By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Late October, 2017.
His coat is thick and sturdy now. Opaque, firm strands of night-black fur add the impression of size to his increasing bulk as he grows. Mr. Blackie was taking advantage of his heat-retaining color by rolling around on the broken pavement of our run-down back porch in the late summer sun. There may be a stigma to being a black cat, but there are advantages too, and Mr. Blackie was enjoying his genetically predisposed ability to absorb heat from the sun like a freshly tarred Georgia backroad.
This was a good day to be a wild cat. A day that makes me envy cats like Mr. Blackie. Free, wild, unaccountable. Mr. Blackie sits powerfully atop a complex suburban food chain that includes the servant-humans who think of him as an unfortunate stray. They fail to realize his reign over the neighborhood. No human exerts control of the North Levagood neighborhood the way Mr. Blackie does. People alternately ignore him, take pity on him or worship him. I reside with the last group.
Inside the house just a few feet away our three indoor cats gawk at Mr. Blackie through the window. Threat? Friend? Overlord? Realistically, Mr. Blackie is all three. Vice-Admiral Malcom Fredrick Davis III, our huge, portly white cat, regards Mr. Blackie through dirty windows with downplayed interest. He tries not to look too interested, but his fixed, green-eyed gawk says he is in amazement, and fear, of Mr. Blackie.
MiMi despises Mr. Blackie. When he appears on the back porch she stares at him with her one eye and unleashes a tirade of cat profanity in meows and growls and rapid tail gestures like an angry Greek swindled in a market. She hates Blackie. She regards him as a threat, an intruder, a predator even. And as senior cat and survivor of eye removal surgery and (most recently) complete knee replacement along with growing up hard in the open desert next to an air force base, MiMi has street smarts. Part of what she thinks about Blackie is right. He is a hard man, a nomad, a thief. A murderer even. And Mr. Blackie makes no apologies.
And then there is young Chester. Young Chester is everything good about youth. Fit and lean, his paws sometimes too big for his growing cat-body. Chester does not just love Mr. Blackie, he idolizes him. Chester is awe-struck by Mr. Blackie. Blackie is Chester’s hero. He watches his every movement outside, eyes widened in amazement and anticipation of Blackie’s next move. All paws and tail, Chester bashes into furniture tearing through the house following Mr. Blackie’s movements outside the house at every window. In the mornings, it is young Chester who wakes us with loud, long meows at the window announcing Mr. Blackie’s arrival for his morning meal.
But even while late summer sunlight heated the tar-black fur of Mr. Blackie’s side as he lay on the pavement of our back porch, that very same pavement began to hold onto the persistent, creeping morning chill of autumn longer and later into each day. The sun came up later, went down sooner. Less time on the pavement rolling around warming his black fur. Winter was coming, and coming fast.
I did some research and called a polite lady in Blythe, South Carolina who runs Blythe Wood Works. The company has been building custom cat and dog houses by hand in their shop since 1990. She was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Once I described our situation she helped design a two-level cat shelter that could house both Mr. Blackie and his older brother who visits occasionally, Darth Vader.
A few weeks later three giant crates arrived at our house and construction began on our own feral cat sanctuary and shelter. It took a couple solid days of work, but the assembly, staining, weatherproofing and placement of the cat feeding shelter and cat houses was complete. We later added a third house when we discovered that Mr. Blackie was reluctant to use the flexible in/out doors on the two-story cat shelters. The third house had an opening with no door whatsoever. Mr. Blackie preferred that one.
The new feral cat sanctuary worked, sort of. Mr. Blackie would eat inside the fancy, handmade South Carolina cat house but did not trust the flexible plastic door. He had been trapped here, by us, once before when he underwent the ordeal of being captured, immunized, neutered, microchipped and released. It’s unlikely he would ever forget the trauma of captivity. Mr. Blackie would put his body three-quarters of the way inside the cat house, the flexible door bent upward over him, eat his warm breakfast or dinner, then slowly back out of the house. He always kept one rear paw on the outside deck. But on the newest house with no door, Mr. Blackie was comfortable going all the way inside, sitting down, enjoying a meal and a nap.
Mr. Blackie was on a schedule, and it became quite routine. I would wake up around 5:00 AM, feed the indoor cats. Then I would heat up a towel, run some warm water and heat up cat food in the microwave for Mr. Blackie. One glance outside and there he sat, inside the cat house without a door, looking for me in waiting for his breakfast tray, warm blanket and drink. He would stop by twice a day for a meal and a nap in his house.
Each time I went outside, out our far back door, juggling a couple bowls and a warm towel awkwardly through our back porch, I would make a quiet clicking sound with my tongue to let him know I was coming. Blackie would momentarily retreat to a couple yards away until I laid out his table inside the cat house. As soon as I stepped away he would return, darting inside the house to get his hot meal. Afterward, he would crouch like a loaf of black bread just inside the door while watching us watch him through the window. Here is the routine caught on video by my girlfriend, Jan Mack:
Over time Blackie’s behavior changed slightly but noticeably. He would not let me get closer to him, and I rarely tried. But he would get closer to me. The pattern of our arranged feedings was well set for weeks. When I approached through the low west gate in the back-porch wall, he would retreat through the east gate momentarily, then return once I had set his table inside his house.
But the last week something changed. Mr. Blackie got much closer to me. One day he crept to within two feet of me. Blackie knew I always left through the west gate. One day he blocked the gate with his body, looking up at me, silent and staring. What did this mean? Was Mr. Blackie torn between instinctual fear and distrust of human-apes and a moderating… longing for my benevolence?
Cats learn language, given enough time. And while you may dispose of a cat-person’s conversations with their cat as ridiculous, cats do learn our vocabulary and, if we listen long enough, we can learn theirs. It is similar to me moving in with a Vietnamese mountain tribe. Sooner or later, we would figure out a way to communicate basic wants, needs and emotions. With my indoor cats, our mutual language is quite articulate. Their vocabulary consists of tail movements, blinks, meows, purrs, chirps and postures. Mine is clicking noises, key words and inflection. Our mutual vocabulary includes hundreds of “words” now. We can have fairly sophisticated conversations that communicate not just, “I want food” but emotions like, “I am frustrated”, “I am scared”, “I am happy to see you”, “I love you” and “I am cranky and angry at you”.
Mr. Blackie had not developed these communicational skills. He does not have this vocabulary. He is a rough cat, a wild animal, who lives in a binary world of survival and death with almost no grey area for emotion or frivolity. He never owned a cat toy, didn’t know his own name, rejected the notion of having his own blanket and likely regarded the food I gave him as a weirdly repetitive windfall rather than a dependable act of care or kindness.
But that last day, Mr. Blackie acted different.
If you spend enough time looking at a cat’s face you easily learn their expressions. Fear, anger, apprehension, contentment, elation.
The last day I saw Mr. Blackie his normally confident face exuded doubt and concern. He darted behind me when I brought his food, then waited for me to set his table inside his cat house as usual. But, when I turned to leave, Mr. Blackie blocked my exit. He crouched firmly across the gate leaving the patio and stared at me, unmoving. It was as if to say, “You- stay!”
I spoke to him, asked him a couple questions, but he just heard babble. And continued to stare. I could not leave the back porch. He continued to block my exit. Finally, I went out the long way around where he enters. It was odd, very odd. That pattern persisted for two days.
Then, he disappeared.
On the first morning he did not arrive for breakfast I realized I had made some kind of emotional mistake. That I had bought into this too deeply, too enthusiastically. That I had admired him too much and hoped he would be something I longed to be; brave, wild, free, utterly tough and unafraid. I think in my mind I eventually hoped he and I would visit together on the back porch and I would learn of his life, his adventures, his cunning comings and goings. He and I would be like some Disney movie about a boy who adopts a wolf or some such crap.
But instead, he just disappeared.
I did not give up though, even though I realized what I did here was likely at least somewhat poor judgement. My girlfriend did not share my enthusiasm for Mr. Blackie, even mentioning that, “This was starting to become a problem”.
But I went on patrol for him, set out remote triggered night vision video camera traps, printed flyers, sent out messages on community bulletin boards and e-mailed volunteers at the animal shelter where Mr. Blackie had been microchipped and immunized.
Soon there was a weird change. Darth Vader, the bent-eared black cat and older brother to Mr. Blackie, returned for a visit.
Darth Vader is larger, older, wiser and much more civil than Mr. Blackie. Once, about eight months ago, I briefly petted Darth Vader at about 3:30 in the morning when he and his younger brother, Mr. Blackie, were discussing a border dispute between the two sibling cats on the sidewalk near our house. The border between their territory runs right through our house, Darth Vader owns the entire front yard, and Mr. Blackie owned the backyard and the outdoor cat sanctuary.
But on this day Darth Vader moved through Mr. Blackie’s village with caution, searching each building, sniffing, exploring. Then he looked at up at the window to see me. His expression was unmistakable. Darth Vader was looking for Mr. Blackie too, and he was clearly worried about his disappearance.
Since that day about a week ago Darth Vader has returned several times looking for his younger brother, Mr. Blackie. One night I spoke to him, asked him where Mr. Blackie was. Darth Vader responded with excited meows, extremely unusual for a feral cat who did not grow up with humans. Ferals usually never meow at a person unless they somehow regard them as a parent. But in his cat articulation, Darth Vader’s concern was clear. He was worried about Mr. Blackie too, and he was out looking for him almost every morning and night.
Mr. Blackie has not been seen for over 21 days. I contacted the animal shelter. He is not there. I search for him, usually, once a day. Sometimes more, and am always looking outside for him. There have been cat tracks, but most are directly attributable to Darth Vader’s larger paws and easy to identify. I have not seen Mr. Blackie’s signature smaller paw prints. Mr. Blackie’ body has not shown up anywhere. It is likely he is still alive. Somewhere.
I distributed flyers door to door again with all my contact information. Made a post on the local neighborhood bulletin board, Nextdoor.com.
I got one lead. A house two blocks from here installed a cat door on their garage. Mr. Blackie may have moved in there. For now, we don’t know. But I hope against increasing odds that as spring approaches something inside Mr. Blackie’s animal memory will draw him back for a warm meal and a soft blanket. Hopefully.