I’ve heard it said that sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together. Put differently, sometimes our dreams have to change to be worth coming true.
As always, this applies as much to humans as to cats.
The surface-skittering part of me, covered in glitter and Thomas Kinkade-y light, cherishes utopian ideals. Every politician should seek to serve the common good, even at great personal cost. Every country should strive to live in loving harmony with its global neighbors. Every member of Mumford and Sons should seek my hand in marriage.
Every cat should be adopted into a loving, cuddling, smooching indoor home.
But like the too-perfect light in a Kinkade painting or the too-perfect smile in a Photoshopped magazine cover, these easy dreams lack depth and truth and something I like to call “reality.” There are things that cannot be true on this earth. Ultimately, if it’s not true, it’s not love.
And if it’s not love, it’s not the right dream.
So we readjust. We get out the compass and see which way the truth needle turns. Sometimes the truth path seems to fork far from love — like when it’s infinitely, excruciatingly clear that a “true feral” cat only wants a life outdoors.
All the old dream-crunching questions come back. Outdoors? Really? But there’s snow outdoors. And cars. And coyotes. And Steve Buscemi. And a reconvened Backstreet Boys. In what world is it not cruel to put a cat outdoors forever?
Over, and over, and over again, the answer comes: in the world where we love them as they are.
This is where detangling the threads of truth and love gets tricky. We’ve come up with a whole convoluted, inconsistent vocabulary at Tabby’s Place for the various cats we encounter in our Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) work. There are True Ferals. There are Semi-Ferals. There are Screaming Ferals.*
I wish I could tell you that a brilliant team of academics — the kind who use words like “ramifications” and “contingency” repeatedly and correctly, without trying to impress you — had devised a foolproof scoring system for this.** Ah yes, this tabby will come to enjoy human touch in 4.7 months, and will be fully capable of enjoying a life indoors. This calico, on the other hand, is a True Screaming Feral who will swoon in quiet despair if forced to live indoors. To love her is to let her out.
But there are no such academics. (Well, there are plenty of academics who will use words like “ramifications” and “contingency.” Also “epistemology.” But they are assuredly trying to impress you. And they don’t know a blessed thing about cats.) We’re winging it every single time.
So on a wing and a prayer, we love them as best we can. Where we see a flicker of interest in human touch — not just “okay, I won’t kill you and your entire village if you touch me but YOU CAN’T MAKE ME LIKE IT” — we see how they do at Tabby’s Place. Sometimes it’s a revelation. For instance, Blanche. Although she was semi-feral, Blanche always acted interested in our touch. It wasn’t exactly delight, but it was definitely on the positive side of the scale. And, over the course of a few months, she’s decided: human touch will not, in fact, turn her to stone. This inside stuff is pretty groovy.
But then there’s a cat like Maybelle. Oh, Maybelle. Maybelle with your wild hair and wilder eyes, you are the very picture of a Screaming Feral. We could not touch Maybelle. We could not make eye contact with Maybelle. And, if a human came within 7,000 square feet, Maybelle frenzied into a state of distress and dismay. While confined at Tabby’s Place, she dreamed continually of green grass and the sweet smell of dead voles.
Maybelle wanted to be outside.
I’ve wrung my hands about this so hard it’s a wonder they’re not all stretched out. Okay, so feral cats really, truly, honest-to-goodnessly want to be outside. But aren’t we their guardians? Many two-year-old children really, truly, honest-to-goodnessly want to run out into the middle of the streets to wave at cars, but we don’t let them. “What makes them happy in the moment” is not our touchstone for all vulnerable creatures in our care. Why must it be so for feral cats?
I can’t claim to have worked all of this out with philosophical precision. I can only say that the best “argument” I’ve seen is a feral cat fully alive. The same Maybelle who languished in the “prison” walls of Tabby’s Place has since been adopted to a magnificent farm. We’ve had the privilege of remaining in touch with her family, and several of our staff members have even seen Maybelle living out loud and outside. The sight of this reinvigorated Maybelle brings to mind a saying by my great big glorious homeboy G.K. Chesterton:
Here ends another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me. Tomorrow begins another day. Why am I allowed two?
That’s the level of wonderment in Maybelle’s eyes today. That’s the gratitude coursing through her veins.
A human toddler can be a perfectly toddling human without running into the street. But a true/screaming/phenomenal feral can only be what she was created to be when she lives where she longs to live.
Far be it from us not to pave her road to loved, spayed freedom.
*You bet your Backstreet Boys cassingle that would be a slammin’ band name.
** Not to be confused with the Fecal Scoring System.
Thanks to mighty volunteer Jess for the top thumbnail, and mighty staffer Ginny for the image of Maybelle roaming free.