What My Feral Cat Taught Me About Social Distancing

I’ve learned a lot about social distancing from my feral cat, Dante. Social distancing has always been his preference, long before coronavirus or the order to shelter in place. I guess he’s a trendsetter.

It was sometime last year when the Chair of the ISC Board, Erin Rosalina, said to me, “Why don’t you get a cat?” I told her I work too much. I travel too often. My family lives in another country. Basically, I don’t have time for a cat! The very idea made me laugh. Me? A cat person? No way.

But a cat found me anyway. I started noticing him just before Christmas. It seemed like this cat was always scuttling through my garden. I didn’t think much of his presence at first. But he just kept coming back, even after I was away for three weeks over the Christmas holidays. It seemed like he was hanging around a little more than usual, even. By this time, I saw the cat on my covered back deck as I walked through the back garden to get to my door. He always scurried away as soon as he noticed me, as though he were scared.

I suppose he must have become more comfortable over time, and soon enough he seemed to think of my back deck as his second home. (I’m still not sure what he considers his primary residence.) Even with him lurking around more, it seemed like I rarely saw the cat. I tried to take a picture from a distance, but I could never quite capture him. I put a notice up on some social media boards for lost pets in my town and my neighborhood, and asked around, but nobody ever claimed him.

One morning, as I came downstairs, I saw the cat through the window. He had settled into one of the cushions on the deck. He seemed very comfortable, cute, and cozy. I stared at him, and he just stared right back. He didn’t move or scurry; he seemed very conscious of (and grateful for) the window between us. It was a safe zone, in a way, where we were close but far away. So we just stared. I smiled and waved.

Soon after this meeting, I posted about the cat on social media. “What does one do when there’s a cat on your back deck? Am I supposed to feed it? Am I not supposed to feed it? What do I do?” The responses came flooding in. Most people said that the cat had chosen me, and to consider it a blessing. I didn’t adopt the cat; he adopted me. I started to see the cat as part of my life. Maybe I could try to feed him and see what happens. Maybe he was part of a grand cat conspiracy that my board chair had been in on the whole time.

To be honest, I didn’t relish the idea of committing to this pet, if that’s the right word. I have plants (a peace lily and now some raised beds), and I can keep track of those…just about. I looked after my 15-year-old nephew last summer when he visited for three weeks, and really enjoyed taking on that responsibility. But a cat? Somehow this seemed like a huge commitment. What would I do with a cat? I’ve always thought of myself as more of a dog person. I had birds when I was a small child, but they always flew away. And one goldfish that died. Honestly, I’ve never been so great at looking after animals. But I felt encouraged by all these people who thought I should give it a go. I decided to make a commitment to this cat.

One day after work, I went to the store, found the pet food aisle, and asked for help. I explained to the employee what had been happening, along with my suspicions that the cat is young and feral. I bought the appropriate type of food and put some in a little purple bowl on my back deck. Lo and behold, it was gone the next morning. Not that I saw the cat at all. It seemed like he had disappeared. I thought: well, that’s it. No cat. But honestly, I had started to miss him a little.

Soon after that he reappeared. I was surprised to find myself excited to see him. One morning I woke up, and he was just there. He had come back. By that point, I had started to wonder if I had been putting out cat food for a possum or a raccoon. My neighbor had mentioned there was a groundhog living nearby. Maybe I wasn’t feeding a cat at all. Maybe I was feeding a possum or a raccoon or a groundhog. Or all three! I kind of liked the idea. We didn’t have these sorts of creatures where I grew up.

I continued putting out a little bit of cat food in the morning, a little bit of cat food at night, along with a little bowl of fresh water. When I was a kid, my grandma always taught us to feed the birds outside before we fed ourselves. She said that feeding God’s creatures was a form of giving thanks. So now I try to top off the cat bowl, and add fresh water as I make my own morning coffee or as soon as I come home, before I make dinner. The cat had claimed one of my meditation cushions by this point, so I joked that maybe we could sit and meditate together.

I started to think about names for the cat. I thought about calling the cat Purpose because a friend joked that he had given me a purpose in life. Then I thought about calling him Pangea, for the grey markings on his back (which look like Pangea). But I worried these names didn’t seem catlike. For some reason I started thinking about Dante’s “Second Life.” I relocated to this country at the age of 35, which I sometimes think of as my own “Second Life.” This seemed like a more appropriate name. Cats are meant to have multiple lives, after all. And in Sikhism we believe in reincarnation.

I don’t have any family in this country. I have many friends who are like family, but it’s not quite the same. I’ve been on this “Second Life” journey pretty much by myself. I’ve made friends wherever I’ve gone and made community wherever I’ve been; that’s always been a big part of who I am. As I contemplated life with a cat, I started to realize how grounded I feel here. I have a house, a garden, a very steady job. I have a community. I have a neighborhood. And I appreciate it all so much. Maybe it is time to get a cat!

Needless to say, I’ve grown very fond of the cat. Dante. We haven’t gotten quite to the point where we can be in the presence of one another without a window between us, but I’m hoping that if I keep putting the cat food out we’ll get there. For the moment, we only know each other through the glass. We live overlapping but separate lives. It feels like it’s in the spirit of these strange times.

Before I was sheltering in place, I went to a yoga class very early in the morning. Sometimes I go to the class, or go swimming. Or sometimes I just take an early morning walk. I try to go with whatever I’m feeling in the moment. That day in class, there was a new teacher. When the session was over, she asked me if I was going to come again. I found that I was reluctant to commit. I said something like, “I’d like to, but I’ll have to play it by ear.” Afterward, I found myself thinking how I was a little bit like Dante. I like to wander and see different places.

Now when I look at Dante through the window, I think of him as a kindred spirit. Maybe one day, he’ll decide to stay for good. We’ll both just get tired of not committing, and stay put.

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