Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, November 23, 2020



In 2006, when my daughter was living in Oberlin, Ohio, with her best friend Stacey, a feral cat from one of the early trap-neuter-release programs was hanging out in their backyard, killing birds. Katie and Stacey’s landlord enforced a strict no-pet policy, and the girls didn’t know what to do. But when I was visiting them, we hatched a plan. Maybe, just maybe, I could lure the kitty into my car with a can of cat food and drive 800 miles home with it.  

Yes, it was a stupid plan, but no, it didn’t turn out the way one might expect. The cat didn’t want to be touched and was naturally suspicious of me, but when I held an open can of cat food out to her, she instantly followed me and jumped into the car when I set the can on the passenger seat. I quietly closed the door behind her as she started chowing down. I got into the driver seat and quietly closed my own car door. It was a Prius, so there wasn’t any noise when I started the engine and backed out of the driveway. I just drove around the block—this was a preliminary experiment—and pulled back into the driveway right as the cat was finishing up. When I opened my own door, I thought she’d bolt, but no. She stayed in the passenger seat, licking her paws as she looked all around at what she seemed to take as her new mobile home. 

It was a cool fall day. I got back in the car, opened the four windows a couple of inches, and the girls got busy. The hardware store was closed because it was Sunday, so they couldn’t buy either a pet carrier or a litter box. They got kitty litter at the grocery store along with more cat food, and fashioned a litter box from a cardboard box encased in two large plastic bags. My own things were already packed up in the car, and the cat was curled up atop my luggage in the hatchback, basking in the sun, when Katie and Stacey opened a door to put the litter box on the floor of the backseat. The cat raised her head to look at them, but again did not bolt. 

I had not seriously entertained the idea that this was going to work out easily—I was fully conscious that this was a feral cat. At this point, the worst that could happen was that she’d at least have a full stomach, giving the local prey a temporary reprieve before she started hunting again, though a good meal would also put her into better condition for that next hunt. We knew it was worthless to bring her to the animal shelter because they’d just turn her back over to the trap-neuter-release people and she’d be out killing birds within a day or two anyway.

But someone had to take responsibility for her well-being and that of birds and chipmunks, and luckily, she was young, with more optimistic feline curiosity than fear. The very idea of an 800-mile car ride with any cat, much less a feral one, was daunting, but Katie’s backyard Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens were at stake. So again I got into the car and started the engine. She stretched in that slow, luxurious way cats do, and jumped to the back seat, and then over the center console and into the front passenger seat as I again slowly backed out of the driveway.  

Katie and Stacey followed me the 10 or 15 miles to the entrance of the Ohio Turnpike, just in case they needed to take her back. While we were still in their neighborhood, driving very slowly, the cat strolled to the floor beneath my feet. I reached down and pushed her, saying, “No, kitty!” Then she jumped on the dashboard—again I had to reach over and push her, saying, “No, kitty!” I did both those things exactly once—she seemed to instantly grok that the person in the car with her was territorial about that section of the car but everything else belonged to her. 

We sped up on the 2-lane highway toward the turnpike. The cat continued to investigate, still sniffing and walking about as I reached my turnoff and waved goodbye to the girls. I was pretty nervous when I opened my window to take the turnpike fare ticket at the entrance, but the cat stayed in her part of the car. And then there we were, me and a feral cat in a small car tooling along the Ohio Turnpike. She walked onto the center console and to the back seat, and then back onto my luggage, where I could see her through my rear-view mirror. She seemed to like looking out at the cars and trucks behind us. Some of those drivers noticed her, too.  

The entire long car ride, including an overnight with my sister, in the late stages of cancer, in Chicago, so the cat had to spend the night in the car, and a second overnight with a friend from college, where she got to come inside, went just as well. I bought her a car carrier and she immediately walked inside when I just snapped my fingers. I didn’t press my luck by locking her inside, but figured she was at least a little safer in that than loose in the car during the times she was in it. This was no generic cat. I was shocked at my good luck—every cat we’d ever had was miserable in the car and made car rides miserable for everyone else, too. And this cat was no longer nameless—she was Kasey, smushing Katie and Stacey’s names together.   

Kasey on her first car ride. 

Kasey always looked to me as her main human. A year and a half later, when I took my job at Cornell, she made the 1200-mile journeys back and forth with me and my little dog Photon, and every car ride was just as easy, with her company making it more pleasant. Over the years, she put in a good 30,000 miles in the car. Once I was home for good, and after Russ’s mom moved in with us in 2012, Kasey stayed just as easy-going and fun. 

Kasey and Kitty help us wrap gifts.

A few years ago, Kasey developed lymphoma. For a while, it looked like we’d lose her immediately—she couldn’t hold down any food at all without vomiting violently and her pupils were fixed and dilated. But after the immediate emergency treatment, she responded well to weekly shots of Vitamin B12 and steroids. Even after she learned that her weekly trip to the vet would involve a shot, the moment I pulled out the pet carrier, she’d still walk right in. She looked sleeker again and was back to her old playful self. She made so much progress that after many months, I started giving her the medications orally. Even though her pupils remained fixed and dilated, she could see well enough to stare out the windows at my feeders, and to play with us. It was a lovely reprieve from the inevitable. But in the past few months, she started losing weight again, and this time, nothing worked; we bid her farewell on October 27. 

We’ll never get another cat. Russ was never a cat person to begin with, and I’m badly allergic. But Kasey was irreplaceable anyway.  I'll never forget her.