July 3, 2013
How can it possibly be July 3rd again, and how can our neighbors be shooting off fireworks so early in the day? The resident crows and their babies are wheeling through the trees to avoid the barrage. Finn, our neurologically impaired cat, is staying close. He will soon slink under the bed when the M-80’s start.
Tomorrow will be worse. I have memories of helping the night keeper on the 4th of July when I worked at Woodland Park Zoo. Animals were confined in sheltered enclosures before dusk, but as the evening got louder, so did the cries of the primates and the yipping of the wolves. A pair of draft horses broke out of their stall and led us on a wild chase until we could guide them – flying hooves and wide, terrified eyes – into a secure corral. And I clearly remember the 5th of July from the beleaguered perspective of a shelter worker. One year, we received a large dog who finally let someone catch him after running 75 miles from home. The pads of his feet were a bloody mess, and he was severely dehydrated. This is not a holiday for animals.
But I do have an all-is-well-that-ends-well story to share. When my partner and I first moved in together, we rented a house with a large yard. We occasionally saw a tiny black cat dart across the grass and under the fence. If we happened to have eye contact, the dart became a mad, feral dash. We suspected she was female, and after two summers without any sign of kittens, we assumed she had been spayed.
Beyond assumptions, one fact soon became obvious: she was hungry enough to eat birdseed. So, we started to pay close attention to her comings and goings at the feeders. As soon as we traced her hiding places to nearby blackberry brambles and a culvert at the lower edge of the property, we took plates of food down before dawn and after sunset every day. From a hidden corner of the yard, we watched as she sneaked out – a shadow on legs – to eat her fill. Over time, we gradually inched the food up the slope and into our yard, fully intending to get her more comfortable so she might eventually accept our offer of shelter.
And closer she got, to us, to the house, to the possibility of trust. We named her Blackberry, and she would pop up out of her namesake brambles when we called to her. We had the highest hopes, and then 7 years ago, on the 4th of July, she was badly injured. We doubt there was foul play involved. No one but us ever saw her, and when we mentioned her to neighbors, they suggested we had an imaginary friend. Blackberry was in the wrong place, most likely her culvert, when a firework blast changed her life.
We suspected the worst when she didn’t show up for breakfast on the 5th. We called and called, and finally late that evening, she emerged shakily from the brambles. One eye was closed, and her head tilted ominously. And yet, she could still run from us. We set a humane trap, and caught her on the morning of the 7th.
Our vet believed Blackberry had a concussion, but couldn’t give an exact diagnosis, or prognosis for recovery. She suggested we keep close tabs when we put her back out. Back out? No way! Despite dire warnings that BB would forever remain a wild cat and be miserable indoors, we were determined to do the best we could for her.
Our little survivor lived in a big cage in our dining room for nearly two months while she recovered. We knew she was feeling better when she hissed and swatted as we gave her food and scooped litter (yes, she started using the box immediately!). Her eye gradually opened, but her pupils dilated unevenly. And she was completely deaf.
By the time she was ready to come out and explore the house, she already knew our other cats, and they already knew to avoid her as she slipped from one hiding place to another. Chance encounters, even with us, were dramatic. She did emerge to eat with everyone else, and then disappeared in a blink.
Just as we started to note subtle changes in her behavior, mostly with toys and the beginnings of interactive play, we learned that our landlords were ready to sell the house. The thought of moving BB to a new place was daunting. We still could not get close, let alone get her into a carrier. By moving day, we had a strategy involving large doses of Rescue Remedy and a sequence of cardboard boxes, and it worked.
The morning after the move, we woke up to find Blackberry under the covers at the bottom of the bed. She hissed loudly when we checked on her, but something was already shifting. Our new home is much smaller, with fewer hiding places to accommodate a scaredy cat. Blackberry had no choice but to interact more. We got away with petting her lightly as she ate, and one night, she accidentally jumped into my lap as I sat on the couch. We were equally surprised, especially when she decided to stay for a few minutes. My partner began to pick her up off the floor, a few inches more each time. I protested, warning that someone was going to get hurt, but she persisted until Blackberry finally surrendered. BB now loves to be held at the window where she can watch birds, purring the whole time.
Our wild cat is a love. We tease our vet, who graciously admits that she was wrong. We all agree that Blackberry most likely was someone’s companion when she was young. She was spayed, and probably knew the comforts of a home. What happened after that is anyone’s guess. All signs point to many difficult years outdoors on her own. At one point, she sustained an injured jaw and broken rib. Nothing healed quite right, a concern for us as she ages. Her pupils mostly dilate to the same size now, and because of her deafness, she makes the most amazing, sometimes alarming, sounds. We check to make sure she is alright as the volume intensifies, and we find her sitting and talking, just a louder than usual feline conversation.
Thankfully, Blackberry survived the 4th of July. We have no idea how many lives she has left, but we are grateful to have her spend them with us. The other cats in the household may not agree with this assessment, but BB is one of the most loving, appreciative animals ever. At least with her humans. After all those years of fending for herself, she has certainly earned the title of Queen, funny, deaf, bossy monarch that she is.
So, as we batten down the hatches for the noisiest day of the year, let’s remember that we’re all in this together. It’s high time for those of us who love animals to reclaim this holiday as Interdependence Day so we can celebrate safely with every living being in mind.