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A Stray's Tale

Over dinner one night, a fellow animal loving friend and I engaged in our usual topic of conversation - animals. Cats, dogs, squirrels, birds, horses, you name the animal, we discuss it. The topic came around to an article we'd recently read on the destruction of property and health hazards posed by stray dogs and cats. We both agreed strays are a problem, but not quite in the sense presented in the article.

It's easy to get angry when cats and dogs rip open your garbage bags and strew refuse across your driveway, especially when you're late for work, having overslept as a result of the caterwauling outside your window the night. It's easy to become furious with the strays who use your child's sandbox as a litter box. Cats and dogs have worms and parasites that spread disease and pose possible health hazards especially for pregnant mothers and people with immune disorders.

The anger and fear of the moment, however, masks the real problem. These "nuisance" cats and dogs are doing the best they can to survive in what is, to them, a hostile world. From their perspective, they were born into a war zone. They're hungry, they're frightened, they're alone, and they're often despised. Every moment, for them, is a struggle for survival.

What are their options? Stop by the local 7-11 for a can of Friskies? Walk into a local homeless shelter to obtain refuge from the elements on a brutally cold winter's night? Request assistance from a government or charity program in feeding their hungry babies? Ask a clinic for emergency medical care? What are the options for unwanted and uncared for cats and dogs if, in scavenging for a meal, they are met with hostility? Imagine, for just one moment, a night alone in an alley, with no one to turn to.

One of the profoundly touching and enlightening relationships I've ever had, has been with a cat born into a feral colony living in an alley across from the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. To this day, I regret having not been able to rescue his entire colony from a brutal life, but I was able to take one in. This feral cat, whom I named "Kimba," was a year old when I snatched him from the streets.

It was a fiercely cold and rainy March day when I noticed he looked worse than usual. Over time, he had become accustomed to me and realized I posed no harm. In fact, I was often good for a meal. But this day, something was different. He had, apparently, fallen into a vat of some kind of oil, as the fur from his tail to his nose was crusted over and falling out. He was emaciated, chilled to the bone, and scared.

In light of his condition, I barely followed the guidelines for capturing a feral. I ran home, grabbed my cat carrier and a can of cat food and rushed back to the alley. Sitting out of sight, I waited for him to enter the carrier to eat. When he did, I slammed the door shut and headed off to the vet. Having no idea what had befallen him, this angry tom paced the inside of the carrier like a baby tiger. The technicians more than likely thought I was out of my mind when I dropped the carrier on their counter and said-bathe him, vaccinate him, fix him, and provide him whatever medical assistance he needs, I'm coming back tomorrow to pick him up. From there, I'll find him a home, as I already have two cats of my own. Certainly, someone will want a fully vaccinated and fixed cat. Luckily, he tested negative for everything but a whopping case of worms, which one shot dispensed with.

I picked him up the next day, took him home, and set him up in the second bedroom. During the first days, he spent his time separated from my two cats who spent their time sniffing at the door, wondering what was happening to their peaceful abode. After the adrenaline that drove me to his rescue wore off, I spent my time alone with him in his secluded room. While looking at this frightened and miserable-looking creature, I began to wonder what I'd gotten myself into. I hated to admit it, but he was one ugly cat. His gray fur was coarse and dull. The way he walked, close to the ground with his tail low, gave him the appearance of a large rat.

What have I done? Will he be a danger to my other cats? Will he destroy the furniture? Will he adjust to living indoors? Did he even want to be here? One fear, however, was alleviated when I noticed how quickly he took to the litter box.

As he showed no signs of aggressiveness, I eventually introduced him to my little "princesses." The looks on their faces made it clear they thought he fell far below their caliber. But he was here, at least until his fur grew back and the weather was warm, or until somebody took him. Within a day or two of the three cats sharing the house, however, I noticed little piles and wet spots. He was relieving himself in the corners! A few days of that sent me to the brink of hysteria. Would he ever learn to use a box? Would he teach the others the same bad habit? I couldn't allow this to continue.

Reaching the end of my patience, I sat down after cleaning up another misplaced pile to compose myself, and it came to me. This cat was not the problem. He was trying to share the girls' litter box and somebody had made it clear to him that his deposits were unwelcome. The overturned lid of shipping box that I put out for the night was a failure. But when he was presented with his own brand new and shiny plastic litter box, the accidents stopped forthwith.

This cat didn't feel like any cat I'd ever felt before. Without an ounce of fat on him, he wasn't soft and cuddly like "my girls;" his body was as hard and muscular - even his tail. He didn't know how to relax as the slightest sound sent him running into the closet. Though he would not let me hold him, Kimba allowed me to pick off the clumps of fur falling off him. In time, his entire coat fell off. Only the slow regrowth of his short undercoat kept him from being completely bald.

No wonder these cats end up in the alleys, I thought. They're so different from housecats. When near him, I noticed an odor. As he'd been bathed, I couldn't figure out what it was. Then I recognized it. Garbage! His body smelled of what he'd lived on for the first year of his life.

As Kimba didn't join the other cats in the bedroom at night, I wondered where he was. I found him in the kitchen in front of the cabinet that held the cat food-purring in his sleep.

I then noticed other ways in which this cat was different. He didn't walk the kitchen counters. He didn't scratch the furniture. He didn't turn his nose up at food. But did my girls make him welcome? Not really. He took more than his share of swats from them, and though perhaps ten-times their strength, he never struck back. Despite his lowly background, this cat was well bred.

It looked like I had myself a boy cat as no one had taken me up on my offer for a fully fixed cat. But during his first months with me, other aspects of his unusual behavior emerged. That brought about the period of my watching Kimba watch my "girls."

With great concentration, Kimba studied their behavior. He watched them romp, chase, and jump gracefully into the air swatting the toy birds I'd dangle. Only after they tired and walked off, did Kimba enter center stage. Up into the air he went, and then down, flat on his backside. Apparently jumping up into the air wasn't a valuable talent in the alley. Again and again he tried, each time landing on his rump until, one day, he finally got it, and just like the girls, he soared into the air, caught the toy bird, and landed gracefully on his feet.

As Kimba took pleasure in the toy mice and birds I left around the house, I thought the toy "rat" I came across at the pet store would be a real treat. When I dropped the "rat" at his feet, he jumped back in horror, the look on his face saying -"Oh my gosh, they're not in here too!"

He also watched my girls play with me. During one of our bouts of "hidden-hand," Kimba noticed the girls lunge at my hand in mock ferocity. Within moments, he came to my rescue by placing himself between me and the offender, interrupting the attack.

But then his weight became a problem as he took on the appearance of a basketball with legs. The concept of regular meals didn't exist for him as any plate of food I put out was licked clean. He was definitely different from any cat I'd ever had.

It was now early summer and the weather was warm and pleasant. My girls were still not overly friendly to Kimba and knowing that he missed the other members of his colony, I thought it only right to give him the opportunity to return to the outside. I could only hope that he would remember there was a place for him to get a good meal if he ever needed one. I opened the window to the patio and he walked out trepidatiously. Once he felt the warm and soft soil beneath his paws, his spirits picked up. Taking one quick glance back at me, with one powerful leap, he scaled the fence and up and over he went. My heart broke. Despite all the complications and difficulties he'd brought, I knew I'd miss him. Sitting at the window for a few moments before finally closing them, I wished him the very best. Suddenly a great commotion resounded as Kimba lunged back over the fence and ran straight into the house. If I could imagine his thoughts, they were - "Been there, done that. There's no place like home." I've had Kimba now eight years. His fur is silky, his body is cuddly, and he sits lazily in the window basking in the sunlight watching people rush off to work in the morning and then home again at night. Sometimes, the three cats would nap together contentedly at the foot of the bed.

I love all my cats. I thank Daisy and Sylvia for having accepted a stranger into their home. I thank Kimba for his generosity. In return for a little food and shelter, he taught me about life, he taught me about love and compassion, and he taught me about courage, loyalty, and gratitude. But most of all, he taught me humility, for I now know how similar we all are.

This isn't the end of the story, however. Kimba has become a "father." Not naturally, of course, but in the adoptive sense. A friend told me of a female feral who had dropped off her kittens with a kind couple in Hyattsville, Maryland. Unable to care for her first litter, she watched them die. Her second and third litter, she dropped off, kitten by kitten, at the home of Patrick and Saralyn. I offered to take one in and so arrangements were made. Within minutes of Patrick dropping off a spry and gangling kitten at my home, Kimba had this bundle of white and gray fur firmly under paw, effecting a thorough grooming. Patrick and Saralyn, with perseverance, shortly thereafter captured the mother, whom they named Sophie, and had her fixed and vaccinated. Within only a few short months, however, a neighbor put out poison and despite Patrick and Saralyn's efforts to save her, Sophie died at the clinic. It's a hard life for anyone who has no home and only limited means of survival. The problem is not the homeless dogs and cats. The problem is a culture that is insensitive to other forms of life. The solution doesn't lie in blaming the victim. The solution lies in teaching and exercising empathy and compassion, and providing for those who have less, even if they are only stray dogs and cats.

My dinner conversation with my friend ended with us agreeing, "sure, some dogs and cats are difficult, just like some people, but it has nothing to do with whether they're born indoors or out. The animals on the streets desperately want homes and are the most grateful and appreciative of companions."

Kimba passed away in 2007. My heart will always be with him.

Mary Ann Sust

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