When Annie the cat passed away last year, at the ripe old age of 19, my mum was devastated. Annie had been her companion for so many years that she couldn’t really feel right without the furry at her side.
Annie was by no means easy to live with. She was a fiend for ice water, so we had to guard our glasses constantly. She was also prone to peeing on the bathroom rug if she was upset – that meant bad weather, scary village events, and visitors Annie deemed suspicious.
Even so, the house seemed awfully empty without her.
My mum is a cat lover, but she’s also practical. She didn’t want to take on a kitten, in case she passes on before the cat. Yes, we think that way in our family.
That’s when Mum got a call from a local rescuer. “There’s a street cat who’s been living rough for four years. Although he’s shy, he looks like he could adapt to a proper home.” It was followed by a photo of a silver grey boy with green eyes.
“What do you think?” Mum texted me. Taking in a street cat is a huge deal (see sidebar) but I knew it was already a done deal. Those eyes had captured her heart.
After a few more texts, the rescuer lured Sam with some crunchies, and had him boxed up in her basement in a jiffy – a warning to trusting kitties out there!
Sam was checked over by a vet, neutered, de-flead, vaccinated – and settled into my mum’s bathroom.
The poor boy was a nervous wreck. He sat squeezed into a gap between a set of drawers and the sink, convinced his doom was nigh. He was silent as a mouse, and all my mum could see were big frightened green eyes.
So my mum spent hours sitting on the bathroom floor, just being there. She chatted to the cat but didn’t touch him. She just let him see her, smell her scent, and then she’d gift him with treats, check he had a full food and water bowl, and withdraw.
It took more than a week but Sam finally peeked out at her.
When he did, my mum was very quiet and slow moving. There were more soft words, more treats, and eventually, Sam decided she was OK. He let her stroke him.
From that moment, they became friends. Sam explored the bathroom and then ventured into her bedroom beyond. When he was comfortable there, he inched his way down the stairs.
By the time I arrived, Sam was master of the house and taking his first cautious steps in the garden. However, visitors had him diving under the sofa in a fluff-tailed panic.
I’d said hello to Sam over Skype, but we hadn’t met properly. So when he took cover under the sofa, I lay on the floor and peeked under. I didn’t try and touch him; I just reminded him we were already friends. “We’ve spoken on Skype and I’m your sister,” I told him. Then I handed over a cat treat, backed away and sat on the faraway chair.
Once he was certain I was well away, I heard the crunch of cat treats being eaten. It took an hour before the ears poked out from the secure cat cave. Then big green eyes examined me. When I stayed put at a safe distance, Sam came out.
We sat and looked at each other, with my mum petting him. Sam looked at her, gazed at me, and came over to head-butt my ankles. “If she says you’re OK, I’ll take you on trust” was the message.
Sam is a sweetie and awfully brave but, for the first few days, I had to move very slowly in order to avoid spooking him. It wasn’t long, though, before he was ordering me about, demanding to see what I was eating, asking for fresh water, and inviting me out into the garden with him to meow at the cheeky birds sitting in the trees.
Sam is huge and handsome. We think he may have been part of a breeding programme gone wrong because he looks like a Russian blue. While he has pretty fur, his no-nonsense meow, tomcat swagger and torn ear reveal his rough journey through life.
It’s not easy to adopt a seasoned stray cat but the rescuer got it spot-on when she said Sam would love a home, and then my mum made the miracle happen. Sam’s purrs that run all day long are a testimony to how happy he is.
Sam bounces into bed, meowing with joy at the soft pillow that is his. He dances on the sofa, rolling on his fluffy blanket. And he has a basket of balls, stuffies and feather toys that he roughs up every night.
Most of all, he marches up several times a day, demanding lap time and kisses. He sits on my mum, purr-roaring away, eyes squeezed shut with pleasure, and paws paddling happily.
“I still think of Annie, she was part of our lives for so long,” my mum says, stroking him. “But having Sam for company gives me so much pleasure. I love him so much.”
Between the human smile and the feline purrs, I’m not sure who rescued who but it’s all good.
Should you rescue a street cat?
Stray cats have lousy lives. They have to fight to eat, to find water, and if they’re injured, there’s no help for them. Usually, street cats are lucky if they live more than two years.
It’s tempting to pick up a street cat and rescue it from a short, brutal life. However, as the qualities a cat needs to survive on the street conflict directly with the qualities that make a good pet clash, it can be extremely tricky. Possibly, picking up the wrong cat may even be an unintended cruelty.
Street cats who’ve had a bad time, can turn feral. This essentially makes them wild animals who are frightened by humans. Keeping them locked up is mental torture for them because these cats are constantly terrified. They cannot adapt to living with people.
However, street cats who have had some kindness from people will be shy but not terrified. They need time to get used to us but in their hearts they long for safety and shelter. When they settle down, they love the regular food, and live for the love we give them.
Telling what street cat needs a loving home and what street cat looks like a pet but is truly a wild animal at heart isn’t easy. It takes rescuers years to develop a sense for this – and even then, they sometimes get it wrong.
The tragedy is that if you do get it wrong, you end up terrifying a feral cat by keeping it locked up for weeks. Then, when you eventually see it won’t work, your heart is broken when you set it free again.
So, if you want to adopt a street kitty without the risk of mutual heartbreak, head for a shelter. Shelters put down tens of thousands of abandoned cats every year, so taking one (or two!) rescue cats from there is the best deal for everyone.