Love is the universal translator

Love is the substance and glue of life.  It’s what we’re made of and it is what joins us together.  It is no surprise that it also holds the key to bridging communication gaps between us, whether we’re human or of another species.  Love is the universal translator.  Spirit began educating me in this truth through the high jinks of garbage-pillaging raccoons.

Twenty-some years ago I lived on the outskirts of a small town, close to a ravine and the shores of Lake Michigan.  There was plenty of wildlife in my urban environment.  Possums, woodchucks, and deer were frequent neighborhood sitings.  Songbirds, squirrels, crows, and chipmunks flocked to share the bird food and peanuts I fed.  All was peaceful and idyllic except for raccoons raiding my garbage cans. 

I tried placing heavy stones on top of the garbage can lids.  The wily raccoons quickly learned to knock them off.  A bungee cord proved to be a one-night challenge.  Two interlocked bungee cords foiled the smart masked bandits for a mere forty-eight hours.  Something different was needed, as clearly the raccoons were getting the best of me. 

I pondered and pondered and finally decided to let the raccoons win.  Instead of putting stale bread, chicken bones, and other food leavings in my garbage, I determined to place them freely available for the taking.  I already had a compost pit on the corner of my garden, close to the fence line.  Although composting meat and bones is taboo, I suspected such leavings wouldn’t last long enough to decompose.  I began to put all my food refuse in the pit, reserving the raised outside edge for meat, bones, and baked goods.

The raccoons responded with gusto—this was more like what they had in mind, a buffet of goodies in a sheltered and safe location.  Crows and starlings also were entranced.  Everything I offered the animals disappeared quickly and completely; there were no worries about contaminating my compost.  Harmony once more prevailed in my yard.

Then one late summer evening I noticed a dark shape slinking toward the compost pit with a jerky gait.  Observation from a distance revealed a dusky solid-grey cat walking on three legs, placing no weight on his right front paw.  He was scrawny and road-worn, with little ruffled nubbins of frost-bitten ears.  Slinking into the backyard haltingly, he approached the compost pit and settled in to eat.  I watched quietly, but said and did nothing. 

The next few evenings the feline grey wraith appeared again shortly after sunset.  In appearance, he looked like a Russian Blue fallen on hard times.  Whatever he might or might not be, he certainly was desperate for food.  Each night, he ate at the edge of the pit and then limped away.  He registered my presence, but seemed unfazed as long as I didn’t move or speak.  He was still favoring the injured paw, which appeared to be broken.  I was determined to help but was at a loss how to do so, as he was clearly completely feral. 

A quick consult with my veterinarian confirmed the futility of trying to sedate and cast him.  We might fool him with knock-out drops in his food once to get the cast on, but he would be smart enough not to fall for the trick twice, and we would have no way to get the cast off.  We would need to try something different.  The vet recommended feeding him a high-quality diet with plenty of calcium and supporting minerals.  She thought his break would heal up on its own in a month or two.  I began offering canned cat food and lightly-warmed baby formula.  He loved the new diet and as the weeks went by his coat became sleeker and he began to fill out.  But he still limped.

Fall was progressing and I was concerned about him surviving injured through the winter months.  I had placed temporary shelter in the yard and kept my garage door ajar, but he was uninterested.  I worried how he might survive the snow and cold on three legs.  My vet believed the break might be on the elbow joint of his paw—such an injury would take longer to heal—and she advised patience and continued feeding.  I persisted, observing at his acceptable distance, praising his now lovely coat, plumper form, and brilliant green eyes.  He listened calmly but tolerated no closer approach.  Another two months went by, and still he limped.

Snow was now on the ground.  I had begun feeding the cat—I had dubbed him “Greyfur”—morning and evening.  He tolerated my proximity only for food delivery; I was expected to back away after offering food.  One morning I was up earlier than usual and in the yard before him, and I watched flabbergasted and amused as he trotted smartly on four paws along the length of my house.  When he reached the back yard (into what would be my usual range of view) he began to limp his way to the compost pit.  He obviously had been recovered for some time, but knew that feigned injury ensured his food supply.

I prepared his usual breakfast and approached him at the edge of the pit.  I backed away as usual, and then informed him that he was busted.  “I know you’re recovered and I’m happy you are.  I will continue feeding you and you don’t have to limp to ensure your food supply.  I’ll continue to care for you.” He lifted his head for a moment then went back to eating.  Clearly he needed to know I was harmless and to be trusted.  How could I accomplish that?

Wild inspiration hit—they don’t call us crazy cat ladies for nothing—and I lowered myself to the snowy patio, rolled onto my back, and submitted.  “You’re in charge here.  I will never do anything to you that you don’t want, and I will always feed you and care for you.  You’re safe here.” He watched me unperturbed but certainly amused: What was the obviously deranged human creature doing? As I dusted the snow off my back and retreated, I could sense something had shifted between us.

As winter headed toward spring, I began to approach gradually closer and closer.  I now was sitting two feet away while he ate, praising his intelligence, beauty, and dining preferences.  He had given up limping entirely.  He knew he didn’t need to.   One morning he approached his food plated, halted, turned toward me, and made a ducking motion with his head.  I had been an indoor cat owner for years and recognized the head bob; my cats made just such a motion when they wanted their heads scratched. 

Was it possible? I didn’t want to get his signals wrong; Greyfur was obviously a street brawler who could shred me in short order.  I took a deep breath and reached a hand forward toward him.  He approached closer, bobbed his head again and placed his forehead against my hand.  I was enthralled to hear a deep rumble issuing from him.  His head was corrugated with scars, the legacy of years of fights.  His ears were nearly gone, but his green gaze was soft; he was clearly enjoying the experience as much as I was.  I let him choose his timing.  After a few seconds, he turned and went to eat.

As the season turned to summer, he continued to want occasional head pets.  I approached closer and closer at meal times; now I was sitting right next to him speaking gentle praise as he dined.  Soon I discovered that he like to have his belly rubbed while he stood and ate, and he often wouldn’t eat unless I did so.  He felt comfortable enough to develop and express food preferences.  If I fed the “wrong” flavor, he would follow me across the patio toward the house, swatting at my heels.

He now began to spend the day in my yard, often sleeping away the summer afternoon on a garden bench.  As I had mentioned, I was feeding, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks; I was concerned he might view them as an extension of the dining plan.  So one morning I had a chat with him at breakfast.  “I know you are a mighty hunter, but you don’t need to be one anymore.  I will feed you every day and there always will be enough to eat.  You don’t need to hunt and I would appreciate it if you didn’t kill animals or birds in my yard.  I feed and take care of them just like I feed and take care of you.” He looked me straight in the eye and I could feel his agreement. 

One summer weekend morning, I decided uncharacteristically to sleep in.  I figured Greyfur wouldn’t mind waiting an hour or two for his food.  I found him climbing the pole to my bird feeder.  He was theatrically posed, motionless, with one paw on the feeding platform.  I heard in my head, “You said you would feed my every day.  If you don’t, I’m going to help myself.” I knew then I would need to keep to my side of the bargain faithfully.

Seasons passed and I continued to keep the pact, feeding Greyfur morning and evening.  We communed together outside in all weathers.  He still had no interest in shelter, whether in my house, in the yard, or the garage.  I had the sense he felt it would have compromised his dignity.  He showed me a mental image of a burrow in the bank of the nearby ravine and I sometimes saw him trotting across from my home to the ravine.  In warmer weather he spent most days sleeping in the garden.  In colder weather, he showed up at meal times and then quickly left.  He was his own cat, but I was obviously a treasured part of his life.

Over the years Greyfur brought several stray cats into the yard, for food and assistance.  Although he wanted no part of indoor life, he clearly understood these cats needed human help.  His limp was my clue that he had a protégé waiting in the bushes.  If Greyfur was begging for another, he would eat his portion and then limp to beg for a second.  If I backed away then, he would lead the stray from the bushes to the food dish, and guard it while it ate.  He’d also beg and limp for other species too, goading me to feed hungry opossums and raccoons.  Sometimes he forgot, and limped with the wrong front paw.  It was endearing.

Greyfur knew what it was like to be in need, and he wanted to offer others the help that had saved him.  He knew there always would be plenty and saw no reason not to share his food plate, sometimes side-by-side with another animal.  He mellowed into a gracious, older cat.  He would recline on a bench in the garden, watching as chipmunks darted past and birds landed nearby.  They seemed to sense his gentleness and knew he wasn’t a threat—at least as long as I kept the food coming on time.

Greyfur began to sit at my feet as we communed outside.  He would lean against my legs and I would speak of his gentleness, handsomeness, and intelligence—this was a topic he never found tiresome.  One fall day, I calmly lifted him into my lap.  He looked startled for a moment, but then relaxed his body and stayed there for a minute or two.  I was impressed with his composure in the face of this new experience.

During his final winter, Greyfur clearly was an aging cat and seemed to understand his days were numbered.  He continued to refuse shelter, but wanted to spend more and more time cuddling outside.  I would bundle up and sit outside with him huddled against my legs or in my lap.  He would purr and I would praise, and we would simply enjoy each other.  We both knew he wouldn’t last until spring and wanted to savor our time together.  One day he crawled into my arms and allowed me to hold him against my chest for a minute or two.  I knew he was offering me a gift, the gift of his absolute trust.

Shortly after that, Greyfur simply stopped coming for food.  In my heart, I knew he was gone.  I mourned him but also knew that he, his story, and his teachings would always be with me.  I had learned to value the subtle heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind communication we shared.  He made me a better person each day I spent with him, showing me the value of kindness and compassion across all boundaries.  Although we initially had no idea of how to relate to each other, we had learned together that love is the universal translator.