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Starting Point

Cruelty and comfort in stray cats’ lives


It was cold and rainy outside. As I switched on the light to check our cat’s food dish, a stray stared back at me, paused for flight, but still eating hungrily. All winter, these cats have found their way to us. They are bedraggled, thin and mistrusting. Some migrate down from the town dumpster, some get lost from having traveled too far from surrounding farm homes, and others are just dumped off, discarded when no longer wanted.

At present we have four stray cats: a pair of striking tortoise shell-colored ones and two others who think they live here, which they do, though it was their idea and not ours. Foxy came as a kitten, angora gray with a white ruff, and as afraid and hungry as a cat can get. Starvation will always trump fear. Foxy was soon eating out of our cat dish. It takes about two months for a cat who has known terror to trust. That’s about how long it took Foxy, who now spends his days gazing attentively into our house through the window, finding pleasure in our presence.

Louis is a sleek, black tomcat with yellow eyes. Starvation finally drove him to our porch. His leg was mangled completely raw to the white bone. We set food out, and he would drag himself to it. Over time he grew fat. Because of his gentlemanly ways, we began letting him into the house for visits. I discovered he is de-clawed. That explained his many injuries. He can’t climb trees to protect himself from dogs and he can’t hunt for food.

In a short time I observed something disheartening about our friendly pair of Siamese housecats. When Louis comes in the house, they chase him. They don’t get violent but they bully him. Louis can’t defend himself, and I think they sense this and take advantage of it. However, with persistence on my part, they are learning to get along better and at least tolerate each other.

I often see the psychology of human nature played out in the daily lives of our strays. I see the yearning for a place to belong, the need for safety. I see how starvation, whether physical or of the soul, acts as a driving force and I see the boldness that can result from it, along with the desperation of doing things that are otherwise not natural acts. When I think of the wars in the world and what these do to people, I don’t have to look further than our cat dish to understand the basic principles of those who have and those who don’t, of those who must defend, who must fight to survive and, most sadly, of the bullies who have no concept of the plights or rights of others.

I hold these things to my heart. The cruelty in the world pains me. It makes me want to seek shelter because I fear it, both for myself and for others. But when I take in the joy of Foxy, sunning himself on top of an old soda pop carton, I know it is because of our efforts. Foxy knows he’s safe and doesn’t have to worry about the future.

My prayer is that all human beings can come to an understanding of how much difference small acts of kindness can make in the world, that we should not throw stones at each other. My prayer too is for recognition that being a peacemaker and protector on all levels is the highest calling there is.

Joni Woelfel is the author of Tall in Spirit and The Light Within (ACTA Publications).

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002