Yesterday evening, my partner and I lost our oldest cat, Rosie, unexpectedly. She'd been sitting on the low wood fence between our house and our neighbor's, as she did almost every night after dinner. We had checked on her earlier in the evening from our living room window before settling down for a movie, and she eyed us with her usual nonchalance. Half way through the film, we heard a loud scuffle; our dog Paris started barking in agitation and throwing herself at the door. We ran outside. A pitbull-mix dog that lived a few doors down and we always worried about had evidently gotten loose and came upon her. Rosie was half-blind in one eye and her hearing had diminished significantly; she had sat on that fence every night for years and either didn't see the dog or didn't think it posed a danger, until it was too late. Though we ran out and fought it off, stopping it from mauling her to death, her back leg had sustained severe injuries. It would have required amputation and difficult follow-up. So, at 1:45 a.m., in the emergency hospital, as we petted her and murmured our love, she was euthanized. She'd already been heavily sedated, and she left us quietly, without further pain.
It was the first time in 11 years we had touched her.
Like our other five cats, who depend on us for food, care, and shelter in our garden and in our garage, where we've designed a cat-friendly environment, Rosie was feral. We think she was probably 11 or 12 years old; but we were never sure. She came to us as a young cat, hungry, thin, and wary, as so many cats born outside do. Together with our next door neighbors, both of whom love cats, we gained her trust and respected the boundaries she determined for interaction. In time, she was caught and spayed, but she was never tamed. Still, she stayed. She dwelled in our and our neighbors' gardens and accepted the other ferals who drifted into our lives over the years and were likewise neutered or spayed, and released; she and they even developed a hierarchy. When feeding time came and Rosie was there, the other cats always deferred to her. She ate first. Same when it came to the wheelbarrow in the garden; it was her special daytime sleeping spot and woe was any other cat who tried to take it from her. She even developed a relationship of sorts with Paris; our dog didn't chase her and she deigned to tolerate Paris sharing the garden on occasion.
Rosie was a wanderer, at first. We fretted over her days-long disappearances, only for her to suddenly show up at our kitchen door, face pressed to the glass, wanting food. As she aged, she stopped leaving. In the last 8 years, she never went far. She ate every day in the morning and evening (and, as her chewing abilities decreased, had her own special dish of wet food); took her morning groom on our deck, her afternoon nap in the wheelbarrow, and at night . . . well, she went onto the fence, to watch the traffic or bask in the moonlight and whatever other allure the night holds for cats.
Her loss - both for how it happened and that it happened to her - has left us bereft. However when I mentioned to a well-meaning friend that we'd decided to have her privately cremated and her ashes returned to us, this friend said, "But why? I mean, it's not as if she was your pet. She was just a wild cat you fed." This got me to thinking about the complex, sometimes intangible bond we can develop with animals, particularly feral cats. People who don't care for them cannot understand that while we may not touch these cats, curl up with them in our beds or play with them, they are still an integral part of our family. We saw Rosie every day for all those years; we watched over her, ensured she would be as safe and comfortable as possible, and always respected she was not, and would never be, a fully domesticated cat. This doesn't mean we didn't love her or she didn't love us. I saw it in her eyes, sometimes, when I paused to whisper silly things at her as I set down her food or went to clean her box in the garage. She would tilt her head, regarding me with those big amber eyes, and she would narrow her gaze, as if to tell me, she understood. She understood and she appreciated it. She thanked us.
We already miss Rosie terribly. We find ourselves looking out the window for her, toward the now-empty wheelbarrow which for today at least, none of the other cats have claimed. Tonight, when we went down into the garden to feed them, all five were sitting there, waiting. They rarely show up like that, all at once; they tend to feed in shifts. Yet as my partner and I gazed upon their solemn faces, they returned our look and I could have sworn, they knew. They realized Rosie was gone and we were grieving for her.
And in their silent way, they thanked us.