For the first year she was a figment of my imagination, a flash at the corner of my eye. Could have been a possum or rat. Might have been a squirrel. Maybe even a puny fox, mutated raccoon, lanky groundhog or mole, whatever that is. Hey, I grew up in New York City where the only wildlife was literally kept behind bars. It took some time and what I thought immeasurable patience to finally reach the conclusion that what was dashing through the yard and into the underbrush across the street was a cat. A nondescript, dingy, dismal, fiercely and ferociously feral feline. I was intrigued.
It’s funny that I thought the initial encounter was so time consuming because five more years would pass before that critter worked up the courage to barely tolerate my presence in the doorway while she ate the kibble I’d been leaving as an enticement trail. Her gender established itself when she ballooned through several pregnancies. On multiple occasions she limped by, dragging a slashed thigh, one nearly severed ear dangling, her chin raw, dripping crimson, fur absent in large, ragged patches. But she always managed to survive even when Tennessee winters turned severe and icy, or the summer months brought drought, searing heat, or surprisingly frequent episodes of tornadic activity and fearsome thunderstorms. Her name came effortlessly; she was unsinkable, so, of course, I called her Molly.
Based on the authority of experts, I did everything wrong as far as Molly was concerned. Pawprints & Purrs, Inc., a not-for-profit organization devoted to feline health care, offers an elementary online course called “Cat Wrangling 101″ which focuses on feral cats. Much of the data presented is alarming: There are, it is conservatively estimated, between 40 million and 60 million homeless cats in America, with nearly 12 million of them euthanized in the United States each year. And instead of trying to domesticate a cat such as Molly, I discovered that the more socially acceptable approach would have been to enforce a “TVNR” management tactic – Trap, Vaccinate, Neuter and Return the animal to its original habitat, however humble. Quite honestly, that would never have worked with Molly…she is a clever girl and an escape-proof cage has not been designed which would keep her confined. I considered domesticating Molly a challenge and took it on as a personal dare.
Blatantly ignoring my presence, Molly eventually began lingering at the door stoop where I silently sat, moving little, casually glancing her way. She was quite homely, her coat matted, mottled and brindled in varieties of brown, black, burnt sienna, orange, beige. But her eyes, oh, those golden-green eyes, were a shade no crayon or paint could ever duplicate. She kept them hooded, suspiciously half closed, refusing to allow them to connect with mine; contact longer than a split second was her cue to flee.
Toward the end of year six, Molly became a household fixture. She appeared at scheduled meal times, groomed and basked in the sun while I chatted nonsense in her general direction, even ventured indoors for a quick tour every day. She generally avoided the presence of others and remained quick to snarl and bolt if annoyed or threatened. But instead of disappearing for days as she previously had, Molly would merely exit in a huff, returning in time for the next meal.