Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. -- Psalms 84:3
Monday, August 25, 2014
The Parable of the Stray Cat
I suppose if I were forced to choose between cats and dogs as a pet, I would go with the dog, but I do like cats a lot. I admire their independence and their solo hunting skills, even though that means the unfortunate deaths of song birds on occasion. It’s a natural death as opposed to be being fried in midair over an array of solar panels or threshed to death by a wind turbine. We always had “barn” cats because they help control the rodent population. If you have rodents and no cats in our part of the country, you can figure on having snakes – mostly black snakes and king snakes and rat snakes, but the copperheads show up often enough that I prefer furry, warm-blooded predators. Around the dairy our cats were sort of semi-feral. We would feed them, a little haphazardly, with dog food and some milk, but we expected them to be hungry enough to hunt for something other than sport.
My current cats – two spayed females, are sport hunters. Each has her territory. The mostly white cat with black markings hunts on the north side of the house while the mostly black cat with white markings hunts on the south side. I call them barn cats because they don’t stay in the house (they do visit), but they are really pampered pets. They retreat to the little barn in severely cold weather. Otherwise they have a small, snug shelter on the front porch that protects them from canines, rain, snow, and most of the cold. They are bathed and flea-collared, fed and treated on a regular basis. Not all country cats have such a secure and easy life.
We get tom cats wandering by – not necessarily strays or feral creatures. Toms are rangers, even when neutered, and tend to have a much wider territory than females. When we were kids, my cousin had a big, long-bodied black tom cat he called Abe. We would commonly see Abe hunting around our place, a mile or two from home. On the way to church one Sunday morning we saw Abe sitting relaxed but vigilant atop a big wooden corner post having a good five miles of woods, rough ground, hills, hounds and coyotes between him and my cousin’s house. He always made it back, and died of old age, as best I recall on a stack of hay their old log barn. He was buried with honors.
A couple of times, I have had feral cats that hung around. I usually ignore them or try to chase them off. Once or twice, the animals appearing visibly sickly or suffering, and being concerned about communicable feline diseases, I have eliminated them. I don’t like to do that. It hurts me. Some time ago, I guess it’s been years now, I noticed a nondescript cat of the very common mackerel tabby coloration stalking the edges of the yard. I caught her raiding my cat food from time to time. She appeared healthy, and I rather hoped she belonged to one of the neighbors. I assumed it was a “she” because she didn’t disappear after a week or two. Instead it became apparent that she was staying somewhere close by. The cat was definitely feral, fleeing rapidly whenever I appeared, unless she thought she was hidden. The thing that marked this cat -- and perhaps the reason I never “sanctioned” her despite her stealing food and occasionally fighting or threatening my cats, could be seen at night. Checking on things with a flashlight or spotlight in hand, I would sweep the wooded perimeter and see, low and staring, light reflecting from a single eye. The right eye might have been lost in a desperate fight or to a shotgun pellet or to someone’s cruelty. Whatever the cause, pity overcame pragmatism. I chased her off with as much aggression as possible, but I could not bring myself to kill her.
A few months ago, despite our antagonist relationship, the cat seemed less and less concerned with being seen. She kept her distance and still fled rapidly if caught by the food bowl, but I often saw her watching from the edges of the yard during the day. I sensed that she was drawn to the house. One morning a few weeks back, I caught her hiding in the shrubs along the side of the garage. She didn’t run. Instead she simply stared at me. Remaining defiant and independent, she was not asking to be petted or cared for, but she needed to be by the house. Studying her for a few minutes, I decided she was sick, probably dying. As much as I hated it, I knew that the best thing to do was end her suffering quickly and humanely. I could have killed her with a shovel or an axe – no, I could not have. It would have to be a swift, clean bullet to the brain, but it couldn’t be done where she lay. I went in the garage and looked around for something that would allow me to pick her up without getting torn to pieces or tormenting the poor creature further. I settled on a cardboard box. All cats love cardboard. I thought I might be able to scoop her up.
I walked back around the garage with some trepidation, especially recalling the incident with the man-eating dachshund. The problem had solved itself. The cat was perfectly and peacefully still. She had found her place to die. I carried the empty body to the other side of the wooded gully where I had most often seen her hunting and buried her there. It seemed like the right thing to do. She had, I suspect, once been someone’s pet. Circumstances unknowable had cast her out into the wild, and she had reverted to the basic natural instincts of the feline. Death’s grim presence had sent her to seek the proximity of a human and a human dwelling for in this the limited consciousness of the beast recognized what we might think of as a higher power.
Humanity itself is threatening to go feral. Looking at the violence and animalistic behavior that surrounds us, one might be excused for doubting that we are an advanced and civilized species. I have even met feral Christians, people who have through circumstances often unknowable become alienated from the communion of the saints and from the Savior Himself. Yet I think Jesus still looks for them and watches them, and they watch Him when they think they are hidden. They don’t realize how often His grace is extended to them and His back turned only in pretense that they might accept what they would not looking into His face. They look with longing at His dwelling place though they may not understand the feelings it stirs in their hearts, or, if they do, they cannot admit it. They long for His love, His presence, and His acceptance.
These are not the lost sheep that the Shepherd may bring in but another class altogether. There is no herding a cat. There is only the patience and the pity, the waiting for the pain and the cold and the hunger to drive them closer. For some, it may come down to that moment of death when weakness and the dread of sharp, tearing teeth and ferocious agony drives them to the protection of the One they fear the most. He will not reject them or chase them away. At that hour of extremity, the Lord will give them comfort and bring them to the peace and the rest they desire. He will but smile at their bravado for, finally, they are home.