Sunday, February 03, 2013

Crazy Cat Lady or Career Cat-Catcher?

I recently learned that there is, in the world, a profession of "cat-catching."  I don't have the proper CV for such a gig, but would proudly like to submit my own story of kitty karma to convince you of my mad cat-catching skills.

Stopping overnight at a Motel 6 in Redding en route from L.A. to my parent's place in Portland, I left my kitty in her car carrier to check us in.  Would the staff buy that I had missed the 20 odd “no pets allowed” signs posted behind the clerk's head? A terrible liar, I avoided eye contact, furtively signed in, accepted my key, then cased the joint to find my best "there's no cat in this box!" way in.

The sun was setting as I slunk back to my red Honda hatchback. I sat in the front seat, eyeing my orange and white tabby cat, Clyde. She had endured a 10 hour drive stuck in her hated kitty carrier while I intermittently tossed ice chips at her and sprayed water through the vents, hoping to cool her  from the hot California sun.

She eyed me with a mixture of dull hatred and disdain for subjecting a regal feline to such humiliation. We sat in silence, watched a family tumble out of a minivan. I told her she was now complicit in my scheme to sneak her into the motel.

I nodded and gave her the look: Let’s do this.
Her look: I will kill you in your sleep.

The parking lot somewhat empty, I jumped from the front seat, opened the passenger door, and grabbed the carrier’s handle. Slamming the door, I made a beeline to the back door of the motel when snap! the handle broke, the carrier hit the cement with a sickening thud followed by an orange Creamsicle streak of motion. Clyde ran first for the door where I tried to corner her, then darted between my legs, dashed back across the lot, and disappeared into a thick bramble of bushes. The thick bramble of bushes that separated the motel from a busy four-lane road right off the Interstate 5.

Realizing she was not going to come back out to her tormentor calling “here, kitty kitty kitty kitty,” I ran thirty feet or so around the bushes to the road. Looking both ways, and praying she had learned to do the same in her short kitty life before I rescued her from her death at a shelter, I ran across the street, then stopped. Having never been in this situation before, I was at a complete loss. Crisis 101: Should I run further into the neighborhood, scaling fences and the yards at the mobile home park? Should I quickly sketch posters for a lost cat and distribute them? Should I boil water and tear my shirt for bandages?

As I began to circle the bushes, I did the next least helpful thing in a crisis: I called my family, 400 miles away. By now, the sun had set, which I hoped would hide the tears streaming down my face as motel guests looked toward the sound of my weeping. Explaining my predicament to my mother, I started scattering handfuls of kitty treats and food along the curb that lined the brush. She told me to check back in a little later, reassuring me that my cat would want to come to me. She didn't know about the look of death.

An hour later, it was dark, and I had seen no sign of Clyde across the street or near the motel.  As I continued to call to her, I heard a pitiful meow. Hope was reborn. I started manically thrashing toward the sound, learning in the process that the brambles were blackberry bushes, full of thorns.

My arms bleeding from tiny wounds, but assured that my cat was close by, I went in to the motel to check out of my unused room. I gave a slightly altered version of my story – I had checked in, but then saw the “absolutely positively no pets under any circumstances” signage on my way out to my car and cat. I was simply taking the carrier out of the car to give Clyde some fresh air before deciding upon a different, pet-friendly hotel, when it broke, and Clyde escaped. The night clerk, a girl in her early 20s, looked sympathetic, if a little confused, as I returned my key.

It’s okay, I said. She’s in the bushes, I just have to wait for her to come out.

Three hours later my cell phone was plugged in to an outlet in the hotel. I made quick trips inside for bathroom and vending machine breaks, praying I wouldn't miss her emerging from the bramble.

After another unsuccessful grab at Clyde when I saw her near the edge of the brush, I went inside to ask if the motel had any kind of gardening tool, “maybe a machete?” that I might use to cut back the bramble and allow easier access. After searching, we found a hoe. Better than nothing, I said, a smile on my tear-stained face, my fingers tainted with the odor of wet cat food.

I hoe-hacked and smashed at the thick bramble, my work lit by the eerie fluorescent parking lights. Giving up, I sat on the cold asphalt, and holding the hoe bravely by my side, rattled my bag of remaining kitty treats, calling out feebly, “here, kitty kitty kitty kitty.” A drug dealer who worked the gas station across the street eyed me, and kept to his side of the motel parking lot.

Around 3am, my mother, who was sleeping on the couch with the phone in her hand, relayed my dad’s advice to call the firemen. Now, as much as I love men in uniforms who are there to help stranded cats and humans, I didn’t want to be such a cliché. Do they really rescue cats from trees, or attempt to find them in 30 square feet of brush? At 3am? But, I was desperate, and dialed the local, non-emergency number.

“My cat. She’s stuck in the bramble of blackberry bushes here at the Motel 6,” I repeated upon request to the now-silent operator. “…And she’s on fire?”

They couldn’t help me. But they did advise calling animal control in the morning. After explaining my situation to the animal control office, a ranger (we’ll call her Roberta) in an official-looking khaki uniform arrived, replete with a pole and a net. It looked like serious business, especially if she were out to capture a butterfly. I was doubtful, but desperate. As we took opposite sides of the brush and started tromping it down to walk through it, hoping to scare or corner Clyde, a couple of travelers joined in our hunt. “Is it a wild animal?” the woman asked with interest, eyeing the official khaki uniform.

“No.” I choked down tears and exhaustion. “It’s my cat.” I explained how I had been up all night hoping for her to come out.

“Wow,” her husband said. “You must really love that cat.”

(Why do men hate cats?)

After having no luck, the ranger was dubious about Clyde’s presence, and possibly my sanity. She asked me to meet her later at the office, where I could pick up a havahart trap to set.

I followed the ranger’s instructions carefully. Clearing away all other options for food, I placed a fresh can of tuna in the back of the trap. Tuna is apparently to cats like Dove dark chocolate is to me. I was to practice tough love and ignore Clyde until she was in the trap, so she felt her only option for food was a cage. Not only would I catch Clyde, I now had a new parenting trick, should I ever be allowed to procreate after my dismal display of cat care.

Day 1: Checked back into Motel Six. Checked out Redding California. Movie theaters and Starbucks.

That night, I checked the trap, but, as expected, she was not there. Since cats are nocturnal, Ranger Roberta had told me that I shouldn’t expect any movement from her ‘til night, and wait to check the trap in the morning.

Day 2: At the literal crack of dawn, I opened the back door to the parking lot, a can of fresh tuna in hand. Across the parking lot I saw Clyde freeze in her tracks at the sound of the door, just inches outside the cage. “Nooooo” I mouthed, afraid to scare her further away. Our eyes locked. She turned and ran, ignoring the tempting tuna. I wondered how long it would take to overcome this intense hatred she had quickly developed for me. I changed out the tuna, and walked back in to call my sister, happy that I had a sighting.

My sister, however, was not as upbeat as I. “What is wrong with your cat?” I hadn’t told anyone about the periodic water bottle spraying on the drive, or the times I chucked ice at her through the grate of the carrier. “I don’t know! I’m a lovable cat-person!”

Now a regular, I greeted the motel staff with my update, and spent another day at the Starbucks.

Day 3: I slept in a little longer, getting used to my new life at the Motel 6. I opened another can of tuna – which is not a great odor at 6:30am, and eyed with despair the tower of tuna I had stacked on the bureau.

Opening the door, I heard her before I saw her, no sound more heartwarming than her yowl, which only grew louder as I ran across the lot in my pjs, to pick up the cage. She crouched in the back like ... a cat trapped in a cage. Her white feet and underbelly were grey with dirt, she had lost weight, her teeth were bared and eyes were wild, and she never looked more beautiful to me. I paraded into the motel, proudly ignoring the “no pets” signs. The morning clerk gave me a big grin and stated the obvious, “You must be so happy.”

I was. And I had learned an important lesson about the karma of trying to break the motel rules: it's an all night vigil and a three day stay in Redding, California. And while I may not be the cat whisperer, you should hire me as a professional cat catcher.  I will NEVER give up. 

Me & Clyde in Portland. Born Harriet, rescued in 2001, left for kitty heaven in 2010.

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