What’s next pussycat? – a survivor’s tale

Portland, the ultimate free-ranging cat

It’s 10 years now since we fetched him at the Animal Welfare in Gordon’s Bay where he had remained unclaimed for close on a year after having been knocked down by a car on the Rooi Els road.

When the attendant lifted the seven kilogram cat out of his cage she exclaimed “he weighs as much as a pocket of cement”. And so Portland got his new name and blundered his way into our lives.

We took him home and kept him indoors for a few weeks. Initially he spent his time in dark corners of the house or glaring out from under the furniture but after a while he became more or less accustomed to us.

Soon after letting him out into our garden he showed his inclination to wander.

One evening we went to the village to meet friends for dinner. On the way we saw a dead cat lying next to the road near the Steynsrust bridge. We stopped – and sure enough, our new cat had met his end.

We placed the body in the car boot and dropped him off in the garage at home, and then spent a very muted evening with the friends, returning home early.

Once home, Alan opened the garage hoping to see if by some chance our cat had revived, but no, this was not to be.

Erna, in the meantime, had entered our house through the back door. She was greeted by a loudly mewing Portland, ready for his food. We had picked up someone else’s dead cat.

We should have known then this was going to be a rough ride.

Portland’s wandering took on epic proportions. He developed the habit of staying home at night but leaving every morning at first light and returning only once it got dark.

Our many attempts to keep him home always resulted in an extremely agitated cat so his wandering continued unhindered by us. We tried to trace where he spent each day and followed a lead from our neighbour who had heard noises in his roof.

It’s not easy to coax a reluctant cat out of a roof and following an agile cat within a confined roof space full of trusses is not fun.

Eventually we managed to persuade him with food to come towards the trap door where Erna made a grab at him. Both cat and owner tumbled down to the floor, fortunately without injury. The gap in the roof eaves which allowed entry was fixed and Portland set about finding a new hideaway.

One morning at dawn Erna, dressed only in her pyjamas, followed the disappearing Portland down the street but after a few hundred metres she realised she would be caught out in the open long before she could find where the cat was heading.

On other occasions he came home disorientated, wet and bedraggeled and we surmised he had had some sought of a skirmish with other animals or a car or something.

Next he broke his daily habit and disappeared for a few days. We searched all over for him but not knowing where he went every day made finding him difficult.

After many phone calls and distributed pamphlets we were ready to give up and Erna visited a nearby vet’s surgery to see if they had any kittens up for adoption to replace our lost cat.

From out of the depths of the holding room came the raucous voice of a very agitated Portland. He had recognised Erna’s voice.

This time he had been run over by a lady’s car in Steynsrust road and she had so kindly rushed him to the vet, apparently calling to him all the time “don’t die kitty, don’t die”. Fortunately he was not badly injured.

We were determined to find where he went in the day. We had noticed that he had started leaving home via our back garden wall and into a neighbour’s property.

With some idea of what direction he could take, we parked our car at dusk about half a kilometre from home and waited and watched for some sign of him.

Shortly after dark and after the worst of the homecoming traffic we spotted him speeding across a busy street, over a neighbour’s boundary wall and then in the general direction of home.

With a better idea now of the general direction of where his daytime hideaway could be, we intensified our search and contacted houseowners in the identified area.

Eventually we got feedback from a lady who frequently saw a large grey and white cat entering a stormwater inlet on the side of the road when she left early for work.

We visited the stormwater catchpit the next day and found our cat residing comfortably there. After unsuccessfully trying to coax him out we left him in peace for the day. In the following days we frequently visited him there and always found him “at home”.

This carried on for months and we realised this was what he wanted. We decided to let him have his freedom to move around as he wished.

Months turned into nine years! Then in August 2015, Portland disappeared and was not to be found in his stormwater drain. Days passed and we frantically searched for him, dropping off pamphlets, trudging overgrown green belts, doing evening spotting drives.

We advertised in Bolander, and following a response we staked out in our car at dawn outside a house where a grey cat had been seen sleeping in the garage and then leaving at first light.

No luck, not Portland. After two weeks we started losing hope. On the 15th night after his disappearance we heard a noise at the bathroom window followed by Portland’s face peering through the burglar bars with an overwhelming expression of relief on his face – it’s me, I’m home!

Unfortunately he was badly injured. His right front leg dangled from a fracture near the shoulder and his paw hung dead, hard and limp.

His voice had given up. In this condition he had scaled our 1.8m wall and jumped onto the window sill. His leg had to be amputated at the shoulder. Recovering from the operation at home, he still showed a distinct interest in leaving our property in the day.

We set about making our property boundary even more cat proof. What would the neighbours think if we allowed our heavily bandaged three legged cat to roam the neighbourhood?

In this period we learnt a few things: he could still scale a 1.8m high concrete panel boundary wall and tightrope awkwardly along its top; he was disgusted by a hastily erected pen we built in the garden; a cat with a missing front leg can easily wriggle out of a harness-type leash.

Notwithstanding the missing leg and the close surveillance he still managed to go missing over the wall a few times but fortunately only for short periods.

Gradually over a period of a few months, by our constantly being with him in the early mornings, he became accustomed to staying home in the day.

We don’t know exactly what caused his injuries but the compression imprint around his wrist which stopped the blood flow to his paw indicated he was probably caught in some sort of wire snare (set to catch guinea fowls?) or perhaps a rat trap carelessly set at somebody’s wood pile.

He must have been caught on the first day after his disappearance and had had 14 days of agony until he managed to free himself and come home. A broken fang hints at attempts to free himself.

Barking dogs and wandering cats can be a nuisance but are part or the urban scene.

We all should be aware that our properties may be visited by unexpected felines and should take care that there are no unintentional booby traps in our gardens which could seriously hurt neighbour’s cats, squirrels and birds.

During our search for Portland we received heartening support from all our neighbours, friends and strangers alike.

We also learnt that there is a strong local infrastructure which can assist in the search for missing pets.

The Animal Welfare provides a wonderful service; our vets provide assistance for injured pets dropped in; Radio Helderberg runs a missing pets slot; advertising in the local newspapers gets a good response; there is an excellent local Facebook page dedicated to finding lost animals (Lost and Found Pets Helderberg and Stellenbosch); a local resident is contracted in to the municipality and records the when and where of animals killed on our roads.

Contact details are available from Animal Welfare; local neighbourhood watches and their WhatsApp groups can assist. Our next door crèche even had the kiddies out on a “come kitty, kitty, kitty” search of their bushy property.

Portland is now more or less accustomed to staying home and is becoming a proper house cat. We are nuts about him. He, in turn, from time to time lets it slip that the lodging here is acceptable.

He does, however, still sometimes stare longingly at the top of our boundary wall and the world beyond.

So, if you do happen to see a big grey and white three-legged cat see-sawing along the road somewhere in the Steynsrust area, show a little respect. He has earned it.