One of the ubiquitous sights on the winding roads of the central Italian hills is of cats - hundreds, even thousands of them, scurrying off into the brush as you approach, crouching in apprehension as you pass, eyes glinting like lights in the night when they can see us and but for their eyes we wouldn't see them. Many of them are wild, living off whatever they can find in the small clutches of forest that separate their other larder, the ploughed fields. Others are domesticated, but not in the sense that I'm familiar - they're working cats, earning their keep by supplementing the meagre diet their owners allow them by hunting rodents, thereby serving a purpose. The locals don't impose any form of birth control - apart from the hassle of getting it done, the €80 cost to neuter/spay a cat most certainly plays a role in an area where incomes are low - and so the population runs unchecked.
It's a tough life, and I feel sorry for them. "Rescuing" our Luna from an existence as a contadino cat, where she would have had to scrap for every morsel she might come across, has been a telling experience. All you have to do is look at her, and the story tells itself - she's big, furry, and purry ... and at least twice the size of her mother, who still lives the contadino life a few km from here.
So when the little guy started sleeping in our unrestored shed, we took pity ... and started feeding him. Of course we knew the rule - feed a cat, you own it - but we took it on knowingly. Like most of the wild cats, he was small and under nourished, but with a beautiful, unusual striped-grey colouring that reminded me of a snow leopard. Timid to the point of being startled when we approached him, we eventually realized why - he was completely deaf. What a challenge for an animal that has to live by its wits. Not only that, but he had breathing problems, with a wheeze to his respiration that seemed something of a struggle. As we got to know him better, his paltry, pathetic meouw - like a strangled parrot at low volume - led me to better understand his precarious condition.
Over time he let me get closer, even allowing a gentle stroke when I gave him his food, and purring with a pleasure I'm sure these cats rarely have the opportunity to enjoy. One afternoon his constricted squeals drew us out of the house to find another, bigger male with his jaws around his throat - had we not arrived to drive the other cat away, it would have been curtains for him. He and Luna became friends of sorts, occasionally cavorting together in the garden, with Luna contracting a cold from interacting with him. He was kept outside to try and create a limit, but we often caught him sneaking in the back door to finish off the uneaten food in Luna's bowl.
Eventually, however, such became his dependence on his meals twice a day that he didn't live any kind of life of his own. When we got up in the morning, he was outside the back door, and he stayed there most of the day, croaking out his mews every time we left the house, hoping for a morsel (even if he'd just eaten). It even got to the point of being a nuisance as he practiced the cat habit of walking right in front of your feet, presenting a wonderful tripping opportunity.
For him, what we offered was a drug, and he became hooked, his life reduced to waiting for the next fix - a bowl of cat food. Perhaps he had a tapeworm and was constantly hungry, I don't know, or perhaps he knew something else. Maybe his constant meowing was a plea for something.
I had been meaning to write this blog entry for some time, and to take a photo of him to post with the article. But two days ago he disappeared, and he hasn't been back. After feeding him now for over six months, and having developed his dependency on our food, he most certainly hasn't made the decision to move on. I've searched garden and its surrounds, but I can't find him, and I suspect like all cats he took himself off to somewhere secluded to die.
A local told me that dying was a better option than living the way he did, with all his problems. I don't agree. For a few months he felt he belonged somewhere, and he had a protector. He even purred a few times. Suddenly, though, he's no longer around, and I'm sad that we couldn't do more for him. Sad that his little spirit had to struggle so through the brief period of his life. I hope I continue to remember him for all these things. If only I had taken that photo ...