Juno was already hiding under the chair when I arrived, but I could hear her growling. It was as though she knew about the cat-claw scissors in my purse.
I was puzzled. I’d been cat-sitting for Juno for about 3 years now, and she’d always been friendly and affectionate. This was also not the first time I’d ever clipped her claws. She hadn’t loved it, of course, but she’d let me do it.
But not now.
Her human and I finally gave up. We talked for a bit, and I discovered something that I hadn’t known before: Juno wasn’t a strictly indoor cat. In fact, she’d been going outside a lot more lately, sometimes not coming in till 4 a.m.
And she’d been acting up. “I don’t know what’s going on with her,” the woman admitted.
It was all becoming became clearer. The more time Juno spent outside, the more her feral streak was coming into play. So her human agreed to keep her inside more, especially at night.
I cat-sat the following week, and my black-and-white friend was acting like her old sociable self again. It was as though the snarling, spitting demon-cat had never been.
Wild to Hold
So, which was the real Juno?
Both, actually. “The cat,” writes Ellen Perry Berkeley in Maverick Cats, “goes back and forth — in and out of ferality — more easily perhaps than any other animal.”
To a certain extent, it is a matter of circumstances. A cat is lost or abandoned and ends up tapping into their primal instincts to survive.
Or there’s the alternate ending: The cat finds their way home — or maybe a place to call home for the first time ever — and chooses the domesticated life.
“I suspect that a certain percentage of them finally decide there’s a better way of doing things,” an official from the Vermont Fish and Game Department told Berkeley. “They see the local cats living the life of Riley and they slip into the barn as a first stage. And maybe even find their way to a house.”
He didn’t think that all that many feral cats “make that transition in one generation,” however.
From Feral to House Cat
We see this feline back-and-forthing both in fiction — Mazo de la Roche’s The Ninth Life and Charles G. D. Roberts’ How a Cat Played Robinson Crusoe — and in real life.
Take the heartwarming video about Mr. Belvedere that just appeared online. Mr. Belvedere, a big, jowly tomcat, was rescued from the feral cat colony he’d been in living for years. He had some pretty major health issues, including feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and mange.
His rescuer, Lindsay Raturi, managed to win his trust. And as Mr. Belvedere’s health stabilized, she saw that the 10-year-old feral was enjoying being a house cat.
She found him an adopter, Jenna De Christofaro, who fell in love with the big guy and his tomcat jowls at first sight. He took to his new life just as quickly, snuggling with De Christofaro and playing with his many cat toys — making up, she says, for lost time.
I saw something similar happen with Tikvah and Phoebe. Both came to us as adults after living on their own for a long time; both were furry pragmatists who took to indoor life in record time.
Indeed, Phoebe, not being aware of the Fish and Game Department official’s comment to Berkeley, went from barn cat to house cat without so much as a twitch of her whiskers.
A Blurring of the Borders
Cats, as Abigail Tucker observes in The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, are “a rare domestic specimen that’s said to have to have ‘chosen’ domestication for itself. … A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole world at its feet.”
As she sees it, felines are “terrible candidates for domestication. The most obvious problem is their social lives — or lack thereof.” With the exception of lions and cheetahs, they have “no social hierarchy.”
Physically, she continues, they haven’t changed all that much since they ventured out of the wild, making it difficult for experts to “tell house tabbies from wild cats. This greatly complicates the study of cat domestication.”
I’d argue with Tucker’s comments about the lack of socialization and social hierarchy. But I do agree that the domestication of cats, like their naming, is a difficult matter.
Watch this amazing story about Mr. Belvedere:
Different Cats, Different Behaviors
My friend Karen has been involved with cats for many years now. She remembers a half-starved Somali who “was scared to death” and didn’t want to be touched at first. But as soon as her rescuers “started feeding her and bathing her and taking care of her, she came around.”
There was the black-and-white cat that Karen fed on her porch; the cat began following her around within a week, eventually moving inside one bitter winter. She was followed by the male feral that Karen has been feeding for 6 or 7 years and still can’t get close to. “Some of these cats have it in them to be tamed,” she reflects, “and some never do.”
Or, as Berkeley might say, each case is unique. The boundaries between tame and wild are never clear-cut.