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The cat who earned her keep

As many of you know, I adopted a cat about a week ago. She had been hanging around my younger daughter’s house for a long time, begging for food. A black-and-white domestic shorthair, she had probably been somebody’s pet but was now filthy, starving, and living off of handouts from neighbors in town. It was so tempting to gather her up in my arms and give her love and hope, but who knows whether she had some awful disease or might perhaps respond to attention with claws drawn from prior abuse. I would discover only later that her previous owner had not only had her neutered but also declawed! No wonder she was starving.

As a recent transplant from an East Coast urban slum, I am all too familiar with maligned and neglected felines.  Over the years, I have adopted dozens of older, sickly, or in some other way undesirable cats. Nevertheless, it took several weeks for me to make up my mind and take the plunge.

It was August 26, a Friday, that my heart melted. I swept through the local supermarket, purchasing everything from kitty litter to cat treats, borrowed a cat carrier from my daughter, tricked the cat into the carrier , and drove the two of us to my cabin way up in the mountains of northwest Montana.

You should know that I live far from the beaten path. I have views of forest and mountain that stretch for hundreds of miles. At night, the stars cover the sky, and shooting stars are plentiful. During the day, the deer and hare feast on wild plants in my yard, and I have often been visited by coyotes, moose, mountain lions, eagles, and bears.

I decided to name her Cleo, short for Cleopatra, because of all the eye makeup. She wears an abundance of very black eyeliner and has no shame.

Cleo moved right in. I fed her small meals hourly, and she devoured them. I brushed her coat, and she purred in response, wriggling her back end for good effect.  She found the kitty litter and used it. Within a day, she had begun bathing and started looking as if she had never been anything other than a normal, healthy, domesticated feline.

But it was soon apparent that she had one bad habit. In spite of the fact that she had no front claws and could therefore neither inflict harm nor escape up a tree, she liked to roam and had no fear of her environment. It was impossible to keep her confined to the house. She was the proverbial “curious cat” and got into everything, including the gap created by an opening front door. In no time at all, Cleo had escaped into the yard, down the drive, and into the forest. There was nothing I could do.

I soon accepted the fact that she wanted nothing more than to explore the area. Of course, I could have strapped her in a harness and tied her to a doorpost, but she wanted so desperately to roam that I gave in and let her loose. She would be an easy meal for an eagle or a coyote, but these predators are less frequent during the day, so I concentrated on keeping the doors closed between sundown and sunup.

On several occasions, Cleo left the yard and ventured far afield, only to return after an hour or two. I was convinced, on more than one occasion, that I had seen the last of her.

And so we come to this morning. Cleo had slipped out the door – as usual – and vanished into the woods. I was so concerned about her well-being that I contacted the local animal shelter to ask if I could trade her for a fully clawed feral feline, allowing Cleo to be placed in a more gentrified, safer environment.

I was sipping my second coffee of the morning when Cleo returned. She slipped silently through the front door, which I had left open for her, and into the kitchen to her food bowl, where she spent several minutes chowing down. Finished, she turned back toward the front door, which I could see from my seat around the corner, where I was working at my computer.

Suddenly, Cleo’s back arched, and she started to hiss. I had never before heard or seen this behavior in this cat. Her gaze was riveted on the front entrance, which I could not see from my position. What could possibly be at the door? Given her total lack of fear, I assumed it must be another cat, which would be a territorial adversary and thus worthy of confrontation. So, more out of curiosity than anything else, I got up out of my chair and walked over to her and the door.

It was a bear. A huge, maybe 200-pound, black bear. Its muzzle and front paws were on the threshold , and it was obviously on its way into my living room. I reacted in the only way I know: I threw my arms high in the air and yelled at the top of my lungs: “Get the hell out of my house, bear!”

The bear spun around and careened down the front steps. It was so big that it loped instead of ran, and its huge rear end jiggled as it retreated, its tiny tail looking like a misplaced single comma.

Many moments later my adrenaline would set in and I would start to shake. But at the moment, I could only marvel at this curious cat who is customarily oblivious to her environment yet had saved me from a potentially dangerous confrontation with a wild animal. Had I been alone and the bear continued to enter my home, what would have happened? Since my cannister of bear spray is on the window sill by the front door, I - like her - had no claws.

Cleo has shown no further desire to venture outside, and I have cancelled my plans with the animal shelter. We now owe each other.


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