Leia’s Christmas Wish

… was to go home.

Some of this was posted on Facebook.

As I type this, yesterday was Dec 25, 2023. I got home from work (if you’re a sysadmin, you do serious stuff on holidays to minimize the impact) at about 5PM. I parked as usual in my apartment complex’s parking lot.

I heard meowing from outside my car. I got out to see a cat on the other side of a chain-link fence that separates the parking lot from a neighbor’s parking area. It was quite dark, so I got out a flashlight, being careful not to point it directly at the cat’s eyes. It was a beautiful mackerel tabby.

I spoke to her (I feel sorry for folks who don’t speak to cats, dogs, snakes, lizards, ferrets, spiders, or any other animal now that I think of it). The cat meowed back. She walked around the fence somehow and came to me.

She let me pet her, and even pick her up. When I touched her, she stopped meowing and started purring. I’ll add:

  • At this point I thought of the cat as “he” since both of my cats are boys.
  • Whenever I pet her or pick her up as I describe below, she’d always purr. Keep that in mind even when I don’t mention it explicitly.

When I put her down, she started following me. I assumed she was lost. She hung out on the outside steps of my apartment building. I rushed inside and got some food and water for her, using a pet dish I’d kept around for a couple of decades. (I should also add that my own cats had not yet been fed and watered that evening. They had plenty, but they have certain expectations.) She ate a bit of food, sniffed at the water.

She alternated between meowing and exhibiting the usual nonchalance of cats. I debated what to do. It was getting cold. She seemed much too tame to be an outdoor cat. I wanted to take her inside to my place, but I wasn’t sure how to keep this cat from mixing with my two. (As you’ll see later, I found a solution.)

It was at this point that I began to speculate wildly, a process that would last for the next 18 hours. I was starting down a path that might involve adding a cat to my household. Could I do this? Could anyone else take in a stray cat? Was a simple encounter heading to a lifetime obligation?

Interjection: When I first moved to my current apartment with my first cat, I got the impression that she was sitting around all day waiting for me to come home. I decided to get a kitten to keep her company. I completely screwed up the introduction. The two disliked each other until the end of their lives. I was mindful that if I repeated the same mistake, I could wind up with three miserable cats.

I wrote to a couple of friends to ask if they might consider taking in a stray; they declined. One of them suggested I look around for “lost cat” posters, but I didn’t see anything. I messaged a friend who lives in the same apartment complex and asked if they’d watch the cat for the night, but they also declined.

A couple of people were within shouting distance. I called out to ask if they’d lost a cat, but neither had.

Finally, I figured it out: Maybe the cat was chipped. I went inside, and quickly searched to see if there’s some way for a lay person to tell. Answer: You can’t unless the cat is almost starved to death.

I decided to take her to a vet to get her scanned. That left another problem: How to get a cat scanned (write your own joke here) on the evening of Christmas Day? I called the Valley Cottage Animal Hospital; they were closed, but the person who answered recommended a 24/7 clinic: the Veterinary Emergency Group (VEG) in Nanuet NY, about 15 minutes from me. I called them to verify that they had a chip scanner.

Both places I called mentioned the possibility of putting the cat in a shelter. I made a firm decision: No. This cat was too friendly to be put into the shelter system. I’d find a way, somehow.

I went back inside to get a cat carrier. It took two tries; the first one, in which I used cat treats, failed. But I got the cat into the carrier.

The meowing began in earnest.

I put the carrier in the car and drove to VEG. As one might predict, on December 25th they were overworked and under-staffed. Still, they made time for me. I had to sit there for about an hour (and at that I was lucky). It was hard listening to the cat plaintively meow during all that time.

I could hear the meaning in the meows. The cat wanted to go home.

Had I made the right decision? Would the cat have been better off if I hadn’t intervened?

Finally a technician was able to spare time to scan the cat. Yes, the cat had a chip. Also, “he” was a “she”. Well, at least I could get the pronouns right.

The technician gave the chip number to the receptionist, in order to look up the number. I tried to reassure the cat. We had the chip number, then we’d get a phone number, then we’d call, and then I’d drive her home.

It didn’t work out that way.

The receptionist was fielding lots of other calls and requests. It took time for her to look up the chip number. As I waited, one of the nurses took a call about pet who was having seizures. She told the person on the other end of the line that it would cost $185 to have the animal examined.

My heart was aching. (I should add that I’m a diabetic. I’d timed things so I’d have dinner and an insulin shot when I got home. But the meows had intervened, my blood sugar was dropping, and my moods were swinging.) So I stepped up to the receptionist and hold her that I would pay the $185 for that person to have their pet examined.

She told me that the person on the other end had hung up. So much for my attempt to ease a tragedy.

I put a $50 bill in the VEG donation box instead.

The receptionist told me that they put the chip number into the web site, and it kept coming back as an invalid number. As I said, I hoped this drama would end happily and soon, and it wasn’t turning out that way.

They scanned the chip again. They got the same number. They tried looking it up again, and got the same result. She tried calling the chip registry, but they were busy too.

Finally, the receptionist gave me the chip number, along with the phone number for PetLink, the chip look-up site they used. Her advice was to wait and try calling PetLink later.

I asked her what I could do. She listed some alternatives (including keeping the cat in a large Amazon box), but the only one I found practical and accessible was to keep her in my bathroom.

I took the cat to my apartment. On the way back, I kept telling her that I’d keep trying to find home. I would call that number. Her response was, “I want to go home!”

When I got to my home, I left her in the carrier as I set up the bathroom. I used the same pet dish I’d used before to feed her on the apartment stairs. I used an Amazon box that I hadn’t gotten around to discarding as a litter box; I had plenty of spare cat litter. I grabbed a cat pillow in which my own cats had lost interest, in case the guest cat wanted someplace soft to lie down.

This is the Amazon box that I hadn’t discarded. The cats had not yet given up sitting in it, which is why I didn’t throw it away. I should make clear that this photo was taken roughly a week before this tale.

Finally I closed the bathroom door and let the cat out. I left the carrier in the bathroom, since I knew that cats often like a small place to nestle and hide.

Then I finally “went to the bathroom” myself. I’d been holding it in for about three hours.

As I sat, the cat looked around. She continued to meow, except when I pet her. She quickly forgave my sins.

My cats were curious, of course. Shuba kept trying to nose his way inside. The guest cat was also curious to interact with the stranger. But the instructions I read on a stray cat website were clear, and this agreed with my experience: Keep a new cat separate.

Shuba made some strange sounds that I’d never heard before. I couldn’t tell if they were anger, warning, curiosity, disappointment, frustration, or some new feline emotion that defined recognition.

I left the bathroom. Here was the new challenge: How to keep that bathroom door closed.

My bathroom door does not latch. Thirty-five years of cats demanding entry mean that I had little incentive to close it before. The only time the door is normally shut is when a guest uses it. As a result, the door has slightly warped to the point where lock/latch does not work.

I tried using a box of foam core to block the door, with a couple of weights to hold the box in place. About a half hour later, I saw that the guest cat and Shuba essentially worked together to try get it open. I intercepted them just in time.

Finally I McGuyvered an answer:

It meant that going to the bathroom required an EVA. I had to plan my bathroom trips for activities like brushing my teeth.

After I got the guest cat settled (I could hear her loud meows as a background to all this), I fed and watered my cats and injected my insulin.

I decided to do my own microchip number research. Almost immediately, I found the general microchip registry AAHA. I typed in the cat’s chip number, and got a quick response: The number had been assigned by HomeAgain.

Why hadn’t VEG done this? I have to assume that they were busy, or were only familiar with the brand of chips that they injected themselves.

I went to HomeAgain, and found to my surprise that I already had an account there. They were the issuers of the microchips I had had put into Jiku and Shuba.

I called them up, dictated the chip number, and they found the guest cat’s records. I gave them my name, number, and approximate location so to pass on to the cat’s owner. As I waited on the line, the agent called the number on the account.

I’m now going to get ahead of my mostly chronological re-telling of events:

  • The agent told me that they’d contacted the number on the account and spoke with someone. What the agent did not tell me is they left a message on the answering service of the main number. The person they spoke with was on the emergency backup number.
  • The agent did not choose to tell me the cat’s name. I would not learn that until the next day.
  • The person they spoke with was the husband of the cat’s “parent”. He was under the impression that one who called him was the person who found the cat, not the chip agency. As a result, he felt no need to call back the number that the agent gave him. I don’t know if that was due to the agent being unclear, or because he was a husband. (I have a theory that the reason why women turn gay later in life is because of husbands.)

The net effect of the above is that I thought I’d receive a call almost immediately. I’d called HomeAgain at 8PM. By 10PM, I had to acknowledge that no one was going to call that night. I wrote an email to HomeAgain, suggested that the owner had not copied the phone number correctly, and asked that they get in touch with them again.

My fantasizing mind rushed ahead. Why hadn’t they called? If it had been me, I would have called instantly if I learned that a lost Shuba or Jiku had been found. Had the owner decided to abandon the cat?

I was posting about all of this on Facebook. My friends pointed out there were all sorts of alternative explanations: It was a holiday; the owner had turned off their cell phone; they were out-of-town; and so on.

When I visited the bathroom later before going to bed, I discovered the guest cat had ignored the carrier and was crouched underneath the toilet tank. I was right about the urge (it was the most enclosed space in the bathroom) but wrong about the location.

As I sat, I watched as the guest cat kneaded at the cat pillow, moving it until it was just behind the door. Then she lay down on it. I petted her to ease the meowing.

It was clear that she was lonely. She wanted home.

I made a decision: I’d give the owner a week to get back to me. If they didn’t, I’d find a way to make a three-cat household work. I couldn’t give her the home she wanted, but I could give her my home.

I went to bed. I managed to sleep for about three hours.

When I went into the bathroom at 3AM, I found the guest cat on the window sill.

She stopped meowing when I pet her. She began to purr. Then she started meowing again.

For all I knew, she could see her home out the window.

Had I done the right thing? Would she have been happier to spend a night in the cold? Would she have found her way home by herself?

Why hadn’t her human called me right away?

I didn’t think she’d eaten or used the litter box since I brought her inside. Was she ill? Is that why she was abandoned, if she were abandoned?

The thought that something this could happen to Jiku or Shuba left me heartsick.

The fantasy mill was in full swing. It was now Boxing Day, December 26. I started making plans about calling my vet in the afternoon if the owner didn’t call. I could see if I could make an appointment to have the cat checked out and arrange an integration with the household.

After working a couple hours and an early breakfast, I fell asleep at about 6AM.

I was awakened by a phone call at about 8AM. It was HomeAgain, following up on the email I sent. It was then I learned what the agent last night had done, and with whom they spoke.

They also told me the cat’s name: Leia. As you might expect, I’d spent some of my fantasizing time trying to come up with fresh but decent-sounding Klingon names for the new cat if the owner never called. It’s just as well that I had a name.

This different HomeAgain agent told me that they’d reach out to the owner again. If I didn’t hear from them, the agent suggested I call HomeAgain again in the afternoon. In other words, be persistent.

Armed with the new information, I went into the bathroom with a change of food and water. Leia was on the window sill. As soon as I said her name, her mood seemed to change.

When I sat down, she begged to be picked up. I did so, and she snuggled against my chest as I pet her. It was the first time since I put her into the cat carrier the night before that she stopped meowing for an appreciable length of time. I sang her my usual stupid cat songs as she purred.

This gave me hope (an appropriate thing for a cat named Leia to do). Leia had clearly been raised to accept hugs, and pets, and snuggling. No one who loved a cat that much would fail to call.

I observed that Leia had finally used the litter box, which was a good sign. However, I saw no sign that she’d eaten anything. Perhaps she was raised on moist food?

I finally had to put her back down. She started meowing again as I left. Jiku and Shuba were right outside the door. If I had to make a new household work, at that moment I knew that I could. But I felt certain I wouldn’t have to.

The biggest challenge would be if the owner was away for the holidays. I’d have to figure out a way to take a shower with Leia in the bathroom. Frankly, I was beginning to stink, though Leia was polite enough not to notice.

The owner finally called at about 10:30AM. That was when I learned that her husband had taken the initial call from HomeAgain. I gave her my address. She lives just a couple of houses from me, as one might have expected.

The owner arrived fifteen minutes later with a cat carrier. I took Leia out of the bathroom and gave her into the arms of home.

As she hugged Leia, I told the owner that chipping Leia was a very good decision. She replied that she hadn’t asked for it; the vet had just done it.

The lesson: Chip your pets. Don’t make excuses.

Leia is home.

She got her Christmas wish.

Once again, Santa Claus came this year. This time, I was in the room when he visited.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. William Seligman

    Coda: As a result of the Leia Saga, I cancelled a doctor’s appointment. I also delayed some sysadmin work that I’d originally planned for today.

    Anyone who thinks that the well-being of a single cat is not worth the status of a multi-million-dollar physics project had best unfollow me immediately.

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