Sentient Creatures
{A Bumbershoot Special Feature}

A Bumbershoot
True Story

Amy Gray Light

is a freelance writer who has recently begun submitting her stories for publication. Two animal essays have been awarded Story of the Week at Smarter than Jack, with one winning the Humane Society award at the Arkansas Writer’s Conference in 2007.

She has personal essays on the web site Survivor’s Review and in the anthology Tales of the South, published by Temenos Publishing.

Amy and her husband “Excy” Johnston, reside on Wye Mountain, Arkansas and run Wing Spur, a nonprofit sanctuary for wild mustangs.

—Back to Bumbershoot Contents—

The Cat that Was Raised by Coons

by Amy Gray Light

L ast July, I looked out the glass walls of our master suite at a tiny black-and-white cat sitting forlornly on the wall of the back terrace. She sat watching my husband Excy, our three cats, and myself all afternoon. “Look at the ‘day of the dead’ markings on that little girl’s face,” I said.

“How do you know it’s a ‘she’?” asked Excy.

I shrugged. “Just a feeling.” She had very delicate features, despite being emaciated. Besides the distinctive skull outlined in white on her black face, she had white whiskers, “mittens,” and “spats” on her front and back legs. As scruffy and rough as she was, she was a very pretty cat.

We’d recently found a home for several strays, and to tell the truth, I was relieved that the house was peaceful again. I didn’t want the additional anxiety of finding another home for a “lost” and lonely cat, no matter how cute she was, so I didn’t put any food out, hoping she’d move on. One of our closest neighbors has barn cats that tend to mosey over every once in awhile to see if they can scare up a better deal. I was growing tired of taking on someone else’s responsibilities. When dusk came, she was gone.

But as we were rushing to church the next morning, Excy called out, “Your cat’s back.” Sure enough, there she sat. By the time we returned in the afternoon, she had disappeared again. Then in the early evening she reappeared. This time I relented, and put out a small dish of dry food, which she devoured. It became her routine to show up in the morning to eat and hang around, disappear in the early afternoon, and then come back to take a late siesta on the lawn furniture before wandering off again before sunset. She ate like a wolf as I sat close by. Watching me steadily, she growled between mouthfuls of food. Even when she grew used to us and rubbed between our legs she growled nervously and constantly. It was pitiful but also somewhat funny. By the third week we were able to examine her more closely and saw that she might be nursing, which would explain her voracious appetite and frequent disappearances.

While all this feline drama was going on, a pair of Carolina wrens decided that a ceramic planter in the shape of a frog on my garden bench was the perfect spot for their nest. I tried to dissuade them several times, plucking out the sticks and nesting material and moving the pots around, but they were not to be deterred. Despite the cat’s frequent presence on the terrace, all seemed to be well until the fateful afternoon the baby birds finally outgrew their nest and were ready to see the world. Wrens don’t immediately fly, but instead flap and flop around, testing their wings. When I saw the first of the baby wrens hopping and fluttering around the bench, I shouted to Excy for help and he unrolled a length of chicken wire around the bench as a sort of “play-pen.”

This seemed to work. The cat just sat watching the bird’s antics, making no moves to jump in and nab one. Then one of the babies fluttered out of the enclosure, right within paw reach. Before I could react, the cat scooped it in her mouth and went running across the lawn into the woods. From that day on, because of her skull markings and the way she grabbed that bird, we dubbed her “Killer.”

A few days later, Excy was driving the tractor inside the storage shed when he was startled by two tiny kittens peering up at him in horror from among farm implements. Noting that Killer was among them, he quickly shut the door. We brought down food and water and a litter box, which was promptly ignored.

But something wasn’t right with Killer. Before, she had been a friendly little animal, greeting us by sight and threading her way between our legs as we walked and petted her. Now she spent her time in the shed hiding from us and crying pitifully. We couldn’t comfort her because she crouched far away from our reach. While she was sulking, I tried to entice the kittens to come to me, but they were skittish and shy. So I’d just visit the shed to sit quietly observing until they were relaxed enough to nap or come close enough to eat a little in my presence. After a couple of weeks, the kittens began to play with the strings and feathers I brought down from the house, rough-housing among themselves. I sat watching or reading, wondering if they were male or female and whether or not I’d ever get to touch their mama again.

Finally the heat of an Arkansas August made life unbearable in the tiny shed, and not only because of the temperature, but also because the cats refused to use the litter box, preferring the concrete floor. The place reeked. By now the kittens looked about four or five weeks old. Killer was still brooding and keeping out of reach. With the help of a neighbor extremely gifted in rescuing stray cats, we spent one very long day and early evening trapping each kitten and taking it up to the house. Turning the utility room into a clinic, we bathed each kitten, giving its ears a thorough cleaning, clipping its nails, and applying Frontline and worming medicine. Both kittens were males. Although they trembled through the whole procedure, they made no effort to claw us or run away.

Finally, when they were “fluffed and buffed,” we placed the kittens in an old dog crate and went down for Killer. It took about an hour, but she finally relented and came near enough for me to grab her. I think she was wondering where her kittens had gone and did not want to be left behind. Unhappy as she was, she made no effort to scratch. After giving her “the works” too, we settled them all down into the kennel. By morning they had overturned all the bowls and the small tray. Even though it was a former dog crate, it was too small for the little family. So we decided to turn the guest bathroom into a cat suite. The bathroom is the size of a small closet, so I was mightily relieved when cat and kittens finally figured out the purpose of the litter tray!

When they grew boisterous I dragged in a carpet-upholstered, two-story “condo” for them to play and sleep in and on. The boys were thrilled. For a few weeks, life was good. They slept, filled-out, romped, and became used to human companionship. Excy took them to the vet for persistent ear mites and parasites, for which they required pills and medicine. They didn’t like having their little mouths pried open, but they didn’t claw or complain, and they didn’t seem at all troubled about being cooped up in a tiny room. At least it was clean and cool, and food arrived promptly.

During the next few weeks they grew even more relaxed and happy. The one we dubbed “Hairy”—a grey-and-white that acted as “leader”—allowed us to hold and pet him though his brother, called “Lenny” was still a bit skittish. Nevertheless, by the sixth week I was felt they were ready for adoption. No organization would take them, though, and the pictures we had posted on five web sites only led to someone offering us another stray she was convinced was Hairy’s sibling. Finally, after browbeating friends into forwarding the kitten’s photos and bios to anyone and everyone who might be interested, I had success! First to go was Hairy. Then my parents took in Killer and renamed her “Annie,” (as in “little orphan”).

Only Lenny was left. The all-black kitty with a few wispy white markings had huge ears that made him look rather bat-like. “Bless his pea-pickin’ heart,” was one of the more positive comments he received.

Fortunately, Lenny had some outstanding qualities. His funny, forceful personality and constant chatter charmed me, and I informed Excy we were about to add him into our mix—much to our other three cats’ disgust. It seemed that finally, after weeks of attendant drama and worry as we strove to find good homes, things were winding down.

Three short weeks after the cats were finally out of the guest bathroom and it was cleaned and overhauled for human company again, I glanced towards the terrace one night and caught my breath up short. A tiny black-and-white kitten was sitting inside the largest bowl of dried dog food, nonchalantly eating while four very large raccoons sat or stood in a circle, watching intently. To my amazement, he then hopped out, strode over to one of the largest ‘coons, and rubbed against it like it was “mama.” Then he plopped down to groom himself while the ’coons began to eat. When one began to edge too close to the kitten for comfort, he “bopped” it on the nose with his paws and held his ground. The ’coon backed down and sidled away.

When I opened the sliding glass door it sent the raccoons scattering, but the kitten stayed put, not seeming to mind my presence at all. I stepped back inside and debated with Excy about this new development. My first inclination was not to do anything, but Excy pointed out rain was in the forecast. When I looked out at the tiny thing still on the terrace, my heart just melted. I sweet-talked him as Excy crept closer and closer and then swept him up in his arms. Once again the guest bath was converted into a way station for indigent cats! It was providence we did take him in, for it did rain, hard, for three days and nights.

I couldn’t get over how much the kitten looked like Killer/Annie, and that he seemed to be exactly Lenny’s age. Could this be a long-lost sibling? Had Killer/Annie been in the process of moving kittens into the shed when Excy inadvertently cut her off? She had had three extended tits, after all…was this why she had acted so heartbrokenly despondent all those weeks in the shed? We’d assumed it was because she was “trapped” inside; now I realized she may have been mourning the loss of her kitten.

And how did a kitten hook up with a bunch of raccoons, anyway?

This little guy was the opposite of his brothers. Whereas they didn’t care to be held and only wanted to play, he lived for when he could be held and rocked gently, sitting quietly in your lap for as long as you could hold him. He was totally mellow; I never even heard him meow. I would’ve adopted him, too, if I only I’d had the space and resources. This time when his photo and bio went out to my friends, the same who woman found a home for Hairy also found a home for the kitten; due largely to his wonderful story and striking good looks. He was adopted within the week.

There was something I needed to do before he left us. If this was Killer/Annie’s kitten, she needed to know that he had been found and was safe. Before delivering him to his new home, I would take him to visit Annie. He was nervous in the car and had a little accident. I was washing him in the bathroom sink at my parents’ house when Dad brought Annie in the room. The cats looked like matching bookends—just one larger than the other.

I held my breath as she sniffed him all over with a quizzical look as if to say, “There you are!” There was none of the usual posturing when strange cats encounter each other, no hissing or wild eyes from either of them. They simply rubbed against one another, seemingly at ease. All too soon I had to take him to meet his new “mom.” When we got to the drop-off location, I held him in my arms as we waited for her car. He sat quietly in my lap, and with large old-soul eyes gazed out the window. I gazed out too, as I felt the familiar ache of saying goodbye to a little creature I had grown to love.

He docily accepted being handed over to this new person, nestling in her arms as she softly murmured to him. They settled into the car where he sat on her lap and stared out the driver’s side window, as if to say goodbye. That was the last glimpse I had of him.

Eight weeks later, a photo arrived in my email along with a progress report. Named “Edo,” he is sitting on his haunches wearing a long striped necktie. Although he looks less than thrilled about the costume, the note claims he’s taken over the household and is apparently the leader of a group of neighborhood cats too. He is as disciplined as ever; when one of the other household cats misbehaves, she claims she finds herself saying, “Why can’t you be a good cat like Edo?”