He’s a reminder that cats, unlike dogs, are less symbionts than commensalists. The consensus among the experts is that while dogs are the result of a conscious reworking of the wolf’s genome by humans, the cat came into the human sphere as a sort of freelance guest worker. In return for services voluntarily rendered in the area of pest control, cats were allowed free room and board by grateful humans, who probably also got a kick out of sharing their space with a pint-sized version of the really big kitties that scared them spitless.
Wild and starving, Mr. Black wandered into my life about half a year ago. The curb service that I extend to my outdoor cats will dependably attract its share of hangers on—it’s amazing how fast and how big a possum will grow on a diet of cat food. Mr. Black was initially a ragged shadow hanging on the edge of my vision, ready to run and hide at so much as a glance. He had not survived by being incautious—and it ain’t paranoia when they really are out to get you.
They, in this case, included coyotes, great horned owls, dogs with bad attitudes, country boys in speeding pickups, and boys in general when armed with small caliber firearms. And of course, other tomcats—the testosterone fueled fighting that normally punctuates a free-range tom’s existence is a ready source of infectious disease (feline HIV, usually spread by the exchange of infected saliva, has killed many in this neighborhood over the years) and the injuries that infect so readily and do so often prove fatal. A wild tomcat’s life is necessarily hazardous and normally brief—three to five years on the average, according to one stat. Mr. Black’s chances of making the average went down sharply a few months after he showed up.
He appeared one morning walking awkwardly on three legs. One front paw, badly swollen, was held aloft, and as he waited to be fed, he eyed me with more than his usual hair-trigger fear. He was in serious pain squared by more than his usual wild-kitty concerns about staying ahead of the opposition—hard enough to do when you’ve got four good feet under you, but being down to three had reduced his survival chances exponentially, and he knew it.
Having been volunteered by my karma to be responsible, I was presented with a situation that seems at times the quintessence of adulthood’s many built-in pitfalls. The adult ability to see and pity a need, when paired with the equally adult desire to address that need, is a guaranteed source of frustration for those who truly wish to own their adulthood. Because one of the lessons that comes hard is that whatever your own opinion of someone else’s situation, that someone else, unless a child, is the one whose opinion and choice must matter the most. i.e., you can’t help someone against their will, even if it tears a hole in you to witness their suffering.
Before this, Mr. Black had reached the point of allowing me to approach within a foot or so. But he would still hiss a warning even as I offered him a meal. So there was no chance now of getting hands on, of touching that damaged paw in the hope of healing it. I could only lace cans of tuna fish with antibiotics, see that he ate them, and stand back, hoping for the best.
Sometimes, that works out.
He showed up two weeks ago, for the first time all summer, walking on all four. The halting, lop-sided, rocking horse limp was gone. Graceful again, he stared at me with moon-yellow eyes that were still distant, still uncertain, still fearful. But he was whole again, for as long as the uncertainties of a tomcat’s life would permit. And for that moment, we were both satisfied with the hand that fate had dealt us.
LM Johnson 9.1.17