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The Polar Vortex and a feral cat that won't come indoors

1 February 11:32am

Joette Rockow • Milwaukee

I have a feral cat that has lived near or on my front porch for over 11 years. Two ladies in an apartment building down the street who started feeding her named her Baby. They asked me if I would help take care of her because their landlord ordered them to stop feeding her (and about a dozen other cats) outside their building. So, Baby “moved in” with me. It wasn’t long before Baby realized she had found a pretty good thing.

At first, it was just some dry food and a simple cardboard box with old towels in it for shelter. Today, she has two sweet houses to choose from. One is on the porch; a modified dog house that I call The Condo. The second one is just off the porch and a bit more rustic on the outside, but “loaded” on the inside; that one I call The Sugar Shack. Both houses are insulated, have padding and blankets on the inside, and warming pads to keep some heat coming to her body even in the coldest weather. Not bad for a cat on the streets.

Enter the 2019 polar vortex.

Baby has endured some major cold spells over the last decade in my stewardship, but nothing like this. Weather forecasters likened this weather event to the type you’d find on Mount Everest, which is one good reason why you won’t find any cats on Mount Everest. But if Baby won’t go to the mountain, then the mountain, at least in meteorological terms, came to Baby.

Well-meaning and worried neighbors, who are mainly dog owners, asked me why I don’t just “pick her up and bring her in the house.” It’s just not that easy or believe me, I would have done it long ago. But, for anyone who has ever tried to get a claws-on-all-paws cat to do something they do not want to do, I double dare ya. I call cats, “springs with knives.” If they are put in what they consider a compromising situation, they can contort themselves in positions you couldn’t imagine, claws unsheathed and thrashing. And if I did get her in my house, then what? It’s why you don’t fly a plane unless you have some idea of how you’re going to land it.

With the Winter 2019 polar vortex upon us, it left me and Baby in a stressful situation. See, to me, Baby isn’t just a feral cat that lives on my porch. She and I actually have a relationship and a strong bond. I care about her as much as I care about Trixie, my precocious indoor calico that lives the life of uncompromised comfort. Baby is my pet, just as much as is Trixie. She just lives on my porch, not in my house. It took about 5 years of patient eye contact, cooing, calling, reaching, and failed attempts at petting to get to touching her nose, then steal a single stroke on her back before she ran away. After years of work, I can pet her and she enjoys my company, coming to the door and meowing to see if I will come out and visit. She runs to me when she sees me sitting on my porch and rubs up against my legs. She follows me on walks around the neighborhood. She purrs when I set her on my lap and scratch her head and ears. But the moment I try to pick her up and bring her to my door toward warmth and comfort, she bolts like I was trying to throw her into the depths of Mordor. (Thanks, Tolkien.)

So… where does that leave us? Honestly, I have no good answer. I’m sure some will judge me as a bad person for not forcing her into my house. Believe me, I’ve heard the criticism. However, no one but Baby and I truly understands this situation or has walked in our shoes, or paws. I’ve spoken with veterinarians, feral cat experts, cat behaviorists, and trap-neuter-release (TNR) practitioners. I’ve read books and papers on feral cats. Every case is different. Some feral cat warriors end up with an extra cat sleeping on their bed. Other cats never quite come around. It seems Baby is the latter. But here are a couple of things to consider that make this situation more tenable, if not for Baby during a two-day polar vortex, then for me and perhaps even for my naysayers and critics.

The sugar shack.

First, extreme cold weather, even in Wisconsin, doesn’t last that long in the grand scheme of things. Weather like this polar vortex, while dangerous, are still an anomaly. For most of the winter, even when the temperature dips into the 20s, teens or single digits, Baby is very well suited not just to survive but thrive. She was born wild and outside, and she acclimates to the seasons extremely well. I also have her set up to survive with two insulated houses, warming pads, straw, food, and water. I am her sag wagon. Some people don’t have it this good, I’m sorry to say.

Also, at the risk of getting too anthropomorphic, maybe this is the way Baby likes it. Sure, there are a few uncomfortable days during the winter; but the rest of the time, she seems like a really healthy and happy cat. She experiences an untamed, natural life on her own terms, with the benefits of food and shelter provided by me when she can’t or doesn’t feel like accessing those through her own wits. I have watched her play with a mouse bathed in the summer moonlight, her feline body leaping and twisting in a cat-and-mouse ballet. This is Baby in total joy and absolutely in her element. I fear I may change that dynamic in some way by taming her, by making her “mine.”

For now, Baby remains an “outdoor” cat, wild and free. I know the risks that come with that. No one knows those risks better than Baby. Coyotes. Cars. Foxes. Weather. Dogs. Other cats and people. She has endured them all with my help. I had her spayed years ago. I have managed to get her to a vet for shots and other care on multiple occasions, where the vets had to sedate her to get anything done. As tame as she acts around me, she still has a lot of wild in her.

Sometimes I ask myself if I’m sorry I took on caring for and coming to love a feral cat. It been a lot of work, money, and more than a few sleepless nights worrying if she will be there in the morning or wondering what fate upended her when she disappears for a couple of days. I’m always filled with relief when I look out the window and once again, there she is, black-coated and green-eyed rolling on the sidewalk or trotting up the street to my door. It always reminds me that one day, I’ll look for her and she won’t return. And my heart will break just as any kind heart breaks when we have loved a pet and it dies. But I didn’t really take on this wild panther by choice. She really chose me. A wild, tiny panther chose me. How lucky I am.

About the author

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.

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