Meet my feline family: Azrael
Azrael was born semi-feral outside my apartment building in Montreal in the spring of 2003, during the first year my now-ex and I lived there (this was before I was even vegan). She is a sweetie, and a somewhat neurotic cat. She's quite nervous around humans, the (partial) exception being that she generally trusts me. So when I say she's a sweetie, basically she's my sweetie but tends to appear skittish and/or aloof to other humans. Her nickname is Zella.
She's usually gentle with humans and doesn't lash out at them (i.e. the vet -- she just sits scared and immobile while being examined), but most of the time prefers to run and hide when there are strangers around. Even with me, she loves getting petted but only on her terms, in her familiar "safe" places and situations. She sometimes lets my partner pet her as well, but in even more limited situations. Her story will be long, since it also includes stories of her family members who were not as lucky as she. This also makes it one of the more difficult of this series of blog entries for me to write about. For these reasons I'm just going to start with part of her story now, and continue it next time.
As a long-haired brown tabby cat, Azrael has a bit of the appearance of a Maine Coon cat, except that she's tiny (only 6.6 lbs) while Maine Coons are normally in the 15-20 lb range. Sometimes I joke that she's a "miniature Maine Coon". Since she's so thin, she's been tested more than once for FIV and feline leukemia, and the vets always check her thyroid, but their conclusion is that there's nothing wrong with her, that she's just a naturally skinny girl for some reason.
Azrael's mother was a black cat who may have been fully feral (I was never able to get close to her). We nicknamed her Blackie (I know, very original). As far as I know, she moved on once her kittens were old enough to be on their own. Azrael's father was a sweet stray white cat who was probably abandoned at some point, who lived around the building and was fed by two sets of neighbours on the first floor , and then also by me when he started showing up at my window (it was pretty startling the first time, to look over and unexpectedly see a face looking in the window!). One couple downstairs would put out a shelter-box for him in the winter. To be honest, I can't know for sure that he was Azrael's father, since a litter of kittens can have more than one father, but he was definitely the father of several of her siblings as they were all-white as well. He also got along better with the kittens than male cats are typically thought to, hanging around and getting along with them long after their mother had moved out of the area.
I called him Whitey (again with the originality!). Whitey had runny eyes and greasy-looking dirty tail fur, basically looked like a grizzled old alley cat, and he also happened to be a very nice guy, enjoying getting petted as well as getting food. Unfortunately the couple downstairs, who I later learned called him Casper, didn't take him in since they had a cat who didn't like other cats. I was also in that situation myself as my feline friend Alan who moved out of my parents' home with me was still living with me at the time. That fall Whitey stopped coming around, and I later learned that he was killed by a car. Unfortunately this is going to be a common refrain in my stories from that neighbourhood, especially with respect to Azrael's relatives.
I have to say that at that time I really had no idea what I was doing as far as helping cats goes. Simply putting out food for stray cats and hoping for the best is not the way to help cats, it's a way to give oneself warm fuzzy feelings, perhaps. I'm certainly not saying *not* to feed stray and feral cats, but in order to help them, food and water are not enough. Spaying or neutering and getting the cats indoors, if at all possible, are also essential, especially in urban areas. Some cities have programs for spaying and neutering stray cats at low cost or even for free, and occasionally you may also be able to find a sympathetic vet who will do these surgeries at reduced cost if you explain the situation. It pays to ask around. Borrow or buy a live trap for catching the more feral cats, or make your own drop trap.
Azrael had four or five siblings, and as they grew up they started climbing the spiral staircase of the fire escape like their parents, to ask for kibble that I would put out on the windowsill for them. Three or four of them were white cats (I'm not quite sure in retrospect if the shyest white one was actually one or two different cats), two of whom were relatively friendly at the window. The last sister of the bunch was a light grey tabby. Azrael and her friendlier brother and sister, nicknamed Whitey Jr. and Pita (short for Spanakopita -- don't ask why, I'm not sure myself), were the most common visitors to my windowsill. Gradually, though, fewer and fewer of the siblings came around, and I will never know if any of them were adopted by neighbours, whether they moved out of the area, or whether they were killed by cars. I hope for the former, but the latter was really more likely in that neighbourhood, with the traffic and narrow side streets constantly lined by parked cars on both sides. I can't help but think that I could have prevented whatever horrible fate at least some of them must have met, if I had had the sense to catch them all and keep them indoors. (I would also be living with about two dozen cats now, but that's another matter...)
As the kittens grew up, Azrael became the most frequent visitor at my window, and eventually the only one left among her siblings. She got into the habit of having me pet her while she ate, and to this day she prefers eating this way. It seems like she feels safer, whereas without me there, she's more likely to be bothered by one of the other cats, or a noise, and so to suddenly "lose her appetite" and run away without eating. Food is generally not a big interest or motivator for her, compared to other cats, and she's very sensitive to being disturbed. This is certainly one of the reasons that she's so thin. So, I always stay with her at feeding time, petting her and trying to keep the other faster-eating cats from nosing into her dish or circling her and sniffing at her tail (Thor does this regularly; he knows it will upset her and she'll run away leaving her dish open so that he can move in), and encouraging her to eat more than she would have otherwise.
The funny thing about how she runs away when another cat bothers her at the food dish is that she's one of the more dominant cats in the household. If one of the younger cats is goofing off near her, they might get a Look that stops them in their tracks and causes them to take off in the other direction, knowing that a swat in the face won't be long to follow that look. She also absolutely hates when other cats fight, and upon hearing hissing, growling, or other sounds of fighting, will come running from wherever she is to break up the fight. More than once I've seen her leap off one of the highest platforms on the floor-to-ceiling cat tree and go running off to break up a fight. I call her "the enforcer".
In general she gets along relatively well with most other cats though, and although she's mostly solitary she has been known to sleep next to Thor, Jasmine, Julius, and up until recently Fred, on occasion throughout the years. She doesn't like Fred these days, since the two most recent additions, Wade and Seymour, have upset the heirarchy lately. Fred, accustomed to being the alpha male before the newcomers arrived, has been upset that he no longer seems to be the dominant male, and is taking it out on other cats, one of them being Arzrael. (I kind of wonder if he started bothering her because she would come to physically break up the fights he was picking with Hanna Harriet not long ago, which maybe gave him the impression that she "started it" with him...) So for now, Fred dominates Azrael, Azrael dominates Wade and Seymour, and Wade and Seymour dominate Fred, making a strange circular situation that will hopefully resolve itself soon! It's sad to see Azrael scrunch up, flatten her ears on her head, and hiss at Fred when he comes near her, when up until recently they used to sleep next to each other on the bed.
Next time I'll continue with the story of Azrael's transition to becoming an indoor cat, and the unfortunate story of the kittens she had before that happened. Azrael's relatives, as well as EssPee's (whom you'll meet later) were a big influence on the development of my views against domestication and the concept of "pets". It's another form of exploitation, like the use of animals for food, clothing, and other purposes. If you're not already vegan, please consider taking animals seriously and going vegan. And if you have the ability to do so, please consider adopting an animal in need, like Azrael once was, from a shelter, rescue group, or off the street if there are strays in your area. Check out my other posts or the links in the sidebar for more info about veganism and animal exploitation, and be sure to check back here for the next part of Azrael's story.