“Whatever the last chapter of this story brings, I consider myself very blessed to have had this extraordinary reunion with my extraordinary cat.”
I adopted Señor Julio in October of 2008. He had been taken in a couple of years prior by my friend Anju’s father who has a farm in Molalla. Her father’s name is Steve. One day, Steve opened the food barrel to feed the barn cats, and there was a little black cat inside looking up at him. He called him Mister Julius and let him stay. Life on the farm was good, and Mr. Julius kept his own schedule. A fighter by nature, one day he got into a fight he couldn’t win and ended up having his tail bitten almost clean off. The vet said that Mister Julius would be better off as a housecat, given his propensity for brawling and lack of muscle power to back it up.
Severely allergic to cats as a child, and still mildly allergic to them, I had always had dogs growing up. But in 2000 I moved in with a friend whose cat Sacco would ultimately turn me into a cat person. The original plan was to keep Sacco out of my room, but eventually she got in there and once I saw her so contentedly asleep in the sun spot on my bed that was it. Whatever sniffles and occasional hives I suffered from were offset by the pleasures of her feline companionship. Although Sacco was not particularly affectionate with people besides her owner, she was a good cat.
During this same time, I became friends with some women who had male cats, and that was a whole new experience. Kali, my friend Laurie’s cat, was a substantial love of a Siamese who wanted nothing more than to sit on your lap and receive your affection. Bug, my friend Corinne’s cat, was a strapping tuxedo cat, dignified of manner, yet affable and sociable. Because of these experiences, I had been toying for a year or two with the idea of getting a cat, specifically an adult male cat. So when my friend Anju, aka Dj Anjali (http://www.anjaliandthekid.com/), came in to work and asked if I knew anyone who wanted to adopt a kitty, an adult male, I saw it as Fate telling me to take the plunge. When I moved into my own place, there was a no pet clause which I signed off on, but I had been there three years and enjoyed a good relationship with my landlords. Lucky for us they are cat people too and agreed to my getting a cat with a nominal deposit.
When I first met Mr. Julius, he was a scrawny, flea bitten, injured mess. But I didn’t see that; I didn’t realize it until much later when Iooking over old photos. All I saw was a sweet black cat that crawled onto my lap and nuzzled his head into the crook of my elbow, and I was smitten. I changed his name to Señor Julio, although I have rarely called him by that name. Kitty, kitten, kitty cat, kitten cat, big boy, baby boy… I’m not ashamed to fess up to the list of sappy monikers that spring effortlessly from my lips. It took us a few weeks to get him stable: he was flea ridden, had worms, had to take antibiotics for the injury to his tail. And the worst was that he had to stay inside when all he wanted to do was go outside. He would station himself by the door in the kitchen and meow incessantly. Looking out the windows of the front room, rather than assuage his desires, just made them worse.
After two weeks of battling with him, I decided he was healthy enough to go outside. I was worried he might run off, to the point of purchasing a harness and leash, which in the end I didn’t have the heart to even try to make him wear. It was one of those gorgeous fall evenings, cool with leaves crunching underfoot. He slunk around tentatively at first, scanning the landscape constantly for potential threats. Then he moved more purposefully up the block, darting into bushes then coming back to survey the street. I was poised for the chase if he looked like he was going to make a run for it, but after about 10 minutes he came back to the door and waited to be let in and fed his dinner: he knew which side his bread was buttered on.
For the first week or so, I would carry a container of kibble with me, I like to call it a kitty maraca, when I was working in the garden. I would rattle it every so often just to be sure he hadn’t wandered very far. He came back every time, and it didn’t take long for me to feel like he was not going to run away of his own accord. I would employ this kitty maraca routine over the years to get him to come inside, mostly with success. I say mostly because when he really wanted to stay outside, nothing could get him to come in.
That was October of 2008. Over the past four and a half years we have developed an easy relationship of mutual understanding. Even with a steady diet of love and sustenance, Señor could not give up his fighting ways. I, like my cat, have fought many a losing battle on principle. There were periods when the vet bills piled up, but I still had to admire his spunk. Sometimes you just have to stand your ground.
He always liked to be outside whenever the weather was even halfway decent, and his usual routine was to go out in the evening, after 9 or 10, and come back in time for breakfast around 7 am. He’d watch me put my makeup on in the bathroom and maybe sit on my feet. Then sleep off indoors whatever adventures he’d had during the night, and back out after dinner. I of course worried about something happening to him; it was nerve wracking. But he was just such a noble, wild cat; he was a panther in miniature. I couldn’t try to keep him inside when he didn’t want to be.
So it came to pass that I let him out on the evening of May 21st, 2013 around 9 pm. And when I got up in the morning, he wasn’t there. Now, he had stayed away before, once not returning until 4 in the afternoon. But it was raining, and he usually did not like to stay out in that. I came home from work at lunch to see if he was there, but no cat. By dinner time I began to really get worried. And thus began almost five weeks of searching for him. I contacted my friend Judy, a cat lady of the first order, for advice. I called the microchip company to make sure they had my correct contact information. I posted a picture of Señor on craigslist. I hung big neon signs in the window of my apartment with poorly-drawn cartoons of Señor’s notched left ear, as well as flyers in my car windows.
Saturday, May 25th, I had some friends volunteer to help hand out and hang up flyers. One of my friends even brought his dog to try and track Señor. I walked the neighborhood and talked to people who were out in their yards. We ended up handing out 150 flyers that day, and hanging 25 on telephone poles and in coffee shops and stores with bulletin boards. The local coffee shops (Stark Street Station, Laurelhurst Café, and Seven Virtues) hung my flyer in their windows. After a couple of hours, my friends had to get on with their day, and I continued walking the neighborhood by myself. I walked all the way up to 64th Avenue; even though I knew statistics say that a lost cat is probably within two blocks, I just had to so do something. I was out for more than four hours. Along my way I heard a lot of lost pet stories from people, some with happy endings and some not. At one house I was offered a glass of water; a small gesture but so kindly offered. I probably talked to 40 people and only one of them was rude and unwilling to take a flyer (this is where young Hipsters with ironic facial hair get their bad name.)
Tuesday, May 28th, was my birthday, and I spent most of it handing out and hanging up more flyers. It was a muggy and intermittently rainy day. I felt a little crazy (and not a little sweaty) trudging around in my purple raincoat with my hammer and bag of tricks, but again, I just had to do something.
Little by little, I began to move Señor’s accoutrements out of my house. It was just too depressing to see that litter box with a lonely clump in it, or the empty food and water dishes on the leopard print placemat. I stored everything in the garage with hopes of being able to set them up again at some point in the future.
I received over a dozen phone calls, “Cat Calls,” in total over the next month, and not a single crank call. Pete, the first caller the day after we hung the flyers, had heard a cat meowing in his overgrown backyard a few blocks west and across Burnside. I rushed over with my cat carrier and kibble maraca at the ready, but there was no sign of Señor. Michael and Karen called to say there was a black cat in their neighborhood that they didn’t recognize, north of Glisan and a couple of blocks east. Lillian had seen a big black cat drinking water on their patio exactly ten blocks east (she would also be the one to instill the most hope in me, sharing the story of her cat that had come back after six weeks). Leticia was paid a visit by a handsome and friendly black cat in her garden only five blocks east. Mackenzie and Joel had seen an unknown black cat in their backyard on 55th and Stark. Alicia had seen a new cat in the neighborhood over on 46th and Madison. Rob had a friend of a friend post on Facebook that he had found a black cat about a month prior, but after seeing the picture I immediately knew it wasn’t my kitty.
I also had some anonymous callers who had seen random black cats at random locations. I began to realize that there were a lot of black cats out there. I went out on four false alarms; this was at around the month mark. I put the cat carrier in the trunk of my car, since it was getting so depressing to get it out of the garage each time I got a call, yet more depressing to have it in the house. Heather and Vaughn, my neighbors around the corner, cornered a little black cat they were sure was Señor, but of course it wasn’t. Michael and Karen called to say the mysterious black cat was back, but when I got there a few minutes later, I could see that it was not my Señor. A girl called from an apartment complex up past the QFC, but it turned out to be a long haired cat. And Mackenzie called me, out of breath because she ran up the street to get my number off the flyer, when the strange black cat made another appearance. It turned out to be another adorable little black cat, and probably a girl cat at that.
I heard so many stories of cats moving on to new owners; I had started to try to convince myself that was a possibility. Though it would be a sort of betrayal, it had a certain appeal: I could imagine him in a safe place being taken care of, not injured and suffering. Even the thought of him being dead was preferable to not knowing; at least there would be closure.
The one-month mark came. I drove around the neighborhood taking a census of what flyers remained hung up, tacking corners of the ones that had come loose.
By Sunday, June 24th, I had become despondent and began to wonder if it wasn’t time to dial down my search efforts. Two days more and it would be five weeks that he hadn’t been seen. I had been very lucky to get some great free press via the North Tabor News, but the 1,145 post views had not yielded a single phone call. I contemplated paying $400 to put a flyer in the Southeast Examiner, but was unsure that would ultimately be effective. I went to bed early and in a funk.
I was completely disoriented when I received a phone call at 10:15 pm from an unknown caller and I thought, “Here we go again, someone trying to be helpful, but it’s not Señor.” Nevertheless, I answered. The girl said, “Is this Sonia? We have Señor Julio!” I didn’t even know how to respond. She continued, “His paw is pretty messed up, but he’s OK. We’re just around the corner; we can walk him over to you if you want!” I said that would be great and struggled into some clothes and went to wait at the door.
It was at that precise moment that I felt I might be going crazy, that this was all a delusion. I had had many dreams of being reunited with Señor over the previous weeks; they were all warm and comforting and in them I was snuggling my face into his fur and we were doing our usual things. Maybe my brain was inventing this phone call as a way to protect itself? I checked the phone to be sure. It seemed an eternity before the girls materialized in the dark, and one of them was carrying a basket with a cat it in whom I recognized immediately as mine.
As soon as he saw me, he began to meow furiously and I picked him up and all I could say was “Oh my God oh my God” over and over. He was completely scrawny and his front paw didn’t look like a paw; it was swollen and crooked and had a bloody wound on it. He jumped out of my arms, meowing furiously all the while, dragging himself disjointedly to where his food dish used to be. His legs were obviously not right, but all I could think of was what to feed him since I had given his food to my friend. Luckily I had bought some turkey meat and I clumsily tore the package open and cut it as fast as I could. He gobbled it down in two seconds flat and continued his meowing.
I think at that moment I was in some kind of shock; I seriously couldn’t react appropriately. Everything was in slow motion. Realizing that he needed to get to Dove Lewis immediately and that I was in no state of mind to drive, I called my friends around the corner and asked them for a ride (forget the ones that bail you out of jail; these are your true friends, the ones that drive you to the animal hospital at 10:30 on a Sunday night).
A few hours later we were sent home with instructions to see his usual vet for x-rays and blood tests. The vet at Dove Lewis said that it looked like his injuries had been healing for at least a month, which meant he had probably been hit by a car on May 21st. He weighed only 8.5 pounds, half his normal weight, and was dehydrated, but amazingly was not in critical condition. (Side note: if you ever are looking for a good not-for-profit organization to donate money to, consider Dove Lewis. They provide an amazing service and really do not charge that much more than one upscale vet where I used to take Señor.)
When we got home and I was finally able to really get a good look at him, my heart just broke. He was so filthy and broken and skinny, I collapsed in tears on the floor next to him and kissed him and said I was so sorry I couldn’t find him. He just purred and gazed into my eyes and gently caressed my cheek with his, as if to say he understood. And that’s when I realized that he had been trying to get home to me, just as hard as I’d been searching for him.
I slept a total of about 2 hours that night. We were at Banfield Pet Hospital by 7:30 and I had to leave him for the day.
Luckily, Dr. Luis Tello was the vet assigned to us that morning. Dr. Tello specializes in traumatic injuries in small animals, and besides that, spoke to Señor (and me) in Spanish. He said that both Señor’s legs had been broken and healed improperly on the left side, and, in addition, the front paw had been dislocated and broken, and then healed improperly. The paw had no feeling in it, but there was blood flow and he still tried to use that leg, which was a good sign that it was not paralyzed. He was also missing a couple of toes and had a broken tooth.
To fix the front paw would require surgery that he would have to refer me out for, with a price tag of three or four thousand dollars. He assured me that he had known many animals live out a happy life with this type of injury. Considering that Señor is around 10 years old now, and that I don’t have that kind of kibble just lying around, I was glad to hear this. Tests revealed no neurological or internal damages. I was able to pick him at at 5:30, albeit with a bulky bandage that covered his entire leg, covering his paw up to his body.
I called the woman who had ultimately returned him to me (who I learned was named Jantzen) because I wanted to give her some sort of a reward, but she wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re just so excited he came back! We’ve had his flyer on the refrigerator ever since you handed it out but were starting to think he wasn’t coming back after all this time. We were just talking about it yesterday, I kid you not, then that night we heard meowing in the back yard and it was him!”
That was 4 weeks ago last Sunday. Over the past four weeks, I’ve set up my apartment for life with an indoor cat. I bought an air conditioner for the first time in my Oregonian life, since this was the week that the heat wave had begun. I turned my guest bedroom/TV room into a Cat Cave, moving everything in there so he wouldn’t have to walk as far. I have purchased a king’s ransom worth of high-end cat food to excellent effect: Señor’s last weigh in was at 11.5 pounds (which Dr. Tello says is perfect for his new, less active lifestyle). I had a group of friends, my Kitty Angels, visit him on a rotating schedule during my work day, giving him love, pets, and wet food. We have made seven more visits to the vet, finally getting the bandage off a few days ago.
(Another side note: Thank God I live in Portland, Oregon and work at Parker, Butte & Lane (http://www.pbl.net/) where all the partners are cat people and are understanding of my frequent comings and goings).
I have texted every one of my Cat Callers about Señor’s miraculous return. All responded and expressed their happiness. One of them, Karen, has volunteered him several healing sessions, which consist of a sort of shamanic, kitty reiki (sounds like a Portlandia sketch, I know, but he seems to love it). So now we have to wait and see what the future holds for Señor and me. We are still the same, yet both different. And we are both adjusting to his new status. He used to come in from outside and head straight to the windows in the living room to see what had transpired in the 10 seconds since he’d been inside.
Now he spends most of his time underneath the futon or bed in the back rooms. All it takes is the sound of a car going by and he’s hobbling at top speed toward the back of the house. He’s found new hiding places in the closet, under the dresser (it doesn’t seem like he could fit there, but for his tell tail, I would not find him). For three weeks after he came home, he did not go near the windows or door if I had it propped open. Then last week, he ate his breakfast and hobbled over to the kitchen door, and nonchalantly looked over his shoulder at me and said, “Meow.” I opened the door so he could look out, and he stood there for a few seconds, ears pricked, listening to the birdsong and flicking his tail. But before I could even grab my camera, he made his way back to the back of the house, seeking refuge in the usual new places.
People ask me if I’m going to make him stay indoors now, but I can’t say for certain. I hope his injury will make him sufficiently insecure to not want to go out, but if he wants to go out, I will probably let him. That, I’ve discovered, is love.
It bears mentioning that I am blessed with an expansive circle of friends that provided me no small amount of love, support and encouragement during those five, long weeks. I would not have been able to keep it together without them. But it’s the response from all of these total strangers that has made the deepest impression on me. Not a single one of these people were under any obligation to respond to my flyers, to run around with me in the darkness trying to coax strange cats out of hiding, to pay any attention to my plight. Several people have said to me, “I bet whoever hit him realized it and didn’t even stop to see if he was okay.” This is a sad statement; that out of the entirety of this singular experience, this is where their minds go to first. What’s done is done. If you do the math, and I’m not even good at math, it’s clear there really are more good and helpful people in the world than evil.
And miracles can happen.
I had some upsetting news from the vet since finishing this story. After getting the bandage removed, Señor’s paw was very swollen and the wound was bloody so I took him in a few days later for a checkup. Dr. Tello was very concerned about this development and ordered a new X-ray to see how it compared to the original one of three weeks prior.
There are some bad and unexplained things going on in with his bones and joints. He put up the X-ray on the light box and listed them off to me, pointing here and there as he spoke. I was too distracted by the road map of fractures in Señor’s leg and misaligned bones knit together with callus fiber to remember all of the many potential problems, but the takeaway was that there may be big trouble brewing, and the tests required to diagnose the problem are not only expensive, but would be very hard on Señor’s already diminished condition. Any procedure requiring anesthesia would be risky. Without knowing what’s causing the swelling, even amputation would not guarantee he be cured of what is ailing him.
He said “I don’t want to overwhelm you, but I need to be brutally honest: this is an old cat that has been through a lot. If he were five instead of ten, I might have a different opinion. But I don’t want to encourage you to take these heroic steps and end up with you in bankruptcy and Señor dying of liver failure or something else, despite it all.”
Even though he didn’t appear to have an infection and had already had two rounds of antibiotics, we decided to try one more round and reevaluate in three weeks. He prescribed a pain reliever that is also an anti-inflammatory, and ordered that Señor wear his Elizabethan collar 24/7 to keep him from licking the injured paw.
That was eight days ago. Since then, Señor’s paw seems significantly less swollen. His wounds have all but dried up and there is a fine coat of hair covering most of the area. He is walking better than before, and has been waking me up in the middle of the night because he’s hungry. This morning he has even “asked” that I open the door so he could look outside, and he’s currently lying peacefully at my feet as I type this instead of hiding in the back room. I take all of these as positive signs that he is engaged in life. And if there ever was a cat that could beat the odds, it’s him.
Heather (one of the Cat Callers) dropped by the house over the weekend with a homemade get well card and toy catnip mouse. This also has to be a positive sign for his eventual recovery, or maybe even for the future of humanity: the continued caring of strangers that have been touched by his story.
Whatever the last chapter of this story brings, I consider myself very blessed to have had this extraordinary reunion with my extraordinary cat.