Movin On – Cats Don’t Travel Well

Pets become family members. Relocating people can be hard. Relocating cats is much harder.

After 50 years of home ownership, my wife Devon and I finally decided to sell our house in the San Francisco Bay area and experiment with life as digital nomads, traveling almost all the year, staying in local homes for rent from Airbnb or similar. So many considerations went into this big change that it may take several posts to tell the entire story.

Our move had a powerful impact on everyone in our family, even our cats. And since this is as emotional for me as for our cats, this story will ramble a bit.

A Litter of Kittens for the Cloud House

Devon and I have lived with cats from childhood on, so we know cats, appreciate their peculiarities, and we like ’em. When we moved into the Cloud House about 14 years ago, we had only one cat to bring along. Our cat Angel, a beautiful white, long-hair, had a mean streak and short temper. Pet her several times and she purred. On the next pet, she would rip your fingers off. Perhaps not the poster child for adopting cats, but she was ours.

Usually, we kept a larger collection of cats, up to five. Shortly after we moved, Devon and I headed to the nearest cat adoption center to pick up a litter of kittens. So hard to choose among tens of kittens, all squawling and just so cute. Eventually, we found a litter with an orange kitten which has a broken tail. Perfectly good below the break, but at the top, the last third of the tail just flopped loosely, at a right angle to the rest of the tail. This orange kitten was almost too friendly to strangers, just a little pushy.

“No one will ever adopt this pumpkin-colored cat with a broken tail,” I said to Devon. “I guess we better take him home.”

“What about the rest of the litter?” she asked. I knew where this conversation would end up. We took all four kittens home.

This little was unusual, in that none of the four cats looked alike. Buzz, the orange kitten had a happy-go-lucky personality and overwhelming curiosity, which probably earned him the broken tail.

The litter had two Siamese-looking cats, both white. Oliver, the male, was a traditional Siamese, with blue eyes, short hair, the ability to use his paws to open doors, and incredible jumping power. He loved people, especially my mother, who lived with us. Of course, she did not care much for cats, which did not bother Oliver. Whenever she sat down to read, he quickly found her and curled up in her lap. He adopted her, even though she only tolerated him.

The other Siamese had long hair and was beautiful. Everyone wanted to pet her. But, she was the twin of Angel, our evil cat. With no warning, she would slash out with a paw, claws extended, leaving four bright red welts on the hand of the unfortunate person attempting to pet her.

She had trouble with the other cats too. She was happiest wandering out on the six-acre property by herself. We often saw her, a ghostly white figure in moonlight evenings, climbing a hillside or chasing some animal across a flat spot.

Finally, we renamed her Marilyn, because she was beautiful, but not so bright. We did not acknowledge her vicious temper, hoping she would eventually mellow out and develop some tolerance. Not only were our hopes never fulfilled, but she also grew even meaner and more of a loner over time. When she finally died, she followed the eternal tradition of cats, dying away from home so we never found her body. She left us with only beautiful, sharp, scratchy memories.

The fourth kitten was the runt, a little girl with the given name Jasmine. She was a mutt, piebald colored, and looked like a rug that had been patched too often. She quickly became my favorite.

As kittens, Marilyn and Oliver often dragged mice, lizards, and the occasional bird into the house to show us their hunting prowess. Not to be outdone, the little runt Jasmine dragged in leaves and twigs, growling and shaking them with every bit as much ferocity and pride as Marilyn and Oliver handled live animals.

Even when full-grown Jasmine was still so small and flexible I could hold her in one hand. Sitting in my lap, she molded perfectly to my legs, so easily that I often joked that she was boneless. Eventually, I gave her the nickname Squirrel, which captured her goofy, affectionate personality.

Another Kitten Shows Up

Of course, four cats were not enough. Late one stormy night, I was already tucked into bed when my wife urgently shook me awake.

Gizmo, a Mainly Coon cat

“Richard, a little kitten is hanging on the screen door, crying pitifully. I think it is hungry, thirsty, wet, and cold. What do we do?”

If you like animals, you know this is not actually a question. “If you let it in and feed it, then we own it. OK?” Which is exactly the outcome Devon had planned.

Thus we added a fifth kitten to our litter. We lived out in the country, so this kitten probably came from a litter of barn cats from the nearby ranch. It was barely 16 weeks old, much too young to survive alone in the wild. Yet somehow, it found us.

We took it to the vet for shots. He confirmed our guess that it looked very much like a Maine Coon, a distinctive breed in both looks and personality. Of course, it did not bring any papers, so we classified it as “mainly coon.”Somehow it got the name Gizmo.

Gizmo became a member and dominant male of our litter, but he never forgot his few weeks surviving alone outside. He developed a strong cautious streak, and often grabbed a rodent for a snack, even though we offered plenty of cat kibble in the bowl. While the other four cats lived inside and frequently roamed outside, Gizmo mostly lived outside and came inside to visit us and his littermates. Gizmo liked people, preferably at a social distance of ten feet or more.

We installed a cat door for easy cat access. We close the cat door around 9 PM to lockout skunks and raccoons, then open the door any time between 5 – 8 AM. Both Buzz and Gizmo know the door curfew times. Sometimes Gizmo stays asleep inside all night but often he stands by the door after 9 PM curfew for the cat door. He wants to go out for the evening. Even Buzz sometimes wants out for the evening, just not very often.

Buzz, the Dog in a Cat’s Body, Comes with Us

Fourteen years later, only Gizmo and Buzz are still with us. Oliver, Marilyn, and Squirrel lived and died on the ridge where they grew up and lived their entire lives. We like to think that they led the lives of Huck Finn, mostly unsupervised and outdoors, with just enough food, water, and human companionship to supplement their natural lives on the ridge.

Finally, we arrive at the purpose of this rambling tale of cats, relocation, and the emotional stress on cat parents. We faced a truly existential moment for Buzz and Gizmo. Bring them with us and inflict all the trauma of a long car trip and relocation to a new place, or leave them at their home on the ridge, without a safety net for food, water, and human companionship?

For Buzz the decision was easy. We joke that Buzz is a dog in a cat’s body, sort of a trans-species animal. He loves people. He has never met a stranger. When people start talking, he jumps in someone’s lap, and purrs and chirps to participate in the conversation. He lives inside with his people, and visits outside.

Big Buzz in a small box

We knew Buzz was coming with us. His happy-go-lucky personality and his powerful curiosity, demonstrated by his broken tail, would ease his transition to a new home.

What is Best for Gizmo – Stay on the Ridge, or Go?

That question tormented us. What was better for Gizmo? Better to stay on the ridge which was his home for all his life, or uproot him to a new place? Remember he mostly lived outside and visited us inside. He survived by catching rodents for dinner, even as a three-month-old kitten. Even later, throughout his life on the ridge, he often caught and ate rodents and birds, bringing them inside to eat, then leaving us with a pile of rodent parts, or feathers.

When strangers visited, he scooted outside for safety. When I rolled out the vacuum cleaner, he scooted outside. If I walked too heavily in hard-soled shoes, he scooted outside. For him outside was safety and peace. During the preparation of the house for sale, when workers often popped in and out of the house all day, Gizmo just disappeared for several days, only coming back inside after several days of quiet.

During those times of noise and strangers in the house, I could often find him out in the Garden of Eden or upon a slope, or down below the house, snoozing comfortably in the sun. If I sat near him patiently and talked quietly, eventually he might walk over and let me scratch his chin. But always outside was his safety and security. What would be better for Gizmo? Come with us, for safety and human companionship at a new place, or finish his life precariously at his home on the hill, with no safety net? Each choice held grave consequences for Gizmo and for us, with no guarantees or even pointers to the “right” choice.

Just like in real life, sometimes we make decisions where the consequences unfold only through many years. Sort of like the decision of a couple to bring a new person into the world, or to bring an aging parent to assisted living. The magic crystal ball is broken. You do the best you can at the time.

Fateful Moving Day for Gizmo, the Mainly Outdoors Coon

This entire process must appear as a tempest in a teapot for many people. If you have ever owned a pet, you may understand our distress. If not, please appreciate that it was an agonizing decision for us. Our kids were long gone and our two cats have been our friends and companions for fourteen years. Quite literally, they are a daily part of our family.

The final moving day arrived. Gizmo knew something was up. He has a powerful intuition for any change, and change for him is always suspicious and bad. As he has aged, his caution has gotten even stronger. The house was almost completely empty, I was walking firmly, with very heavy steps. He knew trouble was afoot. We decided to tranquilize both cats with Xanax, then close them in an empty room until time to box them into the cat boxes for the 90-minute travel to our temporary home up at Santa Rosa.

If you have ever moved, you know that nothing goes smoothly on moving day. Where are my glasses? My car keys? My underwear and my toothbrush? Doesn’t matter what you are looking for, it has all been packed, taped shut, and shipped. You won’t find it until you arrive at the new place and unpack. If you are lucky.

Even worse, moving day is usually either the worst day or the best day. Moving to a bigger, better place, a moving day can be a joy even with the stress. For us, moving day was huge uncertainty, as we are moving to a succession of AirBnBs. Thanks to our kids, we have a beautiful temporary landing place, but the uncertainty and stress weighed heavily. Since we were moving from an incredible home “high on a hill” with views of the San Francisco Bay, moving was the worst day for us.

Mistakes Are Made. Gizmo Escapes.

We locked the cats into a single room and fed them delicious wet food laced with Xanax. They ate the food and Xanax. Buzz, ever curious and persistent, eventually pried open the door. Gizmo, ever suspicious and cautious, escaped immediately and checked all the doors for an exit.

Our laundry room, where the cat door is located, has an inside door and an outside door, thus creating an airlock with two doors. Gizmo checked that first. By this time my stress level had skyrocketed. Mistakes piled upon mistakes. The laundry room airlock failed with the inside door open. Standing outside the laundry room looking in the window in the outside door, I saw Gizmo prowling at the exterior door. Did I walk to another door to chase Gizmo out of the laundry room? No, I opened the exterior door, with the foolish hope that I could keep Gizmo inside the laundry room with my foot. You can guess that Gizmo’s caution was much stronger than my feeble foot. He flew past me to his safety and security outdoors.

Gizmo escaped outside. Oh, no!

I apologized to Devon for letting Gizmo escape. Pressure intensified. We had planned to drive away in minutes, with both cats in cat boxes. But Gizmo was gone, loose outside the house on six acres. No way we could catch him.

“We have our job. Gizmo has his,” Devon said. I had no idea what she meant. But she was right that I had the job to load the final items into the moving truck. I started slinging cardboard boxes.

My mind buzzed with possibilities. What if we could not get him back inside and into a cat box? Better to leave him on the ridge? Maye simpler for us, but better for him?

A while later, Gizmo showed up on the deck, just outside the deck door. Often that is his sign he wants to come inside. He seemed to be moving slowly. Maybe the Xanax was working. Devon lured him inside with tasty cat treats, then went outside, very quietly, to close the deck door.

Finally, we got both Gizmo and Buzz into cat boxes for the two-hour trip to Santa Rosa. Buzz, ever the inquisitive optimist, has explored every door we leave open. Gizmo, ever the cautious cat, has hidden under the bed, except for rare trips out to the food bowl.

This story will continue, hopefully with a good adjustment to a new environment for both Buzz and Gizmo, and even Richard and Devon. Change is hard, especially for older people and especially for cats.

I remind myself, “Change happens in life. Be patient. You will perservere.”

At least, I hope so.

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