Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Partings with a Dear Running Friend


Well most readers of this blog know that I run regularly on the Jordan River Bike Trail.  I live literally about a quarter mile from one of the parks and I pretty much run the same route at the same time every day.

There is something nice about that.  I know most of the "regulars" and feel like I am a regular.  While, it doesn't offer much for training variation, it is a place where I don't have to worry about cars, there are bathrooms and drinking fountains and all around it is a solid place to train.  Also the paved trail is level, so I don't usually get any hip problems.

The Cat

I've always had a fondness for pets and animals.  I've had a dog or a cat for the better portion of my life.  They make great life companions and even when you are having a crappy day, they can cheer you up.

In the years past, while running on the bike trail, I've befriended many pets.  In the past it was Snowball, a neighborhood cat that the owner's let wander onto the bike trail.  I'd feed or stop by my runs to pet it.  It knew me and was happy when I brought some kibble for him to eat.

One day Snowball just vanished.  The owner never knew what happened.  My hunch is that someone thought he was abandoned and would make a nice pet. 

However, most animals on the bike trail aren't that lucky.  There are several instances where pets have simply been dumped by owners who no longer want the pets.  My current cat, Oreana, was one of those. 

Luckily Oreana was easy to capture and she wanted a home.  I think she has probably been the best cat I've ever owned.  She loves to play, be pet, is clean and doesn't cause any problems.

But I digress.

Around the time I was befriending Snowball I met whom I would later call Fluffy.  I would say I first encountered Fluffy about 3 years ago -- maybe more.  But it was a tiny cat I spied in the middle of the field who stayed far, far away from me. 

At the time, I carried cat food for Snowball and I had half a bag left, so I tried to make it obvious what I was doing and dropped some food.  The next day, the food was gone.

Fast forward over the course of a year or two and our routine got more settled.  She was certainly hesitant to be near me but she knew my pattern and often times I'd see her a healthy distance away waiting and watching for me.  90% of the time I had food and I'd drop it.  And every day the food was gone.

Over the last year we firmly established a routine -- with just some variation in it from time to time.  But every day, she was waiting for me at a storm drain.  She wouldn't let me touch her or pet her.  She'd wait in the tunnel, I'd drop the food, I'd back away 10 yards and she'd come out and eat.  I could watch her, but I couldn't touch her.

I was happy with the situation and felt bad for the cat.  But there wasn't a whole lot I could do.  Any attempt at catching her resulted in her backing away.  I certainly didn't want to get bitten by a feral cat (think rabies).  But I continued to feed her over the course of the next 12 - 18 months -- religiously, every day.

It gave me motivation to walk or run down to the draining ditch.  It was a good 1.25 miles from my house (one way) so even on rest days, it was a healthy walk.  Also, on days where I didn't run and was going on a weekend trip, before we hit the road, I'd swing by and dump food.

Since we had a schedule I upped the portions, more kibble and even introduced wet food.  And she gained weight and was actually really healthy.

When I left for Arizona in May of 2018 I was really bothered.  I was going to attempt to start a new life down there and make a go of it.  But what I was I going to do for this cat?  It was a feral after all and it wasn't my pet but it was a daily task.  There were a few other people on the bike trail that were willing to lend a hand but I suspect their interest in helping out long term was probably weak at best.

Luckily, while I was gone, Shari fed Fluffy.  She was just as diligent as I was in getting the job done and drove out to the drainage ditch, walked from the parking lot to the meeting place and dumped the food.  Most of the time, Fluffy was waiting, sometimes not. 

Around July of 2018 I decided that Arizona and I were not going to work out.  Just a variety of reasons made me realize that Salt Lake was my home. 

Naturally when I came back, I resumed my normal running routine -- and of course I took over the duty of feeding Fluffy.

The first few runs I didn't see her at all.  I knew she was around but sometimes our patterns just didn't line up. 

But then I did see her.  Not at the drainage ditch but at another spot on the trail.  She immediately remembered me and despite being in an open field, she approached me. And the magic happened.  She rubbed against me and let me pet her.  3 years in the making -- I just about died with excitement.  I gently pet her, spent some time with her and dropped some food.

I thought-- wow this may not be a feral.  This may be a cat that I could adopt and bring home.  But would it be litter box trained? Would it get along with Oreana?  would it destroy my house?  How would I capture it?  Did she want a home?

Over the next 6 months it was the highlight of my run.  I'd stop, pet my cat, and she'd rub against me and meow and it was as if she was mine.  She was always skitish of me but I was free to pet her and eventually hold her from time to time -- but not for long.  I do remember once she got under my feet and I accidentally stepped on her paw.  She gave me the cold shoulder for a week and it took me a long time to earn her trust again.  But it happened.

Eventually we switched back to the drainage ditch and she was getting fatter and bigger.  Before winter set in we decided we'd make an attempt at capturing her.  We'd give her a go in our house.  If she destroyed it or beat up on my other cat, we'd just bring it back or take her to a shelter.  But we both wanted her.

I certainly wish I could've explained to her what I wanted to do but she wasn't having any part of being picked up in a blanket or put in any sort of box.  We tried about half a dozen times and each time we tried it we learned what worked and what didn't.  Our last time, we got her in the box but couldn't get the lid on fast enough, so she jumped out and just gave me an icy stare.

I didn't want to try too many times to get her.  If I tried every time, she'd never trust me and I'd rather feed her than scare her off.

Well dear reader, you probably know where this post is going and how it will end.  But we had a winter storm coming in and I of course went for my second run of the day.  I had fed the cat in the morning on my long run but decided that at 4 PM I could afford to eek out another 3 miles and feed her again.

Of course she was there waiting for me and it was windy and cold.  I held her against my body and she just accepted my warmth.  Normally she squirmed and escaped my grasp after 10 seconds, but this time she just was content for me to hold her. 

I knew the weather was going to be bad and she was a trooper at surviving harsh conditions.  We've had far worse storms.  If I had had my phone with me I would've called for Shari to come get us.  So with some misgivings, I gave her a final hug and set her down.  She dove into her food in the shelter of the tunnel.

That night the weather was horrible.  It was snowing sideways -- not a lot. I think we got about 3 inches of snow, if that but it was windy.  I kept thinking about Fluffy and wondering if I should go get her.  But it was dark and my hunch is that she was hunkered down somewhere.

On Monday, after work, I went for my run and came across the spot where I feed her.  I called out for a her. 

No response.

I had a panicky moment.  I mean come on, we didn't have that bad of a storm last night.  She was a survivor and a fighter with a full coat of fur. There was no way that storm got her.

I called out again and sort of poked around the usual spots where sometimes she liked to hang out.

Then I saw it.

I looked down at the banks of the Jordan River and there was Fluffy. 

I don't think I'll ever know what happened.  She wasn't covered with snow and there were a bunch of tracks down near the river bed.  Perhaps hers, perhaps a dog.  There was also a set of human prints that led to her. 

She was laying on her back, partially on some brush and there was evidence of blood.  She wasn't mauled.  There was virtually no snow on her body. Her lifeless eyes stared back at me.

I was simply too late and I had failed to rescue her.

I hit my knees. It was as if I had been kicked in the stomach.  I looked again at disbelief but I could tell it was her.  She had the hugest white paws I've ever seen on a cat and there they were.  I wanted to throw up.

I didn't have a phone with me and I just backed away and believe it or not continued to run.  I was trying to hold back the tears and finally after another mile or so I pulled off at a park, sat on a bench and wept.


I called Shari and later we drove out to her with a shovel and the box we had been trying to use to bring her home and got her dislodged from the tangle of brush she was in and brought her lifeless body to the vet.  It was a tough thing for me to do as I tried not to cry and throw up with all the memories of our time together.

It was a 24-hour vet so the cost of getting her remains was double what it should've been.  I paid for the service and went home. Part of me was in shock that I'd pay that kind of money for a silly feral, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Fluffy was my pet.  I had a ton of people ask me why I did it, why would I feed a feral cat who showed me no attention.  It was a total one way relationship at the start, but the process made me feel good and gave me satisfaction of making a small difference.

Running, since then, hasn't been fun.  I still stop by the drainage ditch and call out.  I think to myself, maybe I made a mistake.  And for a while I thought I heard her meow like she used to when we saw each other.  But it was the wind or a bird.

There is another black cat that periodically is there, so I've been feeding that one now.  It doesn't even like me to look at it and I've been feeding it for a while.  I think it got the leftovers that Fluffy didn't eat (I was brining two cans of food each day).  It'll just take some time to develop a schedule with it, but on warm, sunny days, I find it sunnying itself on the banks.

I don't know what happened to Fluffy.  And to be honest, I don't really want to know.  I began to look at strangers walking along the bike trail, wondering if they had done something to my cat.  A lot of things don't add up and I don't think she died from the cold.  We got a fair amount of snow so I would think that if that had been the case, I would've found her in some sort of shelter-like position and not on her back.  I also don't think a wild animal got her.  Her body was too intact.

I am still mad at myself for not being able to rescue her.  I say to myself I should've tried harder or I should've been more aggressive.  But there were so many variables at play.

My runs no longer really have the same meaning and while they are getting easier, I still look to check the draining ditch and see if she is sitting on her favorite rock, waiting for me. 

I thought about switching routes, but I can't.  I am a total creature of habit.  And besides, I have a black cat to feed now.

All I know is that this one stung and it stuck with me.  At simple as our relationship was, Fluffy was my pet and I may have been the only one to ever show her kindness. I think because of me she was able to be happier and more well fed had we not met at all.

And that has made all the difference.

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