(I must preface this with I am not a cat lady. Although this piece may make you nod your head and say “suuure….”, I really am a normal pet owning, pet loving person. Not a cat lady.)
Will Feral came into my life almost 2 years ago. He was a feral kitten, brought home by my daughter. Wild as a baby raccoon and about as friendly, she left him in her room. When I got home, she did the “Mommy, I found a kitten” routine. Finding him in her room was a major feat – he’d hidden himself under her dresser and wanted to stay there. Scratches, hissing and one bite later, he was placed in a large dog crate with litter, food, water, and a warm blanket. He became a part of my life, inch by inch, working his way into my heart – this small gray ball of hissing fluff who wanted nothing to do with me.
Within days, my daughter left for college. Will was still living in the crate, glaring at me whenever I came into the room. Gradually, he came to trust me more. Hissing less, he now let me pick him up (using heavy leather work gloves), wrap him in a towel and pet him. I would talk to him and tell him he was safe. In time, he began to purr. All I’d read about socializing feral kittens said that purring was the turning point. I texted my daughter “We have achieved purrage” and let Will know how pleased I was that he hated me less.
By the second month with us, Will lived in and out of the crate. He’d hide behind and under things when I came into the room. Sometimes, all I would see of him was his gray tail disappearing behind a chair or under the bed. I would talk to him while I cleaned his litter box and refreshed his food and water. He would sometimes watch me cautiously, but mostly he stayed hidden. He was wary, always keeping quiet. It was how he lived outside and what had kept him alive. He resisted my attempts to get him to play. He was all about survival.
Whenever I could, I would take the time to search him out, pick him up and hold him on my lap. The gloves and the towel gave way to bare hands. He would take food from my hand now and while he still hid and hissed, I could see his opinion of me had changed. Finding him became a game and when I’d pick him up, it was by the scruff of his neck, like his mother would have done. He relaxed then and seemed to know I meant him no harm.
At the same time he was learning to trust me, I was being tended to as well. Will came into my life shortly after my dad died and while I was separated from my husband. Holding this feisty, fearful kitten was therapeutic for me. He helped me through some very hard times then and some yet to come. The times I spent holding him, telling him he was OK, petting him and caring for him gave me a lot of comfort. It soothed my battered spirit in many ways, some of which I couldn’t even put a name to. Will and I were helping each other.
One day in late November, after almost 3 months of living with us, I walked by the door to his room and heard him meowing. He never meowed. He hissed and spit, but meowing drew attention to him and he was not OK with that. I opened the door and he was sitting there and began talking to me. From that day on, he talked a lot. Slowly, he began to have the run of the house. I would carry him downstairs with me and we’d hang out together on the couch. He explored the length of it, but never wanted to get off. It was as if the floor was made of hot lava and he couldn’t walk on it. The tide was turning, however, and within another month he was coming and going on his own.
I was his person. He claimed my room as his own. He left his litter box and food in the other room, but he claimed a spot at the end of my bed and that was his turf. When he needed to hide, it was under my bed. When I came home and he could hear me, he would come to the top of the stairs and start meowing at me to come see him. He was insistent. Once I came up, he’d hop on his blanket and ask for a belly rub. These were full body experiences for him – he would flop back and let me pet him until his eyes rolled back in his head. He lived for those rubs. Sometimes if I stopped too soon, he would try to grab my hand as I was leaving to let me know he’d been shortchanged.
The transformation was complete. He was now a real house cat and lived a great life with regular food and love provided. His green eyes matched the walls in my bedroom, and he liked nothing better than when I got in to bed than curl up on my legs to make sure I didn’t try to leave again. Sleeping, I would feel him curled up behind my knees and felt comforted knowing he was right there. We became quite a pair.
One point I forgot to mention: at no time did I want or expect to keep this kitten. He was the third cat in our house, all of which were adopted by my daughter and her tender heart. I had grudgingly said yes to cat #2 (but mommy, he needs a home – he’ll go to a shelter if we can’t take him!) and knew that 2 was the limit. Will was meant to live with us only until he was able to be adopted by one of her friends who she was SURE would take him. For the first year, Will was called “the cat that doesn’t really live here”. It was a temporary living arrangement.
Then in mid-September of last year, when he’d lived with us for about a year, he somehow got outside. He was gone overnight and I spent the next day frantically looking around for him, to no avail. At dusk, I put up pictures with our number on them to let our neighbors know to look out for him. About an hour later, he appeared on our deck and though still skittish, he came to me as I sat there waiting for him. I scooped him up and he launched from my arms as I came inside. He flew upstairs to his safe spot in an instant. His purring and meowing let me know he was as glad as I was that he was home. From that point on, he really lived here. I knew in my heart that I didn’t want him to be anywhere else.
Feral cats can revert quickly if they are allowed back outside. My reading told me that his brain would be triggered to the fight / flight mode almost immediately and that once they were in that mode, it would be as if they were never socialized. I felt that Willie had chosen us over the wild and that he knew this was a better deal. What’s not to love about regular meals, friends to play with, and belly rubs? Not to mention, he hung out on a comfy blanket and had his own silk pillow sham to lounge on. He had it pretty good. He chose home.
Not long ago, it dawned on me that Will was the first kitten I’d raised since I was a teenager. We’ve had a couple cats since then, but they were my children’s kittens and they weren’t as bonded to me. Will was my cat through and through. He liked my daughter (after all, she was his savior) and learned to like my husband. He was cautious around just about everyone else. He would spook at a new voice and retreated to his haven under the bed at the slightest provocation. I’m sure some people just thought he was a figment of my imagination. He was a ghost cat to many.
The interesting thing is, both Willie and I had to undergo a transformation to find each other. He had to learn to trust me and accept that I meant him no harm. I had to allow myself to care about him and let his love break through my barriers. I sure as heck didn’t think I needed that. But it turns out, I did. He melted my heart in a way that gave me great comfort. There have been times when he seeks me out when I’m sitting alone and snuggles up in a way that tells me I’m not going anywhere soon. And the comfort of allowing myself that time to just be was enormous. He took away some of the pain of losing so much from my life in so short a time. He truly gave me a sense of peace.
I lost my mother and then my sister this past year, both of whom met Will and saw him transform. My mom watched him learn to navigate the couch when he was with me. I explained he wasn’t ready to walk on the floor down here and she said that I “had strange pets”. That was her last ever visit to my house and thinking of her comment always makes me smile. My sister heard a lot about Will during our phone calls. One time when I was really worn out, I told her I just needed to go home and relax. She told me to get home curl up with the little guy who makes you so happy – and she was right. Now, I hear her voice in my head often when I am spending some quality cat-enforced meditation time.
The other day, the sliding door was open and only the screen was between the cats and outside. One of the older cats used her claws and opened it. All three cats went outside. The other two go in and out all the time with no problem. Will was the only one that was a true indoor cat. I thought he’d come home like he did last time, but it’s been 6 days now and I don’t think he wants to. There have been sightings of him at night, but he won’t come for food or offers of belly rubs. He is indifferent to the calls we have made and the treats we entice him with.
I haven’t really seen him at all. He has become a ghost cat to me. Last night, I put out some canned cat food hoping he would come to it and maybe I could capture him. As I walked out on the deck, I saw two eyes glowing at me from over by the fence. I grabbed the flashlight and carried the food over there. He (if it really was him) was long gone by then. I looked around, over, under and inside things, but no Will. He doesn’t want to be found.
It feels like he’s telling me he doesn’t need me anymore – like he’s ready to choose his life in the wild over being comfortable at home – as if his life was missing something. I get that, I really do. He’s a grown male (neutered) cat and maybe he’s looking for adventure. Maybe the call of the wild really was too much to resist. Or maybe that part of his heart that opened up and learned to trust has closed as he slipped back into survival mode. I don’t know. All I know is that I worry about him, and I miss him. I wanted him to choose me again.
But the lesson here is that I have to let go. I need to accept that he’s going to exercise his free will to live as he wants. If he does come home someday, I will be grateful. I am sad that he is gone. Every time I look out on the deck or in the back yard, I hope to see him there. I continue to leave him food at night and leave the deck light on, just in case. I go out several times a day to call for him. I haven’t put up signs or pictures, because the odds of someone actually seeing him are low. He knows that in order to survive, he hides until dark. Then, and only then, is it safe enough to emerge.
I’m resisting this life lesson because I have grown to love him more than I expected to. He was something that went right when so many things in my life were going wrong. He was a lifeline for me when I felt overwhelmed. He was the one that kept me company when I slept alone in my bedroom for almost a year. I know it’s ridiculous to feel such sadness at losing him. It is almost as though it has reactivated some of the pain from that period and my heart hurts.
I will get through this – that much I know. I wish him well out in the world and hope that at some point down the road, he’ll remember that his life here was good and maybe, just maybe, he will decide to come back. Until then, I will miss his chattering conversations with me, his warm, soft belly, and most of all, his loving acceptance of me at my best or worst. You’re free, Will. I hope in letting you go you somehow find your way back to me.
UPDATE: Will Feral has returned home. After almost 3 weeks in the woods, he finally showed himself to me on Monday evening about 6:30. I was out looking again for him as we hadn’t seen any sign of him for days. I was anxious and trying not to think about what I might find. I was back in the in the greenbelt near a clearing and he was walking across it. I called to him and he kept heading away from me, but toward the house. He began talking to me then. I circled back, trying not to spook him and then went to get some food. I saw he was still by the last tree on the edge of the wood that borders our yard. I put the food behind that tree and he came to it. After eating a bit while I talked to him, I was able to pet him. Once I’d done that for a while, I picked him up by the scruff of his neck as I used to do when he was a kitten and brought him inside. He was very skittish and acted feral again – hiding and hissing. After a day and a half, he is very much back to his old ways – loving and happy. He is extremely thin and looks like a shadow of his former self, but he is home and we are all happy for it. Well done, Will.