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(A.K.A. Smoochie Baby)

Audrey Hillman

It was a beautiful mid-November day. Cool, clear, bright sunshine with the promise of pleasant afternoon temperatures. I was working at Penn State's Fruit Research and Extension Center set in the gentle rolling hills of Adams County, Pennsylvania. Instead of enjoying the surrounding acres of orchards and vineyards as I was passing from one building to another, I was thinking about the tasks for the day ahead. It was then that I heard a faint noise. At first I thought it was a bird. Then, when I listened more intently, I realized it was a kitten meowing from somewhere in the parking lot. As I neared the sound I saw a tuft of white and grey dart under a car. I went to the car and got down on my hands and knees to look for it. On top of one of the tires sat the kitten. I reached for it, but it hid in the tire well just beyond my reach. We then started a game of hide and seek - it moved from car to car and into the shrubs hiding while I was seeking.

After a bit I gave up and went in to report the finding of a feral kitten to the farm manager. By the end of the day just about everyone on the property had tried without success to catch the kitten. By the time I was finished for the day, my car was the only car left in the parking lot. I looked under my car for the kitten before I left, but it was nowhere to be seen. I congratulated myself for having escaped without a kitten as I am a cat person. At that time I had six cats already at home and since two were in hospice care I didn't have much extra time or money for the care of a kitten. But, in all honesty, I was a bit disappointed for as I saw his grey and white self darting from here to there in the parking lot earlier in the day, I knew I would have taken him home with me.

I started to drive away and saw something running down the middle of the road. It was dusk so I took a double-look to be sure the light wasn't playing tricks on me. Sure enough it was the kitten. I could hardly believe my eyes. I guess after everyone left he figured he wasn't getting anywhere in an empty lot, and headed on down the road...literally.

I slowly pulled up along side of him, thinking I would try my luck again. As soon as I stopped the car he headed straight under it. This was not good - not at all what I had in mind. I got out and looked for him. He was beyond reach and showing no signs of coming to me. I got in my car and revved the engine. He scooted out and began running down the middle of the road. I pulled up along side him again and again he went under my car. I realized this process was not going well.

I got out and looked but saw no sign of him. Another car passed going the opposite way and still no sign of the kitten. I then searched the edges of the fields on both sides of the road. I realized that if he didn't move I would never see him in the fading light. I revved the motor again and still no kitten. I gently eased the car ahead about 10 feet and checked my rear view mirror. It was then that I saw him sitting where my car had been. He was still. I jumped from the car and approached him, expecting that he would bolt, but he didn't. As I reached for him, I saw a wound on his face. I believe that in the moment of his daze of having cut his face I was able to scoop him up. Luckily, the wound was not serious, but it had given me the opportunity to catch him. I popped the back hatch open, placed him in the back of the car, and headed home thinking about my next obstacle - my husband.

When I arrived home my husband, Michael, was puttering around his carpentry shop. I walked in with the kitten in my arms - tiny, about eight weeks old, a cut lip, and big eyes. As Michael looked at us I could see he wasn't impressed. I told my story and he gave no reaction save inquiring about the kitten's lip. After a couple of moments of silence he then said, "So much for downsizing our population." I assured him I was aware of our intent to downsize and also assured him that I would try to find the kitten a home. Michael was not particularly happy about the whole thing and made that thought known, but I said to him, "You know very well that you would have done the same thing," and he acknowledged as much. Neither of us would have left him, so now we had a new addition for the time being.

I took the kitten inside and proceeded to set up shop for him. We keep a large box in the attic for such contingencies. I placed a large screen over the top to keep him in and the other cats out and then I placed in the box a blanket, a few toys, a small litter box, and water. Though I didn't have any kitten food, I figured that canned cat food would certainly do until the next day. I fed him and he devoured every morsel. My heart was already his. My husband simply watched with resignation.

The next morning I made three phone calls. The first call was to work to let everyone know that the kitten had been caught and was with me. The next was to a friend who I thought might want him, but in the course of the conversation I found out she wasn't able to take him. I knew I could now tell Michael I had tried to find another home for him - I hadn't tried very hard mind you, but I had tried. The third call was to my veterinarian to make an appointment to get the little fellow checked out. With the necessary calls out of the way, it was time to settle on a name. We have a lot of animals and to keep everything simple we name them all after characters of our favorite TV series, Star Trek. We settled on Malcolm from Star Trek Enterprise. We both knew that once Malcolm had a name, he was ours for good, so Michael had now resigned himself to having another cat.

Malcolm's first appointment with Dr. Keane went well. He was intensely curious as all baby kittens are and was not afraid of the people or of being handled. He was put on a course of antibiotics to insure that his lip healed quickly. He was covered in fleas so he was given a dose of topical flea and tick killer and I was told he would be free of fleas in 24 hours. His belly was distended from round worms so a dose of dewormer was in order. Luckily, Dr. Keane warned me that when they are as heavily parasitized as Malcolm was, it is not unusual for them to pass whole worms; and so the next day I wasn't as surprised by the sight thanks to her warning.

A lab analysis of a fecal sample revealed that he also had Giardia, an intestinal bacteria that can cause diarrhea and comes from contaminated water, so we addressed that as well. He only weighed about two pounds, but his eyes were clear and bright and his ears were clean. His temperature, heart, and lungs were all normal. We speculated on what he might have eaten while on his own and came up with the thought that he must have lived on bugs as he wasn't big enough to hunt larger prey. We set up a follow-up appointment for the next week and left with our antibiotics.

During the following week at our home he thrived and took his medicine without argument. Since he still needed to remain in confinement with no interaction with the other cats, he lived in his box with the exception of play time on the counters of our newly remodeled kitchen. I knew that I was probably starting a life-long habit, but I had little choice. He was having a ball and entertained us with his antics, and Michael was softening.

At his next appointment with Dr. Keane, Malcolm had doubled his weight during the week and weighed in at four pounds. His lip was basically healed. He tested negative for Feline Leukemia, which was a relief. The new development was that the tip of his tail had no hair. Dr. Keane said this is typical of ringworm in kittens and asked if anyone was showing signs of a skin rash. I was, and having had ringworm before from gardening, recognized the round skin rash as ringworm even before her diagnosis. Now, Malcolm would need to have several baths combined with applying a topical cream on his tail. We made our next appointment for three weeks and left this time with ringworm shampoo and cream.

Now, if you know anything about cats, you will probably know they are not particularly fond of water. But, Malcolm needed a bath so I set up the kitchen sink and enlisted Michael's assistance. We were able to gently bathe and rinse him with warm water, and to my surprise, he didn't seem to mind the process. In fact, to this day Malcolm is fascinated with water. After the bathing process, Michael became officially smitten.

Over the next several months Malcolm continued to prosper. He received all of his vaccinations and was neutered at six months of age. His health has continued to be excellent and his growth normal, but his social skills, especially with people, are behind what a normal kitten's skills would be. Because he had been a feral cat, he preferred not to be touched as he didn't know what people and touching were all about. I decided early on not to push the issue with him and let him determine what he was comfortable with. I started out with a simple touch to his chin and so he began to enjoy a good chin rub. Next I would rub the side of his face, and he figured what rubbing his chin and face was about. But, it was quite awhile before he would allow his head to be stroked. Now, after a year he will finally allow me to run my hand down his back. It has been a long time, but his trust is slowly being earned with consistent, kind understanding. He has learned about head bumps, now loves a good smooch and face rub, and last night he sat on my lap at his own initiative for the first time. I feel I have now been claimed.

When he was finally released from the confines of the box and counter, he set out to make acquaintances of all his fellow inmates in the house. The older cats were just tolerant of his actions, but no one wanted to play - that is, until he came upon the Jack Russell, Neelix. Still a young dog himself, Neelix found himself being accosted by a kitten. He tolerated Malcolm's attacks and played back. Malcolm was delighted and we were amused. Soon, Malcolm livened up everyone's life in the house. He managed to get the older frumpy cats moving and actually playing. Pretty soon all the cats were playing with him and Michael admitted he was glad I had brought him home.

At about six months of age one evening, while I held the door open to wait for the dogs, he zipped out. I approached him and he ran off. My heart raced as he moved away from my advances. I hesitated to leave him and lose track of where he was going, but I needed help to catch him. I ran back into the house and Michael came out with flashlight and I with food. We found him not far from the house under a small cedar tree very close to the road. We were able to direct his wanderings back closer to the house and I was finally able to coax him into allowing me to pick him up. We were all relieved to be back inside again, maybe me more so than Malcolm.

After his escape, I resolved to remedy the situation, so later in the summer I put a collar and harness on him and we started exploring the great outdoors around the house in a more controlled way. I had initially wanted him to be a house cat, but escapes were likely no matter how careful I was and I figured that if he was more familiar with the area around the house he might not panic, and therefore I might panic less as well. He loved his outings. All I had to do was shake his collar and he would come running for his walk around the house. Outside he would chew on the grass, roll in the dirt, hunt and eat every bug he could catch, especially crickets. Although he loves going outside he is still shy about the outdoors, but at least now he won't be as frightened if he gets outside again - and now he knows where the door is to come back in.

Malcolm still has his feral side. He disappears at the sound of a stranger's voice and only comes out again when he is certain they are gone. And, he is the only cat I have ever had that uses his claws when he is playing and he probably always will. His favorite games are "fetch the play mice" and "chase the laser light." He is a talker and will carry on quite a conversation as he plays. He also watches TV. The quick movements of the changing screen seem to catch his attention and he'll watch just about anything. I can only imagine what must be going through his mind as he watches TV, and I bet if he could he'd ask for an IPOD next. He is also my own personal assistant - he sits on the paper as I read it, checks my typing skills on the computer screen, and supervises the sweeping. Wherever there is action in the house, you can bet Malcolm will be there.

Since the day Malcolm was brought home he has been a joy to raise and Michael and I look forward to a long happy loving life with his irresistible charm.

Read other stories by Audrey Hillman