Not long after we moved into this house seven years ago, we noticed a scruffy black cat hanging around the cul-de-sac. It was leery of people, but seemed to be well-fed. We assumed it belonged to one of the neighbors until it started getting thinner, at which point we started putting food out for it.
People who love cats understand the difference between a stray and feral cat. Strays have been lost or abandoned, but still have enough fond associations between humans and food that they get usually get taken in by some kind soul. Ferals are born in the wild to those poor strays that have never been neutered or spayed. They tend to cluster together in colonies, which has become a troubling problem in the United States, as a visit to Alley Cat Allies reveals. Both of our cats, Gus and Bandit, were rescued from colonies.
They say that people who take care of ferals are strange, because ferals will never show their love in traditional ways. They will never let you pet them, or run figure-eights around your legs. They will never snuggle with you. Showing up every day for food is their way of saying thank you, saying I trust a little piece of you, the one that brings my nourishment.
This cat, whom we named Midnight, turned out to be a unique amalgam of both feral and stray. When I trapped it and took it to the vet, we learned it was a she and had already been spayed. But I knew of no colonies near our house, and could only conclude she had been abandoned. Yet she never let us touch her, ever. She would accept our food, but nothing else. She would appear on the front walk or the doorstep at breakfast and dinnertime and wait patiently. Sometimes she would hide in the plants in the front yard and I would have to search for her, but she rarely missed a meal. She never meowed to announce her presence, though I implored her to.
Over the years, Midnight claimed our cul-de-sac as her territory and our doorstep as her dining area, which was fine with us. Whenever we went on vacation, the kitty-sitting instructions always included Midnight. When it rained, we left the garage door open a little, with a kitty bed inside. Sometimes she slept there. She also had a little round carpeted house, no more than ten inches high, that sat on our protected doorstep, and as she got older, she spent more time there. To my delight, she also began to meow at me. Still no petting, but at least she talked to me.
The life of an outdoor cat is not an easy one, and this past year has been especially hard. It rained more than we could remember in California, and it soon became clear that Midnight has having trouble breathing. I thought if she had a cold, the warm weather would eventually clear it up, but her right eye became milky and her breath became increasingly labored.
She ran away from us less and less. I set out the trap again, but she was too smart for that. But she was clearly in distress, and I finally remembered that hearing that you could catch some cats in fishing nets. On the Friday morning before Easter, I was able to bring a net down on Midnight and transport her to a local vet. The results were worse than we even imagined.
X-rays revealed a plethora of problems – masses in her lungs and on her forehead; BBs where she’d been shot at one time. The diagnosis was a common feline disease called Cryptococcus, a fungal infection cats get from coming in contact with bird excrement. With most kitties, it involves an easy, though months-long cure, through antibiotics.
But clearly Midnight was too far gone. The feisty kitty who’d always run away from us was now too weak to even hiss. At the vet’s office, we petted her, the first time we’d ever been able to do so. After a night there, it was clear that treatment would only prolong her pain. I was only comforted by the fact that her last 24 hours had been spent inside, warm and dry and looked after lovingly.
I cried in my wife’s arms as the vet sent Midnight on her way. As you get older, you become more patient with animals. I guess I always expected that there would always be time for her to grow even more accustomed to us, to eventually trust us, and even come indoors, but there wasn’t. Midnight’s time had run out.
It was the day before Easter. While I am not a big believer in either reincarnation or resurrection, I find myself hoping that there is a special god for cats – one that will bring Midnight back and send her into the arms of a loving family, a warm house, and a life of safety and comfort.
We have put a figurine of a serene black kitty on the window sill where we used to watch for her (see photo). It looks like her, the way she used to wait for us to serve her meal. As long as I live in this house, I will expect to see a little black cat waiting patiently on the front walk. And as long as I live, I will wonder how something I never got to touch until she was dying could have touched me so.