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Pets Large & Small

"Gray Little Tiger Kitten…"

Michael Hillman

(10/2017) "Good for you! You are now a kittens’ best friend!" was my wife’s response to my e-mail that I had found a home for Tiger.

"Right now he many not feel that way," I replied, "but some day he will."

I had only known Tiger for five days, but in many ways, it was the longest five days in my life. He started off as ‘Gray Little Tiger Kitten,’ but by the end of the fourth day, I had truncated his name to simply ‘Tiger.’

I had arrived at the hotel in Las Vegas late in the evening. Having stayed there four weeks earlier, I knew that the hotel was home to a feral cat colony. Most guests never noticed them, but if you were a cat person, they were hard not to miss. A flash of color, a sparkle in the bushes as car headlights hit eyes, or a slight movement in the bushes gave them away.

On my first stay I didn’t have any time to check them out, but as I was packing the car up to leave, I noticed a gray tiger kitten looking at me, behind him at a safe distance, was a sibling, a gray and white. Immediately my mind raced back to Barkley and Reggie, two brothers we had rescued from behind the post office in town. But there wasn’t going to be a rescue this time. It had taken weeks to gain Barkley and Reggie’s confidence. This trip I had only hours. So I put some food out for them and headed out. In the back of my mind I made a mental note that I would be back in four weeks and would check in on them then.

The four weeks were history in the flash of an eye, and it was a flash of eye that caught my attention as I pulled my car into the parking lot late that first night. I didn’t even bother to check in, instead I whispered, just like I had whispered to Barkley and Reggie, and out of the shrubs a now much older, much bigger, gray tiger appeared.

Tiger stopped, looked around, and then sat down, as if to invite me to make the next move – which I did. I advanced half the distance between us, and just when I sensed he was preparing to retreat back into the bushes, I stopped and sat down.

I studied Tiger’s body language, he had clearly learned over the past four weeks to be weary of humans, but tonight he had decided to ignore that learning and trust. So trust it would be.

I sat with Tiger for over an hour that first night. He just sat and studied me as I studied him – like two old chess players sizing up an opponent; we both waited for the next move – which for me, was bed…

I had a long day the next day, so I arrived back to the hotel much later then I had planned. When I got out of the car I immediately called out "Tiger Kitty."

His name was no sooner out of my mouth then Tiger appeared. Unlike the night before, this time he closed the distance between us, circling around me as if to get a 360-degree view of me.

When he was behind me, I ceased the opportunity to move in the direction he had come from, knowing that is where he would flee if he got scared. Settling down next to the bush he had come out from under, I turned and looked at the thoroughly perplexed kitten. Behind him was the wide-open parking lot offering no safety at all, in front of him was home, but it was blocked. I whispered his name. Tiger cocked his head and looked at me, a second whisper and I had him hooked. Tiger lay down and crossed his front legs, a sign I had come to know indicated relaxation.

I was about to declare victory for the night when I realized I was sitting on gravel. I picked up a long stick and started to scrape it into the gravel. Tiger’s ears went up – I now had his undivided attention.

‘Stick under the rug,’ is a favorite game I play with shy cats. No matter how much they want to, they just can’t resist the urge to catch whatever that thing is moving under the rug. I’ve yet to meet a cat that can resist it and Tiger was no exception.

For over an hour I played with him, all the while he slowly closed the distance between us, until he was so close I could have reached out and touched him, so I did, and he beat feet for the high hills.

Undeterred I continued to scrape the stick in the gravel, and sure enough, Tiger was back and the game began all over again. On my second try to touch him, I opted to ‘crab walk’ my hand along the ground towards him. Unlike the first time, Tiger did not flee, but instead crawled forward. I stopped first, allowing him to close the remaining few inches at his own pace. As he smelled my hand, I touched his nose with my index finder. Tiger flinched, but immediately went back to inspecting my hand. When he finally did retreat, I did too. ‘Small victories,’ I remind myself, ‘small victories.’ You win a cat over with small victories, building over time.

The next night was a repeat of the night before, but this time Tiger was waiting for me, and he immediately sought out play. And play we did. When Tiger appeared to tire, I once again reached into my old bag of tricks and used the stick to rub his back. Tiger thought about running, but this new sensation was clearly enjoyable. To my surprise, instead of running away, he came closer, and before I knew it, I had replaced the stick with my hand and was giving Tiger a good back scratch! A few minutes later, he was on his back, and the back scratch had become a belly scratch.

When we finally called it a night I knew I was in trouble. I had started off with wanting nothing more than to be friendly to the cats at the hotel, now I was seriously thinking of rescuing one of them.

I clearly needed to get my head examined. But the next morning when Tiger greeted me, thinking went to doing. The trouble was I had only two more nights to get him to trust me enough to trap him. A herculean task at the best of times, a ridiculous goal given I was 2,500 miles away from home. If I was going to pull this off, I was going to need some serious help.

As it turned out, help was right around the corner. Unbeknownst to me, the Federal facility I was working at had two cat colonies managed by a group called the Community Cat Collation of Clark County, or C5 for short.

Following a meeting with the management of the facility, I mentioned to one of the participants about my need to find a local cat rescue to help me. They told me about the local cat coalition, and I soon found myself in the public affairs office on the phone with C5. Within fifteen minutes a battle plan had been put into place, and I went back to the hotel that night daring to hope we just, just, may pull it off. Of course, success all depended upon how much Tiger was willing to cooperate!

That evening, Tiger and I had the best play yet. By the end of the evening, he crawled into my lap and curled up to sleep. It had been only four days. There was no doubt in my mind now. Tiger didn’t want to have anything to do with being a feral cat. He wanted to be someone’s cat, and apparently that someone for him was me.

Already on the verge of becoming known as the crazy cat man, I knew I couldn’t take him, but I committed myself to finding him a good home, no matter how much effort it would take, even if that meant flying him back home with me.

The following evening I had dinner with Keith, the President of C5. It was impossible not to listen to him talk about the past eight years and walk away impressed. I had begun to delude myself into thinking I knew cats – but I quickly realized Keith had spoken more about cats and their behaviors in the past hour then I ever hoped to know. Since its inception in 2009, C5, with its volunteer staff of 51, had trapped, spayed and neutered, and released over 30,000 cats.

The group was not focused on rescuing cats, but was focused on helping establish stable, healthy colonies. By trapping and spaying/neutering those of breeding age, they had almost single handedly stopped the explosive growth of the Las Vegas feral cat population.

Their task was often made difficult by businesses who just wanted the cats removed, not returned after being spayed and neutered, or kind hearted souls whose sole purpose in life was to feed colonies, ignoring the fact that without the trap, neuter and release aspect, all they were doing was enabling the cat population to increase, much to the determent of males cats, who were pushed out once they reached breeding age. Life within an unstable colony was no fun. Life in a stable colony, while not as good as a being a house cat, was far better.

Keith made it clear he admired those who understood how to properly maintain a colony, who feed day after day, look out for sick cats, and were on the phone to him the minute a new cat joined the colony that needed spayed or neutered. "They are the cats’ best allies." He said.

Any doubt about the justness of my effort to trap Tiger, who I suspected was a boy, was pushed out of my mind as I thought of him being pushed out of his safe home and forced into a life of wandering … for an hour at least …

With time now clearly against me, Keith had suggested that we try to trap Tiger after dinner. My mind quickly flashed back to the nerve-wracking experience of trapping Barkley and Reggie – and while in hindsight that trapping went far quicker then I had ever hoped, it was enough to make me swear never to do it again. Yet here I was.

Keith had no sooner set the trap up then Tiger appeared from behind his bush. Unlike the night before, he did not approach me; instead he cast a weary eye at Keith who was standing behind me. Sensing Tiger’s body language, Keith moved away, and went off to set up other traps. Our goal was not only to trap Tiger, but others in his colony.

Keith no sooner left, and then Tiger marched right up to the cage to inspect it. He didn’t flinch when I began to scratch his back. Unsure of his reaction to being pushed into the cage, I instinctively grabbed Tiger by the scruff of his neck and before I was aware of it, I had placed him in the cage and closed the door – and that’s when my heart just about broke.

Tiger ran back and forth in the cage, banging into the ends, desperate to get out. He had trusted me, and I had violated that trust. I felt sick to my stomach. I had seen the response with Reggie and Barkly, but in their case, I was taking them to their new home, a better home then they had even known. In the case of Tiger, I knew I had put him on the path for a better life, but I didn’t know what the end of the story was. All I knew was that as I watched Keith pull out of the hotel that night with Tiger in a cage, Tiger was scared and I was lonely, and I doubted very much the rightness of my efforts.

But that all changed in what was a blink of the eye.

When I arrived at work the next day, Ken, one of my fellow team members, saw that I was down and asked what was up. He listened attentively as I recapped the past few days – a smile slowly growing over his face.

‘You know, Jill and I were thinking about getting a kitten when we returned home, let me call her and see if she would be willing to take this one."

I was stunned. I had made an agreement with C5 not to return Tiger back to his colony, but to give me ten days to find him a home. However, I knew the odds were against me finding him a home, and had steeled myself that when I returned the following week to wrap up my work, I would be taking Tiger back home to Emmitsburg with me – not that I needed another cat mind you. But whether or not I was wiling to admit it, Tiger was now my responsibility.

I felt like the world had been taken off my shoulder with Ken’s offer – I knew Ken and Jill, and when it comes to animal people, they are hard to beat. If Tiger could land a spot in their home, he’ll have won the equivalent of the kitty lottery!

As I crossed my fingers and dared to hope, Ken tapped me on the shoulder and showed me Jill’s one word response "Wonderful!"

Tiger had a home.

That afternoon, Ken and I drove over to see Tiger. I wanted to say good-bye, Ken wanted to say hello. Tiger was still groggy from his neutering surgery and shots, which was nice, as it allowed me to hold him one last time. When I handed him to Ken, Ken beamed like a new father.

"Jill and I talked about it and decided we were going to call you Emmit." Ken told Tiger.

I found it impossible to hide my smile.

Emmit stayed one more night under the care of Kevin and his wife – just to make sure his recovery would go without a hitch. That evening I boarded my red-eye flight back home, and for the first time in a week, slept soundly.

As I drove back from the airport, Ken texted me a photo of a thoroughly besmitten Jill with Emmit wrapped in a towel on her lap. Emmit was sound asleep with his belly exposed to as much loving as Jill could give him.

Emmit really had won the lottery.

Which made me reflect upon the line Private Ryan said upon hearing he was going home in the movie Saving Private Ryan –"Why do I get to go home? What did I do different? What about these other guys?"

As I was standing in the C5 recovery room looking at row upon row of cages filled with feral cats, all awaiting to be returned to their colony, I wondered what Emmit had done to deserve the life he was about to have. There were countless cats and kittens far cuter then him in those cages – all deserving a loving home. Why him? Why not them?

Was it simply chance? Chance that I would show up at that hotel? Chance I would spot him? Chance he would come out and play with a total stranger? Chance that an overloaded and overworked feral rescue group would take the time to help a crazy out of town visitor help trap and find a  home for a single cat? Chance that a cat loving Ken would be on my team and he had an opening for a new kitten?

I don’t know. All I do know is that a little Las Vegas kitten beat the long odds, touching a lot of hearts along the way.

We can’t save them all, but saving just one reminds us what it means to be human.

Read other articles by Michael Hillman