One of our remote, night vision game cameras in our yard captured an interesting level of détente that has been going on for some time between a cat who visits our yard regularly and one of the opossums who lives in our yard.
Opossums are docile, benevolent animals especially in a suburban setting. They are well known for eating disease carrying ticks and their low body temperature means it is almost impossible for them to contract diseases like rabies or other animal-borne pathogens. Opossums help keep communities clean and disease free by eating ticks that can carry lyme disease. Having opossums in your yard means your local ecosystem is safe, clean and disease-free.
We were very excited when we found a small family of three opossums living in our yard, and have done everything we can to support them. We were also concerned that the local domestic and feral cat population, who we also support with four outdoor cat houses, might not interact well with our opossums.
Any concern about the two not getting along has been put to rest by what we’ve seen over the past few months. This video shows one of our opossums and a cat who frequents our houses eating side-by-side and getting along just fine.
The cat in this video is likely a local feral who appeared about eight weeks ago. He visits us several times a day and uses our yard as a hub for his daily patrols. As our regular feral cat, he has struck up a good friendship with our opossums.
Author Tom Demerly writes for publications around the world and really likes animals.
A new April 7/8 photo of a black cat very closely resembling Mr. Blackie has surfaced.
Based on a photo posted to the Nextdoor.com community bulletin board website on Monday, April 9, 2018, it is highly probable that the enigmatic feral cat known as “Mr. Blackie”, has been seen.
The photo was taken sometime over Easter weekend, April 7,8. When comparing high resolution photos of Mr. Blackie to the cat shown in this new photo, likely taken on a smartphone, the body proportions, eye color, ear shape, fur length and overall size seem very similar to Mr. Blackie. Analysts put the probability of the cat shown in the new April 7/8 photo as being Mr. Blackie at “Better than 70%”.
Analysis of the new photo of an unidentified cat sighted on April 7/8 and a known photo of Mr. Blackie from 2017: A, Ear shape is similar. B. Eye color is similar. C. Girth and aspect ratio of main torso is similar. D. Volume and length of tail is similar.
The location where the photo was taken is being kept private until it can be confirmed if this is Mr. Blackie, the feral cat. Reports suggest the cat shown in the new photo is spending time near a wood pile. This behavior may suggest Mr. Blackie is using the wood pile as a shelter.
Chronology of verified and possible sightings of Mr. Blackie.
Mr. Blackie the Feral Cat is neutered, immunized and has micro-chip #956 000 010 017 739 implanted just under his skin for identification. There has been a neighborhood-wide 93 day search effort underway to locate him after he disappeared at the end of December last year. Feral cat houses, food and veterinary care were being provided to Mr. Blackie on a permanent basis until his disappearance over three months ago.
As a trap/immunized/neutered and released feral cat, Mr. Blackie helps control rodent and pest populations in the local neighborhood and removes injured birds during his normal behavioral patterns. His managed presence benefits the entire local ecosystem as the “alpha predator” of the suburban ecology.
As details about this photo emerge we will provide updates. If you have any information on sightings of this cat please phone, message or email me:
Winter hangs on like dampness caught in an old curtain. Under the tight, chilling grip of low cloud I walk the neighborhood in the early morning before sunrise while people wonder what it is I am looking for, stopping on the sidewalks to peer between houses and up driveways. Either one of them could be anywhere, and they are much better at hiding than I am at finding them. Their lives depend on that.
A man messages me. He has seen one of the cats at 5:36 AM. That next morning I am out searching. Batteries are charged, new memory cards are installed. The remotely triggered night vision cameras go out. Our yard is transformed into a feline version of a surveillance state. No cat, no animal, no leaf blowing can cross the yard without setting off the infra-red night vision cameras.
The two feral cats appeared last year and I found them interesting, then fascinating, then more remarkable than I had imagined possible. They created a secret society under our noses and re-ordered the local outdoor food chain, eliminating rodents, chasing pet cats back to their homes where they belong and policing the dark like a secret feline security force while setting order to an evolving suburban wilderness most people don’t realize exists.
There were two of them. One has disappeared.
“Mike Charlie 2” or “Mysterious Cat 2” went on to be formally named “Blackie”. He got his nom de guerre the way any shadow warrior does, against his will and under duress. I had enlisted the help of the local animal shelter’s trap and release program, captured Mike Charlie 2 with the intention of putting him through their trap and release program. But I made a huge mistake. I sat with him in silence, he in his cage, me outside in mine. As I looked at him, I realized, he could exist outside his cage, was born to live outside, had the courage and resourcefulness and cunning and stamina to live outside it. I only step out of my cage occasionally, and even that is more than most people.
The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.
Trap and release feral cats that are immunized and neutered have their ear tip clipped to signify they have been through the program. Mike Charlie 2 was perfect. I did not want his ear clipped. Instead I paid to have him micro-chipped, neutered, immunized and returned to me, where I would set him free again. In no uncertain terms Mike Charlie made it clear he would never be an inside cat. Nothing about him was domestic. Mike Charlie 2 left our house with an official name, “Blackie”, given to him at the animal shelter. He also had an implanted micro-chip, number 956 000 010 017 739. I even enrolled him in pet health insurance in case he needed another vet visit. It was as though, for a short time, he had entered “The Matrix”. But then, like a feline version of Neo, he took the red pill to return in the real world.
Blackie stayed around for a while after we did the trap and release. He ate outside with us, seemed to be getting more comfortable with us. Our indoor cats loved him, lined up at the windows to see him. Then one day he disappeared. That was in late December. We haven’t seen him since. We’ve been to shelter, posted notices, passed out flyers. I found a dead black cat on Ford Rd. north of here and sheepishly took it to the animal shelter to have its poor, broken body scanned for a micro-chip in case it was Blackie. No chip. We gave the unknown cat a decent burial in our backyard.
There have been three reports of a mysterious black cat south of the large park, Levagood, that separates our neighborhood. This week my early morning search will move south to that area. Maybe…
While the search for Blackie has been fruitless we have welcomed back his accomplice, Mike Charlie 1, who actually has a name and, as we learned this week, a home. Not just any home, Mike Charlie 1, whose real name is Darth Vader, lives in the most famous home in all of Dearborn, The Kingsbury Castle. It is a fitting home for such a regal animal.
Darth Vader lives with the Marusak family who has lived at the Kingsbury Castle for decades, since I was a kid. The house is a local landmark. The Marusaks have done an excellent job maintaining the property and keeping up the entire appearance of the neighborhood, along with property values. Following their lead, many new, larger houses are being built in the North Levagood neighborhood. When anyone asks where we live in Dearborn, all I have to say is, “One house away from The Castle”.
Darth Vader’s home, the Kingsbury Castle, one house east of our house.
I’ve had several conversations with Darth Vader. He is a dignified and reserved cat, gentle and calm. He visited our house in these surveillance videos when he noticed the buffet we had laid out in hopes of attracting Blackie back to the area. Darth is well fed at home though, and only picks at the food left for Blackie, leaving the lion’s share behind in hopes that Blackie returns. Darth Vader also searches for Blackie, sitting on high vantage points along our street and gazing to the south, where we believe Blackie vanished to.
In one of these videos Darth Vader marks our outdoor cat feeding house with the scent from the corner of his mouth, effectively leaving a note for Blackie if he returns, “Call me Sir. We all miss you greatly.”
If you see a cat you believe may be Blackie, phone me at (313) 400-0150, email email@example.com or message me here.
The Missing Mr. Blackie, Micro Chip 956 000 010 017 739.
In nature, Winter is death. It arrives with enormity and silently blankets all that is living and vibrant. Entombed under inches of bleak snow, blown by frozen air in stinging particles of diamond ice, it becomes dense silence. All that lives clings to desperate and painful survival.
In winter the contrast of living and dead is greater in a human suburb than anywhere on earth. Mere inches of insulated wall separate comfort from the torturous unrelenting cold and endless strife for survival outside. For the animals that live outside in suburbia, only the distant spring offers respite.
The contrast between feral cats and domestic cats is never greater than in winter. Our domestic cats have heated beds and warm blankets and electronic games and battery powered toys. They live in an artificial climate that rarely varies more than five degrees in temperature and never rains or snows. A feral cat dodges lethal street traffic, avoids dangerous dogs and raccoons and scavenges for varmints and garbage. It sneaks into garages for shelter and never enjoys a warm night living outside in winter. It walks on wet ground and has dense, black fur adapted for outdoor winters that is covered in snow flecks.
Mr. Blackie had disappeared without a trace. No information from neighbors after flyers were passed out. No one at the animal shelter told me he showed up there, unlikely anyway since a feral cat would never wind up in an animal shelter unless trapped. I posted on community message boards, followed up on leads and tips. Nothing. He just vanished. One tip reported an animal body by the side of the road at Ford Road and Telegraph Road. We grimly hurried there, only to find a dead raccoon. No Mr. Blackie.
November, December, January, mid-way through February. Not a trace.
I missed him. That was my mistake. I had gotten emotionally involved and that is always a mistake in dealing with wild things. Mr. Blackie would never be a domestic cat, but I entertained the notion that he and I could sit together on the back porch during the summer, me drinking coffee in the morning before starting work and him lazing on the warm concrete in the sun. Then we would part company and go about our business to repeat our ritual again tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Blackie apparently did not share my quant vision. Animals’ priority is survival, and Mr. Blackie’s motives were clear. He was all business.
Mr. Blackie, you may recall, is a member of a feral cat clan that can be traced back forty years in this neighborhood. It is the reason we have no problem with rats here, and the population of squirrels and chipmunks and birds is healthy and held in check. There is a natural food chain, and the North Levagood Feral Clan sits firmly atop that food chain.
Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward.
Mr. Blackie’s older brother is Darth Vader. He is easy to spot. Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward at the tip, the result of some kind of altercation with another cat, a raccoon or something else.
While the two are brothers, they are vastly different in personality. While Mr. Blackie is aloof and guarded and entirely wild, Darth Vader is talkative and has a soft side. I have talked to him, he has meowed back in extended conversations. He has sniffed me, I have petted him. The exchanges in physical contact are brief, but the message is clear. Darth Vader knows me, I know him, we are friends and neighbors and we chat over the back fence whenever possible or necessary.
On Friday, February 16, 2018 I was returning from a run. Darth Vader was waiting for me, seated on the next-door neighbor’s front window sill outside. I went inside to get my camera to shoot some portraits of him, having not seen him weeks.
A massive series of snow storms had torn through Dearborn, dumping nearly a foot of total snowfall. Feral cats know to shelter in place during these weather events. It is too difficult and dangerous to travel and there is little food available anyway.
But the sun was out and the snow was well on its way to melting. Darth Vader took this first opportunity to visit the cat village behind our house, check in with our indoor cats through the windows and see if there was a trace of his younger brother, Mr. Blackie.
The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.
I asked Darth Vader about Mr. Blackie and his response was as clear and articulate as if he were a human sharing the same language. Darth Vader had not seen Mr. Blackie since fall. He came looking for him, and he was worried about him. While the two cats are not social, they are, in fact, competitive, Darth Vader does maintain his older brother role of at least checking in on Mr. Blackie.
Darth Vader and I chatted for some time. He had not seen Mr. Blackie, was surprised he was gone, knew nothing about his whereabouts, and was concerned. He was pleased to see me, sniffed me and let me pet him. Then, our reunion and business affairs complete, he hopped down from the window sill and sauntered across the street to another one of the houses he frequents on his patrols. While Mr. Blackie is entirely feral in behavior, Darth Vader appears to have mellowed in his age, now acting about… 50% feral. He lets me pet his coarse black fur with flecks of gray. He purrs, he meows. Mr. Blackie never uttered a word to me. Even on that last day. He only communicated with behavior and facial expressions. Never verbally. Darth Vader is significantly more articulate and conversant.
I maintain the feral cat village. Clearing snow, shoveling walkways. Now that the snow is thawing I keep the house dry and check the pressure activated heater. The straw is fresh, the houses are clean. But the village is empty. It is, I will admit, at least disappointing, somedays heartbreaking.
I worry about Mr. Blackie. Every single day I worry about him. I hold out hope that since there is no tangible evidence of demise that he may return. Maybe one early spring day I will look out the window and he will be sitting there, waiting for warm food and a fresh blanket. That our indoor cats will begin meowing and call me over to the window to see him patrolling the perimeter of the house for compliance with his territorial boundaries.
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 on the left, Darth Vader on the right. The two brothers are easy to tell apart. Blackie, the younger brother, has perfect ears, is slightly smaller, never speaks and has bright green eyes. Darth Vader (right) has a distinct permanent bend or kink in his right ear, is larger, will speak to people, has darker eyes and a fuller tail.
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.
Darth Vader, the feral cat who lives on the northern side of the neighborhood. He is recognizable by his eye color, large size, kinked right ear and calm demeanor.
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.
There are few wild things left in our lives, and that is what attracted me to the mysterious neighborhood feral cat we began calling “Mike Charlie 2”.
He visited in the night, we started feeding him. He visited more, we started feeding him more. I learned of a neighborhood feral cat “trap and release” program sponsored by the Metro Detroit Friends for Animals where feral cats were captured in a baited cage, taken to a veterinarian and neutered, given immunizations and then released back into their environment. A few e-mails and Mike Charlie 2 was on the list. Tracy Balazy of the Dearborn Animal Shelter/Metro Detroit Friends for Animals volunteered to bring a cage trap out to our house to catch Mike Charlie 2.
There are two “Mike Charlies” or Mysterious Cats. Mike Charlie 1 (Mysterious Cat 1) was sighted last year. He is also all black, but can be identified by an odd bend to the top of his right ear. When we first sighted them both a year ago, Mike Charlie 1 was significantly larger than Mike Charlie 2, and Mike Charlie 1 controlled the territory that surrounded our house. We learned that Mike Charlie 1 was called “Darth Vader” by local kids who saw him on his early morning and evening rounds out hunting and patrolling his neighborhood. Some people fed him, he caught local varmints. He quietly ruled the neighborhood as the alpha predator. While neighborhoods just a mile south of here complained to the city about a rat problem, we never saw a single rat. Darth Vader eradicated any pest rodents long ago. We soon learned from posts on the online forum Nextdoor Neighborhood that both Darth Vader and Mike Charlie 2 were related, likely brothers, and were members of a clan of feral cats that neighbors could trace back at least 40 years in the area. This was a noble clan of predators.
Darth Vader, or “Mike Charlie 1”, the original mysterious cat, is identifiable by the bent in his right ear seen in this remote night-vision infra-red game camera image shot in October 2017.
Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit volunteer Tracy Balazy set her traps at our house. Within hours we captured Mike Charlie 2. He was originally supposed to be participate in the Dearborn Animal Shelter/Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit’s free trap and release program. The no-cost program controls feral cat populations by trapping feral cats, confirming they do not have a microchip, evaluating their behavior to determine if they are feral cats or a lost stray, and then neutering, immunizing and marking them by clipping one of their ears so others can identify them as an immunized trap and release.
Tracy Balazy of the Dearborn Animal Shelter sets the live traps for Mike Charlie 1 and Mike Charlie 2. We were only able to capture Mike Charlie 2, who became “Mr. Blackie”.
There was one problem with the plan. When I trapped Mike Charlie 2 I sat down next to his cage and looked at his eyes. They are a depth of green that is impossible to describe, if flame burned green it would be this color. As I looked at him in the cage, every ambition of freedom, wildness, strength and courage reflected back from those eyes. Nothing about Mike Charlie 2 was domestic or tame. When I tried to pet him, he hit my hand so hard with his paw he nearly broke it. It was bruised for days. Mike Charlie 2 made it clear that his domain was this neighborhood. He was no one’s pet. No one would own him. I realized that Mike Charlie 2 was everything I aspired to in life; free, strong, powerful, confident in his abilities and unwavering in his priorities. Mike Charlie 2 was something pure and perfect. To disfigure him by snipping his ear would change that, leave a mark on him. Somehow diminish his wild perfection. I did not want that.
I paid the animal shelter to not snip Mike Charlie 2’s ear, and send him through the same medical checks and procedures any pet cat would get. No ear snip, but Mike Charlie 2’s singular concession to civility (besides being neutered) was a microchip implant to identify him if he were captured by someone else. We had not provided a name for Mike Charlie 2, the animal shelter did not know what to call him, so Mike Charlie 2 became “Mr. Blackie” on his new microchip, invisibly implanted just under skin through a small incision. He was a little less wild now, but he was also a little safer, and that made me feel a little better. By now, having Mike Charlie 2 as the singular wild, perfect thing left in this neighborhood had become immensely important to me.
Mr. Blackie returned to our house from the animal shelter, microchipped, immunized, vet-checked and neutered. I briefly felt bad about potentially ending the genetic proliferation of these noble wildcats, but there was still Darth Vader. According to everyone in the neighborhood, Darth Vader had never been trapped and neutered. Until he was, it was up to him to continue the gene pool in the neighborhood. Neighbors suggested his romantic trysts with other cats were legendary.
While Mr. Blackie recovered from his surgery he stayed in a large cage in our garage, an arrangement he very begrudgingly accepted. It was here that I tried to pet him, and he very clearly let me know that would never, ever happen. I gently extended my hand to him in his cage after feeding him, just letting him get a sense that I was close, but not too close. The instant my hand entered the kill zone of his powerful right paw he rotated his entire arm, straightened for increased power, wheeled it in a lightning fast circular motion, and hit my hand a blow so hard it felt like a fur-covered ball-peen hammer. I had a massively swollen hand and Mr. Blackie had made his point very clearly. Look, but never, ever try to touch, and let me the hell out of here.
My girlfriend Jan Mack and I released Mr. Blackie one warm Saturday afternoon. When we opened the cage he stalked carefully toward the exit, wary of some other kind of trap. As soon as he cleared the door, he became a bounding black fur-missile. Gone in two seconds over a high fence and between backyard garages.
And then we would wait to see if the trauma and betrayal of trapping him and subjecting him to his medical routine would permanently destroy our strange relationship.
I had flyers printed that were designed by lifelong friend and graphic artist Kim Ross. She did an amazing job, we got them printed and I walked the streets distributing them in peoples’ doors so they would know who Mr. Blackie was and that he was now part of the neighborhood.
Food is a powerful motive for a wild animal, primary even to reproduction. Since that second priority had been removed for Mr. Blackie, it was food that drove him back to us 48 hours after his release from detention.
At first, after his incarceration, Mr. Blackie did not look entirely well. The ordeal had caused him to lose weight. His coat- previously an elegant black cloak of glossy stealth-black night camouflage, now looked gray and patchy. Had this whole thing been a mistake? Mr. Blackie had gotten a bloody nose from colliding with his cage during captivity, such was his desire for freedom. He looked haggard and beat up. He looked like a stray, not a wild animal in beautiful harmony with his environment. Bringing Mr. Blackie into contact with humans had not been good for him, and it would take time for him to return to the powerful, wanton vitality that defined him.
Mr. Blacky visited daily and ate, and ate, and ate. On some days he downed three cans of cat food, the same amount of food all three of our indoor cats consumed between them in a day and a half. His appetite was ravenous, and he put on weight. His nose healed, his fur grew. He put on more weight. And he grew. It is likely Mr. Blackie has increased in overall size by at least 30% in the four months since we first saw him, partially due to the neutering, mostly due to a steady diet of healthy food. After about four weeks he slowed down to two cans a day, a caloric intake necessitated by his exposure to the elements, the need to maintain body heat, and the increased physical activity of a predator cat who ranges over more than a square mile of territory every day and can run twice the speed of a human for a city block, jumping fences four times his height in a single bound all the way. We heat his food in the microwave during the winter so he gets a hot meal.
But winter was coming, and Mr. Blackie needed dependable shelter. So, we began a project to build Mr. Blackie and his wide-ranging associate, Darth Vader, a home. The project to build houses for them had begun. (continued in Part 3).
Our neighborhood feral cat, Mr. Blackie, photographed in our back yard in October, 2017. (Photo: Tom Demerly)
Feral cats, alpha predators atop a complicated, evolving food chain in suburban neighborhood environments, may be the most exotic and remarkably adapted animals we’ll ever encounter. In most cases, we don’t even realize they are living among us or the benefits they provide to our suburban environment.
Feral cats live between being wild and domestic. They include us in their food chain as an integral part of it, usually without us even knowing. Their adaptation to a changing environment is masterful, as only an apex predator can manage. It is so complex it takes months or even years to fully understand, even as it changes right before our eyes.
Feral cats use sophisticated camouflage, mimicry, stealth and adaptation to benefit our neighborhoods and survive. They manage rodent populations, cull bird and small mammals who may carry disease and conduct a secret, covert “policing” of suburbia. They even manage to adapt and survive across wild swings in seasons, from freezing winters to blazing summers.
Most remarkably, feral cats form a dynamic evolutionary bridge between wild cats like the North American lynx, the African sand cat, the ocelot, cougars and mountain lions and domestic cats like the tabby, Maine coon and Siamese. Feral cats are smaller cats that resemble domestic cats in size and appearance and are not only predators, but highly adapted scavengers. Feral cats exploit both wild food sources, including mice, rats and varmints, and food sources shared with them by humans. Both are an integral part of their food chain.
In 1999 I traveled to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Africa on safari. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the greatest natural game spotting destinations on earth. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the massive natural game preserve is over 3,000 square miles in area and home to a boggling population of African wildlife, from primates, lions, hyenas, gazelles and impala to elephants, zebra, wildebeest and nearly every exotic species of land animal on the continent. We toured the crater by day from Landrovers. By night, the crater took on an entirely different life. What I learned about the food chain at night in the Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, I began to recognize in my own neighborhood in Dearborn, Michigan when I began watching the feral cats.
In 2002, I spent nearly a month in the high jungles of northern Vietnam, a remote, mostly untouched region left alone by the long war. I saw the difference in behavior between animals during the day in the jungle, and at night. One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic change in their behavior from night to day was the presence of one of the last large land-based alpha predators on earth, the tiger. When I remarked to a local Vietnamese Hmong tribesman that I had not seen a single tiger in Vietnam during the entire month, he told me, “Ah, but they have seen you…” It is exactly the same with elusive feral cats in our neighborhoods.
A little more than a year ago we became aware of a feral cat in our neighborhood. The more I saw him, very late at night and early in the morning, almost always in the dark, the more fascinated I became with him. When I started to study his life and behavior, what I discovered was incredible beyond my wildest expectation. The feral cat behavior and its effect on our neighborhood was nearly identical to the influence big cats exerted on the dense jungles of Vietnam and the vast, wild game lands of Tanzania, Africa.
We soon learned there was not just one cat, but two feral cats. We cataloged them as “Mike Charlie 1” and “Mike Charlie 2” for Mysterious Cat 1 and 2. The two are related and members of the same clan, possibly the same litter, and divide the neighborhood up into to regions from what we have observed. Our yard sits at the central border of the two regions. The night-vision video from a remote camera shown above is Mike Charlie1, the photo with the mouse at the beginning of the article, Mike Charlie 2.
The feral cats were influencing the behavior of every other animal in the neighborhood, from birds to small mammals. While other neighborhoods in Dearborn reported problems with rats and other pests, our neighborhood had no problems with pests. Our ferals kept rodent populations in check.
What I saw was not just one feral cat, but a complex nexus of several feral cats and the evolving, complex drama of their existence playing out secretly right outside our windows. The cats belong to a “clan”, or lineage of cats that is over 50 years old in this neighborhood.
Since we first became aware of the feral cats living in our neighborhood I’ve stepped up efforts to learn more about them, to help them where appropriate and to support their survival. Feral cats aren’t pets. Although some are converted to domestic cats most live their lives as some version of wild, an evolving predator in an evolving environment.
The series I am beginning here is the story of their lives and survival in our neighborhood.