I brought my outdoor cat Smokey with me when I moved out to Bangalore to Udupi. This is my letter to her, which she will never read. Not only because she cannot, but because she is lost. It has been 3 months now and my eyes still grow moist when I think about her. Read about my move in this blog post.
June 6th 2022 is a day I will never forget. It was the day I lost you. I go to bed with a heavy heart every night, thinking about where you might be, and how you might be managing your food and shelter.
For two years, I watched out for you every single day in Bangalore. You were never a clingy cat, like the ones on the internet. Deep inside I like to believe that you loved me back, although it was only at meal times that you would come running towards me. This may sound like a very transactional relationship, but your presence filled so many voids in my life. Now that you are gone, there is a new void which will never be filled.
I don’t speak the feline language yet, but you were a very expressive cat right from when you were a kitten. You never hesitated to sing the song of your people, which made you very unique. You had a wide vocabulary and I was trained to understand what you wanted to say – whether it was demanding food, protesting when I squished you, complaining when I brought you indoors or being stealth when there were other cats who you wanted to hide from, in the basement. You did not have even one mean bone in your body. I have never seen you behave aggressively, unlike your mother, Lucy.
You were also a bundle of contradictions – skittish, but adamant about wanting to be outdoors. Talkative, but unfriendly towards humans. Innocent, yet adventurous. I never held any of this against you because I knew you had feral genes. There was never a dull day with you around.
I don’t know if you remember your childhood days, but two years ago, when you were still a baby, your ginger sibling died of dehydration in the apartment basement. You were innocently sitting beside a stoic Lucy, watching him take shallow, difficult breaths. I came down to check on you and your siblings when I saw him in that condition. I immediately took him to the vet where he was administered drips. The doctor told me to take him home, and I stayed up all night hoping he would make it. But he didn’t. That is the day I decided to start feeding you and Lucy, because I did not want food to be a want in your lives. Lucy never misses a meal, even now. She continues to be a disciplined, albeit an aloof cat who promptly shows up in the morning and evening at her usual feeding place.
So much happened in your life in the two years I knew you. Your occasional disappearance used to freak me out. Then I got used to it. One time, you were gone for two days and I found you in the nearby street, confused. You responded to my call, which makes me believe that you were trying to find your way back. And then, you got electrocuted earlier this year.
After your stint at the hospital, Lucy and you grew apart. With this estrangement, I foolishly believed that I am all that you had in this world. I brought you along with me to Udupi hoping you could become an indoor cat where you could be safe.
There are certain protocols to be followed when relocating a cat, especially feral ones. I had done my homework and I believed I knew what I was doing. But theory is different from reality – and I just didn’t have it in me to cage you to break your will during the transition period.
After your disappearance from my new house in Udupi, I looked eveywhere and spoke to so many people in the neighbourhood. Most of them believed that you must have succumbed to a python or a dog attack. Now, it has been three months since your disappearance. I don’t even know if you are alive, or dead.
Before that fateful day of Jun 6th, you escaped twice from the new house. I was mildly amused by your ingenuity. Of course I was aware of how stressed you must be with a change in place and routine. I believe I had taken the necessary precautions for the trip and your new life by consulting your vet in Bangalore and buying cat calming products.
The second night, when you escaped by opening the sliding window which was locked, I was dumfounded by your resourcefulness. But you did not go far after you escaped. You were within the compound, so it gave me the false hope that you would hang around even if I let you out.
I wanted to tell you how you were at your best behaviour the night before you disappeared – You were quietly sitting by the window and watching the world outside. In Bangalore, every time I got you home, you would bawl your head off wanting to be let out and I would be forced to leave you downstairs, out of frustration. For a few hours that evening, you weren’t vocalising. This is my best memory of you, albeit the last one.
When I did not find you after opening the door at 7 am, it felt like I was punched in the gut. That feeling hasn’t gone away ever since because you have not come back.
For the first few days after your disappearance, I thought you would find your way back. I left your litter tray outside. After a few days, I went asking about you door to door. Two neighbours, about 3-4 houses away, told me that they saw you on June 9th. I was so relieved. But, you never came back. Every night, I would wake up even at the slightest sound thinking it was you. I set up CCTVs to ensure that I did not miss you, if you were to retrace your steps.
After about 10 days, I learnt that you went further away. By then, I had expanded my search by studying Google maps and studying possible places where you might have wandered off. I was new to the area, so I shared my findings with a neighbour who said he would help me with the search. Unfortunately, he didn’t show up on the Sunday when we were to go look for you further away. Coincidently, someone had seen you that day, as I was to learn later when I went asking myself. Imagine how I felt, when I learnt that.
A kind aunty who saw you last, identified you by your picture. She fed you milk. I know you don’t like milk, but perhaps you were very hungry and drank it. When I think of you being hungry, I break down. I always fed you the best of cat food. I ensured you were neutered and your vaccinations where up to date. When you were in the hospital, recovering from the electrocution, I visited you every single day for 21 days. I made sure you got the best treatment. And now? I don’t even know where you are and how you are managing your food.
I may never get the closure I need. I may never see you again. I don’t even know if you are alive and well, or starving and sick. Or dead. I am sorry, Smokey. I am sorry I displaced you from Bangalore. I only wanted you to be indoors and safe. You were in my thoughts for every decision I took. I never, ever, intended to hurt you.
You know what, Smokey, I don’t miss Bangalore at all, in spite of having lived there for 17 years. I left out of my own choice. Unfortunately, I brought you along to Udupi against yours. In the process of trying to mend my life, I ended up ruining yours. How can I ever get over this?
The relationship we share with our pets is very personal. At one end of the spectrum, pet parents think of their cats or dogs are babies (that never grow up). On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who think that an animal is a toy that you can buy (and discard or ignore).
When I moved to Udupi, I was shocked to see my neighbour keeping their dog tied 24/7 (only taking him for walk in the morning and evening). Worse, they got another pup – a doberman – only to keep him tied too. When I asked them why they keep their dogs tied all day, they said it is because otherwise the dogs would run away.
I haven’t come across anyone here, in Udupi (or any small town in India) who keeps cats indoors forcefully. This is quite the opposite of what pet parents do in the city, and for good reason. In Bangalore, from what I have seen, both dogs and cats are pampered for sure. But cats are kept indoors much against their wishes, while dogs are taken to parks and on road trips.
Coming from a city, I thought of my neighbours as cruel, because they keep the dog tied all day. I thought I was giving my cat her freedom when I let her go outside like she wanted. But now, as my neighbour’s dog grows weak in his chains, I am in no position to judge his parents because of what happened to Smokey.
Each animal is different in the way they respond to humans. A true pet parent offers affection and care without expecting anything in return. All I ever wanted was for Smokey to be safe. She was never a lap cat. Unlike purring kittens, Smokey used to run away from me when she was young. She hated to stay indoors, at home. Yet I loved her. We may project our maternal/paternal feelings on our pets, but the reality is that animals have a limited understanding of this big bad world. They act out instinct. Their behaviour is based on self-preservation, fear, and need for food.
Eventually, most of us will outlive our pets. As pet parents, we have to prepare for it mentally. But, the circumstances under which Smokey came into my life, and left, has left a deep wound. I feel guilt. I feel regret. I feel remorse. I feel anger. I failed to safeguard a precious, innocent animal who meant no harm to anyone. And I don’t even know whom to ask for forgiveness.