The Cat that Crawled Out of the Storm Drain

The black cat crawling out of the storm drain that morning of August 2006 was scrawny, filthy, and collarless. Morning paper in hand, I stood motionless as the cat, yowling loudly, loped toward me.

Most rational people, upon seeing such a creature, don’t crouch and say, “Come here, kitty…” But as some will no doubt attest, I am at times not rational when it comes to the downtrodden, unappreciated and unwanted among us.

This cat clearly qualified on all three counts.

He wobbled and weaved his way around my ankles, alternately yowling and purring. Skinny as he was, I brilliantly deduced that he might be hungry and, since the storm drains were dry from the drought, thirsty. I gave him a bowl of water and a scoop of dry dog food, which he, well, wolfed down.

I looked for the cat when I got home from work but didn’t see him, and there were no neighborhood signs or ads in the local paper looking for a cat fitting his description. When he didn’t show up the next day, I figured he’d moved on or been picked up by animal control. Minor guilt ensued, but at least I fed him. And scratched his neck and ears.

Three weeks later when I came home, my dogs greeted me more hyper than normal, and they’d tumped over their food and water. They normally don’t get that worked up over seeing me unless I’m holding a leash or a pizza, so I figured something was up. Then I saw my girlfriend on the couch with her hand and a very swollen index finger in the air.

It seemed that a stray black cat had approached her out front. The cat appeared hungry, so she put the dogs in the back yard and brought the cat in. While she held the cat, the dogs, overcome with curiosity, pushed open the back door and headed straight for the cat, which screeched, scratched and scrammed.

After tending to the wounded finger and sopping up the soggy dog food, I went outside to look for the cat, to no avail. Doubtless he was so traumatized he’d gone to find another household to pester.

The next morning while I made coffee in the kitchen, I heard what I swore was a muffled yowl. Strange…Hadn’t the cat bolted out the open door the afternoon before? Yes, but still, that was definitely a yowl coming from inside the wall.

Quickly – just, in fact, as their ears and noses perked up – I put the dogs outside, then climbed onto the kitchen counter and peered down into a cubbyhole formed by the junction of two overhead cupboards. And there was my stray cat, yellow eyes peering back up at me. He warned me away when I tried to reach into the cubbyhole, so I put a can of tuna and a bowl of water on top of the cabinet, then went to work.

During the day I heard that the cat stayed in the woodwork but seemed restless. That wasn’t surprising since, by my reckoning, he hadn’t had food or water in going on 24 hours. He also hadn’t answered nature’s call, so along with cat food I picked up kitty litter on the way home.

And some catnip. And some toys. And a collar.

After arriving home I fashioned a litter box from a cut-down cardboard carton and set up a large crate, in which I placed food, water and toys. Then, wearing gloves, I fished out the kitty from his hidey-hole, plopped him in the litter box and left the room while he did his business.

To the question of what I was doing, I responded that I was making it up as I went along…as I called the vet to make an appointment to have the cat examined, vaccinated and neutered.

This was gonna be interesting.

Returning to check on the kitty with the dogs safely in another room, I saw him hiding in the crate. I tried to coax him out. He was a little shy, so I reached into the crate. BAP! The cat clawed the back of my hand, which immediately sprouted half a bloody ping-pong ball. At that moment I christened the cat Bucky, after the attitude-infested cat in the comic strip “Get Fuzzy.”

I let him outside for a day or two until his appointment with the vet, and when the vet pronounced him healthy, I proudly put the vaccination and ID tags on his collar. Bucky. My cat. It was funny, though, how, despite his grogginess from the anesthesia, he kept trying to remove the collar.

Two days later, fully recovered from his ordeal, he ventured down the stairs. While we held the dogs, Bucky peered around the corner and then sat in front of the fireplace, licking a forepaw. He couldn’t have been taunting the dogs, could he? Anyway, this slow introduction was how I planned to get the dogs and cat to accommodate to each other. After a bit, I put the dogs outside so Bucky could explore the house.

He explored, tried to drink from the kitchen faucet, then found the front door. He sat down, looked up…and let out the loudest, most plaintive yowl I’ve ever heard from a small feline. The dogs even heard it outside and went appropriately nuts.

Then he started clawing at the threshold.

I shooed him away from the door, certain that such gentle reinforcement over two or three days would quickly alter his behavior. Instead, that yowl at the door started an interlude that was anything but peaceful.

It got so bad with nighttime yowling and antsy dogs that at one point, he spent two weeks with a rescue group, in preparation for relocation to a barn. As the time neared, though, I decided out of sheer bullheadedness to try once more to make him an indoor cat.

When I got him back, however, nothing had changed. Desperate and sleep-deprived, I consulted various feline behavioral specialists. Squirt bottles made for an entertaining diversion but changed Bucky’s behavior and patterns not one iota. The local animal control, asked how to make an outdoor stray cat into a happy indoor pet, answered with only stunned silence, followed by a brief chortle and a wish for good luck.

I finally had to accept that Bucky was not only used to being outside but also liked it, craved it, demanded it. Why he preferred the furnace outdoors to air-conditioning, I couldn’t figure. But pretty much as soon as full darkness fell, and sometimes during the day as well, he started wailing at the door.

I was trying to strike a balance, and failing. I didn’t want Bucky to be miserable, and I didn’t want him to be hurt or homeless. We also needed to restore harmony, and human hegemony, to the household.

One night Bucky sat at the door yowling. On instinct I opened the door and followed him out. He immediately started prowling what I would over the next two weeks come to know as his territory – four or five houses either side of mine, two streets to the north, three or four storm drains, and, to the south, the park across the alley. Ooh, the park: cool, eerily dark, with trees and a creek and attendant sounds and critters.

Some mornings he’d be at the door and would go upstairs and snooze, then pester me for attention when I got home. Some days he wouldn’t show up until evening. I took to spending evenings on the front sidewalk, sitting next him while he ate, before he headed off for his nocturnal ramblings.

Finally, two weeks later, as I put out his food Bucky sauntered across the street directly in front of an SUV. The driver stopped, but I knew then I had to do something with him before he got run over by a car, killed by a coyote in the park or, with Halloween approaching, picked up by someone looking for a cruel thrill.

I put out the word at work that a good outdoor cat needed a home, and I prepared to contact the rescue group again, to have him permanently relocated – to a place where I’d have no contact with him. Out of nowhere, though, my father, who has some rural acreage, very generously said he was not averse to having a self-reliant outdoor cat to manage the critters that scamper and slither around his barn, garage and yard.

Beside myself with gratitude, I relocated Bucky to Dad’s garage, leaving behind his food and water bowls – and a sweat-stained baseball cap nearby, in the hope he’d remember my scent. He disappeared for a few days, but he returned. He pretty much stayed in the garage over the fall and winter, got a little chubby, and became king of the workbench and chief critter chaser. There was no doubt, though, that he ventured out after dark.

I visited frequently, and Bucky always seemed glad to see me, at least for a moment or two. I missed him immensely – his toughness, his independence, his resourcefulness and his affection, even if it he did dole it out in small doses. Mostly, though, I missed the simple pleasure of watching him eat while I sat next to him on the sidewalk, before he again evaporated into the night.

When I visited Dad some eight months after relocating Bucky, I got out of the car and saw a black blur streaking across the brambles through the trees. It was Bucky, now lean and lithe from renewed activity and purpose, chasing a bird.

He missed that particular critter and, right under the dogs’ noses, insolently strolled back toward the front porch. A line from an old Stray Cats tune occurred to me: “I strut right by with my tail in the air….”

Later, as I prepared to leave, Bucky was napping – what a perfect non-activity for a humid, languid summer afternoon – on a glass tabletop on the back porch, stretched out in that curiously boneless sprawl that only cats have. Occasionally his tail twitched; otherwise, he was motionless. I went to wake him, then thought better of it and instead let the sleeping cat lie.

As I drove away, I found myself fervently hoping that the next time a cat crawls out of a storm drain and convinces me to feed it, it will have the decency to appreciate air conditioning.

[originally published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram]
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