The Return of the Prodigal Cat

How I learned to let my city cat embrace her country roots.
By: Paula Derrow
The return of the prodigal cat

There are city people and country people, and there are city cats and country cats. I’m one of the city people. And when I came into cat ownership very late in life (aged 45 to be precise), I assumed that every cat lived like the ones I’d met through my pet-owning friends in Manhattan. These cats lived indoors, of course, and seemed perfectly happy to be confined to the tiniest studio apartment. They were never allowed to roam and they didn’t seem to imagine life otherwise.

My first cat, Lexi, was a city cat when we first acquired her. She was a stray, a black-and-white tuxedo, and “skittish,” in my husband’s lexicon, frightened of the vacuum cleaner as well as noisy automobiles, so initially, she seemed perfectly content to remain indoors with us, overjoyed by her luck at being rescued. That was a good thing, since my husband’s house was on a busy street; we were careful to never let Lexi out, lest she be hit by a speeding car.

That all changed when Randy traded his house in town for a slanted old cottage in rural Connecticut, surrounded by fields and woods filled with animals who preyed on cats—coyotes and foxes and raccoons and rough-and-tumble canines. Our new street wasn’t busy, but as far as a seven-pound cat was concerned, the dangers were myriad.

Yet as soon as Lexi caught sight of the birds, mice, chipmunks and voles outside every window, she wanted to be released, and badly, too, spending hours sitting by the front door, mewing plaintively. Apparently, she wanted to become a country cat, a cat who roamed free.

As for me, I was juggling a city-country life, spending most of the week in New York City for work and to see friends, to go to museums and out to dinner, then commuting to the country on weekends. I continued this routine even after Randy and I married. And like my city friends, I was dead set against my cat going out (Think of the coyotes! The fisher cats!).

The trouble is, it was virtually impossible to keep Lexi in for long, especially when my friends from Manhattan came to visit, opening and closing doors and forgetting to look around for a sneaky black-and-white tuxedo. In a flash, she’d be gone, happily murdering tiny creatures and proudly depositing them on our doorstep, then stretching languidly in the sun. She thrilled to be in nature, her every muscle quivering as she stalked through the tall grass, and increasingly, it seemed cruel to keep her locked up, despite the dangers. Besides, once darkness fell, she almost always came when my husband whistled, happy to be domesticated again, curled around our feet at the end of the bed.

Lexie the country cat

It was when she didn’t come at Randy’s whistle, nor respond to my increasingly anxious calls, that I worried. On those nights, after finally settling into bed, my husband would try to soothe me. “Lexi is probably fine—she’s just not done roaming yet,” he’d say. “She’ll be here in the morning.” Why should he worry? He was a country person after all.

I never slept well on those nights, often rising several times to open the door and try a few soft calls. Leeexxxxie….Leeeeexxxxxiiiieeeee! Sometimes, she’d bound back inside at 2 or 3 a.m., happy, hungry and ready for petting. Sometimes, I’d find her at the door in the morning, meowing a kitty hello.

Then, one morning when Randy and I were away on vacation and his daughter was keeping watch over our house and the cat, Lexi didn’t turn up. On our way home from the airport, my husband called to check on things, and his daughter broke the news: Lexi got out two nights ago and she hasn’t come back. I wanted to be angry, but the truth is, Randy and I inadvertently let Lexi out at night, too, on our way to turn the burgers on the barbecue or for a thousand other reasons. Open the door a crack, let down your guard, and she’d be out in a black-and-white streak.

When we arrived home, jet lagged and tired, we immediately set to calling and searching: inside the barn, down by the lake, on the other side of the road, whistling, chirping, snapping our fingers and making all manner of sounds that usually brought our bright-eyed kitty running. Not this time. Hours later, we finally quit, heavy hearted but still hopeful. “She’ll be back tomorrow,” Randy reassured me. “I’m sure of it.”

She wasn’t back, not the next day, nor the day after that, nor the one after that. We continued to look for her, to call, to drive up and down our road and shout out the windows, checking and rechecking the barn, the closets, hoping we’d find her in some surprising place. We left the outside lights on, put her favorite wet food by the front and back doors, notified the neighbors, but no Lexi. On the fourth night and the fifth, I cried, and my husband cried a little too, our sweet little tuxedo, taken from us too soon.

I couldn’t bear to look at her dry food dispenser in the corner of the kitchen, at her water bowl and the well-used scratching post my husband had fashioned from wood and an old carpet. I couldn’t stand to look at her cat toys, strewn in every corner, along with the push pins she liked to bat around with her paws over our slippery wood floors like a feline ice hockey player. And so, on the sixth day, I threw away her food and stowed her bowls, her toys, the scratching post. The sight of them set a series of awful thoughts in motion, visions of her trapped somewhere and hungry, or of her fear when the coyotes howled, then pounced.

I wanted to be angry, but the truth is, Randy and I inadvertently let Lexi out at night, too […] Open the door a crack, let down your guard, and she’d be out in a black-and-white streak.

The guilt was even worse. Clearly, I was a terrible cat parent, a mother who’d given in to her willful child because it was too difficult to keep her confined on a beautiful summer day—or any other day, for that matter. Lexi was always determined to be free, and now she was, seemingly for good.

On the eighth day of her absence, all my hopes dashed, I was sitting up in my office posting photos of Lexi on Facebook—one of her peeking out of a bedroom drawer and another, my favorite, of her half hiding under a chair but looking up at me squarely, her big eyes trusting. I’d made that photo the wallpaper on my iPhone, showing it around like any proud parent, then again when she went missing. Now I was displaying it on Facebook with the mournful status update: RIP Lexi. You will be missed. I told myself that she was definitely dead. It hurt too much to hope for otherwise, and then be disappointed.

But just as the first Likes and comments started to pour in, I heard my husband call out from downstairs—“Here she is!” “Who?” I asked, not daring to believe, but I could hear the door opening, hear Randy talking in his sweet cat voice: “There you are. Where have you been?” Lexi had come home, a prodigal cat, skinnier, stragglier and very hungry. She made straight for her food, except it wasn’t there; I’d tossed it all. Then she made for the pantry, to claw at her scratching post, but that was gone, too, relegated to the trash heap. Me of little faith.

After I covered her with kisses, burying my face in her dirty but still-soft fur, I scrambled and opened a can of tuna and we watched as she nibbled it in her delicate way, every last morsel. “She must have been locked up in someone’s tool shed … or something,” my husband mused, but really, her whereabouts were a mystery, as was her reappearance. All I knew was that I couldn’t get enough of her, of her sweet face and rumbling purr, of the feeling of her warmth as I slept, my heart no longer heavy. I wanted to keep her close, keep her safe, even if that made her miserable.

Or so I thought. Because the next morning, Lexi was right by the front door, patiently waiting to be released into nature, the place she considered to be her true home. And though we did keep her inside, that day and for a few weeks hence, despite her cries, it soon became clear that she was a country cat through and through.

It has been more than four years since Lexi’s eight-day disappearance. She still goes out. As always, there are times she doesn’t come when we call her in the evening, and, as always, I worry when she doesn’t appear. It’s likely that she won’t live as long as my friends’ city cats, that a coyote or a car may one day take her down, but I’ve tried to adopt a new perspective: to be grateful that on most nights, she does return, happy for a scratch, and to receive our love.