Saturday, December 23, 2006


After we lost our cat Tess, we didn't have a third member of the household for about a year. Then friends who live in a rural area up the mountain from Arcata rescued a young cat. They found her in their barn, starving and dehydrated. They got her healthy again and began looking for a permanent home for her. We visited to see this still scrawny cat, dark gold with golden eyes. She hid from us but when I extracated her from under a bed, she responded to being petted, almost desperately.

She'd been checked by a vet, who said she'd been spayed. Later the theory was that she was one of a group of cats kept outdoors at a nearby farm, some of whom had escaped. They were originally part of a "catch, spay and release" program for cats on their own. We still don't know how she came to be in that barn, or why she was so close to starvation.

We brought her home, and I had my first experience with a feral cat, which is a cat that hasn't been brought up around humans. We named her Pema, after Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun whose tapes we were listening to at the time. Pema was probably semi-feral, but I learned a lot about what to expect from a book I coincidentally happened on at a used store, which described the experiences at a shelter that had feral and non-feral cats. Feral cats are often very fearful of humans, keep their distance, don't allow themselves to be touched, though they may have close relationships with other cats. Sometimes this behavior changes and they warm up to humans, but sometimes not.

Margaret spent a lot of time with Pema and Pema bonded with her. Margaret became her mother. This time we (Margaret especially) took extra care with her food--it's free of chemicals, etc. and otherwise the best. But for months, Pema kept her distance from me. She wouldn't allow me to touch her, and she generally sped away when I was around, gradually getting a bit more comfortable as long as I kept a distance. This was of course difficult for me, given my relationship with Tess. But I was in charge of Pema's evening meal, and she got used to that.

Eventually she allowed herself to be petted a little. I made sure to rub the area of her neck which would give me her scent, which she would then recognized. Pretty soon she began to seek me out and now she likes to be petted, and rubs herself against my shoes. Unlike Tess, she likes her belly rubbed. But also unlike Tess, she won't allow herself to be picked up by either of us, and she hasn't yet figured out the concept of the lap. But she's getting closer.

She's a smart cat, and she likes to play. She has several "mice" that she alternately bats around, like mice, or licks, like kittens. The other unusual thing about her is that she won't drink from a water dish. We add a lot of water to her canned food which she laps up, as long as the proportion is right. And of course it has to be slightly heated, but not too much. She's gone from a starving cat to a finicky one. But she's comfortable running the household, and she's become a companion to both of us.

I have learned a few things from what Pema learned as a feral cat. She's very hesitant to enter a room without a clear sightline--and beeline--to an exit, and if there are two doors, she prefers that they're both open before she relaxes. Seems like a good idea.

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