One night, in the old apartment, I heard what I thought was the baby downstairs crying. It was late at night and I worried that he had been left alone on the porch, or left alone in the apartment with the windows open. I was debating whether or not to call the police, when I finally decided to go downstairs myself and take a look. I was outside on the front lawn at one o’clock in the morning, barefoot and in my pajamas, and the only spot of light was on a cat standing ten feet from my next door neighbor’s door. The cat turned to me, and cried.
I was reassured, at least, that it was not the baby downstairs who had been wailing for hours, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the cat. He seemed to be calling to my next door neighbor, who had an arrangement with a lot of other cats, and dogs, in the neighborhood, concerning food. I asked the cat if he wanted to come inside, but he declined, and went back to staring at my next door neighbor’s side door, ever hopeful.
I’d never really known about feral cats before then, but suddenly there seemed to be feral cats everywhere. Another neighbor set out bowls of food and water on her porch for the cats, and made snuggly cat houses for them when the weather got chilly, just in case they were desperate enough to accept the warmth.
I couldn’t imagine where all of these cats had come from. They didn’t look like siblings. It might have made sense if one stray, abandoned cat had managed to have a litter on the streets, but where did all of these unmatched cats come from?
When we first moved into the new apartment in May, I assumed that every cat I saw wandering the grounds was a pet who lived in the complex. I was relieved, because it meant we really had found a pet friendly co-op. I didn’t realize that a number of cats were feral until months later. This concept is so strange to me. Whenever I see a dog out on his own, I make sure he gets home, either following behind as he finds his own way, or using Cricket as a prod, or just going over and looking at the tag and calling home for him. I can’t imagine leaving a dog out on the street. And yet this seems like what’s done with cats all the time. Are the cats better at surviving on their own, or better at avoiding capture? Or are people just scared that bringing feral cats to the shelter will end in euthanasia, rather than adoption?
I found out about the feral cats because people were feeding them out behind the work shed, as a matter of Co-op Board policy. It had been decided that it was okay to feed the cats, in the hopes that the cats would clear out any spare mice.
The feral cats here are very quick to run up and hide in the woods when people are around, but they leave behind dead mice and piles of bird feathers, to let us know they’ve done their jobs and earned their keep.
We have one resident cat who seems to be the big man on campus and his name is Muchacho. He is not a feral cat. He was the first neighbor to welcome me to my new home, rubbing his head on my leg as I carried boxes up the walkway. Muchacho is elderly. He had surgery a couple of months ago to remove a tumor, but within a few days he was back out strolling, with white bandages wrapped around his middle. He is dark grey and overweight and not fast. He can adventure as long as he wants, knowing he has a warm, safe home to return to, and as a result, he can be friendly and charming and relaxed in a way the feral cats can never be. The feral cats have to be hunters. They have to be on their guard. I wonder if some of our cultural expectations of cats come more from these feral cats than from a big old guy like Muchacho who is almost like a dog.
But also, I wonder if Muchacho’s ever present self is the reason why the feral cats here don’t cry at our doors at night. They know who runs this place, and it’s not the people.