A Cat's Tale
We thought it was a couple of cats, fighting. (Well, at any rate, a couple of cats.) Their caterwauling carried through the night, over the white noise of the fireplace fan, to wake us up in the wee, still-dark hours of a winter morning. Cursing people who let their cats out at night to be eaten by coyotes, to collide or couple, to wake us up, we rolled over and tried to re-grasp the elusive thread of sleep.
The next night, though, when my wife was away at a meeting, I heard the cat sounds again shortly after dinner. I cranked up the stereo to drown out the screaming meows and tried to concentrate on the book in my lap. No use.
Giving in, I got up and went to the back windows, where our own cats—Peaches and Frodo—were pacing with a determination that signaled their sharper feline eyes saw something out there. A glimmer of light from the house gave me a glimpse of what: one cat, not two, and surely much too tiny to make all that racket. As soon as it saw me seeing it, the kitten bolted, leaving an impression of creamy orange and white on my retinas.
Hardly had it disappeared into the darkness than the meowing began again. Somehow, that small, frightened shape could produce a plea that belied its size. Somehow it had found our house, but was too terrified to take advantage of the shelter it offered.
I shrugged off the apparition and tried to go back to my book. A few minutes later, though, Frodo's agitated alertness told me the kitten was back. This time I spotted it more clearly, huddled like a balled-up orange washcloth under our jutting-out window air conditioner. The instant I cracked open the back door, it was gone—and the cries from the dark resumed.
While making occasional, sneaky forays in vain attempts to capture the kitten, I waited impatiently for my wife to come home. Regular readers will realize that this sort of problem clearly falls into her domain. Trapping packrats under our hot tub, fixing fluorescent light fixtures, banishing bees from the lining of our fireplace (oh, that was fun—"Honey, why do you suppose we keep getting bees in the house?"), un-jamming the swamp-cooler fan—all are definitely her department. You need software reinstalled or a show programmed into TiVo, I'm your man. But all things wildlife or mechanical, call my wife.
The amazing disappearing kitten act was beginning to look like it might have to involve both wildlife and some sort of mechanical way of catching the little brat. After a couple of hours of meow-chase-flee-meow, my attitude had evolved beyond sympathy for the stray kitten, to more practical concerns: How the heck would we get to sleep with that pathetic feline aria performing just beyond our walls?
But not even my wife could catch this elusive critter. When she got
home and heard my wild-eyed story (by now the whole thing was getting
on my nerves a bit), she tried a long flanking maneuver, sneaking around
from the front of the house. The kitten was wise to her, though, scampering
away a bit farther into the scrub oaks before, inevitably, returning—this
time to the edge of our front porch—to continue its plaintive crying.
Where had the kitten come from? We live just past the town limits, separated from the main road by several empty lots. Though we'd never spotted feral cats out there, or around the arroyo at the bottom of our hill, that didn't mean they didn't exist or that they weren't breeding. We'd glimpsed the kitten closely enough to see it lacked a collar, and certainly it was wild and wily for its age. Or perhaps housecats in the neighborhood whose owners let them run loose had mated; a likely suspect for half that explanation was an orange male we'd dubbed Rusty after seeing him several times at our screen door (which he later returned to mark several times—charming).
But we came to favor the possibility that cast cats in the best light and humans in the worst: Somebody had dumped the kitten here, in an empty lot off a busy road on the edge of town. Perhaps it was the last, unwanted runt of its litter; maybe it had siblings out there, too, alive or dead.
I recalled what I'd learned when I did an article about local spay and neuter programs, "SNAP" for short (see the August 2003 Desert Exposure): In seven years, one cat and her young can produce 420,000 kittens. Every day in the United States, 10,000 humans are born—and 70,000 dogs and cats. About 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters every year, at a cost to US taxpayers of $2 billion. Locally, the Las Cruces animal shelter sees some 14,000 unwanted animals a year; about 20 percent get adopted, leaving 11,000 to be euthanized. The Grant County Humane Society takes in more than 2,700 animals a year, of which about 63 percent are euthanized.
Wherever the little meowing orphan outside our door had come from, we vowed to catch him—if only to take him to the shelter and let us get some sleep. But the next morning came and the kitten was still on the loose. A bit bleary-eyed, we decided we needed a better strategy than trying to outrun it. Those tiny legs were fast.
Let the historical record show that I, whose expertise does not ordinarily extend to anything sans microchips, came up with the successful kitten-capturing scheme: We took the retired dog cage that we set outside in warm weather, for our cats to get some fresh air, and baited it with a dish of yogurt. When the kitten cautiously crawled inside to lick the yogurt, my wife rushed the cage door. The startled kitten ran away from her—right into the back of the cage—as she shut the door on it.
Now what? We'd eyed the kittens that my wife photographs every month for our Adopt-a-Pet ad, wistfully thinking of adding to our furry family. But we'd worried how our adult cats, long accustomed to having us to themselves, might react to a newcomer. When we'd fostered our daughter's cat for the school year, after she became an RA and moved from an apartment into the no-cats-allowed dorm, our Peaches and the feisty, furry houseguest had a running battle for most of its stay.
For the short term, we decided to take the kitten to the animal shelter,
where they could give it a checkup and where the kitten could be claimed
in the unlikely event it was a runaway instead of a reject. We visited
it there, and debated. At first, the adoption outlook wasn't good: The
kitten mostly cowered in its litter box in the back corner of its cage.
When I stopped by to say hello, it just hissed at me.
By the time we returned from a short trip and the kitten—a boy, by the way—was ready for adoption, though, he seemed to have mellowed. The shelter staff guessed he was only six to eight weeks old; he weighed almost nothing, and when we picked him up he felt like a ball of fluff from the clothes drier. We decided to give the kitten a try at our house—inside, this time—and brought him home to introduce to Peaches and Frodo—very slowly, with much fawning over our veteran cats lest they get jealous.
When the kitten was "singing" so loudly outside, I'd dubbed him "Caruso." At the shelter, the sign on his cage said "Serrano"—and certainly he was a fiery little thing. But now that he was joining our family he became "Pippin," continuing a Lord of the Rings theme that began with our first cat, Gandalf. (Don't ask me to explain "Peaches.") We hoped he would become a friend and companion to our Frodo, just as the fictional hobbit Pippin was.
That was five weeks ago, and so far, so good. Pippin has metamorphosed from a caterwauling wildcat into a playful cuddler. He occasionally spars with our older cats, but so far without bloodshed. Pippin has discovered the fun of chasing the cursor on my wife's computer screen, batting at my morning newspaper, and careening down the hallway in pursuit of little rubber balls. After dinner, exhausted as only kittens can become, he plops down to sleep on my wife's chest in front of the TV set.
We marvel, still, that this little furry ball of life is the same critter that appeared out of the cold and dark, crying for help yet fleeing from us. Somehow, Pippin found us. Maybe he saw our cats through the windows and figured we might take care of him, too, though his fear got the better of him when we tried.
He found us, all the same, and found a home. A warm place where cat food magically appears every day and the litter box gets cleaned (if perhaps not often enough) and two big cats play with him (sort of, albeit reluctantly). He came out of the dark and into our lives, and we try not to let the other cats know that we think Pippin is just about the cutest thing we've ever seen.
We'll never know where he came from, exactly—not that it matters any more. If someone did dump him in our extended backyard, though, and that someone happens to be reading this, well, let me just say this: You don't know what you're missing.
Welcome home, Pippin.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.