This is the absolutely true story of how I accidentally stole a cat. It's also a confession and an apology to a person I've never met. You may already know this story but with a different cast of characters. You may be living the story yourself right now, on one side or the other. I have no doubts that it happens all the time, in every state, every town, and every neighborhood.
For us, it started over a decade ago. Note the pronoun shift from "I" to "we" because my wife was a co-conspirator to everything that I'm about to tell you. Make no mistake, I'd have done it all without her approval, but in this particular story, she was a willing participant. But I digress. We had a cat named... let's just call her Ruby. In fact, I'll change all the names so that if our neighbor ever reads this, she'll just have to wonder if this is really about her or if the details are just remarkably identical. Anyway, Ruby was mostly an indoor cat for most of her life. Then, as she was entering her golden years, the universe struck her a terrible injustice- my wife and I had a baby. If that wasn't bad enough for Ruby, her new little brother was allergic to her. Sadly, like millions of other pets with new human siblings, our cat was no longer our baby. Just like that, Ruby not only became "just a cat" but was also relegated to becoming just an outdoor cat. Like I said, a terrible injustice.
But she adjusted and seemed happy. She was able to stay out of trouble and even made friends. Cheeto and Mr. Gray would hang around with her in our yard. One day, I noticed a big tabby sniffing around along our fence. Ruby watched him intently from her perch on the porch rail. I went outside, and when he heard me, he trotted towards me with his tail pointing to the sky. He wore an embroidered collar that said his name, Brutus. His name fit. The collar also had a phone number. I memorized it in case I needed to call his family. But he didn't look lost, he was thick and healthy looking. I petted him as he rolled and purred and pushed his wet nose into my hand. Ruby watched with disgust, her eyes accusing me of being the traitor that I was. Brutus couldn't get enough cuddles and attention. Eventually, I'd had enough, and I stood up to go back inside. Brutus, however, had not had enough. He wove tight circles around my ankles as I tried to walk up the porch to the door. I used my foot to stop him from trying to follow me into the house. My foot steered him directly into Ruby's food bowl. He ate the dry cat food like it was the best thing he'd ever tasted. Apparently, he was starving for attention and kibble.
After he ate, I saw him sit on the edge of the porch, bathing and surveying our backyard as if it was now his. And then he was gone. Had that been his only visit, it would have been just another unremarkable cat encounter. But the next day, he was back again. Oddly, this time, he wasn't wearing a collar (and never did again). After some more petting, I went inside to do a search on the phone number I'd scribbled down the day before. It wasn't easy, and I had to use my best Google-Fu to string together enough clues to conclude that Brutus wasn't lost. My various searches and cross-checks led me to believe, with a fair amount of confidence, that he belonged to a woman named Betty who lived two blocks away. No, he wasn't lost, we were now on his rounds.
Over that first year with Brutus, his visits became longer and his food consumption greater. He convinced Cheeto and Mr. Gray that he preferred they no longer come around. But he and Ruby became pals. Most of our friends and neighbors thought that we had two cats. When Ruby finally died, we kept filling her food bowl for Brutus. His presence certainly softened the loss. Years passed, and we assumed that this co-ownership agreement was okay with Betty, but we never called to check.
Years of feeding and cuddling inevitably led to him coming inside to curl up on a comfy chair or couch. By then, our son's allergies had faded enough that as long as he washed his hands after petting Brutus, he was fine. One day we did the math. Brutus was spending 18 hours a day at our house. Every day. He was there when I got up (and fed him) until my wife put him out late at night. Sure, he would go out and roam around during the day but the older he got, the less roaming and more sleeping he did. Honestly, we put him out every night, and somehow, we felt that that act absolved us from being actual kidnappers. We weren't holding him captive, he could go home if he wanted to. We convinced ourselves that Betty must not care or maybe she has a bunch of cats and doesn't really miss this one. I once read an article about cats roaming and having several "homes." I remember one line in particular: cats choose their owners. Aha! See? We grabbed that concept and held onto it.
For about seven years, Brutus "lived" with us and it probably would have continued that way forever. We have lots of pictures of him as part of our family, our holidays and our daily lives. But then, 4 years ago, we shook the snowglobe for both us and for Brutus. We decided to do a major remodel on our house that required us to leave for an entire year. We only moved a mile and a half away, but we obviously couldn't take Brutus. In all our planning, we hadn't really considered Brutus. Despite everything pointing to the contrary, we had to face the reality that he really wasn't our cat. We hoped that Betty hadn't moved. It was hard to see him sitting on the porch, watching us drive away as if we'd be right back.
Our builder told us that Brutus finally stopped coming around after a couple weeks, especially once the heavy equipment started tearing the house and yard apart. We always looked for him but never saw him when we would stop by during construction. We pictured him, fat and happy, back home at Betty's house. Or perhaps someone else's. We missed him, but he'd moved on.
Our one year project turned into 18 months before we were finally able to move back home. Then six more months went by, and Brutus never came back. I'm not really sure why I thought he would. But I did. No, he'd moved on. We just hoped he was alive and well. One evening in the springtime, it was warm and still light out after dinner. My wife and I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood. We ended up by the house that we've always called Betty's house, this based solely on my Google stalking the phone number on Brutus' collar the first day we saw him. We'd walked by this house many times over the years and had never seen Brutus there. Of course, that's not surprising because we knew he was sleeping at our house. This time, we slowed from a saunter to a crawl, as slowly as possible while still appearing to be a normal couple out for a walk. We peered through the hedge for any signs of our old buddy. I clicked my tongue a few times, the universal call to cats. Nothing.
"It's probably not even his house," I said. "We really don't know for sure. Oh well".
As we continued on, I strained to get a clear view of the back of the house. Maybe from the alley. I took a few steps in and the view did get better. The shrubs thinned out by the garage, and suddenly, I could see the whole back porch. And Brutus. Not thinking clearly at all, I called out his name. His head popped up, and we locked eyes. I watched the gears in his head turn and crank up to speed. He hopped down and ran towards me, eventually emerging through a small opening in the greenery not unlike a performer appearing from behind stage curtains. We had a reunion right there in the alley. He looked the same but thinner. And older. He had something going on with his lip, like a semi-permanent snarl. And his voice was barely there. He'd meow, and only the last little bit would squeak out. Must have been a rough couple years. We gave him lots of pets and scratches. He purred and squeaked. When it was time to go, it took us several attempts to escape without him following us home. We were happy to know that he was okay but we were absolutely not looking to re-establish our old routine.
Unfortunately, that decision wasn't ours alone. Within a few days, Brutus showed up on our porch, ready to come inside. We knew that whatever we did next would determine the next chapter of our relationship with him. We stood firm and resolved to hold the line against his squeaky meow and snarly smile. That resolve must have lasted for all of several minutes. We caved in and gave him lots of cuddles. And food. But we did draw the line at not letting him inside. Still, it's funny how small, incremental changes creep up on you. Within a month, Brutus had virtually reestablished his presence. We started buying food for him. Soon, his food and water bowls had a permanent place on our porch. Since he was not coming inside, Ruby's old cat bed ended up on the porch next to his bowls. He loved the bed, and he would be curled up sleeping in it when we turned off the porch light at night. Soon, he was spending most of his time at our house again.
A year went by before something completely unexpected happened to expose our long, illicit relationship with Brutus. But first, you need to know that our immediate neighbors, Tom and Kate, are also very fond of Brutus. They've been known to feed and cuddle him as well, so there's that. Just saying. And they're familiar with our story about Betty's house. One afternoon, I saw Kate in our yard, petting Brutus while talking on her phone. She ended her call, and I could hear her say something to my wife working in the flower beds across the yard. My wife came inside rather quickly. On her way in, she grabbed the cat bed and food bowls. I asked her what was wrong.
"We have to hide," she said. "Betty's on her way over to get Brutus."
What? How? Well, it seems that many people in our neighborhood are using an app called Next Door, Betty and Kate being two of them. The app is a quick and easy way for neighbors to communicate about things of concern to the neighborhood, things like car break-ins, garage sales and yes, lost pets. Betty had posted that her big, old tabby, has been missing for two weeks. She added that he's been known to go missing for long spells before, but she's worried because he's getting old. Kate didn't know Betty but recognized her name and the description of her cat. The dots pretty much connected themselves. Kate replied to Betty's post with a picture of Brutus relaxing on our porch and typed "Brutus?" underneath. That led to the call I'd witnessed. I wonder if it gave Betty pause that Kate knew Brutus' name.
My wife and I had only minutes to make some decisions. We weren't proud of what we'd done and were quickly realizing how wrong we had been. So though it wasn't easy, we did what we knew we had to do. We hid.
We never met Betty but assume she came to get Brutus because when we finally peeked out the window, he was gone. Years of guilt poured over us, and we rightly felt busted. We hid because we knew we were wrong to adopt a cat we knew had a home. Okay, we stole him.
Brutus was back on our porch the next morning. But this time, with the shame of hiding from Betty fresh in our minds, we were able to stand our ground. He didn't stay long. Was he really only here for the kibble? Or maybe Betty came back to get him again. Either way, that's how this chapter ends.
It's been a few months now, and he still comes by from time to time. He no longer has food bowls or a bed here. But we do give him lots of pets and cuddles. Betty and Kate now message each other directly when she's looking for him.
We've learned our lesson. I don't mean to justify our actions, but it was unbelievably easy to fall into this situation. Each tiny step we took seemed so innocent at the time, but looking back at where those steps took us, we clearly stole Betty's cat. So Betty, if by some odd alignment of the stars, you end up reading this, we just want to let you know that we love your goofy old tabby. And that we're embarrassed that it took us getting caught to realize how wrong we'd been all this time. We're sorry we stole your cat.