Thursday, January 24, 2013

COLUMN: Carol the Feral

I was taught by my parents to be kind to animals of all shapes and sizes (except, of course, snakes, who can pretty much suck it.) I'm starting to think, though, that when it comes to THIS aspect of my upbringing, my folks just may have been broken a little bit.

YOU might not know the house I grew up in down in rural Galesburg, but just ask ANY animal within a 20-mile radius and they could probably point you in the right direction. Some of you might have bird feeders at home. Well, my parents have the Walcott truck stop of animal feeding stations, complete with a variety of tiers, structures, and menu options aplenty.

Every day, my folks eat breakfast in full view of an avian feeding frenzy that might even throw Alfred Hitchcock for a loop. You know those weird birder people who go broke traveling the world for their "big year" of seeing how many species of bird they can stare at? Little do those sad people realize that all they need to do is hang out in the Brown family dining room for a half hour. Just open the curtains and congratulations -- you've seen every bird that's ever existed ever.

As if that's not enough, wait about twelve hours and open those curtains again. The birds will be gone, but the zoo arrives, and you'll be witness to a round table forum of raccoons, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, mice, skunks, groundhogs -- you name it. It's nothing to find a deer gently grazing on the edge of the patio. Heck, one morning I opened the window to a pair of cows staring me down. Okay, maybe that was less to do with the feeders and more a nearby farmer with a broken fence, but you get the picture. My folks do everything in their power to get nature to come right up to the windows and say howdy -- and they passed this on to me as a new homeowner.

But here's the thing. Sometimes nature is smarter than we are.

You may remember my feral cat saga from earlier this summer. My neighborhood is rife with stray and feral cats, but none come cuter than the little midget cat I came to call Daryl the Feral. Little Daryl was braver than most of the neighborhood cats despite being half their size, so I decided to set some food out for him one day. This turned into a nightly ritual, until one day when I noticed that Daryl was looking a little chubbier than the handful of Cat Chow I was providing should afford.

That's when I realized my spunky little buddy was actually a homeless teen mom, and Daryl the Feral became Carol the Feral. And sure enough, lurking in the shadows a few paces behind Carol was a skittish, scraggly, ugly little bugger that must be Dad. Well, I wasn't about to stop feeding an expecting mom, so I gave Carol a safe and well-stocked yard. She repaid me earlier this summer by giving birth to five kittens in my hydrangea bushes.

It wasn't long before this squadron of kittens starting dashing out into traffic, so I assembled a posse of my friends and we spent the better part of a week rescuing kittens. This was no easy task, as kittens aren't exactly fans of being rescued. By the time it was done, I had blown out my knee AND In the process managed to trap a menagerie of unexpected guests, such as (a) a raccoon so vicious I had to call Animal Control to avoid it ripping off my face, (b) a neighborhood cat that I officially named "Durrrr" after ousting him THREE times from the same trap, and (c) Carol herself -- an accidental catch, but it allowed us to take her in to get fixed and vaccinated.

In my brain, I imagined Carol thanking me for rescuing her children and wanting to live inside with me happily ever after. In reality, Carol wasn't real happy that I stole her kids, trapped her in a cage, and surgically removed her lady parts. Instead of purrs, I got hisses and claws and a cat that clearly did NOT want to become someone's pet.

Ergo, when I got her back from the vet, I let Carol back outside and vowed my days of feral cat feeding were over. I was resolute in my decision -- for almost a week. That's how long it took Carol to show up at my back door sad-eyed, hungry, and offering a hoarse little meow that clearly said, "Please, mister, I'm so tiny and helpless."

Just as my parents can't stop feeding the entire animal populace of Knox County, I can't stop feeding Carol. Every morning, she greets me at my back steps. Every night when I get off work, she's there. And she eats a LOT - or so I thought.

The other night, I got home from work to the usual sad eyes and hungry meows. But an hour later, she was back at the door scratching for MORE food. Umm, okay. Maybe she'd had a rough day, so I refilled the food bowl. But on this night, I just happened to decide to make a taco run a few minutes later. When I opened the back door, suddenly it all made sense.

There was Carol, but she wasn't eating. She was just laying around. Instead at the food bowl, there was Dad, who I hadn't seen in months. Next to Dad? Why, it was my old friend Durrrr. Next to Durrrr? Some ragamuffin cat I'd never even seen before. Next to HER? Two tiny little kittens. ALL were gathered around my food bowl, taking advantage of my hospitality.

I thought I was helping one sad little cat in need. Instead, I've fallen victim to a neighborhood pack of feline grifters. It's a classic scam -- send the cute one up to beg while her entire gypsy family waits in the wings. Over the past three days, every time Carol's turned up at the door, a closer inspection reveals an army of cat eyes lurking in shadows and corners.

It's official: I'm the creepy cat guy of the neighborhood who's been accidentally feeding half the strays of Rock Island. Thanks, Mom & Dad, for raising me to be an animal lover. Some good that got me. Next time I see a bug, I'm stepping on it with malice and glee.

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