Once upon a time there was a little itty-bitty kitty named Bubbles. He lived in a small cage at Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. He sat on a towel in the back corner of the cage and made defiant little meows at everyone who passed by. He had cute white mittens and socks, a white chin and chest bib, and enormous ears. When I reached my hand into the cage, he came out of his corner and sniffed it, purring so that his entire tiny body shook. He was just under eight weeks old, and scheduled to be neutered the next day. They said I could come back the following Monday if I wanted to adopt him.
Sure, I was smitten with the kitten. Do a search on “Loki” if you want to see just how much (I changed his name immediately). But the relationship was not all a bed of roses. Well, maybe it was, but they were sure some thorny roses. Roses with claws, more like.
From Day One, Loki was an energetic, exploratory, adventurous, outgoing kitty-boy. He wanted to go everywhere, see everything, play with everything. My furniture took a huge hit. I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep unless I locked him out of the bedroom, because at three or four in the morning he wanted to PLAY, DAMMIT!!!!!!
I bought a gazillion cat toys and played with him every day, trying to keep him engaged and happy.
I got him used to a harness and spent an hour every day (in tolerable weather) outside letting him walk me around the yard on a leash.
I developed elaborate techniques for getting in and out of the house without him slipping past me to escape into the wild. They failed a meaningful percentage of the time (entailing the significant challenge of chasing him down and recapturing him) and even when they didn’t, they made coming and going from home a hugely stressful proposition.
I rushed back from wherever I was every day, as often as I could, because I knew I had a bored and lonely kitten at home.
And a good 90% of my communication with him was me saying “No!” or doing something to stop him from whatever it was he wanted to do. We were in an almost constant contest of the wills. Do not let anyone tell you that a cat has no will. That cat concentrated more willpower in his little feline forepaw than most human beings will deploy in their entire lifetime. This kitten had Life Goals and Was Not To Be Deterred.
(Want to fulfill your dreams? Emulate your cat. Delegate the tedious stuff—obtaining food, cleaning up—and focus on getting to do the things you really want to do, and be super-persistent until others bend to your will to make it so. Plus you will get petted a lot. Win!)
We did have our sweet bonding times. Loki is a suckler (deprived of mommy too soon, I imagine), and he would great me with great enthusiasm when I came home and in the morning when I let him into the bedroom. He would sometimes jump into my lap and curl up for a snooze. He was extremely interested in visitors, and was generally unafraid and social with them. He liked the novelty.
But he was also frequently cranky and aggressive. He bit me, a lot, to get my attention, when he wanted something, or just when life was too dull (often). His claws were deployed with abandon. Anything that moved in the house was joyfully taken to be prey: visiting houseguests were frequently assaulted on and about the ankles, hands, heads—really, just about anything he could reach.
It wasn’t a fun arrangement. It wasn’t healthy, for him or for me. Neither of us was enjoying the status quo much.
The only time he was really happy, fully his kitty self, was when he managed to slip out of his harness in the yard. On those occasions, you could see his whole body transform into a springy bundle of joy. He would dash from one corner to the other, shimmy up trees, and sometimes—if I would put on hold my agenda of getting him back into the harness and under control as quickly as possible—we could play chase and tag together, romping like two equal creatures through the grasses under the sun. There was no doubt in my mind: the outdoors was Loki’s favorite place, and running free was his greatest pleasure in life. Everything outside is in motion, it is endlessly fascinating to explore, it is beautiful and filled with myriad creatures with whom to engage. It is Kitty Paradise.
I had spent years on my High And Mighty Horse of Judgment on the subject of indoor v. outdoor cats. I expounded to friends and family alike on the subject. I cited statistics about lifespan, vet bills, and the myriad dangers of the outdoors (exacerbated in Asheville by the presence of feral cats, foxes, raccoons, and *bears*). I wanted my precious Loki to live a long and healthy life. I knew from personal experience about the heartbreak of loss of an outdoor cat: when I was a kid, one cat left our household to live elsewhere in the neighborhood (maybe the food there was better?), another was run over right in front of my childhood home. I knew all cats should be indoor cats, unless maybe they were barn cats on a farm.
I knew what the correct thing to do was: keep my cat inside.
And besides, I had made a promise. When I adopted Loki, I signed a contract that said, among other things, that I promised I would keep him as a strictly indoor cat.
I take promises very seriously, which is why I make as few of them as possible. The prospect of breaking my word made me very uncomfortable. It was also very difficult to go from being an Indoor Cat Zealot to contemplating allowing my own cat the freedom of the outdoors. I imagine the process was not dissimilar from those who go from being fundamentalist believers in God to becoming atheist.
But the evidence was in front of my face. Loki wanted nothing more than to be outside, as much as possible. Yes, he would risk injury and death in the streets and woods and the neighboring yards. (But would I want to live my life in the confines of a few square blocks, without ever interacting with another of my own kind or experiencing anything new or unexpected, even if everything I needed for survival were provided for me? Hell no.) Was he a timid or sedentary animal, content with hearth and home, as some cats are? Clearly not.
I swallowed my pride, relinquished my previously held dogma, let go of my desire to control every aspect of his life experience, accepted my fear for his well-being, and opened the door.
Loki walked out, at first cautious and seemingly incredulous at this development, and then as it was clear that I was not going to try to chase him down and bring him back in, radiating delight from every last fur tip. I was in a state of heightened anxiety that first day, wondering if he would return and when.
He did return, of course. Indeed, he comes home (eventually) whenever I call him, leaping and bounding across the yard, making happy greeting sounds.
Our relationship is utterly transformed.
Since I started letting him out several months ago, he has bit me exactly twice—neither time in an aggressive fashion. We have quiet, cosy time together in the evening. He sleeps in my bedroom, calmly through the night. We have an hour of lovey cuddling in the morning. My furniture bears the scars of the Indoor Time, but no new wounds have been inflicted. He’s not constantly on the counters or trying to reach the refrigerator top. I hardly EVER have to say no to him.
Our relationship now is pure affection and mutual regard. He loves it when I go outside with him. We play tag in the yard sometimes, or he sits near me on the porch. He curls up next to me at night with a sigh of contentment.
He is such a happy cat. And I’m happy too. I come and go freely during the day, and so does he. I call him to come in at night, and he does. Our time together is virtually without strife. I love him and I chose to set him (mostly) free. I rejoice in every day he chooses to come home and hang around with me. Of all the difficult decisions I’ve made in my life, this one has had the clearest and most obvious positive outcome. Even if something awful were to happen to him tomorrow (heaven forbid!), I would still be confident that I made the right choice.
And I hardly ever have to clean the litter box. Score!
For an ongoing visual record of my handsome Loki, check out this Facebook album.
[On Saturday, I'm installing a cat door for Loki in the kitchen door (an early birthday present from Bob). Once Loki gets used to using it, he'll be able to come in and out at liberty, so I won't need to play doorman or worry that he can't take shelter from bad weather or get to his food when he's hungry during the day. I'll close it off when he's in for the night. It operates by recognizing his implanted ID chip, so only he will be able to use it. I've already started training him to squeeze himself through it with the flap held open, so I trust he'll get the hang of it quickly. I hope he loves it!]