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Pets Large & Small

Black Cat

Michael Hillman

(8/2017) If you’ve followed my writing over the past few years you know I have a fondness for feral cats. While much has been said in the mainstream media about their impact on native bird and small mammal populations and the need to erratic feral cats, I tend to see them differently.

Recent studies have shown that while dogs were domesticated by humans, it was cats, not humans, who chose to be domesticate. As humans moved from hunter gathers to farming societies, cats found it beneficial to be around us. It would not be a far reach to say that because they chose to be domesticated, even the most domesticated of house cats still retain – in their minds at least – the right to return to their wild roots.

That said, it’s hard not to look into the eyes of a cold, hungry or hurt feral cat and not recognize their desire for human championship. Sure, I occasionally come across a feral cat that runs for cover the minute I get within eyesight. But given time, most feral cats willing to give humans the benefit of the doubt, and if approached right, and more importantly consistently, are willing to accept human interaction.

Such is the case with Black Cat.

It’s now been over three years since I first saw her. It was cold winter day and I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye as I was driving down the road near the bottom of our field.

She was hunting along side the road, and from what I could see, she was pretty thin and scruffy – the typical look hard life look I’ve come to expect of feral cats.

Having just successfully closed down a local colony of feral cats through a trap, neuter and adoption/release effort, I had some time on time on my hands. During that effort I found myself frustrated at the fact I was taking care of a colony far from our farm while doing nothing for our local ferals. Here was my chance to rectify that situation.

When I got home, I filled a bowl with dry cat food and a thermoses with hot water and headed down to where I had seen her hunting. Not unexpectedly she was no where to be seen when I arrived, but I nevertheless set out the food and water and hoped for the best.

The next morning, as expect, the water bowl was frozen over, but the food bowl was empty. Of course I had no idea if Black Cat, as she would eventually be called, ate it, or some other hungry animal.

For the next few nights the process was repeated. The ice in the water bowl was emptied and the food bowl refilled. I never saw any signs of Black Cat, but in the morning, the food was always gone.

It was probably well into the third week of feeding that I finally sighted Black Cat waiting for the evening feeding. She was sitting in a field across the road, watching from behind a bush. When I finished filling the bowls, I retreated to the top of the hill and sat down to watch her. She didn’t bit. She apparently could still see me and had no intention of approaching the foods until the coast was truly clear. After half and hour of shivering in the cold, I gave up.

Our game of watch and wait went on for almost two more weeks. Finally, Black Cat began to associate me with the food, and as I had shown her no harm, she began to accept my presence near the food bowls, that is, as long as my presence was sufficiently far enough away to make a safe getaway if necessary.

And that’s the way the first winter went. Where Black Cat went for shelter to get out of the elements was a mystery to us. During the following spring and summer we saw little of Black Cat, with plenty of voles and mice to eat, and a fresh stream to drink out of, she didn’t need us as much. But with the approach of Fall, she once again became a regular feature at the bottom of the hill.

By this time my wife and I figured we would be feeding her all winter long, and given that, we would need to set up a proper feeding station for her. Fortunately a ‘coop’ – a type of A-frame horse jump was located in the fence line where we feed her. It would offer not only a convenient location to place the food and water, but if Black Cat should so chose, it could also serve as shelter from the elements.

By the middle of the winter, Black Cat had gotten soused to us that she was always waiting when we arrived with her food. She still scurried off, but never more then a few yards, and she immediately went to the bowls when we stepped back from them.

As it became apparent that Black Cat was spending more and more time around the coop, I filled the inside with straw so she could nestle down in it for warmth.

Unlike the first Spring, Black Cat did not disappear with the arrival of Spring, so we continued to feed her. By now she was coming within arms reach, and she allowed me to touch here with a stick. Touches with the stick soon became scratches. As her confidence in us built, the distance she maintained from us closed to within an arm’s-length – which of course led to her first official real scratch – and with it a purr that could be heard miles away. She’s never looked back.

That Summer and Fall Black Cat’s personality began to show through. It was only then that we discovered that she was in fact a she, that she had been spayed, which meant at one time she had belonged to someone, and that sadly, like most ferals, she had become feral not of her own choosing, but because of the actions of her owners.

While Black Cat liked to get scratched, she wanted the scratches on her own terms. No belly rubs, no scratching by her tail, no scratching under her chin. Every place else was fair game. Being picked up was not in her vocabulary.

By this time it was apparent Black Cat had set up permanent residence at the coop, and she was being fed both in the morning and evening. During the day she could seen lounging on top of the coop soaking up the sun.

With her third winter approaching, we built her a proper shelter. The coop was torn down and replace with a new one. The inside was water proofed and insulated, and a floor installed to raise her off the cold ground. The ends were sealed and cat doors installed to cut down on drafts and keep in what heat there was. As the inside was now safe from the elements, a proper thermal cat bed, with a cover, was installed inside the coop. So now on cold winter nights, she could retreat into the coop, and then into the cat bed, which would self-heat form her body heat. While it was not as good as sleeping in front of a fireplace, it was a pretty good set up for a feral cat.

Based upon the expression on her face, she quite approved.

This Spring, Black Cat showed a degree of vigor and fitness (that is fatness) that she had heretofore not shown. While the Spring before we were worried about her health, this year her coat was smooth and her expression happy.

For all intents and proposes, Back Cat is now unofficially – officially ours. She is always waiting for us when we arrive to feed her, and comes running when we call her name. When people ask us how many cats we have, Black Cat is included in that number. While she’s yet to endure a trip to the vet, she’s now included in the regular rounds of tick and flea treatments.

In many ways, Black Cat actually gets more attention then all our other cats. Both my wife sit with her during the morning and evening feeds, using the ‘down time’ between scratches to check our e-mails or catch up on news – all the while Black Cat lies close by, purring away. Sitting with Black Cat actually forces my wife and I to take a pause in our hectic lives and, for at least a half hour, sit and appreciate all we have. Without Black Cat, I’m not sure I would take that time to reflect, so in a way, maybe I’m getting more out of Black Cat the she is out of me!

I often find myself wondering if Black Cat ever become a inside cat, and to be honest, I don’t know. Every day she becomes friendlier and friendlier, as if recalling life before becoming feral. But for now, she’s quite content with her kittie condo and her living arrangements, and more importantly she’s happy.

For a feral, that about as good as it gets!

So next time you see a feral cat, don’t be so quick to shush them away, given them a break – you just might find yourself with a new special friend. And God only knows, true friends are hard to come by these days – unless of course if they come with four paws.

Read other articles by Michael Hillman