Some years ago, just before Christmas, my youngest announced that she wanted a cat, a long-haired black cat called Valentino. As we already had several cats, it seemed necessary to gently discourage this idea, but she is a young lady of great determination…
At about the same time, I became aware of a little dark shadow, flittering around the edges of the garden at dawn & dusk; a very nervous cat. If I looked directly towards it, it would whisk away behind the nearest shrub. But not very fast; the poor little soul seemed to have a heavy limp, and never jumped, and seemed to be reduced to eating scraps that we’d put out for our handful of backyard chickens. Gradually it seemed to decide that I wasn’t much of a threat, and made itself more visible, and I could see that it was very thin, with a long black matted coat. On Christmas Day it seemed unfair not to leave a saucer of chopped-up turkey giblets down beside the shed that it seemed to be living under, well away from where the chickens could get at it. I never saw the cat, but the giblets had disappeared before the washing-up was done.
From then on, I took to leaving a little saucer of food out once the birds had gone to bed at dusk or before they came out in the morning. The cat slowly gained confidence, and came out to eat as soon as I produced the goods, or even sat & waited for it, up by the pond. It was still very shy, but more & more at ease with my presence; I talked to it and it seemed to listen. We were into the early summer before I casually reached out to stroke its head one day. Mis-step! It was horrified that I would take such a liberty; hissed, spat, swiped my hand, and wouldn’t come near me for days. But offerings of food gradually won it back over, and we were eventually allowed to stroke its head – but only its head; a hand straying anywhere else was clearly a diabolical liberty.
We had no idea whether it was male or female, but it sprayed, so we assumed it was male. And needless to say, it acquired the name Tino, being suitably black & long-haired, and did seem to answer to that, although it was always clear that its hearing was not all a feral cat’s hearing needs to be; an approach from behind would cause utter panic, to start with. The poor creature also had a great big wodge of felted fur under its chin, almost from ear to ear and down to the top of its legs, which I periodically tried to loosen, thinking it must be very uncomfortable, but the cat simply wasn’t going to allow that until I introduced a pet-comb, which was evidently much safer than a hand. I was allowed to run that down its back, and tease away at the edge of the tangled beard-mat, which eventually fell off of its own accord, and with regular food and combing the long black coat became fluffy & luxuriously soft. Though in summer sunshine, it became chocolate brown, rather than black, except the head, tail & paws.
It was just about two years before she finally set one cautious paw on the threshold of our conservatory. And one paw was all it was, until the next day, when two paws & a head came in before nerves got the better of her; by then, a brave and knowledgable neighbour had managed to pick her up briefly and get a glimpse of her rear end to establish she was actually a female, something we’d never managed to do. A week or so later, as the January cold set in, she found a nice box with a wool blanket under the table in the conservatory, and took up residence indoors. Our other cats didn’t turn a hair… it was as if she’d always been there, and maybe she had been, tucked away quietly in the margins of our garden and our lives, invisible until she needed our help, and no threat whatsoever to our motley crew of resident moggies.
More cautious steps of the paw, and she started to turn up in the kitchen at mealtimes along with the others, who seemed to accept her as one of their own from the word go; she seemed to watch and copy them to work out how to behave in such as strange environment. Then one evening, a little head poked around the door into the living room; it was several months before she’d come up onto a chair with a human occupant, but eventually she did, and discovered that we possess the odd horizontal surface when sitting down. So she would slowly advance onto a lap, paw by cautious paw, then sit bolt upright in case the owner tried to commit any liberties. It was months before she relaxed enough to lie down & curl up, and the jumping-up never came easily to her.
We took her to the vet, who pronounced her definitely female, pretty much healthy, possibly a bit arthritic given her trouble with jumping, and probably about ten years old. She showed no sign of ever having had kittens, so may have been rounded up & spayed as a kitten, as there’s a known colony of feral cats not too far from us. I will always think that she might have been rather older than that, but she’d evidently had a hard life before coming to us, and I don’t think she had ever been someone’s pet; when she first appeared, I checked with all the local vets and charitable organisations, and no-one had reported losing a cat of her description.
She brought many moments of sheer delight into our lives; watching her adjust to domesticity was a joy. Especially her little start of surprise & delight every time she wandered past the food bowl and found something edible in it, though she was never greedy. And the moment when she inadvertently sat on the Christmas cake will always be a treasured memory.
A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that weight seemed to be falling off her rapidly, and her lovely soft coat was becoming thin; we took her to the vet, who diagnosed kidney problems. Sadly there was nothing much anyone could do, although she wasn’t in any pain or distress. But yesterday she lost all interest in food, something we never thought we’d see. So this afternoon we took her back and held her as she went to gently off to sleep; the final kindness. She’d spent the day either dozing in my daughter’s lap in front of the fire or tottering out to the pond to drink; she was never impressed with tap water and by the pond, dozing gently or watching life go by, was where she really loved to be best, weather permitting.
So, to anyone out there who is thinking of giving a home to a feral cat – it can be done, if that’s what the cat wants and you can be patient and win their trust. And it’s very, very rewarding; our lives have been the richer for having this small, cautious, fiercely intelligent & determined little soul under our roof for the last few years. Farewell, Tino; it’s been our privilege to share our lives with you for a while…