Cats Are Magical and Other Things I Learned From Taking in a Feral
An age-old story about a scrappy street cat who batted her way into our hearts and changed our lives forever.
Today is our dead cat’s birthday.
Actually, it’s not her birthday.
We have no idea when she was born.
We picked this date because she decided to abandon her life on the streets and become a full-time indoor cat the year Bernie Sanders ran for president. We gave her Bernie’s birthday.
Bernie is going to be 81 this year.
FatFace would have been 15? 20? 1000?
Sometimes I think she was a sage ol’ kitty who’s been plodding around this planet for centuries.
But mostly I think she was an extraterrestrial who came down for a short stint to grace us with her calming, enlightened cat powers.
When you become a cat parent, particularly one who wholly appreciates cats for all their unique idiosyncrasies, you start to believe that there’s something a little more spiritual going on with them. It’s not hard to imagine that somewhere, in some religion, cats are a god. I mean, it makes sense that Egyptians revered them so much. They’re freaking magical.
So let me start by saying, I wasn’t a cat person. And not in the “Cats are major assholes” kind of way. More in the “My family has always had dogs” kind of way. Though I love all animals, including aesthetically challenged ones such as alligators, vultures, and mole rats, I never imagined cohabitating with a cat. They were just completely foreign to me.
But then the age-old story happened: A cat walked into my life and with gentle and unrelenting batting, she used her janky paws to chip an entrance into my heart.
When I moved in with my boyfriend in 2011, I became part of an East Austin coterie that fed and kept an eye on a neighborhood feral cat pack. Most of the cats in this gang were exactly how you’d imagine — terrified. While they diligently showed up in our backyard around feeding time, they’d scurry away the second you’d inch closer.
There was a small-framed, dirty, toothless orange one with a clipped ear who had been part of the group for a while, and we soon noticed that some of the new neighborhood bruisers bullied her. At feeding time, she was often the last to get food. Always wanting to help the undercat, we began waving a spoonful of pungent wet food in front of this scrappy creature when she was away from the others.
Like the others, she was unsure of us, but that spoonful of brown sludge smelled so dang good. First we left the spoon for her and she’d dart off when we’d get close. Then a few weeks later we coaxed her into our shed where she could eat in private. Week after week we got a little closer to her. The first time we touched her back, her body recoiled at such an unfamiliar feeling. This dance went on for months, and it was the first time we brushed her that something clicked. Oh, that felt good. These people are ok. Maybe I can peek inside their house.
Eight months after we first connected with this little orange out in our yard, she walked into our house and never left.
And for the next six years, we had the privilege of watching a feral cat learn to trust and open her heart to two humans who thought she was the most incredible creature they’d ever encountered.
The change didn’t happen overnight. Though FatFace learned how to use the litter box the second we plopped her in it, she didn’t know how to purr and she didn’t know how to meow. When she first started exercising her vocal cords, it came out as a short staccato — a tiny “mep” would escape her throat and out her toothless mouth. The purring happened more quickly, and once we got her feline herpes under control on her enflamed tongue, the grooming started happening. (Though we’d often had to clean her mouth and butt with wipes.)
It also took her a little bit to adjust to our own voices, specifically me. A few months into her new life, she bit me on the cheek for talking too loudly. It was the one and only time she bit either of us. For years afterwards, when I’d speak loudly, she would run across the room, climb up my chest and bat at my mouth. We never figured out why my voice, when loud, bothered her, but I know that a Northeast accent when dialed to 10 can be a bit much.
Speaking of mouths, FatFace had a half-tongue. And a broken rib cage. Our hypothesis was that she had been hit by a car or kicked and in the process bit off half her tongue. As gruesome as this sounds, it looked like a cute lil’ snake tongue and it didn’t interfere with her appetite. In fact, FatFace went from a paltry 4 ½ pounds when we took her in to a hefty 7 pounds towards the end of her life.
Eating was a little tricky, though. Because she didn’t have teeth to hold anything in, she’d pick food up and then shake it towards the back of her mouth. This meant that our baseboards were often dirty, and she’d leave behind a large pile of leftover gunk on the floor.
Little by little, FatFace grew closer to us. She went from sleeping on the end of the bed to sleeping on our butts. Then our heads. Then she’d nibble our eyebrows in the wee hours of the morning when she wanted food. Later she discovered that she loved stinky armpits and burrowing under the covers and lying between Geoff and I. Sometimes she’d sleep on my chest with one peet on my eye; sometimes she’d sleep between Geoff’s legs with one peet on his feet. Over time, she started waking us up every two hours throughout the night asking for food, and because we were complete pushovers who felt sorry for this cat who had been malnourished for so many years, we faithfully obliged.
Cats are notorious for preferring routines, and we tested that notion fairly often. We relocated from Austin, TX, to Colorado, then Pennsylvania, and then back to Colorado, each time with FatFace in tow. As avid travelers who felt that bringing her with us was kinder than boarding her, she visited 31 states and 11 National Parks. We lucked out. Not only was she remarkably calm in the car and in her spacebubble backpack, she absolutely loved hotel beds. The bigger, the better. California Kings were her fave.
But her favorite place was her house, with her people. While the first two years of the pandemic were challenging in many ways, we grew closer as a family. It’s a time I’ll cherish forever — the three of us, sitting on the couch, huddled together watching true crime TV shows or Nic Cage movies, and feeling so content, so thankful for our little family. How fortunate we were that this enlightened extraterrestrial decided to take a cosmic sojourn to our little slice of space on the planet earth.
And when you think your cat is an alien who has been floating around the ethos for centuries, you can sometimes trick yourself into believing that maybe — just maybe — she’ll live forever.
But she didn’t.
In March of this year, FatFace returned to wherever she came from. To save this story from becoming too sad, all I will say is that her brief illness and death were a surprise and it was utterly disorienting and devastating.
One day we were a happy little fam and the next day she was gone.
While I’ve mentally blocked out the 36 hours when we desperately tried to save her, the feeling of emptiness that moved in the second we left the hospital without her still hangs in the air. Everyone told us it would get easier, and it does, but when you allow yourself to think, for more than a few seconds, about the fact that your beloved pet is gone — well, it’s heart-wrenching.
You might be reading this and thinking, “Jeez, y’all were REALLY into your cat.”
Or you might be reading this and thinking, “I get it. Cats ARE f’ing magical.”
There is a little embarrassment that comes with sharing that the loss of your pet had a profound effect on you, but I’m also comfortable in saying that FatFace’s life had a profound effect on me. Caring for a malnourished, scared feral cat and watching her bloom into a trusting, happy indoor cat was an absolute gift. It opened my heart in ways I never could have imagined and she also helped me realize that if I ever have a human child, the late nights, the cleaning of butts and mouths, the getting up at all hours throughout the night is worth it because of love.
This is the first time I’ve written about her since her passing. I didn’t want to open the door to the emotions I’ve tried to pack away in the months since she left, but I also wanted to celebrate her on her pretend birthday.
In all seriousness, FatFace would have probably been somewhere between 18–20 today. One comfort we received after she passed was the news that she was much older than we thought she was. When we took her in, we believed she was around 5–7, but the vet that performed her autopsy said she appeared to be more around 18–20. This floored us and gave us some relief in knowing that we had taken in a 12–14-year-old cat and had probably extended her life. She deserved nothing less than being treated like an ABSOLUTE QUEEN in her twilight years.
Here’s to you, FatFace. I miss you, I love you, and thank you.