How many times have you thought you saw a cat while driving…and how many times was it really a cat? For most rescuers, that would be pretty much every time. Our eyes and brain work together to pick out the cat shape hidden somewhere in any scene. We may also find ourselves in unexpected circumstances and wonder what might have happened to the kitty if…
On a nasty cold and rainy late winter night I went to visit a friend, traveling local streets to the interchange with the interstate highway. There wasn’t much other traffic and the area around the interchange had few houses and just the pinkish sodium-vapor lights familiar along highways.
I traveled under the overpass that carried the highway above me before I entered onto the exit ramp which circled back around and carried me up to enter the highway. I always notice shapes and objects and patterns, it’s part of my visual nature, and often under such an overpass you’ll see car parts, tires, even bags of trash. In the darkness under the overpass I only saw a few silhouettes of a tire, a few small rocks, and a cat.
The shape slid past me on my passenger side and out of sight before it settled in my mind that the silhouette I’d seen had been a cat’s ears and rounded head and body crouching on what appeared to be a concrete block in the near center, darkest part of the overpass.
This happened in the early 90s, in the days when I saw cats everywhere I looked and especially along any road I drove on, and while sometimes it was a trick of my imagination finding what it was looking for, more often it really was a cat. I slowed and looked back just as I was rounding the bend and I could still slightly see the shape along the wall. I had this quick conversation with myself as I let my car naturally decelerate.
“Was that a cat?”
“No, it was probably just another rock.”
“But those were cat’s ears.”
“A bag maybe.”
“I’d better go back and look.”
“No, it’s not a cat.”
“It’s definitely a cat.”
“I can’t sneak up on it, no way.”
“What will you do with another cat?”
“What if I chase him out onto the road and he gets hit by a car?”
I was already pulling over onto the berm and stopping, and even though the overpass was nearly out of sight around the bend, I slowly, carefully, backed along the edge of the grass to where I could see into the darkness and again saw the tiny silhouette of a cat’s ears against the light shining in at an angle from the highway above. My heart skipped a beat.
I knew this was a cat. My intuition had told me this was a cat. For all the times I thought I’d seen a cat somewhere it shouldn’t be, that flash of intuition, the flare in my heart when my conscious mind recognized something familiar and my subconscious mind affirmed the identification, told me when what I saw was real.
And this was no place for a cat. I tried not to, but my mind immediately began piecing together the time and place and weather and what I might find when I finally got to this cat. And I would get to this cat. Regardless of its condition, I could not leave it where it was.
But it’s tricky to sneak up on a cat when you’re backing up along a highway exit ramp and then heading under an overpass where everything is extra loud and echoing. I decided to pull over outside of the overpass, put on my flashers and shut off my engine. It was still raining heavily, still dark, and though I wasn’t concerned about getting wet and could clearly see where the cat was and my walking path into the overpass, other drivers may not see me.
I got out and assessed the traffic. The last thing I’d want to do is startle a cat and chase it out into the roadway. I moved under the edge of the overpass just out of the rain and the cat did not visibly respond, not a move of the silhouette. No traffic was moving on the road that went past me, and no headlights coming in either direction for some distance. Because of the rain falling and the splashing sounds from cars on the overpass above me, I couldn’t listen for cars in the distance, but I felt I had enough time to get to the cat before a car appearing in the distance would reach the overpass.
Avoiding obvious pieces of gravel and larger rocks I walked as silently as I ever had in creeping through brush along the trail not to startle a bird or rabbit or toad I wanted to photograph. The cat’s hearing would be far better than mine but it was also hampered by ambient noise and so far the silhouette had not moved. Apparently it had not seen nor sensed my approach.
Because I could now see the cat was facing me, crouching with its elbows up and head facing downward, I presumed it was, first, alive and, second, conscious. The fact it wasn’t moving might mean it was very weak or slightly injured; a more serious injury would probably have it lying on its side, in the least, it would not be crouching symmetrically. And I had simply sensed from the beginning that there was life there, that was the intuitive hand that had reached out and touched my heart and told me to stop and go back. I had all the clues, and I had faith in that intuition.
I walked softly nearly right up to the cat, close enough to grab if I had to, and stopped. My energy thus far had been focused on getting myself to this point, and now I had to focus on the cat. I stood as still and quiet as I could though my heartbeat pounded in chest and surged in my ears so I could hardly even hear the rain. Not just a silhouette but a black cat, sleek and small with big kitten ears. In the slight reflection of light on its fur I could see pointy elbows, a narrow spine and a very slight, ragged movement of its sides.
Just then it stirred and lifted its head to look up at me, beginning to back up—and I reached forward and grabbed it around the chest as it wildly waved all its paws. Heart racing again and holding it kind of upside down I shuffled my hands on it for a scruff or something to get a good grip on a skinny little kitten that would not hurt it—I just could not let it go after coming this far, especially now hearing the ragged breathing.
But though the kitten was putting up a good struggle, it was also sneezing and coughing and wheezing and its efforts, aside from flailing its legs, were focused on breathing. I found a scruff and held the kitten facing sideways with my other arm pinning its still flailing hind legs against my chest, walked quickly back to my car and got in.
The poor kitten was completely crusted over with stuff from forehead to chin on its tiny triangular face and breathing heavily. It was very skinny and by size looked to be about 12 weeks old, possibly a few weeks older. From exploring its face it also seemed to have a large lump on its forehead, between its eyes, which were closed and crusted over. Upper respiratory infection? Injury to the face? Both? I couldn’t tell if it was only phlegm or if there was also blood.
As I held the kitten still scruffed on my chest and my own respiration returned to normal I tried to determine my options. There were emergency veterinarians in the area in those years, but they weren’t always reliably available. I had called around to emergency clinics and more than once found the veterinarian was not in that night. My home was not far but all my rooms were full, though I’d make room for a kitten as ill as this, I’d just make it work.
I also knew the person I was visiting rescued cats too and a larger house as well and might be able to accommodate this kitten better than me. She was, in fact, one of the persons I’d be calling soon to see if she had any space to foster the kitten since I was full. With no cell phone and a wheezing kitten I decided to proceed with my visit and—surprise—a rescued kitten!
Instead of getting on the interstate I drove back roads, steering with my left hand and still scruffing the kitten with my right, and carefully cradled the kitten partially inside my coat all the way to her house. The kitten occasionally put out a burst of energy and began kicking and flailing again and I was glad for the winter coat protecting my arms, but it would begin gasping and coughing and sneezing and get tangled in the coat and rest again. I had a carrier in the hatch of my car, but preferred to keep my hands on this kitten unless it really became aggravated.
My friend was willing to take in the kitten and though we searched for an emergency clinic that night we couldn’t find one. We had wrapped the kitten in warm towels, soaked the crust off its face and helped clear its nostrils, and it did eat and drink a bit and tried to bathe. Assessing its socialization status at this point is always a little difficult; I’ve seen ill feral cats give in to care and act relaxed until they start to feel better then remember their own nature, and I’ve seen socialized cats fight from fear until they’ve had a full belly and good sleep in a nice warm bed. We decided it would probably be fine until morning and it was better just to let it rest and stay warm. She could take it to her veterinarian the next morning knowing he’d fit her in with a rescue, and she’d take it from there.
The kitten was a little boy, and just about 12 weeks as I’d thought. He had an upper respiratory infection and it turned out he did have an injury between his eyes, a swollen spot with an infected area that was beginning to abscess. Both responded quickly to antibiotics, and once he was out of pain and had a full belly for a few days he was very friendly and playful, as if nothing had happened. Whether he’d ever known life with humans it was hard to know for sure but I would guess he had since he was so friendly and trusting. Socialization can still happen at that age, and a cat in need of medical care will sometimes come around easily. I placed a few signs in the neighborhood near the interchange but got no responses and was actually kind of glad thinking of what had happened in other circumstances. Though my friend and others decided I needed another black cat to match my Kublai I resisted, and eventually he was adopted to another household who happily welcomed a playful black kitty.
I have no clue to where he came from or how he came to be where he was. A few weeks later I saw adult-sized black ears hiding in the early grass and leftover weeds in the triangular grassy area next to the on-ramp. I pulled over, checked for traffic, and tiptoed toward the ears and an adult black cat leaped out of it and ran across the four lanes of the interchange then under the guardrail and down an embankment, and thank goodness no vehicles were coming through. I walked over and saw and heard movement down the steep hill but did not see the cat, and though I checked each time I went through or near it, almost daily because I took that interchange for work, I never saw another cat there. I just hoped it was okay, thinking it might be the mother of the kitten I’d found.
The little black kitten was likely born in the last litter the previous November and while he may have come from one of the sparse houses near the interchange, someone’s Christmas gift kitten who got out of the house and was lost or a pet they let outside, he may also have simply been born outside, an anonymous kitten to an unknown female cat who someone had been feeding or trying to cajole into affection. Anything was possible in those days before pediatric spay and neuter and TNR. With a cold and rainy winter a kitten would have easily developed a URI, and unfortunately a roadway often provides respite from walking through wet grass and brush and weeds. But the bump on the kitten’s face was definitely an impact injury, possibly from being clipped by a car wandering with a face covered in crusted snot or he may have been kicked. If he had managed to get himself up on the block under the overpass or someone placed him there I’ll never know, but if he had been crouched next to it so I couldn’t see his ears I might never have seen him in the darkness. He was so congested he wouldn’t have lived long without veterinary care. What are the chances? I’m just glad the hand of intuition brought us together so that I could get him on his way to a new life.
I had no photos from that night or from that kitten at all so I created an illustration from what I remember using black paper and a pastel pencil closest in color to that odd pinkish sodium-vapor glow from the lights on the interstate. The kitten is a little more clearly visible than it had been that night because when I illustrated it more accurately to the scene, even after reading the story, it would have been difficult to see the cat and part of the reason I noticed it was because I drove past it and saw it in three dimensions. I illustrated it according to what I “saw”, more with my intuition than with my conscious mind.
I wrote this story, sketched the illustration and first published it in March 2014. While I’m still without a car and a camera, I am also not trapping, and not able to get around to update rescues from previous years or other rescues as often as I’d like, I’ll keep sharing an older rescue story as they come up in my story archives. And what was that I said about not choosing black cats to rescue and/or foster? Here was another one, and almost 30 years ago!
Read other stories in my Rescue Stories series.
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I’d love to publish an anthology of my own rescue stories entitled, What Are the Chances? featuring this story, and others including the element of pure chance at finding a cat in need. This anthology and others are on my list of Patreon projects because it would take place over time, and support through Patreon would help to support me while I worked. You can read about it here or visit my Patreon page.
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