The Pet Dilemma and the Neighborhood Cat

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Two kids petting a tabby housecat on their front porch.
Not our cat. Technically.

I didn’t have a pet growing up. Not a real pet, anyway, not a pet-able pet. I had goldfish that didn’t live long every once in awhile. My younger sister got a parakeet when I was in high school, but it was hers more than the family’s, and for the most part stayed in its cage. I was out and married when the old homestead finally got a dog.

My husband had a dog as a child, but we never had any pets in the time we’ve lived together, either, until the oldest brought home a couple of guppies from his first grade classroom. Those were unexpected guppies, but he was so excited about them that we went out and bought a fishbowl and some food right away. And we must have done all right by them, since apparently all the other guppies his classmates brought home from that classroom tank didn’t last very long. Our weakest guppy lasted two months, and the other… well, she was a tough cookie. We called her Big Mama Fish, because she bullied any other fish we put her with and she’d apparently come to us pregnant. Of course, when her babies were born, she tried to eat them all. Just one of the babies escaped, earning her the name of Zippy, as it was clearly survival of the quickest. She was not only quick, but she’d also apparently inherited her Mama’s mean temper, because she, too, liked to bully the other fish. And eat her babies. When Zippy finally died, at the ripe old age of two years and eleven months (that’s like 140 in guppy years), the fish tank became a much more peaceful, and crowded, place. But none of these fish have names, because we’ve lost track.

Right, I should mention that, from what started as a spontaneous short-lived former-classroom pet in a styrofoam cup, we have a proper aquarium now. We bought snails and additional guppies. We upgraded the bowl to a five-gallon tank, that tank to a ten-gallon tank, and now my husband keeps talking about upgrading again—because now that Big Mama and Zippy aren’t there to bully and cannibalize, guppies are really good at reproducing.

But, all things considered, guppies are really low-maintenance. You feed them once a day, if that, and you clean the tank every so often. Since my husband cleans the tank, and he and my daughter share feeding duties, I can and often do forget they’re there.

Guppies aren’t like dogs or cats or iguanas. They’re not quite a member of the family. A larger pet would mean a much larger investment of attention, and each and everyone in this household has enough trouble with attention as is. What would our house look like if you added someone with claws and fur to the mix? And how would I get any typing done while I’m home alone all day if someone keeps needing to be house-trained?

On the other hand… puppies. My husband and I are both dog people. Dogs are so full of unconditional love! But both sets of parents have dogs, so we can get our fill visiting them.

For some reason, through no outside influence I’m aware of, our kids are cat people. Sometimes they think they are themselves cats. The ten-year-old—NOT the artsy manic-pixie eight-year-old girl, the literal-and-very-serious ten-year-old boy—still likes to wear cat ears. He wore cat ears at Cub Scout Camp the other weekend. The eight-year-old just likes to play the see-a-box-and-sit-in-it-no-matter-what-size game. Anyway, they would like to have a real cat of their own. OR a dog, but mostly a cat. Cats are, admittedly, a little lower maintenance than dogs. But still, have you seen my desk? Have you seen the rest of the house?

At any rate, on the first day of school, we made a new friend.

She showed up on the front porch to photobomb the First Day pictures.

three pictures of the tabby cat taking up residence on the front porch
Don’t mind me(ow), just making myself at home.

“The kitty wants to wish you good luck on your first day at your new school!” the girl told her brother, who, indeed, was starting Intermediate school (the 5th and 6th grades in our district) that day.

But she showed up again on the second day, the third day… and a month and two weeks in, she still runs up every morning, the moment she hears the door open.

“Whose cat is this?” we asked the neighbors. No one knew. She was clean and looked generally well-cared for, but she didn’t seem to belong to anyone in the neighborhood.  The people two houses up admitted to feeding her, but she didn’t live there, either.

She started a routine, working her way down the street as each household opened their doors in the morning. She must listen for the opening of doors, or somehow can tell time and just knows when someone is due to come out each day. She leaps from one house to the next as soon as a door opens, and sits meowing on the porch until someone comes out and gives her attention.

For the first week or so, that was all she wanted from us: attention. And the kids were happy to give it. She could even pull the boy away from video games for a few minutes of cuddles and scritches. Then that wasn’t enough—she’d mew and beg and paw the door. Apparently, she wanted more to eat than two houses up was giving her. I washed the breading off a leftover chicken nugget for lack of any better ideas, and watched her devour it.

I couldn’t help smiling. It’s a little like really having a pet. A part-time, low-commitment pet. I can handle this level of pet.

The next door neighbors call her Lady. My son calls her Professor McGonagall. My daughter calls her Marshmallow, which didn’t really make sense to anyone else as, usually, animals named Marshmallow are white and fluffy. “Look at her belly!” my daughter insists. “It’s white with this brown around the edges that looks just like toasted marshmallow!”

My next door neighbor says that if no one comes forward to claim her by winter, she’ll take her to the shelter. In the meantime, she seems to be thriving as the neighborhood’s cat.

But when the cold weather comes, would one of us on the street take her in? What if we did? If no one else does? Are we ready to take that plunge? I’m glad we have a few more weeks to figure it out.

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