Cat Women: Female Writers on their Female Friends. Edited by Megan McMorris. Seal Press, April, 2007
by Susan T. Lennon
I told my cat that we’d moved from our condo to a house so he could finally run free.
Little did he know our new yard was a fortress. Before we let him set one sleek black paw onto the grass, my husband Donald and I had barricaded it with a six-foot fence, put up netting to block access to the treetops, and stuffed rocks into the small spaces where the vinyl didn’t quite meet the grass. Yep, we were feeling pretty smug. We figured that we’d mastered the art of worry-free outdoor-kitty companionship, giving Atticus what he wanted and outsmarting him at the same time.
Little did we know who we were messing with. Taking advantage of our complacency, Atticus must have been changing the channel from Animal Planet to Turner Classic Movies while we slept. I can just picture the little beast studying Steve McQueen, twirling his whiskers as he figured out how to foil us.
The late-spring air was laden with lilacs and freshly mown grass the evening Atticus carried out the Great Escape. We were lounging on the patio when I spotted a black blur streaking across the yard. Looking like a flying cartoon squirrel, Atticus defied gravity, landing on the latticed top beam. I sprinted after him, making smoochy noises in a lame attempt to disguise my true intent, and reached out to grab him. He flashed his emerald eyes, swished his tail, and jumped. To the dark side.
Barefoot, I tore back down the yard, through the front gate, and stopped at the scrubby backside of the fence. Suddenly, a rasping yowl sliced through the silence, and although I could barely make him out in the dim light, relief washed over me as I realized he hadn’t actually gone anywhere. Crouched atop a rock, his hair standing on end, tail as thick as a raccoon’s, he shrieked like a child with a scraped knee. I bent down to reassure him, ignoring the depth of his distress, assuming that I could simply scoop him up and carry him home. He had other ideas. He hissed and spit and narrowed his eyes to slits.
“Come’ere, Atticus Catticus,” I crooned as I bent over to grab him. He bit me. Hard. I dropped him as blood splattered the fence and ran down my arm.
Then I did what any cat mother would do—I snatched him back up and held on, even as he sank his teeth into my hand again, even as he screeched and writhed and scratched my arm. I hoisted him over the fence, where Donald, who’d run into the house for the Sherpa bag, captured him. Once inside, we tended to my multiple wounds as Atticus’s electrified fur slowly returned to its usual smooth sheen.
Once we were inside, he rubbed up against my leg, eyes beseeching, and that’s when I realized that this kitty-boy, he of the hoarse meow, the hundred variations on mrrrrrrr, the proud panther who doled out his head-butts discriminately, was not the same cat who’d just attacked me. That cat, Atticus’s outdoor alter ego, was some mythical monster whose empty eyes should have told me that he didn’t—couldn’t—“know” me out there. I was a predator to him, and he’d reacted accordingly. Nothing personal.
So, while I held no grudge, I did reevaluate my indoors-only-unless-supervised-in-the-yard policy. Over the course of the year since I’d rescued him, I’d tried every trick I knew to turn this former stray into a contented inside-cat—obviously unsuccessfully. It mystified me. Outside, he was edgy, skittish, dangerous; inside, he was macho, affectionate, calm. Yet he took every opportunity to run; he’d even pushed out a slightly loose screen and fled from the twelve-foot roof off the upstairs bedroom.
Now, even with a big, safe yard, he still pined for the thrill of pure freedom. If he truly wanted to be a road warrior, I guessed I had to honor his wishes—for real.
So that’s how Atticus officially became an outside cat during the day. Every time I held the door open for him, I felt a pang of loss. I missed him. I missed his lap snuggles, our fake-mouse chase games—okay, full disclosure: I even missed cleaning his litter box!
When he came back every night, he was listless, guarded, and bedraggled. Still, like an addict, he kept seeking the buzz. His drug of choice? Someone else’s grass under his feet, towering trees, the wind at his back, the unknown.
When we set off later that summer for a two-week vacation in Cape Cod, I feared that Atticus would be miserable: I didn’t want to risk losing him in a strange place, so I planned to keep him inside the whole time. Little did I know that he would reveal his true nature.
The Cape house had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a salt marsh, and sliding glass doors that led to a wide deck. Breezes floated through the screens, the eelgrass swayed hypnotically, and the yard was flush with squirrels, chipmunks, and shorebirds. Fat lazy bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds frequented the hanging flower baskets, with the sounds of warblers and distant summer insects as a backdrop. After arriving, Atticus indulged in a luxurious stretch, plopped himself down in a patch of sun, and began to preen.
Over the next two weeks, Atticus bloomed. He groomed endlessly, returning his fur to its patent leather shine. He rubbed our legs, gave us head-butts, mrrrrrred and purred and cuddled. He stalked the inside of the house, claiming it as his own. Not once did he try to escape.
We watched, not recognizing our cat. I realized then that I had read Atticus all wrong. He was just like a young teen—testing the margins, looking for adventure, pushing to get his way—but really hoping for love, security, and limits. Give kids too much freedom and they can’t handle it. Here, Atticus had been signaling to us all along that he was scared of the outdoors; his pining for it was a pretense.
And so he became an indoor-only cat—this time for real. Understanding his need for boundaries, and afraid to deprive him cold turkey, I bought him a two-story playpen—black wire, wood floor, two perches. This way, Atticus can experience the ecstasy of the outdoors yet still remain safely ensconced. He spends the rest of his time at home, content to yawn and curl up next to me on his window bed, right where he’s belonged all along.