The Cat with Three Legs

New strays seem to spontaneously generate on my patio, replacing the old ones as soon as me and my neighbor, Jill, find homes for them.  Jill and I both feed them.  Two males, a scruffy long-haired black cat and a tiger-striped American short-hair, a clone of my old male, have teamed up.  But the stray short-hair doesn’t look too good.  His eyes are watery, maybe a symptom of respiratory infection.  I don’t think he can see very well. He squints. He vacuums up whatever food I leave out but doesn’t gain much weight.  Could be worms.  And he only has three working legs—he limps along without using the other. Once I spy him close through the patio glass.  The bad leg is covered with open sores, and the claws are badly mangled like bent tines on a fork.  He can’t retract them.  Probably the result of a fight.  He won’t last the coming winter.

Jill and I hatch another plan.  I’ll take in Three Legs, and she’ll take in Dreadlocks, who’ve paired up in the alliance of convenience male cats often form.  I get the idea of trapping him—that’s what animal control people do.  So I go to (product placement here) Ace Hardware and buy a raccoon trap.  And it did its job really well.  I must’ve caught two or three raccoons every night.  I’d here metal rattle and run out to see what I’d caught, and there would be this frightened coon with dark eyes set close together, peering up, half begging, half knowing I’d let it out.  Raccoons are the tricksters of the Midwest.

I’d spring the cage, and boy, would they run, which was good for me since raccoons are mostly rabid.  A few minutes later, I’d hear the cage grating across patio concrete, and there’d be the same big old male, too fat too turn around, his rear fur bristling through the wire.  It was like catching the same fish over and over.  It got to be a game.  I would put out hours d’oeuvres.  They’d crash my party.  And I’d have to bounce them out.  Once I even a caught a young raccoon when the damn cage was safely on top of my central air unit without any food in it.  It cowered in the corner as I sprung it, pleading up at me with eyes made for begging.  They even learned to get inside it when the door was closed. Three Legs?  He never even bothered with it.  I had to try another way.

I figured if I sat outside while he ate, and got closer each night, he’d get used to me.  You know, like in all those animal documentaries.  I’d move the food a little closer to my patio door each night.  Maybe one night he’d trust me enough to approach.  Maybe one night I’d get him in my house.  It was worth a try.  He looked so damn miserable.  The tops of his ears were serrated from squabbles with raccoons and possum.  He’d be easy pickings for a coyote on those three paws.

I’d have to take my time.  The key was patience.  I’d leave my patio door open so he could get used to me sitting there, if he could even see me.  My ego wants to gobble him up quick, get if over with.  But love takes patience.  I know I’ll get a couple mad flies in the house with the screen door open, but I have to take the chance, so the cat gets used to me.

Sure enough, a fly buzzes in and torments me half the night, drawn to my office by the glowing computer screen.  I try various useless methods, then finally settle on an old saw:  “Didn’t they say something about catching flies with honey?”  I think.  I stuff a Kleenex loosely in a coffee mug, and drip some honey on the tissue.  Mad fly calms.  He nestles on the rim of the cup.  But I’ve got to take my time.  He’s too fast, and he’s not even near the honey.  Too close to the surface.  Soon enough, he’s tempted deeper into the cup by the honey, his head down and his thorax (ass) to the heavens.  I strike, capping the mug with another Kleenex.  I walk him outside and lift the lid.  He buzzes away.  I’ve outsmarted a fly.  I mean, I know we have something like 98% of our genes in common with them, but those 2% we don’t share make all the difference.  It reminds me of how I’ll catch my three-legged feline outside.  With patience.

Weeks pass, and I come to the sad realization that Three Legs will never trod through my door.  Feral cats usually stay that way. Wild animals often lead short, unpleasant lives.  This is often true for feral cats (which do seem to do better than feral dogs). I fed him as the autumn came, talking a vet into giving me some antibiotics for the sores on his legs and the puss from his eyes.  He wasn’t med compliant one day, and I had to give him a double dose with each feeding because I wasn’t sure he’d be back.  But he ate the whole wad each time.  Some cats stay clear of food laced with medicine.  But this guy was a vacuum cleaner.  He was bulking up for the winter.

I assembled a fur-lined cat house on my patio.  I bought a soft, indoor kitty cubicle and fit a hard-shelled plastic liner over it.  To keep the cold and wet from the patio concrete from seeping in, I fit the Styrofoam packing frame from my computer box on the bottom.  I was real proud of myself.  Of course he never used it.  None of the animals would—not the skunks, not the raccoons, not the possum, not the other cats.  I couldn’t figure out why until one morning at 2 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep.  I heard muffled animal grunts, and as usual, they weren’t coming from my bedroom.  I wandered downstairs in my boxers and looked out my patio glass.  I made out the silhouette of coyote ears on my neighbor’s patio.  Then it lunged at something, something that screamed.  I’d never seen an animal move so fast as that stalking coyote when it sliced in for its prey, which I was afraid was one of the stray cats.

Fully armored in my underwear, I jumped out on the patio, scaring the coyote off.  I chased it down through yard after yard, fully aware that some of my neighbors had been haunted by a peeping tom the last few nights.  At 2 a.m., when barefoot, flashlightless underwearmen chase coyotes, the coyotes will usually find a way to escape.   Aha!  This was a probable reason why none of the animals used my nice, warm cat house in the winter.  It’s also why you never see nocturnal animals holed up in the obvious empty tree logs in the forest.  Stray cats prefer something higher up, like my neighbor’s grill.

I took to feeding Three Legs and Dreadlocks in the day to avoid the procession of raccoons and possum and skunks that would make the nightly pilgrimage to my patio, sometimes coexisting on the same chunk of concrete in cooperative efforts to share meals.  One night I even discovered a raccoon and a skunk sharing the same pile of cat food.  But usually, the skunks had the dance floor to themselves.  Even I steered clear of the back yard when they were out.  Amazing how a lack of deodorant can deter.

Three Legs would meow when he saw me.  Classic Pavlovian conditioning.  It got to be he’d limp toward me when he heard the patio door slide open.  But then he’d hiss when I’d approach with the food.  I guess animals should be allowed their inconsistencies too.  But he reminded me of something here: Not to take any affront seriously.  Not a hiss, not a scowl, not even a middle finger coupled with some choice words in traffic.  If I’d fed a person, or given a beggar a buck on the street, I would’ve been angry and hurt if they hissed at me in any of the creative and multiple ways humans have learned to hiss at one another.  I might’ve tried taking the money back.  I recalled my times volunteering in soup kitchens or homeless shelters when men had been less than kind in exchange for my work.  I’d taken them for ingrates and been downright hurt.  Yet no one who feeds a wild animal expects that animal to return the kindness of the meal in any way.  I wouldn’t expect my backyard dude to become docile or rub against my ankle.  I didn’t even mind his hiss, the human equivalent to a scowl.   I didn’t take it personally.  It was about survival.  It’s just defense, it’s just fear when someone hisses at me.

My cat (and I fully consider Three Legs my outdoor pet by now), also reminded me not to fear God.  The cat feared my approach no matter how politely I spoke, no matter how may times I fed him.  I helped keep him alive.  Yet his instincts kept him from trusting my motives.  How many times do I do that with the Universe?  No matter how many coincidences work out in my favor, no matter how many times hard times turn into good things, my first instinct is still to mistrust, to be afraid of things going shitty.  When things go well, I become afraid.  It won’t last, I whisper to myself.  I maintain my pessimism and cynicism.  How difficult must it be for the Universe to cooperate with me, to teach me that the fundamental condition of Life is wellness after all.   Just as Three Legs misinterprets my moves on the patio and runs off, I may misinterpret the motives of fate, even though fate always works to enfold and care for me.  Destiny means me no harm.

As the weeks went by and the weather grew colder, I began to worry about Three Legs, so I started feeding him more.  Then the unexpected began gradually to occur.  His eyes seemed to clear up.  Could the medicine I’d given him have worked?  And he wasn’t limping around anymore.  More than that, he put on weight.  He’d been a little too slim before.  He took on the heavyweight shape of my old house male.  The two were identical now.  If it wasn’t for the nibble taken out of Three Legs’ ear, I couldn’t have told them apart.

I was delighted.  I fed him before work in the morning.  That way he wouldn’t have to compete with the raccoons and possums.  The skunks?  Two of them took up residence in Jill’s backyard.  The skunks and Dreadlocks got so close they almost mated.  I’d watch Three Legs eat on the stoop outside my back door, always curling his serpentine neck so he could get a look at whatever might sneak up behind.  The animals seem so pitiful when they hunch, wary like that, on the cold stone of the patio.  But I guess animals have their own wisdom, and their own reasons for doing things.  They know where to hide, where to sleep.  They’re experts at the covert.  They draw their lairs away from human things.  Wariness is the touchstone of the four-leggers, as weariness is the touchstone of the biped race.

I came to accept that I indeed had a new charge, a backyard pet—it was just that he didn’t see it that way.  And I guess Jill and I also adopted the coons and skunks and possums and late night foxes.  They were all ours.  We only hoped the townhome board didn’t get wind of the broad menu of feces from different species steadily building between our central AC units.

The point is that miracles do happen.  Sick feral cats who don’t seem to have a chance get better even as winter approaches.  Skunks sleep alongside cats.  Raccoons and possum manage to share a meal.  And the way I receive gratification from “pets” evolves.  I learn from my teachers the gift of unconditionality.

The winter of 2002-2003 was especially bitter.  November saw unseasonable subzero and January through March was a solid three months that rarely got above the teens.  Three Legs?  He survived it all.  Oh, his eyes teared up sometimes, and he never trusted me enough to get within an arm’s length, but he seemed to put on weight, if anything.  And he brought a couple other cats along with him.  One, Ball Park, was a plump if smaller version of himself.  The other?  A black short hair named Coal Coat, with whom he would soon author two black kittens with recessive tiger stripes.  Three Legs’ old running mate, Dreadlocks, was MIA and presumed dead.  A neighbor had spotted him in our common, row-style garages a few weeks earlier, and I found a sizable tuft of his coat in my garage stall, too.  He hadn’t been seen for weeks and by all accounts looked pretty thin at last sighting.

Three Legs would let Coal Coat and Ball Park dine with him.  In fact, he’d let Ball Park take over a freshly killed can of IAMS.  Sometimes, he’d even stand guard as the other two ate.  Weird thing was, Ball Park would scamper off anytime he saw me, whether I was headed his way or not.  But he wasn’t scared to walk right up to the biggest, fattest raccoon of the winter, muscle in on a meal, and eat right alongside him.  Even Three Legs, big as he was, wouldn’t do that.  Cats fall second to raccoons in the food chain.

It’s May now, and Three Legs has survived another winter, the old timer alongside a new generation he probably fathered.  Just the other day, I spotted him at sunrise perched on the wooden fence that separates my patio from my neighbor, Kathy’s.  That fence is pretty damn high, and Three Legs didn’t have any hard times getting up there.  Three Legs is four legs again.  He teaches me about resilience.  He is the definition of that concept.  When I talk about resilience with my clients (I’m a therapist now), I use Three Legs as an example.  I often wonder how he stays warm, let alone survives on those merciless subzero nights when all he has is a tail to wrap around him.  I wonder how he gets his water.  There’s none around for weeks sometimes.  I wonder how he survived the outbreak of West Nile virus that killed so many other small mammals last year, or how he withstands the torment of mosquitoes.  I marvel at the wariness that keeps him safe from the coyotes and dogs, from the cars that rush by the parking lot behind my patio, from marauding landscapers with angry lawnmowers and lethal electric trimmers, not to mention the host of diseases that should have killed him by now.

To be resilient is to bounce back from injury or trauma.  Three Legs survived, and healed himself along the way.  He never yowls when it’s cold or when he’s soaked with rain.  He doesn’t complain over the difficult life he’s been given, with the sole consolation of freedom.  He doesn’t strut when he catches a squirrel.  And he doesn’t expect recognition for the remarkable record of his survival.  As I’m thinking these admirations, wise, old, tattered-eared Three Legs hops down from the fence, peers up at the bird house with new nesting house sparrows inside, then saunters across the parking lot to patrol his territory.  He stops by a pick-up truck he hasn’t seen before, lifts his tail, and marks the hubcap with his scent.  More of his personality rubs off on the world.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just