Meet Denise – An Incredible Journey from Feral Cat to Lap Cat!

Name: Denise 1988-12/13/08

About Denise: As the owner of Sit-A-Pet I would like to take this opportunity to honor my sweet kitty cat that passed away last month. This is not the usual format for Pet of the Month but Denise was such an intimate part of the Sit-A-Pet family, that I feel the need to write about her. She survived, against all odds, to see her 20th year. Most of that time she lived outdoors as a feral cat.

Our journey began together in 1989 when I moved into an apartment complex under renovation. There were 20 homeless cats hanging around, which included one cat (later named Denise) with her 4 kittens. With the help of the SPCA we managed to capture and find homes for 18 of them. The vet wanted to euthanize the last 2 because they were too wild and would never make good house pets. I insisted on bringing them home with the promise to care for them outdoors. They became Audrey and Denise. For 5 years they lived under the buildings, down by the creek, in the woods. Life was hard. More than once they were trapped under buildings and in crawl spaces as the renovations progressed. Sometimes days would go by before I could locate them and set them free. They grew to trust me and eventually allowed me to pet them while they ate. They always came running when they heard my special dinner whistle. One snowy, icy evening Audrey did not show up for her only meal of the day. Tragically, I found her dead in an illegally set raccoon trap. I now realized it was far too dangerous a place for a feral cat to live and summoned the courage to “scruff” Denise and get her up to my small apartment. I had to find a home for her fast if I wanted my beloved cockatiel to survive. And so I thought of Beverly. Throughout those first 5 years of Denise’s life, Beverly was the one other person she befriended. Shelived a few buildings away. Denise would always meet her in the parking lot and escort her to her door. When Beverly moved a few months before the raccoon trap incident, she mentioned if I ever needed a home for Denise she would take her. I dismissed the kind offer knowing I could never separate the 2 cats plus it would be a very difficult transition for her. Now that she was hurled into my apartment and was frantic and hyperventilating, I had no choice. I brought her to Beverly’s that night and she spent the next 6 months trying to adjust to life indoors.

In the meantime, since I no longer had any ties to the apartment I decided to move. By total coincidence I found a new home about 6 blocks from Beverly and Denise. I was in the process of moving when I got a frantic call from Beverly that Denise had escaped. Our fear was that she was trying to find her way back to the apartments, about 3 miles away.

For 3 weeks I searched for her, camping out by the woods with a plate of food and signaling for her with our special dinner whistle. I put signs on telephone poles. I did the same back at the old apartment. It had begun to seem hopeless. In the meantime, a new Sit-A-Pet client called for service that lived in my area. I went over to meet with her and her kitties and fill out the necessary paperwork. I mentioned to her that I was looking for a missing cat so please keep an eye out. The next morning before leaving on her trip she called and said she thought Denise was in her backyard. I drove over there, gave the special dinner whistle, and from the bushes emerged a skinny Denise covered in brambles. We were reunited again!

But getting her to her new home wasn’t easy. I couldn’t catch her. I tried picking her up in the conventional way but she bit me. I tried using a Have-A-Heart trap but only caught the neighbors’ cats. Meanwhile I had begun pet sitting for the cats that had lived inside this house, so Denise thought that was where I lived.

Finally, very late one night when I was waiting to see if she would go in the Have-A-Heart, my hand became so infected from her bite that I decided to walk home rather than take the car. My arm was too swollen to drive. Amazingly enough, Denise walked the 5 blocks home with me just like a little puppy dog! Once I got home, however, I had to be taken to the emergency room . When I got back, in the wee hours of the morning, Denise was already gone. She went back to the client’s house because she thought that’s where I lived. So, the next day I waited until it was very late and quiet and safe and we tried it again. She walked with me back to her new home and this time she stayed.

And so began a new phase of her life. She soon enjoyed the little heated doghouse I set up for her in the backyard. She came inside only once during the coming years. It was her first winter, which coincided with “The Blizzard of 96”. She could sense what was to come before the first snowflake fell. As I opened the door to put out her food I was shocked to see her barrel her way in. She ran to a small backroom where she hid until the snow melted 2 weeks later.

She never came inside again for the next 9 years. But she would always look through the back door at all the pets and people inside. She had very expressive eyes. Her furrowed brow always gave her a very worried look, as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders.

Finally, after surviving many raccoon scuffles, stray dog attacks and foul weather, she decided at 15 years of age it was time to move inside. So she walked right in, calm as can be, and never looked back. With numerous pets in the house Denise’s submissive behavior put her at the bottom of the pecking order. We vowed to not add to the menagerie so that one day she would hopefully be queen of her castle.

She began to experience seizures and they became quite severe. An MRI showed nothing. She also developed unexplainable lumps all around her body with one located smack in the middle of her forehead. We discovered that if this lump was drained of fluid the seizures would stop. It was a medical mystery.

Finally, in the last year of her life Denise did become our only pet (except for our bird). She was finally free to roam the house without fear. The worried expression was gone, her eye contact was intense. She greeted everyone that came to visit and enjoyed their company. She especially loved her naps with “Daddy”. She even discovered that a lap was a place for relaxation and warmth. She had evolved.

Her life was an incredible 20 year journey which she survived against all odds. She was very sweet and very lucky and never took anything for granted. We had a strong and enduring relationship. She is now buried in the backyard where she spent much of her life.

Debbie Hollander