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Pets Large & Small

Black Cat

I don’t want to be alone anymore

Michael Hillman

(2/2018) For three years ‘Black Cat,’ a local feral, has lived at the bottom of a hill on our farm. Over the years I’ve built several enclosures to protect her from the elements. The first year, I closed off one end of the coop in the fence line and filled it with hay so she could snuggle down on frigid winter nights. This worked until the temperature dropped into the single digits, at which time Black Cat headed off to parts unknown – to seek someplace warmer.

The following spring she returned; however, she was a bit worse for the ware, but she was back. That summer I took the time to really weather proof the coop, but despite my best efforts, when winter descended with all its fury, Black Cat once again disappeared. While we hoped that she had simply retreated to a warmer spot, it was hard not to wonder if she had been attacked, injured, or if she had frozen to death. After all, as far as we could tell, Black Cat was old, and sooner or later the cold was going to take her.

This summer, Black Cat really began to show signs of aging. While the previous summers she would spend her days hunting along the tree line, this summer her days were spent sleeping in the sun. An ear infection that impaired her hearing had taken its effect and slowed her down even more. Her eyes, which had never really been bright, began to show signs of cataracts. It was clear to my wife and I that time was not on Black Cat’s side.

Over the years, Black Cat had come to accept our daily visits where her food and water bowls were refilled. As she grew more used to us, she began to accept the occasional pet, which eventually became long, gentle scratches. As this winter descended, I added to Black Cat’s choices of habitat - two cat houses, both large enough for her to climb into, but at the same time, small enough to retain her body heat. Filled with hay, it was my hope she could snuggle down into them and stay warmer then she could in the coop.

Seeking to harness the warmth of the sun, I modified one of the cat houses by replacing the front with Plexiglas. This allowed the sun to shine in on her in the morning. Needless to say, she quite approved and this quickly became her favorite spot. It was not uncommon to find her there in the middle of the day, curled up, sound asleep. Being hard of hearing, I would reach in and gently wake her to let her know her food had arrived. While it was warmer inside the box then outside, it was only warm when the morning sun was shining directly in. Once the afternoon arrived, it was cold.

Desperate to give her more warmth I built her a kitty solarium. With three sides made of thick Plexiglas she had the warmth of the sun all day long. Once again she indicated her approval by quickly moving in. She seemed quite happy. Of course, the solarium didn’t help at night, so I made a few more upgrades to the coop to weather proof it. I then crossed my fingers in hopes that she would make it through the winter.

While my efforts focused on improving her living conditions, my wife’s efforts focused on improving Black Cat’s health.

It was in the early fall that my wife noticed her water bowl full of dirt in the morning. At first she thought it was the result of a raccoon, but we soon discovered that it was a result of Black Cat pawing at her water bowl. This set off alarm bells in my wife’s head. "I think we have a problem," she told me one night. "Black Cat’s behavior of playing with the water is a classic sign of renal failure."

Renal failure, for those who may not know, is one of the chief causes of death in older cats. Having lost one too many already, we knew the disease’s progression and it wasn’t pretty. It could be managed for a time, but all you could do was buy a cat a few months, maybe a year. Being feral, however, most of the management options my wife had successfully used in the past were not open to Black Cat. Her food was changed to a formula that was more supportive of her kidneys. Other then that, about all we could do was make sure she had as much clean water as we could, which meant multiple trips a day to refill her water bowl.

We never really minded our visits to Black Cat. They always gave us a reason to slow down and take a pause from our busy days. But I have to admit, when the weather turned cold at the end of the year, I found it harder and harder to spend time with her. To make matters worse, the bitter cold snap meant Black Cat’s water would constantly freeze – sometimes within a half hour of being refilled. While we could ensure she had water during the day, at night, Black Cat went without drinkable water. It worried us, but there was little we could do.

Then, the Christmas polar freeze hit, and things went from bad to worse.

Black Cat withdrew into her coop trying to stay as warm as she could. While she would venture out when we showed up, she quickly retreated after gulping down some food and warm water. Gone were the long sits and chats. Now it was just a fight to keep her alive.

That all changed on New Years Day.

It was late in the afternoon and I was making my last run to refill Black Cat’s water bowl. The wind was howling and my exposed skin was burning. I had no intention of sitting and chatting with Black Cat. My goal was to simply refill the water bowl and head back to the warmth of the fire in my study.

When I got to the coop, Black Cat failed to appear. After a quick check of the other two houses, I found them empty. I panicked. I walked through the woods calling for her, all the while knowing that since she was deaf, my calls were only being wasted. But at least my calls made me feel like I was doing something.

For half an hour I searched, but there was no sign of Black Cat. I checked the coop and her houses again in the hopes I a simply missed her – I had not. With my body now shaking in cold, I hunched over and walked back up the hill to my house – a sense of dread filled me. The night was predicted to be the coldest yet, and I feared Black Cat would not survive to see the morning sun.

As I climbed the fence next to the house, my thoughts were on how I would tell my wife Black Cat was missing. But then I heard a cry and looked up to see a totally confused and shivering Black Cat sitting next to the back door.

Of course, my first reaction was one of joy – Black Cat was alive! Then the joy was replaced with the thought of, "what do I do now?"

In the three years we have taken care of her, Black Cat had not ventured more than 50 feet up the hill. Yet on this night she had walked well over 600 feet in a direction in which she had no idea what awaited her!

Why she headed up the hill, we will never know. Maybe it was because over the years she had come to associate us coming down the hill with food, company and love. Every time we went to feed her, she would always be sitting looking up the hill awaiting us.

That night however she opted not to wait for us, but took maters into her own paws, setting out on her own in our direction in what I can only assume was hopes of finding warmth and safety. How she managed to do it is beyond me. But I believe my wife is correct in her belief that God intervened and guided her, as he guides all of us.

With the sun now set, taking Black Cat back down to the bottom of the hill was now out of the question. Having made the trek once to the house, we had no assurance that she would not try it again during the night. If she did, she would surly die. So the decision was made she was staying for at least the night.

Fortunately, we had never really ‘unrigged’ the barn from when "Q," our last feral, had moved in two years ago. So, we quickly went about setting Black Cat up in the two-story carpenter shed. Having just replaced the doors and windows in the building, it was air tight – now all we needed was to add some heat – which was easy.

Years ago, we had set up a cushioned chair that looked out a southern window and placed, much to the pleasure of the barn cats, a heated cat bed on the chair. It didn’t put out a lot of heat, but at this stage, anything was better than nothing.

I grabbed some heavy horse blankets and positioned them to make a tent over the chair, effectively creating a fully enclosed cave for Black Cat. I next grabbed a space heater and set it up in the tent. Within minutes, the inside of the tent was toasty and warm.

I placed Black Cat into the tent. As I did, she looked up at me and blinked her eyes, as if to say "thank you", before closing them and falling asleep. Later that evening I went in and checked on her. She made no movement at all when I shined a light in. I gently touched her to make sure she was still alive. She didn’t open her eyes, but instead, let out a loud purr and wiggled her toes.

That night, we all slept well.


Black Cat in her heated tent

The next morning I found Black Cat still asleep. Clearly the cold of the past few days had taken a toll on her, so I let her sleep. We checked in on her every few hours, refilling her always-empty water bowl each time, which told us that she was occasionally coming out to drink and eat. That afternoon, I spread a thick layer of hay on the floor. Sooner or later we knew she was going to recover enough that she would want to walk about. At least with a bed of hay, she could lay in it and still be warm.

Once we knew she was safe and recovering from the exposure to the cold, the conversation turned to "what to do next?"

For the past year we had talked about trapping her and having her vetted. It was obvious that now was as good a time as ever. Our primary concern was to find out what was driving her thirst issues. If she were in renal failure, then tests would show how far advanced it was. Our biggest fear was that they would show she was in the final stages, which given the onset of winter, meant we might have to put her down.

On the third day, Black Cat, for probably the first time since she had been spayed as a kitten, went to the vet. She was a perfect lady they said. Even better, she got a clean bill of health. No signs of renal failure, no diabetes, and all of her blood work looked good. She was running a slight temperature however, for which she was given a long lasting antibiotic shot, and she received a full set of vaccinations as well as a microchip and an official file with her name on it. So, like it or not, she was now officially ours.

While she was at the vet, I took the time to build her a proper ‘shelter.’ An old piece of Styrofoam insulation formed the roof and sides, and the space heater was repositioned for maximum efficiency, which an appreciative Black Cat was more than happy to enjoy when she returned from her big adventure to the vet’s office.

That evening, with the temperature plummeting and the wind howling, I braved the elements to check on Black Cat. Using a black light, I shined it into her tent. Had she been down at the bottom of the hill, she would have had to be curled up like a ball to conserve heat, but that was a different time and different life. Now she was free to stretch out to capture all the warmth of the heating pad. As I watched, I could see her wiggle her toes. She was fast asleep, but there was no doubt that her dream was a happy one.

That evening, as I lay in bed listening to the wind howl outside, all I could think of was how happy I was that all our animals were inside, safe and warm. I always felt bad that Black Cat had been excluded from that thought over the last few years – but not anymore.

I have no idea how this story will eventually end. There are a lot of hurdles that have yet to be overcome – namely getting Black Cat introduced and accepted by the two boys who currently claim dominium over the barn. But as I reminded them that night, as they were snuggled onto their own heated cat beds in their well-heated tack room; they too were once homeless and someone gave them a chance. Now they needed to give Black Cat her chance to finally have a home she could call her own, friends to play with, and people to love and be loved by.


Epilogue

Three days after this story was written, Black Cat died.

My wife found her in the morning on the ground, next to her water and food bowl. The first thought was that she had died; Black Cat’s eyes were open and sunken in, and there were no signs of breathing. Yet, upon touching her, Black Cat stirred and started to purr.

My wife picked her up off the cold floor and placed her in the sun. She sat with Black Cat, Black Cat appeared to rally from the dead—afraid to leave lest Black Cat should die, afraid not to leave, as she knew time was critical for Black Cat and she needed to get her to the vet.

"While Black Cat never fully came back to normal, she did know it was me who was petting her," said my wife. Hoping against hope that Black Cat was stable, she headed into the house to call the vet. Five minutes later she returned with a cat carrier only to find Black Cat had died.

While the end came as a shock to us, deep down we knew something had been wrong with Black Cat for months. While the visit to the vet the week before had resulted in a bill of good health, we had arranged for a more detailed workup the following week to get to the bottom of underlying issues we had been seeing, issues that blood tests and a general physical would not detect.

Unfortunately for Black Cat, the tests would come too late. Her body simply gave out.

Her death gave us pause to reflect upon the nature of the animals with whom we share our lives. We no longer believe Black Cat’s journey to our back door on New Year’s Day was a fluke. We think Black Cat knew she was in trouble, and she did what any of us would do, seek out those she trusted to help her. She knew that love, kindness and companionship came from the top of the hill – so up the hill she went.

Her instincts were right. We did not turn her away, but helped her. We decided that she would no longer be feral, and even had gone so far as to order her a collar and a nametag. Black Cat was finally going to have a true home once again. Someone had carelessly abandoned her earlier in her life, a cruelty that was going to be washed away. So finally was going to get the life she deserved.

While I’m sad Black Cat did not live to enjoy the new life we were preparing for her, I find solace in the thought that we made her last three years happy ones. While we will miss sitting with her every morning and night, she will never be forgotten.

We had always feared Black Cat would die a horrible death alone somewhere in the woods and never be found. Instead, she passed peacefully. Her last act was to purr for the person she loved most. Her last thought was of being touched by the person who loved her most. If anyone needed any proof of divine intent, I can think of nothing better.

Black Cat‘s body was cremated and her ashes were placed next to all those who had shared their lives with us, and a picture now hangs on the wall, along all the others.

For a simple feral cat, she touched us deeply and reminded us what it meant to be human, and for that, we thank her.

Read other articles by Michael Hillman