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by Lucille Joyner
Emily, my one-year-old gray tabby, was following me all over the house. She wanted to be in my arms every minute, and I couldn’t get anything done. It was time to find a friend for her, so I went to the local animal shelter.
All of their cats were beautiful, clean, healthy, neutered and litter-box trained. It was a difficult pick, but one caught my eye. I’ve always wanted a black cat, and this one was a jet black velvet fluff, so black I couldn’t see the contour of her face. She lay still in her cage, peering at me warily and following my every move with two of the brightest yellow eyes I have ever seen.
I was so caught up in the sight of Robin—their name for her—that I didn’t hear them tell me she was a feral cat. Even if I had heard the word, it would not have meant anything to me. I did not know that “feral” meant “wild” or that such a cat found in the woods is almost impossible to domesticate.
Emily was my first cat, and Robin would be my second, so I was fairly new at this. I was so smitten with this black beauty that nothing they said would have made any difference. I was sure she was the one for me. I left the shelter with Robin in a cardboard carrying case in my left hand and her cozy bed plus some food for her in my right.
It surprised and disturbed me to find that Robin was so fearful. She spent the first three months crouched behind the dryer with her face pressed against the wall, sneaking out late at night to eat and to use the litter box. Emily and I would peek at her periodically with a flashlight, but all we could see were those bright yellow eyes, like two flashlights shining back at us.
I didn’t understand this behavior and finally called the shelter for help. They suggested that I open the rest of the house to her, that maybe it would help. When I did that, all she did was to find new places to hide, the fireplace warmer, even up in the loft where the central air conditioner handler had been installed. Any attempt to pet Robin only sent her flying to her latest hiding place, and you wouldn’t see her again for a week.
This went on for another few months, so I began to have doubts. Was I so enamored of her beauty that I didn’t ask the right questions? What could I do with such a skittish cat that runs away from me and hides all the time? Yet, I could not send her back into the adoption system like an unwanted child. She would be rejected elsewhere, possibly again and again, then what? Euthanasia? Never! She was not really the cat I thought I was bringing home, but I could not send her away.
It took a full year before Robin would even be in the same room with me or let me touch her for a second. Meanwhile, the relationship between Robin and Emily was slowly growing. When I wasn’t around, they would hang out together, with Emily—the larger of the two—leading the way and Robin trailing after her like a kid sister. But when she heard me coming, she’d flee.
One day I couldn’t find Robin anywhere. She disappeared off the face of the earth. I had never seen her run for the door, but if she somehow got out, there’s no way she would survive the animal kingdom where I live. There are coyotes, bears, woodchucks, raccoons, foxes, even a vulture lurking about. and Robin was a lightweight. She looked like you could lift her with your pinky.
Days passed and still no sign of Robin. Emily and I were inconsolable. Emily cried daily and would lead me to the basement stairs, then drop down there. I couldn’t understand why; there was nothing but a wall there. My son and I searched every corner of the house, but there wasn't a clue as to where she was or what happened to her. Every night I'd go out on the deck and call and call and call until very late, to no avail. As the days passed with no sign of Robin inside or outside, all hope began to fade. I consoled myself with thoughts that perhaps she got out and a good family found her and she was happy -- but I knew I was fooling myself. That was a pipedream. She won't go near people. She’d rather starve to death than be around people.
Finally, I came to terms with the loss. She can’t be alive; it had been too long. With a heavy heart, I went back to the shelter and forced myself to look for a replacement—twice. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Something would grip my heart and I couldn’t do it. Even though Robin didn’t relate to me, she’d been with me a year and I just couldn’t find it in my heart to replace her. She HAD to be somewhere. I had to find her.
It was fifteen days, now, and hope was slim. I no longer stood on the deck far into the night calling her. On this day, I was sitting at my kitchen table still grieving the loss of my little feral when I heard five meows. Emily was nearby and her mouth hadn’t moved. Both Emily and Robin had squeaks for meows so I wondered who or what that was coming from the direction of the wall between the kitchen and living room.
A wave of hope welled up in me and I called my son and had him come over to search again. My house has an attic that is nothing more than crawl space over the kitchen. My son crawled around with a flashlight, but his way was blocked by the air conditioning ducts that ran from the handler in the living room loft through a partition to the kitchen attic. Is it possible that Robin, who used to hide in the loft, found her way to the attic by squeezing through the partition where the ducts went through?
At one point, my son noticed that there were paw prints in the dust just over the corner of the kitchen area where I heard the meows. He also noticed that there was insulation out of place, but under the insulation, there was nothing but space. Is it possible that Robin fell in the wall? If so, why had she not meowed sooner? I’d been calling her for fifteen days, now, inside the house and outside.
My son backed out of the crawl space and we went back into the kitchen. He cut a hole in the wall below that attic spot and we were surprised to discover an old pantry that had been sealed off. There was no floor and no ceiling to this pantry and no matter how much we called Robin, there was no sign of her. That didn’t mean she wasn’t there, because she would never respond to people. I reasoned that if Robin fell into that wall, she would be in the basement ceiling, so we went downstairs and my son cut a hole in the ceiling below the sealed pantry. Again, she did not respond to our voices. I didn’t know what to think. Was she there or wasn’t she?
I knew that if Robin was still alive, she’d be weak and could not possibly jump the seven to eight feet from the basement ceiling to the floor, so we set up scaffolding so that if Robin was in there, she would have a way to climb down.
It was too much to hope for as she had been gone so long. Can anything live that long in a wall without food or water? And during that time, there had been a heat wave. Could she survive all the obstacles, no water, no food and sweltering heat? But then, there were those meows. My heart was very heavy when I slipped into bed. It seemed so long ago since I’d heard them. Could I have imagined those meows? Has this lost cat thing disoriented me?
The next morning I slipped out of bed and sprinted to the living room. I looked past the couch to Robin’s bed, and gasped! THERE SHE WAS, weak and exhausted with one swollen eye, but she was alive! She was so weak I didn’t have the heart to disturb her with a trip to the vet. It would be a strain on her if I tried to pick her up and put her in the carrying case. She was in no condition to struggle with me, so I let her rest and eat for a few days. She bounced back so fast there was no need to take her to the vet after all. In about three days, her eye was healed, her energy was restored, and it was as though her sixteen-day ordeal never happened.
I welcomed Robin back in my heart, but I didn’t want to frighten her by trying to pet her or hug her. I knew how she felt about people, but to my utter surprise, I noticed a change in her. She was different. She wasn’t as high-strung and nervous, but now played and wrestled freely with Emily, even taking naps with her on my bed while I was in the room. She no longer ran from me and even rubbed her head against me lovingly, waiting for me to pet her the way I did Emily. I watched Robin with open-mouthed wonder as she turned into the cat that I thought she was when I brought her home from the shelter a year earlier.
True, it was a miracle that she survived sixteen days trapped in a wall with no water, no food, during a heat wave, but the bigger miracle was that when she fell into the wall, she was a feral cat and when she came out, she was a domestic cat.
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