--by Mike Murray
Such a scruffy thing he was – scrounging around in that dumpster for scraps. And so skittish too. The moment he noticed us watching him, he fled for cover. Up and out he flew. In little more than the blink of an eye, he was gone.
A day or two later, Janna and I again ran into the tiny calico. On this chilly morning, he was perched atop a trash can outside a fast-food store. The refuse container was full to bursting. As a consequence, its swivel cover was wedged open. And there was Seymour, his head buried inside as he foraged for half-eaten morsels.
As he had before, he bolted the instant he caught sight of us: a tall man and a largish dog. Over the course of the next week, Janna and I crossed paths with the scrawny scavenger several more times. Always upon spotting us, the young cat became a blur of escaping fur.
Sympathetic to his plight, I began bringing food for the feline I named Seymour. I filled sandwich bags with kibble, and then sealed them with bread-wrapper twisties – in order to protect the contents from the elements. Not knowing the precise location of Seymour’s “home” (although certain it wasn’t inside any cozy house), I selected locations along the route I’d observed the hungry cat traveling.
The food routinely disappeared. No surprise there. The only question: was Seymour the consumer? Or was another critter (or critters) feasting on the offerings? In due time, the answer came: Seymour had, indeed, discovered the bounty.
Soon thereafter, my wife also began making deliveries. During a subsequent errand / walk with Janna, she spotted Seymour crouched near a dumpster – not too far from where I had first discovered him. Seymour retreated beneath his makeshift shelter as Pam and J-Bear approached. Sensing an opportunity to establish a pattern, she pitched the food bag underneath the dumpster. Then she withdrew, allowing the cautious kitty to eat in peace.
She and Janna had taken a wobbly step toward something special: a relationship that has now spanned several years. Throughout that winter (Seymour’s first) my wife and I regularly fed and visited with our new friend.
Now and then, I’d make an attempt to introduce traditional forms of affection into the relationship. And each time, I was rebuffed. Even though Seymour had by then developed the habit of enthusiastically prancing out to meet me as I approached with his meal, an open hand – no matter how gently presented – was invariably met with extended claws.
My wife had similar experiences. On one occasion, for example, she thought her initial placement of Seymour’s food bag to be insufficient. She reached down to reposition it, only to be scratched. She was a little hurt, it seemed to me, when she returned home and showed me her blood-stained fingers.
It wasn’t Seymour’s fault. He was only following his instinct; he was only protecting his food. Once dropped anywhere near him, kibble became his. His very survival depended upon such fidelity to natural impulse. Moreover, Seymour had never experienced much (if anything) in the way of human kindness. Consequently, he was largely incapable of recognizing it. No hand had ever affectionately stroked his fur or scratched his face.
As weeks turned into months and months into years, my wife and I developed strong feelings for our feral friend. And Seymour grew attached to us, too, it seemed. He would sit and wait for us in the mornings, intently watching in the direction from which he knew we would approach.
Upon spotting us, he’d run up and do a happy little dance. Then he’d roll around on the ground, over and over. It got so it was hard to proceed all the way to the food-drop site, so underfoot was the little guy. Much care was required to avoid stepping on the squirt (although well-fed, Seymour remained a runt).
And then came the day when Seymour shocked me, by rubbing up against my ankle. Wow, I thought: progress. Thereafter, Seymour routinely favored both Pam and me with physical displays of affection.
Thinking it now safe to take the next step in our relationship, I once again – ever so carefully – extended my hand to Seymour. In a flash, he lashed out and scratched it. Then he recoiled and assumed a defensive posture. Momentarily disappointed, I quickly recovered. I reminded myself that, yes, I had a bond with Seymour. But that bond was with a feral animal. Domestic rules did not apply.
If my relationship with Seymour has been somewhat curious, Janna’s has been positively mystifying. J-Bear is a roughneck. Loveable, yes. But a roughneck all the same. The fosters from whom Pam and I adopted the Rottweiler mix had these restrictions: no small children, no cats.
There was good reason to believe that Janna and cats would mix no better than oil and water. On neighborhood walks she tugs – hard – against her restraint at the mere sight of a feline. Although she has never had the opportunity to interact with a cat off-leash, Jannie gives every indication that such a “visit” would not go well.
Janna is a serious predator. Over the years, more than a few critters (squirrels, rabbits, and such) have paid the ultimate price for wandering into her territory. A snatch of the neck, a few quick shakes, and it’s all over. Even spraying skunks have failed to deter her.
In addition to J-Bear’s strong prey drive, jealously also was a factor. From Janna’s point of view, Seymour was no doubt a privileged character: a scrawny little stinker whom my wife and I favored with wonderfully smelly food – food that she was not even permitted to sample.
All things considered, Pam and I decided early on that extreme care should be exercised. As a consequence, we kept J-Bear (figuratively and literally) on a short leash when we visited Seymour.
As time passed, Janna’s suspicious stares abated, her lunges in Seymour’s direction (malicious or merely “for show”) decreased in both intensity and frequency. Then came the day when Seymour suddenly altered course while following us, bringing him dangerously close to Janna’s jaws. It happened so fast. My mind raced. A frightful image of the small cat being shaken lifeless between those practiced teeth flashed through my mind.
Before I could react, J-Bear lowered her head and moved forward – and sniffed Seymour’s butt. That was it. Just an investigatory, identifying whiff.
Things were different after that. Always before, Janna had scoured the landscape for signs of Seymour during our walks. On days when he wasn’t waiting for us in his usual spot, she seemed disappointed. Now, her disappoint on such occasions intensified. It was obvious to me (and to Pam) that J-Bear had grown attached to the critter we’d presumed to be her rival.
More surprises were on the way. The first was that Seymour is female. Never having handled her, there were no opportunities to closely inspect her, to establish her gender. (She had seemed vulnerable enough to us as a male. Human tendency being what it is – call it chauvinism if you must – we probably would have worried more had we known from the outset that “he” was a “she.”)
In any case, Seymour will always be Seymour to us. That’s been her name for years now. She knows it; she answers to it. She’s stuck with it.
Which brings me to my final revelation. I had always assumed that it was Pam and I who had established the primary bond – unconventional though it might have been – with Seymour. It was I, after all, who had “found” Seymour and had begun feeding her. And it was my wife who had established a regular meeting place. And it was the two of us against whom Seymour had begun rubbing, long before she dared get within a few feet of Janna.
So, quite naturally, I thought that it was Pam and I who were winning Seymour over. But I was wrong. It was Janna, all along. Recent events have made that fact perfectly clear.
A serious injury to one of J-Bear’s legs put her out of commission for an extended period of time. Recovery from surgery resulted in months of restricted activity: outside in the backyard only, on-leash, just long enough to relieve herself. Neighborhood walks were forbidden.
During Janna’s hiatus, Pam and I made Seymour’s food deliveries alone. And we were shocked to learn that Seymour was not completely comfortable with us when we were without J-Bear. Sure, she gratefully accepted her meals. But there were no happy dances, no rollovers. No rub-ups against our ankles.
It was plain to see that it was J-Bear who had gained Seymour’s confidence, who had put her at ease. Confirmation was supplied when Janna resumed her neighborhood walks. At her first encounter with Seymour, the joyous displays resumed.
Theirs is an improbable alliance: a skittish, feral feline and a rambunctious Rotty with no previous affection for cats. Why they get along so well, I can’t say. I only know that they do. And for me, it is one more proof that the terms of endearment are not universal – that there is no one set of rules that governs loving relationships.
The friendship that Janna and Seymour enjoy also demonstrates that there are things that pass between animals – tender things – that I will never understand. I’m just grateful that they do.
Copyright © 2009 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.