The feral kitten joined our family after he’d been separated from his mother. I had met his mother on occasion, and although she was prolific, she was not especially maternal. I thought the kitten would be better off with us. Now I’m not so sure.
The kitten got lost near the library where I work. The gentleman who heard him crying on a summer day, and rescued him from under a pile of old pipes and lumber, couldn’t keep him. Maybe 6 weeks old, the kitten was black, with a wee spot of white on his chest. Since our beloved black cat had met an untimely death in the jaws of a neighbor’s dog two years earlier, I thought my husband might be ready for another cat. My husband is the cat person in the family.
“I guess the universe has spoken,” he said. And so, after a trip to the vet, where the kitten got a clean bill of health and his shots, I brought him home. Now he was ours.
Or was he?
My husband named him Dewey, honoring his library roots, which we thought was pretty original, until I came across a whole book titled “Dewey,” about a cat that was abandoned in a book drop in winter and lived the rest of his life in a warm and friendly public library. So maybe not so original.
It seemed our Dewey had been weaned too soon, since he immediately wanted to knead my head and nurse my hair all night long. (My husband’s bald head apparently did not appeal.) The little sucking sounds and loud purrs were not conducive to sleep. I put a small pillow next to my head so he could bond with that. It works most nights.
As he has grown, and as he approaches his first birthday, I have realized that Dewey is a textbook study of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. For example, because of the neighbor’s aforementioned monstrous hound, we have kept Dewey indoors. But even though he was a baby when he joined our family, and shouldn’t really know any better than the confines of the house, he longs to be outdoors. We have provided him with cat toys of every hue and texture and sound, yet he tires of them quickly. He disdains them, really. He prefers to stalk our old and grumpy dogs, and pounce on them from the shadows. We feed him high-quality cat food, yet he sits by the window and follows the movement of birds in the trees with hungry eyes.
Dewey has shown me that, although we thought we could tame him, he is untamed. He comes from a long line of felines who have survived outdoors on their wits and hunting skills. We have given him everything he needs, but it seems he would rather be fending for himself. We have loved him unconditionally, but he remains unallied. He wants to be near us all the time, maybe to keep an eye on what we are up to, but he does not know how to accept our affection. When we pet him, he bites us. When we snuggle him, he scratches us. Although he nurses his little pillow deep into the night, by day he is largely unapproachable.
So soon, we will let him outside, little by little, to explore and mark territory and even hunt stuff. He has reminded me of something I had to learn as a parent: that children are better off when we don’t give them everything they desire, when they have to work out solutions to problems on their own and try different approaches to overcome obstacles, and even fail at some endeavors. The process of life forms us as we risk growing.
Perhaps people are by nature like cats: we have to challenge our wits and skills in order to hone them, and to grasp for our full potential. We have to follow our genuine instincts and fulfill who we are, lest we grow soft and lazy. And we have to honor each other for who we are. Dewey needs to be free, to feel the dirt under his paws and the sun warming his black fur and the breeze on his little cat face. It’s who he is.
A postscript: Lately, when I get home from work and he’s been sleeping all day, Dewey allows me to pick him up and hold him against my chest. He purrs, and leans his cheek against mine. For 10 seconds, he’s totally domesticated. I begin to believe that love can conquer even the most feral of creatures. Until he remembers himself, and tries to bite me. I will yet win him over, even if some part of him will always be that wild kitten.