Time Machine: Lost Cats

Originally posted January 3, 2002.

Last weekend our cat got out.

To most people, this probably sounds about as unfortunate as the fact that there is oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Cats go outside, they come back.

Most people are not my wife. While I hesitate to say that she was “freaking out,” she did develop a permanent crease between her eyebrows. For Nikki, that’s even worse than if she had been screaming hysterically… the fact that she didn’t was more worrisome. This was bad news.

The problem is that our cat (“Dixie”) was a stray at our old apartment complex. She was very friendly (after a dozen or so free meals courtesy of Nik) and liked to come around our place when it was cold outside. Eventually Nikki was so taken with her that she just adopted the cat, took it in for testing and kept it inside. Of course, Dixie was an outdoor cat for a minimum of six months before we got her, so she still had some reason to want to go outdoors. Nikki read that allowing house cats out (even fixed ones) was cruel because of all the possible dangers that could befall a cat in the wide world (car tires and bored boys with sticks spring to mind). So Dixie became a sort of willing captive.

Then we moved. Since we had found the cat at the old apartments, we assumed she had either come from there or been a previous tenant’s cat (we suspect she had lived in the very same apartment as we were in, under the previous occupants). We weren’t sure what would happen if she ever found her way out into these new apartments. When she accidentally got out (a door that was usually closed was left open after a party) the concern my wife had was that she wouldn’t be able to find her way home.

So I grabbed my Mag-Lite and headed out to track her down. Husband as hero… it could work. We found her in pretty short order, but she didn’t want to come to us when we called. Food didn’t lure her (she’d just eaten less than an hour before) and she was too fast and agile to be caught easily.

Suffice to say that it was a long, wet night rummaging through bushes and mud in the furthest corners of the complex, chasing a stupid cat who didn’t want to come home. She found another cat to help her run from us, and after the 20th time I’d passed some poor sleeping person’s window, cursing and making odd cat-calling noises, I figured she’d probably just come home when she was hungry.

Nikki basically stayed up all night, alternating between doing patrols and watching the back door for her. I tried to sleep, but I had hurt my foot running around and in the end, I took the door guard and let Nikki catch an hour or so of sleep. In the morning, Nik was so convinced the cat was long gone or dead or something that she made up signs and asked anyone who’d listen if they’d seen the creature. Seconds before she was about to be written off as a missing pet, she wandered back home, muddy, wet, and acting as if it was all part of her normal routine.

Of course Nikki was both ecstatic and furious with Dixie, and weary from missing a night’s sleep. In the end, I’m glad the dumb animal is back. I like having her around, but I was more worried about Nikki. With it all over, I was able to relax a bit and laugh about it. But not too hard… there was something profoundly difficult about trying to comfort a worried and frightened Nikki about the loss of a cat.

Our collective relationship with the cat has grown far less significant in the years since this was originally posted. It’s pretty clear now that Nik was looking to fill a void for nurturing in her life and since we were still a few years off of our original time frame for children she contented herself with caring for Dixie. You can see that come through even here in this post.

We both have our fondness for her, simply as a matter of familiarity, but it was rapidly obvious that once Callie became a part of the picture Dixie’s place in our family would take a sharp turn toward the back seat. This has resulted in no shortage of guilt on my part and I think also on Nikki’s because we did accept the responsibility of having the cat as our pet but our priorities lie in providing the best environment for our daughter and that has clashed with our duties as pet providers. Early on in Callie’s life when Nik and I were frazzled, frightened newbie parents we talked quite seriously about trying to get rid of Dixie because she was having difficulty adjusting to the sudden lack of attention and acting out because of it. However, we’ve been pretty adamant about not simply surrendering her as that feels incredibly irresponsible and selfish. Not surprisingly, finding a good home for an 11 year-old indoor-only cat has proven next to impossible.

To Dixie’s great credit, she hasn’t ever seemed to blame Callie for her reduced station in the household and in fact as Callie’s gotten a little bigger she’s come to be exceptionally fond of the cat. Mostly Dixie has been patient and gentle with what can sometimes be a Lenny-like affection, though a couple of recent unprovoked attacks have us wondering again what is most appropriate for our future as cat co-inhabitants. Aside from the couple of outbursts the biggest challenge we face now is the sense that we’re not really doing Dixie any favors by essentially caging her into our confined apartment space and offering her sustenance. Neither Nik nor I feel like we have moments to spare offering the cat affection when we could be offering it to Callie instead, and thus far Callie is too little to really be providing the kind of attention Dixie is looking for. Plus we’re worried that the guilt that drives us to continue to provide food and shelter for her will eventually result in awkward decisions regarding the cat’s health as she inevitably ages. We operate on a tight budget as it is, with plenty of human health issues to be concerned about. It may not have been a worry when we adopted her back in 2000 as we both worked and had disposable income, nor even in 2002 when we didn’t have much income but had a young and healthy cat. As circumstances have changed, it can feel like a tightening noose.

In retrospect, I may have been better off encouraging her to escape off into the wild yonder when this post was originally written. But then, of course, I’d have missed the opportunity to crawl around in the mud for hours, risking arrest for stalking too closely to our neighbor’s windows in the dead of night.

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