Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

A Feral Cat’s Lesson

June 17, 2011

This past Sunday, I touched our cat Marble – more than touched her, I stroked her back five times in quick but calm succession. This cat-petting event may sound pretty routine, but it wasn’t.

My husband and I first met Marble, a long-haired tortie type, six years ago at what was soon to become our feral colony at a nearby public boat landing. Those first months were a tumble into surprise, a recklessly steep learning curve in matters of feral-cat management, like trap-neuter-return. We learned by making mistakes, fewer than if we’d not had experienced friends mentoring us.

Right off it became clear that the ferals exhibited wildly different personalities, and hands down, Marble was the shyest of the lot. We’re talking near pathological avoidance here, because her “flight distance” from us remained extreme even when we brought her into our back-yard spacious enclosure, built to keep as many of the ferals as possible safe on our property.

That was four years ago. Four years of day in and day out feeding and caring for the dozen cats in that enclosure. In keeping with lots of the theory I play around with on this blog, we aim to take each cat on his or her own terms. So we didn’t push Marble to become a cat molded in some image of what we wanted; rather, we accepted her skittishness, fed her apart from the other cats, and took extra care to stay slow and gentle in our movements and speech sounds around her.

All that’s very noble, to be sure, yet in our heart of hearts we still wanted to touch her! (We primates are tactile creatures.) Earlier this year, we began to notice more and more a change in Marble, and our daily reports to each other changed too: Marble is coming out of the shelter more, Marble is moving nearer to the other cats, Marble doesn’t flee at our mere appearance. Then, a short while ago, my husband petted her twice. A red-letter day! Next came my special Sunday with its quintet of strokes.

The Sunday shocker was well-timed to lift my spirits. Ten days before, my mother had undergone emergency surgery. Because of her advanced age, and because some complications developed, her hospital stay became unusually lengthy and worrisome. Anyone who has sat a hospital vigil for long hours day after day knows the mix of anxiousness and tedium, plus the inevitable frustration for one’s relative at the endless waiting, waiting, and waiting…

That Sunday morning, my husband and daughter had gone to the hospital in order to enjoy my mother’s company and to give me a few hours to lay about our sunroom, accompanied only by silence, our indoor cats, and a fat Sunday New York Times. Soon enough, I ventured outside to soak up some pen-cat love, and to hand out some ham treats. I was unprepared for just how close Marble allowed me to approach. Dropping a saliva-producing chunk of ham right at her feet, I stood quietly over her as she began to eat. While she was ham-focused, I reached out and slipped in those five strokes. Her coat felt coarse, not like the other cats’. I swear I could feel the contact rush of oxytocin that’s the current darling of the popular science press!

Then Marble looked up at me. Her mind apparently clearing from the bliss state of the ham, she moved away at a rapid but unpanicked pace.

What inside Marble had changed, to allow this encounter? Could her advancing age now translate to more sluggish reaction times? Or perhaps with some animals, especially those who’ve had it rough, fear of humans enjoys a prolonged half-life?

Even though I don’t have an answer, I take to heart the lesson. We never expected Marble to allow us to pet her (even under sneaky-ham conditions). Time, patience, the right moment and luck were all on our side.

Four days after The Marble Event, my mother suffered an acute crisis that landed her in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. My family and I rushed to be with her, only to be told by a phalanx of doctors and nurses that time was short. My mother was in significant distress but clear-headed. Holding hands, together we made a series of wrenching decisions about end-of-life care. Through my tears, we uttered sentences that were, in effect, goodbyes.

Memories flooded my brain. How, as a child, I became a reader (and a writer) because my mother read book after book to me, and later took me to the library and helped me carry home unwieldy stacks of books. How she and my father bought me a Hammond organ (and music lessons) instead of buying a new rug or furniture. How, later on, she made a 22-hour air-flight in order to visit me, the first baboon-watcher in our family, in Kenya during my anthropology fieldwork.

To the relief of my family, my mother defied all predictions. On day 13 after surgery (just two days ago), she was discharged from the hospital. She was too ill to go back to her apartment; on a stretcher and wearing an oxygen necklace, she was transferred to a convalescent/nursing facility.

That transition—with all its attendant sights, sounds, and smells--was harder than I can convey here.

My mother’s goal, one I support, is to regain enough health and strength to return to independent living, with help from an aide. Is that hope a realistic one? It’s too early to know; this fact is as clear to my mother, a loyal reader of this blog, as to anyone. But, from my mother’s hospital discharge, I’ve learned to believe in defying the odds. And from Marble the cat, I’ve learned to believe in time, patience, the right moment, and luck.


  1. June 17, 2011 10:43 AM EDT
    Great article. Reminds me of my feral, Tiger. I raised Tiger from a kitten. He is now 4 years old and just very recently let me pet him while he is eating. HOwever, when I am working in the yard he follows my every move. I know they want the love but don't know how to express it.
    - Carolyn Treyz
  2. June 17, 2011 11:09 AM EDT
    Good way to put it, Carolyn- that some of our animals want love but don't know how to express it. I think the 'not knowing' sometimes (ranging from homeless cats who've been on their own away from people to chimpanzees and elephants who've been abused in some way) stems from past fearful experiencies or day to day uncertainties. Those memories run deep.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. June 17, 2011 11:40 AM EDT
    Barbara, I'm so sorry for your mother's illness and the distress it's brought you all. I *do* know what it's like, and I assure you it isn't foolish to hope. A few years ago, my mother suffered a stroke. Now she's home, living alone with her two cats (next door to me). Apart from not driving, she's as active as ever. :)

    I love hearing all your animal stories, whether the animals are exotic or familiar.
    - Marian Allen
  4. June 17, 2011 10:39 PM EDT
    Barbara, your blog was so uplifting and I needed that tonight because my sister Betsy went back in the hospital on Tues morning for some more tests, fell and fractured her vertebra and a rib so they readmitted her again. They are still performing tests and she has another one to do tomorrow. I was able to get her admitted to a rebilitation
    center when she leaves the hospital. So I will definitely eagerly look forward to your Friday blog next week. Hopefully, Betsy will be on the road to recovery by then.
    - Connie
  5. June 17, 2011 11:05 PM EDT
    It is lovely to see science and poetry dance a dance. It is also lovely to watch a friend make sense of things.
    - Karen Flowe
  6. June 18, 2011 1:41 AM EDT
    Thank you for this lovely story of hope and exceeded expectations. I do hope your mother continues to improve. And also that Marble will surprise you again.
    - Julie Tanner
  7. June 18, 2011 8:46 AM EDT
    First to Connie: This news is so distressing for Betsy because it will lengthen her recovery-- and the fractures must hurt. Yet all of us who care for her can rejoice in the wonderful news that nothing is life-threatening (at least as far as I understand) after her surgery. Marian: I'm absolutely collecting stories of elder recoveries! Thank you. Julie and Karen, I purely love your comments. Thank you too.
    - Barbara J. King
  8. June 18, 2011 12:15 PM EDT
    Dear Barbara: You certainly have had a rough time but thank God that Mom is improving. I continue to pray for her and so does Uncle Bud. When I update him on what has happened he will say a prayer, but dementia causes him to forget almost everything.
    We take each day one at a time, I will keep him at home as long as my health allows. I quote Paul Newman " Getting old
    is not for sissies."
    Love You, Keep in touch.
    Aunt Joyce
    - Aunt Joyce & Uncle Bud

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.