by Paley Frances ~
We didn’t find her. She found us. Oh, I’d seen her before—a dark, thin shadow, first against the dull brown backdrop of the nearly frozen field, then as a sleek black silhouette on the brilliant December snow. Not every day at first, but then more regularly, she came to our lower field. I watched her from the kitchen window. I was warm and safe. She wasn’t. An occasional mouse was not enough to sustain a growing kitten through a cruel Vermont winter.
I trudged through the snow to our field shed with fresh water and food for her. Some days she came to eat, some days she did not. I began to worry if her food was untouched. But she would return, a slight wisp of a cat, with thick black fur and distinctive white markings. She was elusive, as cats can be when they want to remain undetected. But over the course of two months, she skirted the property, coming closer to the house with each daily pass. She was curious. She could see the dogs in the fenced yard and a cat, about the same size and age as herself, who would sometimes brave the cold to sit in a spot of sun on the deck.
By January, she would seek shelter in our wood shed, just across the driveway. That was her new place to eat. Closer than the field at the bottom of the hill. I was relieved. I knew where she was. And there she stayed for several weeks, through one brutal storm after the next, her soft yellow eyes peering out at me each morning and evening.
I started to dream about the cat.
Presents on the doorstep
“Your cat’s in the garage!” my husband called out to me one morning. He had been watching her for months too. “I’m closing the door so she can’t get out.”
She stayed in our garage for more than week, in the rafters with spare tires and random pieces of lumber and piping, grateful for the wool blanket we managed to wedge in the corner, in spite of her fierce hissing and spitting as she backed away from our hands. Now she peered down at us with those yellow eyes, watching our every move, as we did what people do in their garages.
She continued to eat. She slept somewhat more peacefully, out of the wind. And she caught more mice, leaving them on the doorstep so regularly that we learned to look down before we took that first step from the mudroom into the garage, especially if we had bare feet.
One evening after bringing the cat her dinner, my son Aiden, seven at the time, asked, “What happened to her nose?”
My husband got a quick look at her as she retreated back to rafters after her last few bites. “I think she got snapped by a mouse trap. Looks pretty bad.”
Sure enough, she had found the last trap in the garage. We had recently decided to stop using them, and had tried to collect them all, but must have missed one.
“We have to catch her. We have no choice,” I said. So we stopped feeding her for two days. Set a humane trap where her food bowl usually sat. Baited it and waited. Ten minutes later, we had a cat in a trap. Thankfully, I had the foresight to make a vet appointment for later that day, just in case we were successful.
Now that we could look at her close-up and in plain sight, she was the loveliest little thing we’d ever seen. Those soft eyes, long white whiskers, perfectly rounded paws, and the spirit of a wild banshee, hellbent on killing us!
What to do with a feral cat?
On the long drive to the vet (nothing is close in Vermont), she expressed her frustration and displeasure as only a scorned cat can. She growled and spat and hissed, as she hunkered down in her little wire cage. The truth was, she allowed herself to be caught and she knew it. Any cat can outsmart a trap if they really try. And that’s what was vexing her.
The doctor took one look at our angry little wild cat and declared, “You’ll never tame her. This is as good as it gets with this one. I’ll be lucky if I can get her out of this trap and tranquilize her just so I can get a good look at that nose. By the way, what did happen to her nose?”
“Umm…she got snapped by a mouse trap,” I mumbled in reply.
“Oh,” said the old-time Vermonter who probably thought she’d heard it all by now. “I thought the cat was supposed to be the mouse trap. That’s the way it usually works.”
I hung my head in shame.
She laughed. “Well, let’s get to it.”
The cat’s nose was treated. She was spayed, vaccinated, and tested for all the scary stuff cats can have, like feline leukemia. We were told she was over a year old with stunted growth, probably from malnutrition. It was suggested that we take her home and let her live out her years in an extra bedroom. As viciously as she fought the doctor, she was feral and always would be.
Once home, my husband Andy and I looked at each other. Now what? I had tamed feral dogs, who are predisposed to be social creatures by design. Some love, some tasty food and almost guaranteed success. But cats were another story.
‘She likes me!’
We set up a large crate in our guest room. All the necessities: litter box, food, water, bedding, even a few toys, not that she would play with them. We covered the crate with a blanket and shut the the door behind us to let her acclimate in peace. She might be miserable and mad but she was warm and safe.
That afternoon, as the hours passed, we watched and waited for the signs of a settled cat. More relaxed body language, nibbles at her food, using the litter box, gentle blinking. But our little hellion flattened herself to the floor of her crate and glared out at us defiantly, without so much as a single blink.
My husband and I took turns sitting with her, whispering sweet nothings into her angry ears. He even laid down on the rug next to the crate. Any attempt to touch her was met with teeth and claws.
Then Aiden came home from school. He found us in the guest room, somewhat dazed and confused.
“Awww, look how cute she is.” Before we could stop him, he was crawling into the crate with this wild animal. We held our breath, ready at any moment to pull the cat off our young child. Predictably, she skulked to the opposite side of the crate as he crept to the the rear of the space and sat with his back to us. And then something happened. She stood up, stretched a very dramatic, exaggerated feline stretch, yawned, looked my son straight in the eyes and casually climbed up into his lap, as naturally as anything.
“Look Mom, Dad,” he whispered triumphantly. “She likes me!”
Aiden named her Tori. She was his cat. Moreover, he was her boy.
We opened the guest room door and put the crate back in the basement.
Tori met Tessa, our other cat, a “miniature” Main Coon mix with a beauty queen-diva streak. Tori quickly taught Tessa what it meant to be a cat, putting her in touch with the more primitive of cat behaviors like stalking, hunting and graceful aerobatics. They became inseparable. As the months passed, Tori and Tessa groomed one another, played, tumbled and snuggled, establishing daily routines. And Tori grew. Probably much younger than we originally thought. Her growth wasn’t stunted, she was just a baby.
Tori’s five-year anniversary came up this month. Soon after claiming Aiden as her own, she adopted Andy and me too. She is a silent cat. Though she purrs, we have never heard her meow. But she communicates with us quite effectively. Somehow, she instills her wants and needs in our minds and hearts and we cheerfully obey. We know she’s in charge. After all, we didn’t find her, she found us.
Paley Frances was born and raised in Los Angeles, studying film history and journalism at the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles, where she started rescuing stray dogs. After working in documentary television for several years, Paley founded a dog rescue and adoption organization, leaving The Industry behind and placing more than 500 dogs in the next 14 years. Now she lives on five acres in rural Vermont with her son, four rescued dogs, Chadly, Callista, Caito and Little Lil; three rescued cats, Tessa, Tori and Tango; and five fish, who shall remain nameless.
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