Humans have a thing for keeping vigils: watching over loved ones as we nurse them back to health; sitting together outside with candles to mark serious occasions; staying alert for trespassers or expected guests, the latter being much preferred. There may seem to be little of valor in this watchful waiting. But, it takes a brave heart to stay still, never quavering (okay, maybe quivering just a little), and wait until the time is right for doing what needs to be done.
Using one’s discretion to determine when to wait watchfully rather than taking immediate action is courageous in ways that cats grok more fully than any human possibly could. We see it all the time when feral cats are forced indoors and when roommates are foisted upon them.
Stoke the fire, the watchers are waiting.
Back in the day, there was a feral named Amos, who truly should be famous. It was a feat when he finally saw enough examples of human kindness to take a treat out of a volunteer’s fingers. It was a much more massive feat when he allowed another volunteer to pet him. Amos was on the cusp of “flipping his switch” (accepting – even wanting – human attention) when he decided to cross a colorful bridge instead. But, oh, too late! The damage was done! Hope had been instilled!
Amos had been a very challenging feral to approach. Entering the executive environs was an exercise in making Amos feel comfortable that he would not be disturbed. Thus, he was proof positive that with enough patience, with enough waiting, with enough watchfulness, one can be ready to act when the signs are true. (Also, behold the power of treats!) This is an important lesson for we of the lesser species, and it is one that cats know intuitively. Cats are most excellent watchful waiters.
For those of us who work to encourage the flipping of switches, stories of Amos and ferals-turned-adopted-lovebugs – Shea and Tesseract to name two – in turn, encourage us to continue providing opportunities for ferals to observe us in action. They watch us very closely when we’re interacting with other cats.
Yuki, of whom you’ve read much (because somebody – me! – absolutely adores her), is a recent success story. She was unapproachable by many, many feet of distance. But, with the help of Ralph and several other cats, along with the careful attentions of many persons, Yuki is now full of sweet love for everyone. She’s a little shy, but many cats are, and her shyness is easy to shift into acceptance of a nice skritch under the chin.
Magda is now co-located with Yuki, as well as with Mullet and Juel. This miss was all full of hiss and vehement dislike of human presence when we first met. Now, she is a quiet watcher. We slow-blink at each other every Friday (okay, I blink while Magda watches). Demonstrative yawns help her relax her vigilance ever so slightly. As I interact with her fellows who hang out on the ramp to the solarium, Magda waits to see how they respond. This is already a success. Being comfortable in one’s space, in one’s own fur, is no small thing. Magda is finding her own comforts. And she watches.
Watching is good. Watching is learning. Learning is necessary for the next step. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, this tiny tuxedo will not only accept treats left near her. One day, she won’t wait for the delivering hand to be removed before nibbling. One day soon, or not particularly soon, maybe she will accept a treat directly from human fingers. After that? It isn’t clear. Maybe she’ll decide that discretion, being the better part of valor, will prove necessary for always. But maybe, just maybe, one day, Magda will decide that she likes what she sees when Mullet gets his chin tickled or when Juel positively melts for pets and attention. Maybe she’ll flip her switch.
Every cat has one of these switches. We don’t know what “on” and “off” represent for each cat. What we do know is when the switch is in the direction of “NO!” or “You shall not pass!” or “Get thee gone, human!” there is always the possibility of that switch flipping to “Yes!” or “Right this way!” or “Don’t leave yet!” The most valorous thing we humans can do is recognize when the switch is not in the ideal place for the cat to be most content. We can watch, we can wait, and, in time, we can take appropriate actions to encourage the flip. It can’t be forced, only encouraged, and then only when trust opens the channels of communication. We turn on our beacons of light. We proffer our offerings of attention and treats. And we wait, watchfully, hopefully, until yet another feral cat valiantly finds their way to a loving adoptive home of their own.
For the record, Amos was far more valiant (and heaps more adorable) than a certain “dark” comic book vigilante, despite wearing a familiar looking mask. Amos wore it better anyway.