On parenting a feral cat

Pilgrim is not the cat I was hoping to bring home from the shelter eight years ago.

It was a time when I was married, pre-child, living in a new town with few (okay, zero) friends.  I projected my loneliness on to my overly friendly cat, Henry, and imagined he needed some feline company.  Being jobless and friendless afforded me ample time to surf the internet for local cat shelters.  And it was there, on the internet, that I found Pilgrim, her picture posted on the website of a no-kill animal shelter a little over an hour away.

Her little black and white face looked so sweet and vaguely sad.  She had been at the shelter longer than any other cat, and really, she became mine as soon as I read that.  For over a year, Pilgrim had hunkered down in her cage, shying away from families and other cat lovers, too scared to come out and greet those who could potentially be her forever family.  She chose instead to eat herself up to a robust 12 or 13 pounds, preferring food over human company I suppose.  I had decided she would be perfect for us.  Surely all she needed was a quiet house to live in, and Henry’s eager company, to come out of her shell.  Plenty of kibble too.  Girlfriend clearly liked her snacks.

My first inkling that all might not be well was the sheer, overwhelming gratitude from the staff at the no-kill shelter when we drove down to pick up our new cat.  There was profuse thanking and a strange sense that we were taking their problem child off their hands.  Surely, she can’t be THAT shy…?

Yes.  Yes she was.  All that shy and plenty, plenty more.

She did not come happily in to our cozy little home.  The details of those first weeks are fuzzy in my mind, but it seems I can’t remember seeing much of her for roughly the first, oh, year or so.  She darted clumsily from beneath various pieces of furniture, making a beeline for the litter box or her food dish, then back to a new spot under another couch or arm chair.  She never once came out to our coaxing and flinched each time one of us got close enough to pet her gently.  Loud noises terrified her.  I vaguely remember quite a bit of hissing and spitting in those early months.  I had not brought home a loving cat and Henry kept giving me WTF? looks when his friendly advances were swatted away.

Around the one year mark, Pilgrim had, at the very least, adjusted to our presence.  She would sit in the living room while we were lounging on the couch, always positioned near an exit and ready to dart if we were to do something frightening, like walk to the kitchen for a snack.  But somehow we had just gotten used to her and, mostly, let her be.  The fact that she was sitting on the floor in plain sight of humans was progress for her.  I gave up on the idea having a cuddly cat who would curl up with me in bed, and we came to love her low maintenance profile, always chuckling and saying “Oh, Pilgrim…” when we would scare her by walking in to the room.  She never seemed to adjust to living with humans, always wary and baffled by our loud ways.  ‘Wary’ seems to be the best way to describe our new, antisocial cat.

Having a baby in December 2006, a little more than a year after bringing her home, did NOTHING to help coax her out of her shell.

She hid anywhere she could conceal her substantial bulk until roughly 2010.

And then…it was very strange.  My then 3 1/2 year old daughter and I were living in an apartment, with both Henry and Pilgrim, following a traumatic split from my ex-husband.  The cats had come from a large, 2200 square foot house, to a 900 square foot apartment, and appeared to love it.  I’m not sure if it was the smaller, more controlled space, that made Pilgrim finally start to relax, or if she was simply getting older and maybe slipping in to senility, but we started to see her more.  She would sit disdainfully in the living room in the morning as I sipped my coffee, staring out the sliding glass window at the birds, just like a normal cat.  She would come out at night and yowl a bit, making her presence known.  We discovered this random, fuzzy, black and white stuffed toy she loved, and would chase maniacally around the apartment.  Like a real cat.  In a chaotic, sad time in our lives, Pilgrim and Henry brought us just a little bit of joy.  She still avoided my daughter like the plague (however, so did ultra-friendly Henry) but she can hardly be blamed for that.  She’s not stupid.

My daughter got older and marginally quieter, Henry came to realize she was an excellent source of dropped treats, and Pilgrim could even be seen watching her cautiously from her new favorite perch on the high pillow shams of my bed.  The fact that she was not darting beneath the bed the second she heard my clomping child coming down the hall was major progress.  At some point last year (7 years after adopting her, for those of you keeping score at home), my incredibly skittish rescue cat would even lie beside me in bed at night, not letting me pet her–no false moves there, lady, unless you want to be missing a fingertip–but still.  Gradually, after months of no false moves, she would let me gently pet her under the chin.  She became a surprising fan of being brushed, and even let me cut out a few clumps of matted fur that had developed due to her, ahem, weight issues.  (It’s hard to groom properly when you’re shaped like a barrel, am I right?)

We’ve been in our new house for over six months now and everyone, Pilgrim included, is settling in nicely.  She still skirts the perimeter of the room when people are visiting, and any time my daughter has friends over to play, you can find Pilgrim (hell, even Henry) hunkered down under the guest bed until safety and quiet are restored.  She regularly hops up on my bed at night, preferring the spot near my feet where I drape my sweatshirt and extra clothes.  I think she likes my smell.

I heard her purr for the first time a few months ago.  It was beautiful.

And then she got sick.  Last week, she started sneezing and I noticed she was hiding even more than normal.  Leaving kibble in her bowl in the morning (highly unusual) and even throwing up a few times.  I kept a watchful eye on her but didn’t think too much of it.  This is the trouble with feral cats…they can be even harder to detect illness in than cats with a social temperament.  If Henry had disappeared under the bed for two days, I’d know something was up.  Pilgrim?  Not so much.

Saturday, I went in to the guest room to grab something and happened to glance at Pilgrim, resting as usual on all the pillow shams.  Except she looked…not well.  Eyes dull and something…oh gross, something smelly…stained on the pillow cases beneath her.  Alarmed, I ran to get the cat carrier, even though I knew she wouldn’t go in without a fight.  Nothing turned Pilgrim in to a hissing, spitting maniac faster than being shoved in to a cage.

Except she let me pick her up and set her oh so gently in the crate.  I wanted to cry.  Something was had to be wrong.

I rushed her to the vet clinic (blessedly open until 4 p.m. on Saturdays) where, for the first time in 8 years, I held her gently in my arms and cuddled her while waiting to see the doctor.  She seemed too sick to fight her way out of my arms, the way she normally would; too lethargic to care that a human was this close to her.  When the vet walked in, I burst out with “I’ve had this cat for 8 years and I have never, EVER held her.  Never.  She has to be sick.”

And yes, she was.  On exam, the vet found a large, gaping, recently-exploded abscess down near her lady bits.  It looked ragged and oh so very, very painful.  They whisked her away in to the back of the clinic to put her under anesthesia, so they could clean and stitch her up.  I had to leave her there for several hours and, for the first time, I had to consider just how very attached I am to this cat.

I’ve always been open about my love for Henry.  He’s so social and outgoing, it’s hard not to love him.  And Pilgrim?  Well, she’s always been rather like a shadow, not the friendly and happy lap cat I was hoping to add to our family so many years ago.  But…now I can see the value in her low maintenance, hang-back-and-watch demeanor.  She saves her loving for just the right moment, and if you’re present and available, she’ll come right up to you and head-butt you until you scratch under her chin.  She’s stingy with her loving, but to hear her purr feels like you’ve won a battle.  She’s taught my daughter the value of patience (how many hours she spent peering under a bed, diaper-bottomed tush up in the air, trying in vain to coax Pilgrim out to play).  She has her place in our family.

And now, a week out from her illness, we’re beginning to get back to our normal rhythm.  Pilgrim spent a week under quarantine in the extra bedroom, with her own litter pan and food and, most difficult of all, a collar she was required to wear until the stitches came out.  She let me squeeze in between the bed and the wall several times a day to scratch under her chin.  By day four, she had figured out how to wriggle out of the collar each night.  I would open the door in the morning, find her standing there waiting for me, triumphant, having escaped the cone again.  I would sigh and swear and call her and asshole and feed her and then wrangle her back in to the collar.  We would repeat this scene at least twice a day.  Until I gave up.  She’s been out and about in the house for two days now, asserting her will and not letting Henry near her, unless she jumps up on my bed at night to snuggle in next to him.

And so, instead of bringing home a lap cat way back in 2005, I brought home a mystery animal.  A mystery who will, just occasionally, if you listen really close, purr if you scratch her under the chin.

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