Sunday, December 14, 2008

Celebrating Bluto

Jon Carroll, one of my favorite S.F. Chronicle columnists, often gives his readers a warning before launching into a "cat column". Apparently, some of his readers dislike his accountings of feline antics. I'm not one of them--I love his cat columns--but I'm going to take a page from his notebook and give warning here and now. Warning--this is a cat posting. Moreover, this is a feral cat posting--and it's not short. Does it get any better than that?

As I've previously mentioned, I have been both blessed and cursed to share my life with a group of feral cats. I've made a commitment to each of them--they've each been spayed or neutered, microchipped, immunized, and given daily food and water--and they have returned the favor by gracing us with a peek into their different personalities and social structure.

When Bluto first arrived on the scene in May, 2001, he was what my records describe as a "Big Nasty Orange Tom". We called him Bluto because all the other cats were afraid of him. He fought with the other cats and, when I managed to trap him, he was hateful, striking at me twice through the trap. After his release Bluto gradually mellowed and had become a regular fixture by the time Taran joined the group in June of 2002. It didn't take long for Taran and Bluto to bond, often sleeping curled up together and grooming each other. By July of that year Bluto was a sweet, albeit shy, marshmallow of cat, wholly dedicated to his feral feline family. Where Taran had assumed the more paternal, leadership role, Bluto was the nurturing, snuggling maternal presence of the group. Tortilina is the mighty huntress, keeping the yard free of rats and the only member of our clan who has kept her svelte figure. Every member of the clan looks after Mama Kitty, who has always had breathing issues and they all treat her with incredible affection and tenderness. Then there is Cinder Kitty who I call our Outrider. She comes and goes as she pleases, drifting in and out of the group, and is another story for another day.

Caring for feral cats is not easy. Crazy cat lady euphemisms aside, it has been a great lesson in love and surrender and all the different ways those can both be defined. I will never be able to touch them--they will not stand for that. Occasionally someone will get close enough to sniff my hand, but I can only guess I smell unpleasant to the feral feline nose because they will recoil and move away as quickly as possible. I may feed them, but short of that initial trapping, any kind of medical attention is virtually impossible. These guys ain't gonna fall for the same trick twice and, even if I did manage to trap them again, in most cases the extreme stress involved in a trip to the vet, and the difficulty and danger of handling and treating an essentially wild animal rules this out. It's not unlike those wildlife photographers who document events, but do not become involved as life and death works itself out in front of them. The biggest difference--I have made a lifetime commitment to these cats, whatever the scope of their lifetime might mean.

So I get to watch from a very privileged, yet distant place, while these guys move through their lives. We saw Bluto's health declining. He was old by feral standards. He had become increasingly hard of hearing and we were careful not to startle him when we could tell he didn't hear us coming. He spent almost all his time in our yard so we hoped he would be safe. Often the pupils of his eyes were unequal, one being significantly more dilated than the other. His coat, once dense and thick, started to look as if he was molting. Then one of his eyes became severely infected. Critics might say it was unfair to let him suffer, but I still believe a trip to the vet would have made him suffer more--and it would have been impossible to give him any kind of ongoing treatment. So we watched as the infection grew worse and sent him healing thoughts and love as often as possible, but always from a distance.

Bluto has been missing for well over a week now and we know in our hearts that he is gone. I fear that his end was not pleasant and I hope that our love and care made some difference in the overall quality of his life while he was here. His feline family called for him for several days, but that has tapered off. As I look back I marvel over the transformation his personality underwent and what an integral part of his feline family he became--the cat who once fought with everyone.

We all miss his warm, loving, hunk of a presence in our back yard. We miss how he and Taran would curl up together on the front porch, both impossibly fitting on the one chair. We miss his constancy and his shy, sweet, unassuming self.