The Gang Mistakes a Cat
A week ago, I was woken up by my partner Annie, who in panick delivered the news that Cleopatra was missing. Cleo is her 15-turning-4 year old cat (seriously this old cat is spry like you wouldn't believe), who had apparently slipped out the door as we left the house the night before. I say "her" cat, because she's spent all 15 years of Cleo’s life with her, but in the years I've known her and the bit we’ve been roommates, I've grown quite fond of this cat. I’ve even written her a song that I would be embarrassed if you heard (the true sign of Rob’s love). So she's a bit "our" cat now. We spent all day and night looking for her, but no dice. The week that followed was morose: Long stretches sitting on our porch shaking dry cat food at an empty night, a very depressed Sadie (the football-shaped granddaughter of Cleo), a have-a-heart trap on our patio that was only catching unbemused street cats that were clearly not Cleo. Not happy times in the Annie & Rob household.
We felt like our luck had started to change on Saturday night. I got a voicemail from someone who had seen the flyer, saying that he might have seen our cat behind the library at 6th and Girard. We took to the rainy night, flashlight and stinky tuna in hand, to go find Cleo. Annie nearly hopped a fence to search behind the library, but we determined just by going around to the parking lot behind the building that the effort would have been totally wasted. Cleo wasn't in that small area. We walked around the parking lot, calling out to Cleo and creepily shining flashlights into backyards hoping not to alarm the locals. A dude with long hair and a jean jacket came out of one of the houses into the parking lot to smoke a hand rolled cigarette. I don't know if he was looking at us curiously and confused or not, but that’s what I imagined, and I felt the need to explain ourselves (and potentially gather intel). We told him the situation, and he told us about the collapsed building that served as a street cat utopia; he would call us if he saw our cat amongst its residents.
Call us he did. Sunday morning at 9 I woke up and answered - Dude was standing outside, in front of utopia, and was looking at what he thought was Cleo. We shook off the residual sleepiness, threw on clothes, and hustled to the parking lot. It felt like we were part of platoon being deployed in an emergency situation (Cat Rescue Team, go go go!). Really it was us shuffling with our cat treats over to Dude, still smoking, pointing at the building. "She jumped up there. I'm 95%, 90% percent sure it's the cat in the picture."
In broad daylight, we could see why this was street cat utopia. What used to be a deli or some other food store collapsed in what looks like the 80s. A tree had grown through the inside where the roof had collapsed, a branch somehow punching through brick wall and completely enveloping a piece of old metal shelving. There was no way into this place past the first few steps. The roof was collapsed with a capital C. You could see through the busted rafters towards the middle of the (what was now) one big room of the first floor, and to the street cats that were lazily napping in the sun, protected by their fortress.
Dude called out, "Hey, if you're feeling adventurous, the place next door has some steps that lead to the first level deck. You might be able to see better." The place next door was a row home that looked like it had been "in the middle of renovation" for several years. Totally open with bare wood walls, it had a rickety staircase that led up to the second floor. I climbed up and I got out the deck. That's when I saw her.
"Cleo!" Tears welled up in both Annie and my eyes. A crazy-eyed and seemingly war-torn Cleo looked back at us with such a mix of confusion and disinterest that Annie's feelings immediately got hurt. "It's been a long 8 days, you can forgive her if she's a bit frazzled," I offered as comfort. She disappeared into the heart of utopia, and we spent a while trying to catch another glimpse. The next glimpse we caught of our indoor cat was of her laying lazy with two other cats, sun bathing like the rest of them.
Of course that’s where she’s been: she joined a cat gang. She occasionally gave us a curious look, but it seemed that Cleo had integrated fully with her street cat brethren. "It's fine, Cleo, take your time. We aren't leaving," we called after her. And we really weren't leaving; we had just spent a miserable week thinking we would never see the cat again, and dammit we weren't going to lose sight of her now.
So we sat. For a while. After half an hour, I offered to get everyone coffee. Dude was working on his amazing urban garden a couple doors over, so over the next hour we chatted him up, talked about the neighborhood, and made failed attempts to coax Cleo out. At about hour 2, I went back to our house and returned with my guitar and snacks. I played through my whole catalog, including the embarrassing Cleo song, hoping that would help, to no avail. We put out food and ended up feeding a number of the other utopian residents, but Cleo would not take the bait. Hour 3, Annie went back and got the have-a-heart trap. This cat was coming home, no matter if it was kicking and screaming all the while. So we armed the trap with Cleo's favorite delicious wet food, set it in the doorway of the collapsed deli, and waited.
We sat on buckets, surrounded by refuse and rubble, shooing the other cats away from the trap, and trying to coax Cleo out for the better part of 3 hours. It was like the worst fishing trip ever.
Then around 3:30pm, she went for it. The trap snapped shut and I thought, oh my god this is finally over. Cleo was going crazy: she was spinning in the trap and bellowing awful meows, pressing on every part of the cage trying to escape. I picked her up and took her down the road. She'd calm down when she got home, I thought.
Annie was just coming down the road with bags in hand from getting us our garbage cat picnic lunch. I came lurching around the corner and saw her, the cage rocking and difficult to keep in hand. "I got her, I got her, let's get her inside," I said in a rush. She opened the door, I dropped the cage on the floor, and opened it up. That is when all hell broke loose.
I don't know how to describe the chaos of this scene. It was like a small tabby tornado had been let loose and immediately began devastating everything in its path. The cat seemed to be floating through the air, hardly touching the ground, catapulting itself with tremendous force at each and every window of the house. Anything in its way was knocked to the floor. She tried over and over to ram herself through the kitchen window, the sill of which hosted our indoor plants, which were instantly destroyed. The sounds of broken glass and a shrieking cat filled the panicked air. Annie grabbed the cat in an attempt to calm Cleo down. Cleo sunk her teeth deep into her finger and scratched her way out of Annie's clutches. I started attempting my own grab of the cat. "Don't grab her! Don't yell at her!" Annie screamed through sobs. The cat made one last attempt at jumping up to the top pane of the living room window before falling hard on her back (this cat was distinctly not always landing on its feet). After the final fall, it seemed like she knocked the wind out of herself, and she scurried under the couch. All of the sudden, things were still.
As we settled down, we settled into the realization that this was not going to be an easy transition back into wholesome indoor cat home life. That was the most intense we've ever seen any cat, let alone our darling Cleopatra. I left to gather the rest of our belongings from street cat utopia, and Annie set to the internet to figure out how to best calm Cleo down and bring her back to her old self. We both felt a dull a sense of trauma where we had expected elation and celebration.
I came back in to Annie positing a pretty dramatic scenario. She was reading a forum where someone had asked the question, "we lost our cat and it's back now, but it's acting crazy, what do we do?". One of the answers explained that the same thing had happened to their family, and that after a week, the real cat showed up and surprised everyone with the fact that the crazy cat had been an impostor. At the same time, some friends of Annie's started raising some concerns on her facebook post describing the cat fury that had just taken place. "Are you sure that's your cat?" they asked. "Are we sure that's Cleo?" Annie asked me.
My defensiveness kicked in immediately. "No way did we just spend all day catching the wrong cat. That is definitely Cleo. I'm 100% sure. I'm 107% sure." That's an actual quote; I'm not sure what the extra 7% meant. But I was sure. So sure, but let's check. Cue several minutes of Annie and I looking at pictures of Cleo, and then laying on the floor shining a flashlight into the terror-filled face of a cat we could barely see. Check the markings on her eyes. Do you see how the brown goes further down her right eye? What's going on with that extra black stripe down her face?
If you were paying attention to the internet a few years ago, you probably saw "The dress", and internet sensation that brought endless hours of arguments to the world. Not being able to tell if this cowering cat was Cleo was like the worst version of the dress. I saw a white dress, I was sure it was a white dress; Annie started making some very convincing points about how the dress was actually blue, and the dress morphed into a blue shade before my eyes. Suddenly, that cat looked nothing like Cleo. How could we have ever mistaken this cat for Cleo. The face structure is totally different. It's way bigger than Cleo. Dear god. In a lot of ways the cat looked exactly like Cleo, but once we took of the rosy glasses of "we found our missing cat", there was no way that cat was Cleo. As Annie said, "confirmation bias is a helluva drug."
The facts became undeniable. This was not our beloved indoor cat. This was a feral cat that we just spent the better part of 6 hours trapping. We surprise-captured a wild beast, flung opened its cage in our living room and let a weaponized ball of fur and fury in fear of its life run loose in our house. From its perspective, two nutjobs, singing songs, hung around its home for hours, before viciously tricking and capturing it, and placing it into a clean prison where they were probably going to murder it. I don't blame it for going all out trying to escape. By this time I was calling it "it". This doppleganger of a cat. Annie named it "Kleo with a K".
Time to get out, Kleo. We opened the front door, I took a broom and pool-cue'd it out from under the couch. Once it found its opening, it was out like a flash. I ran out after to see where it was going. I've never seen a cat run so fast. It was galloping in the open road, already 3/4 of the way down our street, growing smaller and smaller in the distance. Sorry for the mixup, Kleo.
You'd think the story was done there. I did too. We were back to square one. Cleo was missing, we had no leads, and now we had to go to urgent care to tend to this feral cat bite that Annie had. It was turning out to be a no-good-rotten day.
After seeing the doctor, we decided to unwind over some drinks with friends. Annie insisted we put missing cat flyers into people's mailboxes on the way, since we were once again in the business of trying to find our missing cat. We distributed the flyers and headed to the bar to tell our friends the crazy story with the sad ending.
At about 1AM, I got a call. It was a woman, apologizing for it being late. She was a cat owner and would want the call this late if it was her, she explained. She thought she saw Cleo. "I was walking home from work and saw a cat, she was sweet and looked lost, and I almost got her to come over to me, but a truck drove by and scared her away. I came home and saw your flyer in my mailslot, and thought, oh my god that's the cat." Cat Rescue Team had it's second deployment of the day, this time with a nice base layer of citywide specials to give the search and rescue mission a fun twist.
We ran to the place where the woman had suggested we look. Thirty minutes of searching yielded no results. Of course, why would anything good happen today, we thought. We headed home in defeat.
As we got closer to home, I saw a little flash of brown and white scurry under a truck. My heart leaped up into my throat. "Cleo! Cleo! I think I just saw Cleo!" We crouched down and looked, and there she was: definitely Cleo. For-sure-more-than-107-percent Cleo. After a little bit of an aggressive approach, she escaped out from the car and ran down the road. "Ran" might be too strong of a word. This was no desperate gallop of Kleo. This was the slow trot of an indoor cat that was totally thrown off by having so much open space around it. We kept up with her at a fast walk. She then disappeared around a corner into a parking lot. We frantically searched for a couple of minutes, until I saw her between cars watching us carefully. Annie put some sardine oil down, and Cleo took to it immediately. We sat back and let her lap at it for a bit, talking calmly at her. Annie fed her a treat out of her hand, and then walked over and picked her right up. The whole thing took about 10 minutes. This experience was definitely meeting the expectations that had earlier been shattered by Kleo. As we walked her back to the house, she was purring in Annie's arms. We got in the door, put her down, and that was it: she was home. It was finally, actually over.
As I'm writing this, Cleo is jumping in Annie's lap and purring. Other than Cleo being a bit more thin - and the shredded plants, broken vases lying in the sink, and other clear evidence that a wild animal tore through the place - it's like nothing even happened.