Animals often join our lives to move us along in some place where we may be stagnating or to introduce something new to our lives aside from themselves. This little guy was full of lessons and not just for me, but for the people who abandoned him as well as the people who adopted him. His is the story of the unwanted kitten given away as a Christmas gift to someone who didn’t want him. For the rest of us it is the story of our own expectations, and trying to find in him what we were looking for and not what he needed, and ultimately giving in to what we knew was right for him, for our households of cats, and for all of us. This story is from 22 years ago. In rescuing animals, there is always more to learn.
I first wrote the story in 2014 when I found a copy of the “found kitty” sign in my files. There was so much to tell that I wrote it in two parts, but for the sake of those who don’t want to wait a week for the second part I have both parts in this single post.
PART 1: RESCUE
I heard a soft knocking on my storm door and saw a giggling gaggle through the glass. I knew some of them, grade schoolers who I saw around the neighborhood and who sometimes visited me for my cats. And because they knew all the other kids in the neighborhood and played around the back yards, they knew most of the pets in the neighborhood and were a great resource when I found a cat—or dog—and wanted to determine if it belonged to anyone. So we had had a few conversations before. It was early January 1997 and they were selling something to finance something they wanted to do at school, candy bars, wrapping paper, band camp, trip to Hawaii, they knew I was good for at least one order.
I stepped out on the front porch with them though it was bitter cold and in the late afternoon growing quickly colder. That was when I saw the cat, a long-haired black cat, walking around behind them on the porch.
“Does that cat belong to any of you?” I asked.
A few turned around to look and a few said “no”, one girl said, “He’s been following us.”
“Yeah, he has, he’s really nice,” a very tiny boy piped up.
“Do you know where he’s from?” I asked instead of “Do you know who he belongs to?” since they were kids and pretty literal with answering questions and may have seen him around but still not known who he belonged to.
“No, he’s just been following us today.”
“He lets us pet him.”
“He’s really soft.”
I could tell they didn’t know any more. I bought some of whatever they were selling and told them they should go home now, it would be dark very soon and it was very cold, and if they found out anything about the cat to come and tell me.
I reached down to pet the kitty as they left and, as I thought it would, the kitty stayed with me. He was indeed a nice kitty but younger than I’d thought, kind of a big kitten, fluffy and not at all afraid of strangers or strange places. I had not seen this cat before and unless someone in the two square blocks I knew well had just adopted a cat I had no idea where he might have come from. He wasn’t acting as if he’d escaped, but as if he was accustomed to the outdoors. He must be a cat someone let outdoors who had just decided to follow the kids.
I went in and got a little dish of dry food I kept on hand for strays and he ate readily but not as if he was famished, and he actually looked pretty clean. I decided I’d say good night and go inside, then watch to see what he did and where he went.
He stayed. He was on the deck around back in the morning, hunched up on the cold wood in the frosty sunlight, looking in the door as most of my regulars looked out at him. The spare cat room was open at the moment and I decided he could warm up and have a meal in there while I started looking for his owner.
I had done some thinking about this black kitty overnight. It was January 1997; I had lost my first black kitty, the overly affectionate and super intelligent Kublai, in September, then orange boy Allegro in October. I was still far from over those losses, and was still seeking Kublai’s spirit, and here was this friendly, pretty and intelligent black cat who’d found his way to my house. I felt nothing of Kublai about him though, and decided he was not representative of Kublai in any way—a cat could be black and show up on your porch, and still not be the black cat you’d loved and lost. I don’t like to put my stuff on the cats I know or rescue, it complicates the issue and it’s not fair to the cat.
But this guy was still wandering around in the cold and I wanted to find out who owned him, just because that’s what I did. He was also not neutered, and I especially wanted to keep track of that. He was a love bug right away, though, waving that plume of a tail in joy at the thought of being picked up, and freely giving hugs and nose licks and purring like a lawn mower. I was really glad I was the one to pick up this totally trusting and physically affectionate cat.
That was a Sunday, and because I’d be going back to some long days of work the next day, and because of his friendly nature, I decided to keep him indoors and make up a flyer and print it out on “Vulcan Green” fluorescent paper to post on telephone poles and hand out to the kids. I had a computer and printers at home and was pretty deeply into freelancing as a designer along with my day job then, and also had a piece of clip art that reminded me of him.
I stapled them to the poles that night and kept a stack for the next time I’d be able to find the kids.
But when I came home from work the next night there was a message about the flyer. I called the number and the woman who’d obviously left the message voluntarily told me he liked to hug you and lick your nose, he had yellow eyes, and her daughters missed him. He had gotten out the day I found him when she and her daughters were leaving the house. She lived about three blocks away. Because she had her daughters to pack in a car on a cold night, I said I could bring him back to her, in part to meet her, ask questions and scout the place.
The street below me is mostly large older homes nearly all broken up into apartments, and she lived in the ground floor of one of them, with two daughters about six and eight. The girls were really happy to see their kitty, and he went right to his food bowl as if he hadn’t left. I began to think he was let outside pretty regularly despite her story.
Then she told me her sister’s cat had had kittens and she’d—surprise!—given one to the girls for Christmas. The girls loved the kitty who they called “Blue” for Blue’s Clues, but the mom didn’t seem as committed as her daughters. I had the feeling I knew where this would go.
“He needs to be neutered very soon,” I said.
“I know, I’ll have to get that done,” she said absently.
I had a lot of sympathy for a single mother who’d had an unwanted kitten thrust on her. I knew she liked watching her daughters with him but didn’t want the extra work and expense. I told her to let me know if she needed anything or had any questions, I’d help her find a low-cost neuter right away, and left her with my business card that had a cat on it so she wouldn’t forget. As soon as I left I regretted not talking her into giving me the kitten; if I could have gotten her away from watching her daughters with him, or told her I’d keep him and give him back when I’d had him neutered, I think I could have done it.
. . . . . . .
She called me once to tell me he wasn’t using the litterbox and we talked about neutering again. She was irritated with his behavior and then said he’d also defecated on the floor, then changed it to the couch. That was serious. I’d pay for a low-cost neuter, and even take the cat there, if I felt it would not be done otherwise, and in this case I knew she wouldn’t do it. But I didn’t think a neuter would help in this case, I had to get him out of there. I would be able to get the cat out of her hands and it would be very easy to convince her to let me keep him.
I told her I would schedule a neuter as soon as possible, not to worry about the cost or the transportation, and I’d call her when it was set up, in two or three days. I did so and called, and called again with no answer, drove past her house at different times of the day, knocked on the door. I feared for the worst for the sweet black cat.
Then out of the blue she left a message on my machine telling me she’d moved and left the cat on the porch, I could come and take him if I wanted. I had no idea when she’d moved, if it was that day and she’d been ignoring me or if she had actually moved a week or so before. It was the end of the month, the time for moving, it was dark when I got home and I just hoped I’d be able to find him.
But he was right there on the front porch of the house, huddled on a pile of stuff they’d obviously left behind and still smelled and felt familiar to the guy. He looked terrified in the dim light from the street light, not the confident friendly cat I’d met a few weeks before. I knew he might run, so I talked softly and conversationally to him, holding out a hand—and realized I’d forgotten food or treats—and slowly taking one quiet step at a time toward the porch, up the steps, across the porch.
He crouched further and watched me with widening eyes, beginning to back up, decided to make a break for it as I reached my hands but I caught his hind legs and as much as I hated to have to handle him roughly after his terrors I yanked him back and held his hind legs with my right hand while I scruffed him with my left. I held him scruffed and drew him to me as he wrapped his tail tightly around his legs; if I hadn’t been holding his legs together his tail would have been tight between them, submissive, but I wasn’t going to trust those claws on any of those paws. I gently held his hind paws and tail together and held him against my chest, then turned around and walked to the car, whispering into the back of his head that he was safe.
I had a carrier in the back seat, carrier door open and ready, but when I reached the car I stopped to cuddle him and whisper to him again. He trembled, tense and frightened, and I could tell he was still just waiting for his big break. I slowly let go of his hind legs and opened the car door, upended the carrier and lowered him into it, still holding his scruff, closed the door and set it down on the seat.
His yellow eyes softly glowed with mistrust from the darkness of the carrier. I crouched down at his level.
“You’ll be okay, little guy,” I whispered. I felt more hurt than fear in his demeanor. I completely regretted not keeping him, even regretted putting up the signs. I hoped he wasn’t physically injured, and decided I’d give him a good exam at home and if it looked as if he needed medical care I’d even take him to an emergency clinic.
But I really thought his injuries were all inside and felt we would have a long road back to love and trust again.
PART 2: RECOVERY
As always, my current cats were watching at the windows when I pulled up and walked to the door with a carrier, especially because I’d arrived home as usual just a short while earlier, then as they anticipated dinner in the middle of taking off my coat and doing my coming home things I’d inexplicably run right back out the door with my coat on one shoulder. Inexplicable to them, but I had checked the phone message and knew I had to run. I looked at their curious faces in the windows and watched their varied reactions as I came in with the smell of a strange cat inside the carrier. My habit was always to run right through the house with the new cat to avoid any possible exposure of anyone, but they ran with me up the stairs to the landing.
Now here we were on the landing outside the spare kitty room door and I imagined the frightened cat inside being caught by a stranger—even if he had an inkling of a memory of me I doubted it counted for much against his recent experiences with people—placed in a carrier, in a car, and carried into this place that smelled of so many other cats, and I’m sure he could tell they were not any happier about his presence than he was abut theirs.
And I looked at those beloved little faces collecting at the top of the stairs, Cookie, Sally, Fawn and Stanley most likely, with Sophie, Nikka and Moses not far behind, and the fragile peace we’d just rebuilt after our losses only a few months before, and the evening ritual of my coming home and feeding them a happy reunion and bond of security among us. Had I done the right thing? Were we ready to start this rescue business all over again, the closed door, the strange smells, being closed off from me for a period of time each day?
“I’ll just be a minute,” I told them as I backed into the room and closed the door. I hoped it would be true, as much for them as for the cat in the carrier.
I kept a stash of dry and canned food and bottled water in the room along with a certain number of medical supplies in a drawer none of the cats could open. It was my studio so I had fairly good lighting and a worktable that I kept pretty clear of stuff that I’d used for plenty of exams in the past few years. Setting the carrier down on the floor where he could watch I left the carrier door closed, knowing my quiet scurrying to set up food and water for him might startle him in his traumatized state of mind and I wanted everything to be as quiet and welcoming for him as possible. I could not help the mewing outside the door nor the curious paws coming in underneath, or the fact that no matter how I cleaned, the room smelled like many cats and any cat would initially be concerned there might be a cat in the room with them who they could not see to protect themselves against. I had no idea if he’d encountered other cats in his time outdoors but it was highly likely, and possibly just as frightening as his encounters with humans. Best to keep him in his carrier where he could see the room and begin to adjust to his new space while feeling somewhat protected, and on this cold night warm up a little.
I only saw darkness inside the carrier with the fluffy black cat, two eyes that occasionally glowed or reflected light as he watched me move about, opening a can of wet food and putting dry food in a dish, letting it tinkle against the glass as an enticing noise.
Finally I unlatched the door to the carrier and pushed it all the way open, then stepped back and sat on the floor so that I didn’t block his way to his food and water. I had left the lights fairly dim so it wouldn’t be startling and at first it seemed as if he had no intention of moving until finally his nose came to the doorway and he looked side to side and saw me, and stopped.
This wasn’t working. The cats outside the door were hungry and crying and scratching at the door which was probably frightening him. I was hungry too, and in need of a cup of coffee. I decided to trust he didn’t need any immediate care and to leave him alone to explore his new surroundings and get to the food without having to worry about me.
Seven faces greeted me when I opened the door, not so much for me as for the food they’d heard being dished out. Who ever got to eat before they did? They had patiently waited all day and their carefully managed schedule was now in question—though in fact it always was because I never really knew when I’d be home, but not even I got to eat before they did.
I slipped out the door and into the bathroom to wash my hands before I touched any of them—time to remember once again not to pet the cats on the landing when I came out of the spare cat room—then a happy race to the kitchen and dinner for all.
The first touch
Later I went back upstairs with a litter box for the room and spent some time watching him while he watched me. His food dishes were empty and perfectly clean so I refilled them, and he tentatively came over and rubbed on my leg, though he ran when I reached to pet him. Still, that was a very positive sign and the first indication that he was willing to try but would keep his distance, thank you, and the fact he walked about easily and crouched and bathed indicated he probably wasn’t injured. I didn’t try to touch him but turned on all the lights and looked him over, clear eyes, intact ears, no chunks missing from his fur, talking and singing to him though he didn’t seem to mind my stare.
I had Cat Dancer toys in all rooms then, the long stiff wire with a twisted bit of paper at the end that bounced in the air erratically irresistible to just about any cat. When they had been destroyed I refilled them with my own twisted bits of drawing paper and mat board and fabric scraps and short pieces of yarn and wild bird feathers I’d gathered in the yard tied into them. He chased and chased and chased, almost too much, so I wound him down and tossed a few pieces of dry food for him to chase.
I didn’t want to call him “Blue” as they had called him where he’d lived, so I mulled over names for this handsome boy and, in keeping with the East European familial names and the trend of a black cat named Kublai Khan, followed by a rescue named Genghis Khan as fearless leaders and lovers of pleasure, I named him Sasha, a Russian name diminutive of Alexander, in part for the graceful way he swashed his tail about, and because I wanted to wish him courage and wisdom in his future.
A little later he energetically used the litter box, which was the final step in his rather unusual exam-without-touching. If he showed any signs of discomfort in the next day or so I’d call my veterinarian right away, otherwise I’d let him relax rather than have him handled right away. My veterinarian made house calls so that made the task much easier and more comfortable for the cat and me, but FeLV testing was a regular part of an “intake exam” and it was best to wait at least two weeks—in the case he might have been exposed just before I caught him, the virus would have had a chance to incubate and the test would be more accurate.
Out of grief, knowledge
I was especially concerned because, though I knew Allegro had had lymphoma, we really never diagnosed what illness Kublai had had. He had been 15 years old and just a year before he died he’d begun to show some lethargy totally unlike this highly interactive and intelligent cat who opened doors and windows and leaped to my chest for hugs or landed on my shoulder from the top edge of a door. In previous years he had shown an autoimmune response to flea bites, far beyond the usual allergy he’d had as a kitten, but we’d moved from the infested house we’d rented five years previous with no recurrence of fleas in this house. Still, odd fevers came and went, anemia was persistent, then diarrhea and constipation, weight loss and a poor appetite, and though he was tested for everything that we could think of, nothing came up positive. Courses of antibiotics and steroids had no effect. All we could do was treat the symptoms and then work back to enhancing his immune system.
I took in no rescues at all during that time because I didn’t want to expose any other cats to it, but I’d had a regular stream of rescues prior to that. All were quarantined for a full month before they met with the household face to face, even the space under the door was blocked, and I did my best to not track anything out from that room, but viruses then and now have been transmitted even with the utmost care against it in rescues and shelters alike. I’d thoroughly cleaned the house around Thanksgiving, as soon as I felt I could give up the last bits of their fur and whiskers I’d find here and there, but felt it important to try to rid the house of any inkling of an infectious disease that might persist.
A few of the positive things I took from the experience were more skills in everyday and palliative care, a greater knowledge of making and feeding species-appropriate diets, and greater scope of information on flower essences, homeopathic remedies and use of vitamins, herbal supplements, Chinese herbs and even acupuncture and reiki. I had been working on learning more about them, but Kublai’s illness gave me a crash course. I had planted Echinacea purpurea when Kublai was ill and had been actually cultivating burdock and dandelion—yes, burrs and dandelions—in my backyard wildlife habitat for my own herbal use of their roots, flowers and leaves, focusing on wellness instead of illness, and used them for Kublai along with milk thistle I’d purchased. I’d ended up working it into the food for the rest of the household, and now did so again, including the new guy. He also got daily doses of Rescue Remedy in his water.
Trust in me, but…
Within a week the new guy was over his distrust of me and wanted love and kisses whenever I visited. I had him examined, tested and neutered, and after his month of quarantine he was permitted with the household. Without a doubt I adored him. I had always loved long-haired cats and Sally and Sophie lived with us then but what’s one more? I didn’t feel he had any spiritual connection to Kublai but could love him just for who he was, and though everyone thought I’d keep him, including my veterinarian, something was standing in the way, I just wasn’t sure, perhaps it was too early for me, or I felt something was not quite right. Time would tell when I let him slowly mingle with the household.
And that did not work so well at all. Despite all my efforts to let him explore around the house under supervision for increasingly longer periods of time, he was actually aggressive and violent with all my other cats. Perhaps Alexander was too great a name, but he was determined to attack and subdue every other cat in the house. Using other remedies, essences and naturopathic treatments on all of them, going back to trying one room at a time, bringing in other people—all of whom he loved as soon as he saw them—he settled down and occupied himself with play or watching out windows or following me around, but in time he would go on the attack again. I had plenty of empty shelves on the walls and cat trees in each room, and even with trying to distract and time him to remove him before he’d attack, I couldn’t trust him without supervision, and I was still away a good bit of the time working, and then also freelancing.
The worst was that he would go after the weak link, not the physically weakest cat, Moses, but the emotionally weak one, Stanley, and within a month after I’d tried to let Sasha integrate, Stanley began to have urinary issues again after years without them, and he blocked and ended up in the emergency hospital.
I had to have a safe place for Stanley when he came back after three days away, and I didn’t want to hinder his recovery by any fear of Sasha. My mother was recovering from back surgery and I was visiting her daily, so I asked if Sasha could come to stay with her for a week or two. She finally gave in to the idea but would only let him stay a week, but he was a perfect gentleman. Even if she had no intention to adopt him, he adopted her, walking proudly along in front of her with the plume of his tail full and slowly waving, “This is my human, and no one else’s.” I knew then he likely needed to be an only cat. That would not be easy, but perhaps his good looks and excessively affectionate personality would win someone over who’d never owned a cat. He was still young, about eight months old, but would be a big cat. Still, if someone were to adopt only one cat, Sasha would be quite a centerpiece.
Stanley was out of the kitty sick room, which I’d cleaned to get rid of as much of Sasha’s scent as possible, and feeling pretty good. Sasha came back into the house in a carrier and straight into the room. I let him out once a day for a while, long enough to run and play but not work himself to the point where he felt the need to attack the other cats, then back in the room he’d go, but I felt bad he had little attention.
The one saving grace for him was a young girl who lived across the street and visited me and my cats pretty regularly; she was not one of the original crowd who he had followed on that first cold wintery day, but I knew her better. She met Sasha and it was love at first sight. She visited daily, made him toys and played with him, and he was still overly affectionate so she could pick him up and hug and kiss him and he hugged and licked her face in return, coming downstairs to report to me that she was sopping wet all over from his kisses, and she’d usually run back up for another quick visit before she left. He never showed any aggression at all with me or her or any other person he encountered. She could not adopt him, unfortunately, but I hoped some other little girl could some day soon, and I was glad the two were there for each other at that time.
A friend who also rescued cats had rescued a long-haired black kitten of her own a few years before who she’d named Teddy Bear because he was similarly affectionate, giving hugs and kisses, and she wanted to adopt Sasha. We talked about his issues with other cats, and she also had dogs, but she also had a much larger house and other cats his age. I kept putting it off and trying to convince her it wouldn’t work, but it wasn’t working in my house either. I really didn’t think it was just his youth that made him act out as he did. There were too many cats in too small a house for him. No matter how gorgeous I thought he was, how much I loved his affection, how much visitors adored him, I couldn’t do that to the rest of my household.
She took him home in May or June and named him Yogi Bear. As he settled in he did much of the same as he did in my household though not nearly as often and with less aggression, and the attacks were less frequent as time went on. The larger house made it easier for him to relax and not need to stay vigilant, but after a few months he began spraying. She understood, and would work with him on it.
For years he went from good kitty to spraying attack kitty, and unfortunately other cats picked up the habit, but she adored him and did her best with pheromone diffusers and flower essences and reiki treatments to keep the household as calm as could be. He never stopped being wildly affectionate, and visitors found it hard to believe he’d been so destructive.
After about ten years of this his increasing bowel issues were diagnosed as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. This can arise from or be aggravated by many sources, stress being one, and it can lead to more serious issues such as lymphoma or other cancers. He was constantly confined, many in her household were spraying or fearful of him, and she was constantly sad about the whole situation.
A friend who’d visited and adored him had recently lost a cat, an only cat, though she still had a dog. When she visited they talked about trying him out in her house, just to see how it worked for him. It took a while for his original adopter to let him go, even for a trial, but eventually she did.
He was a changed cat as soon as he stepped into her house. Loving as always, even with the dog, playful and friendly with visitors, he never sprayed once, always used the litter box, and even his bowel issues cleared up. Within months there was no trace of the former cat who had to be confined.
. . . . . . .
So he wasn’t really rescued until he reached his final destination, and it was too bad he had to spend so much of his life in search of that perfect place. I will always wonder if I’d kept him after that first night whether he would have developed the behavioral habits he carried for life. It was a lesson for many of us that, no matter how perfect we feel the life is that we prepare for our animal companions, and how much we as individuals love them and want them in our lives forever, there are times we can’t give them what they really need, and we need to give them up in order for them to find the place that is truly theirs.
I can say for sure that he taught me an important lesson about my own ego as a cat rescuer and caretaker, and about my own limits for my household of felines and for myself.
And I think he made a young girl a lover of cats forever.
Read other stories in my Rescue Stories series on The Creative Cat.
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Great Rescues Day Book:
Portraits, Rescue Stories, Holidays and Events, Essential Feline Information, All in One Book
Each month features one of my commissioned portraits of a feline or felines and their rescue story along with a kitty quote on the left page, and on the right page the month name with enough lines for all possible dates, with standard holidays and animal-themed observances and events. Great Rescues also includes a mini cat-care book illustrated with my drawings including information on finding strays or orphaned kittens, adopting for the first time or caring for a geriatric cat, a list of household toxins and toxic plants, or helping stray and feral cats and beginning with TNR.
Each book includes also 10 sheets of my “22 Cats” decorative notepaper with a collage of all the portraits in black and white so you can make your own notes or write special notes to friends.
The portraits in this book, collected as a series, won both a Certificate of Excellence and a Muse Medallion in the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association Annual Communication Contest, as well as the 22 Cats Notepaper mentioned below.
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