for them and housing them in one of the outbuildings until the construction was complete.

It was supposed to only take a few months. But delays to the start and heavy rains meant that instead of finishing in October, they didn’t finish until March of the following year. By then, it was clear that the Evil Momma Cat had become deaf in her advanced age and that her eldest son was developing hyperthyroidism. There was no way I could release a 15-16 year old deaf cat back outside when her “porch” as she’d known it for the last decade was gone. And with the other cat needing twice daily medication, releasing him back outside was impossible as well.

Worse, in their absence, new ferals had shown up! The first was Blackjack, who wanted so badly to be a friendly cat, despite the testosterone from his unneutered state. I fell hard for him, and decided I couldn’t release him post neuter, only to watch him get hit by a car as well. I put him in the last remaining cat condo, and made plans to build a big catio for all the captive ferals to use on a rotating basis.

BJ had been fighting with another young feral, Harlequin, who was much wilder. Once I trapped BJ and moved him inside, the remaining tom began regularly showing up for food, but was still too feral to get near. I finally caught him in a live trap, and did my usual process of keeping him in a cage post-neuter for a week before releasing him. He never warmed up during the week I had him caged, and on release, he zipped into the woods like devils were chasing him, and I didn’t see him for months.

(Someone has pointed out that the very act of naming them means I’ve given them more status and recognition than I should if I was determined not to get attached. Like naming unimportant secondary characters who don’t have a large role to play in your story. In my defense, I would like to state I have to call them something when I take them to the spay/neuter clinic to be fixed/vaccinated, and I can’t just call them Cat1 and Cat2 on their rabies certificates…)

Until he showed back up again. Only from a distance, at first. I would occasionally see other cats as well, just as wild, but Harlequin was the only one who would consistently return. He began hanging out on my new porch(a fraction of the old one’s size), only to jump off the deck and run when I approached. He was always there first thing in the morning, and when I pulled into the driveway after work. He began running up to greet me as I got out of the car, and following us when I took the dogs out for a walk around the property. 

Though scared of the big dog, he loves the little dog, and will walk side-by-side with him. He sits on the porch under the slight ledge that provides little protection in the rain or snow when he could hide out in numerous, warmer places. He comes trotting up to greet me whenever I pull up in the driveway, and he’s sitting at the door when I open it to take the dogs out. If I bring the dogs out to do their business, he comes with us and does the same. No joke, he comes with us to pee and poop when the dogs do. He hangs out just beyond the gate when I let the dogs loose into the yard to play. Once, I had to seriously discourage him from climbing the fence and joining us.

He’s there crying at the door at 6 am. He’s there when I come home from work, every time I step outside, and last thing at night before I go to bed. He’s there more often than he’s not, and it always seems as though he’s just waiting for me to show up. If he’s not there when I open the door, he comes galloping up shortly thereafter.

And that’s when it hit me. This little feral cat is lonely.

I suspect I’ve bonded with him because it’s hard not to feel affection for something that is so darned glad to see you every time you show up, even if it is only because he knows you provide food. Or maybe it’s because of the stay home order in place during the pandemic, and the animals are the only living things I see once I come home from work in the evenings. I’ve become accustomed to seeing his little face at my door every morning and night. He lets me pet him, and rubs up against me, but isn’t so tame that I could pick him up. Getting tick control on him once every three months involves sneaking up on him with a can of tuna in one hand and the product already open and ready to apply in the other.

Sometimes I sit on the porch with him–just the two of us together–and I tell him that the world’s a dangerous place and he needs to continue to stay home. He ignores me and continues to do his own thing. He is a cat, after all.

I’m torn as to what to do about him. I’m fresh out of room to take in more cats–I have no more cat condos, and am already struggling to provide good quality of life for the ones I’ve moved into captivity. He and BJ fight. The geriatric cats would fight with him too, and they’re in no shape to take him on. My own inside cat likes dogs but not other cats, and besides, my house is far too small to bring in another animal. I put out too much food to give him no reason to cross the road, but he’s a lonely cat looking for company–it’s hard to keep him “home” when I’m frequently gone.

I want to keep him safe in a world where safety is a myth. And like everything else in my life, I’m doing the best I can, in the certainty that it will likely fail.

In the meantime, I will look for his funny little face waiting to greet me whenever I open a door.

Be safe. Be well, everyone.

Pets in My Stories: The Joy and Heartbreak

Trigger warning for the loss of a pet

I’m in the homestretch of the current WIP, and I couldn’t resist adding a dog in the story.

Not just any dog, but this one. This ridiculously cute terrier who is a cuddlebug and the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet–unless confronted by vermin, in which case he’ll turn into a ferocious killer in the blink of an eye.

The dichotomy of his behavior is intriguing–and just a little amusing–to me. And since it suited the nature of the story, Captain makes an appearance in the upcoming Bishop Takes Knight, and if he has any say so in the matter, will be a series regular. I can’t wait to share him with you!

You’re going to find dogs, cats, and horses in most of my stories. Not just because my stories are set in shifter universes, but because animals are a big part of my life and I want to include them in my storytelling.

At the same time, I tend to get nervous when I read about animals in other stories or see them in movies. Killing the pet seems to be a common way of ratcheting up tension or creating emotional impact. Let me say up front that this is something that I don’t do as a general rule. I won’t say never because I believe in writing the story that needs to be told. But since so many times I’ve stopped reading a book or series because of the casual extermination of a pet for the purposes of creating angst, I’m extremely unlikely to do that myself. As a matter of fact, if an animal appears in a story, I frequently read ahead to make sure it doesn’t die or else I get someone else to read the book for me first.

There’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which describes itself as crowd-sourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books, and more. It has icons which indicate what stories include pet death, which ones end happily, and which ones seem to indicate the pet dies, but in the end, doesn’t. I routinely check this site out for movies, but haven’t spent as much time on it for books. I’m definitely going to do that more in the future.

But one of the things I hadn’t counted on when giving my pets roles in my stories is how sometimes it hurts when you lose the namesake–not in the book, but in real life.

Recently, I released Ghost of a Chance, in which the eponymous Ghost is a stray German Shepherd taken in by my heroine after her previous owner dies. The German Shepherd in the story was based on my very first dog, Abby, who’s been gone more years now than she was alive. I gave the dog in my story her personality, her courage. Having lost her so long ago, it was easy to give my fictional dog Abby’s traits and smile while doing so. But I chose the name from a little feral cat I’d started feeding and eventually trapped, neutered, and tamed.

He was still a wild animal, but he’d come running whenever I left the house with the dogs, and join us on our rambles around the property. He’d let me pet him, as long as I didn’t try to pick him up. Making him a house cat wasn’t an option. He wasn’t that tame.

Ghost rapidly became a favorite of mine, despite knowing how risky it is to give your love to a feral cat. Sadly, six months after I published Ghost of a Chance, my favorite wild cat was hit by a car. I knew he’d been crossing the road at night sometimes. I did everything I could to encourage him to hang around and not leave the property. I blamed myself for the disruption to the general environment with the heavy construction we’d undertaken, that probably threatened him enough to make him wander. In short, I was devastated.

For many weeks afterward, I found it hard to look at the book I’d so joyfully written. I couldn’t think about it without remembering the shy little cat I’d loved and lost.

It wasn’t until I re-read another story in which I’d included a cameo from another pet now deceased that I was able to see this with new eyes. I’d written a little fluffy piece of fanfic and included my dog, Sampson, for the fun of it. I lost Sampson two years ago to cancer, but in my story, he was alive, tongue lolling, tail wagging, eyes alight with mischief, ready to go for a walk (or to chase a bear up the side of a mountain). 

When I wrote that story, I had no idea I’d be losing him so soon. I also didn’t give much thought to how I might feel years later, coming across that story again. When I began reading, that same emotional wrench of loss was there–but as I read on, I became fiercely glad I’d included him.

It was no different from taking a photo or video that I could look back on with a teary smile, remembering the joy he brought me. I’d captured his essence, and it would always be with me.

As Abby the dog and Ghost the cat live in Ghost of a Chance. As Captain will live in Bishop Takes Knight.

Being immortalized in that manner isn’t such a bad thing after all.