Monday, January 24, 2011

Carl the Cranky and Tabby Tom: Part One

In which we read of alliances formed and enemies revealed.

When I'm in the bathtub, I confess I'm in another world. I hear nothing from the outside, see nothing, am aware of nothing. Bathtime is an indulgence, a break in the routine of morning showers undertaken daily for purposes of hygiene. A bath may indeed be hygienic, but it's so much more. Taking a bath merely for hygiene is like drinking a glass of Dom Perignon because you've been out working in the yard and need to re-hydrate. Baths for me usually involve candles and music, chocolate, incense, a book or two, and three, sometimes four hours of uninterrupted solitude. A bath is a cherished decadence, not to be undertaken lightly.

I'm pretty sure the building could all but fall down around me, during bathtime, and I would be none the wiser. So it was one evening that a great battle ensued on behalf of the cats, between their allies and neighbors on one hand, and a murderously angry Marine on the other. Threats were made; police were summoned. A small crowd gathered in my alley for the fray while I, deep into the pleasures of hot water and bubbles, bathed obliviously on. I had no idea a veritable riot was underway outside my back gate. It happened in this wise.

Tara you have met before in these writings; a charming and feisty woman who loves animals with a gentleness and a fierceness that is inspiring. In her home, cats and dogs and rabbits live peaceably together. With all the responsibilities she has for her own furry dependents, yet she still shares her time and her resources with the thirteen cats.  It is she and "her people" who take charge of the evening feeding for the feral cat colony.

We had not known each other from the beginning. The spousal unit and I had been feeding the cats, but we didn't realize other people were also providing for them. As it happens, Laura, one of our across-the-alley neighbors, was functioning as a caregiver for the colony as well, putting out food in her back yard, allowing some of the more socialized kitties into her basement in bad weather. She had begun a Trap-Neuter-Return program with the colony. I've written of her heroism before. She and Tara were friends and fellow caregivers. Then then one summer, Laura moved away.

Her friend and fellow hero Tara promised to carry on the work. So Tara, or some member of her network, family or friends, comes every night to the alley to care for the cats.

Now the spousal unit and I knew nothing of this. What we saw was that a couple of the friendly, more socialized cats, suddenly disappeared. (Laura had scooped them up and moved them away with her, where they now live luxurious housecat lives, properly pampered in every way.) With the disappearance of the cats, we also started seeing empty cans of cat food appearing in the alley. (No longer having a resident backyard to feed from, Tara was having to feed from the alley itself.) We became concerned. When we started seeing bowls of food slid just under our fence line, or placed enticingly just inside our back gate, I became frantic. Someone was trying to poison the cats.

We couldn't think of what else it might be. I was sick with dread. How could I protect them? Not everyone is at first favorably disposed toward having a feral cat colony on their block. For me, in addition to the sheer joy of wildlife watching, there's the added benefit the colony provides of mouse and rat control. Better cats than rats any day, I say! People, however, come from different perspectives; they arrive as neighbors by different paths. Geographic proximity alone doesn't make people into a community. That takes lots of respect and tolerance, conscious effort and dialogue.

Though I couldn't keep the cats from being foolish, from eating poisoned food if it was poisoned, yet I could make sure no suspect victuals were placed within the bounds of my own property.  I could mount what watch I could. I patrolled the alley; I gathered up cat food cans and threw them away. I watched the alleys, peering out of upstairs windows at odd times of day and night, trying to catch the poisoner. I counted cats daily. I fretted, sick at heart.

Miss Little Bit, a tiny black thing, the smallest cat in the clan, went missing. She was gone one day, then two. I scoured the yard, looking under shrubs and bushes, for a wounded, sick cat, or worse, for a body. I cried myself to sleep. I watched my neighbors with a jaundiced eye. One of you is a poisoner, I thought. I'm sure of it. I tried not to hate indiscriminately but found myself losing the battle.

Then one day, Miss Little Bit was back. I was overjoyed! But what went here? Her tiny belly had been shaved; I could see it as she walked through the grass, somewhat gingerly, tenderly on her toes.  I began to suspect something was afoot, though I wasn't sure what. I redoubled my efforts to catch whomever continued to put out cans of cat food in the alley. One evening I snagged her.

It was evening, about the time of twilight. In those days, my office was in the back of the house, on the second story; a lone window in that room overlooks the backyard deck. It was summer, so my windows were open to sun and breeze and the songs of birds. I happened to be in my office, that evening, with that open window, and that's how I came to hear her, talking to the cats, rattling cans and calling them over. I peeked out the window. There was a small car, engine idling, in the alley. There was a small, brown haired woman on her knees just outside my gate. She was definitely putting food into bowls and sliding them into my yard.

I grabbed my pepper spray, cell phone and keys, stuffed my feet into a pair of tennis shoes, and bolted downstairs. I marched to the laundry room, flung open the back, door, and stormed outside. I'm a fairly short person, only five foot two inches tall, and am not imposing or frightening by any standards. Still, my rage and my fear for the cats made me forget that. "What," I demanded icily "do you think you're doing in my yard?"

That's how I met Tara. We managed to sort out who we each were and what we each were doing. I was thrilled that someone was neutering the cats, and helping with the feeding. She was shocked and delighted to discover that, not only were we cat friendly, but that the cats were welcome and protected in our yard, and fed as well. My fears had been unfounded; the poisoner turned out to be no poisoner at all, but a fellow caregiver. Appearances and evidence can be misleading; our fears can too easily distort our perceptions.

Phone numbers were exchanged. I welcomed Tara into the yard, onto the deck. No need, after all, to stand in the alley. Come on in any time, I told her. I showed her the location of the outdoor water faucet and hose. An alliance had been made.

Afterwards, we would see each other occasionally at various feeding times. Sometimes, I would poke my head out the upstairs window, hollering down and waving a greeting. Now and again, Tara would come knock on the front door; we would share news and gossip concerning the cats. Winter came; the spousal unit and I, worrying about whether or not the cats were warm enough, bought a large dog house, settled it in up against the deck, away from the north wind, where it could catch the rays of the southern sun. The other caregivers made it warmer and better; brought sawdust for bedding, a bit of hay for insulation. Summer rolled 'round again.

And so it was one evening that small, gentle Tara was accosted, as she went quietly about her errands of mercy and compassion, by Carl the Cranky, a murderously angry Marine.

Carl is not his real name. He is an across-the-alley neighbor from down the block. I knew none of this at the time, neither that he was neighbor nor that he was Marine, having not yet had occasion to make the man's acquaintance. Bristling with aggression, he stormed up to Tara demanding, "What do you think you're doing here!"

From reports I received (both from Tara, and much, much later, from Carl -- there's a bit of foreshadowing for you, Gentle Reader!), he had let fly with no gentleness or courtesy whatsoever. I can only imagine what Tara, a woman alone in a City alley at twilight, must have felt in the face of this verbal assault. The man shouted and took up a threatening posture, a stance intended to intimidate.

Carl did not want the cats to be fed. They were, he insisted, nuisances and vermin. Not to mention that they climbed onto the ragtop of  his car and would tear it up with their claws. They should be trapped and destroyed. "Get a cover!" I think he was told. The confrontation was escalating. Legal action was threatened. Tara was accused of trespassing.

She defended herself, rightly so, by saying she had the permission of the property owners to be there. (That would be me, and indeed she did.) My front door was hammered on (we have no functioning doorbell), but I, happily enjoying the pleasures of music, chocolate, candles, incense and hot water, heard nothing and bathed obliviously on.

I know, now, having learned it over time, dealing with feral cats in this neighborhood and in others, how important it is to get the neighbors comfortable with the colony and with its presence. It's vital  for the safety of the cats. Alley Cat Allies, the non-profit advocacy organization whose mission is "to transform and develop communities to protect and improve the lives of cats", even provides training materials and videos on how to communicate with neighbors. However, on the day in question, with Carl shouting and aggressive, we knew none of that. Then Carl threatened to poison the cats. He vowed, adreneline flowing, to trap the cats himself, and to kill them.

Before we go further, dear Reader, into the tale, I must introduce you to Jackie and Sam (not their real names). Jackie and Sam live across the alley with their small daughter Heidi. Sam is a policeman with the City; on more than one occasion I've had reason to be thankful for his presence. His yard is clipped and manicured, pristine in its neatness. I think, sometimes, that perhaps he would prefer less disorderly neighbors than the spousal unit and myself. Neighbors who would perhaps exert some more control over the vigorous, natural vegetation than we do. I have said before we are in love with the wild woodsyness of our yard. It brings us mockingbirds and butterflies, fireflies and cardinals and cats. Still, he has been a good and tolerant neighbor for lo these many years, and we are grateful for his protecting presence. How many of us get to live with an armed Knight right across the way?

His young wife Jackie is brave and fierce, and little Heidi loves the cats.

Having heard the shouting of Carl the Cranky, this young family joined Tara in the alley. She was a damsel was in distress. They had her back.

Carl, in a rage and a funk over the perceived damage done his ragtop, swore to trap the cats, to have them destroyed. Fierce Jackie stood toe to toe with the shouting man, promised  she would find the traps and spring them before ever a cat was taken. She and Tara and Sam reminded Carl that poisoning the cats was a violation of animal cruelty laws. Carl countered to the uniformed police, who had by that time arrived, that city statutes say one can only keep four animals; if the cats were living under my deck, on my property, clearly I was in violation of city code. He demanded I be cited. I, being oblivious to the riot, bathed blissfully on, unawares I and the cats were under attack a few short yards away.

If, however, we were under attack, the cats and I, we also were being hotly defended.

"She cannot let her cats roam the neighborhood," one of the uniformed officers said, I am told, to the assembled group.

"They are not her cats," the allies averred.

"She feeds 'em!" This from Carl the Cranky. "And they live under her deck."

"They are wild life," the allies countered. "People feed birds and squirrels all the time."

The riot raged on. In the end, it dispersed peaceably, if not happily. There were no arrests and no citations, but tensions were high. The fate of the cats remained uncertain.

The spousal unit, arriving home at about the time of the dispersal, was told the tale. He assured Tara she was welcome in the yard, reiterated our permission to be there, to be welcome, with witnesses. He also told her to park around front, in our parking area, whenever she wanted. Jackie made the same offer. It seems that part of  Carl's complaint was that, by parking in the alley for the ten minutes or so she was there to feed and socialize with the cats, she was blocking traffic.

When the tale finally made it to me, I was amazed such a fracas could happen right under my nose and me not be aware; I was dismayed I hadn't been there to support the cats and a fellow caregiver when they had come under attack. I was pleased the cats had Jackie and Sam as allies; I was touched in a deep, indescribable way by their defense. I was concerned, seriously concerned, that the cats had such a vocal and aggressive an enemy. The spousal unit and I tried to figure out who he was, to put a face to the name, for Carl had already departed the scene by the time the spousal unit had come upon it.

It was an unsettling incident. The fate of the cats was now uncertain.  There was, in fact, a potentional poisoner among us.

So ends part the first of Carl the Cranky and Tabby Tom, a tale in three parts. On Monday the next, being January 31, 2011, we shall read in Part Two of how a broken window led to my making the acquaintance of Cranky Carl, and what ensued therefrom. Part the Third will be presented the Monday following, being February 7, 2011, and shall speak of happy endings.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats and philosophy. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.

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