It is important to remember that on that Monday evening, before I went into town for our quiz night, Scooby had decided he needed to be my hat. No amount of wrestling and firm commands would dissuade him. As he sat on the back of the sofa – chin resting on my forehead, front paws wrapped around my temples with just enough claw work to keep him stable, and loud, husky purr reverberating through my sinuses – he made it clear that no, he would not be a good and well-behaved kitten. Instead he should be my hat. And I should be grateful, or at least compliant.
It seemed such a long way from the saucer-eyed ball of black and white fluff who had first appeared in this same living room. Scooby and his brother had arrived three months before in a towel-covered cat trap. Wild kittens from under my parents’ farmhouse – apparently just a small litter of two. It had been my insistence that they be trapped, wormed, deflead, microchipped and neutered before they got too big to be tamed. All in the name of responsible humanism, of course. But at five months old, it was a rough introduction to the human touch. Scooby had sunk his little milk teeth so deep into my mother that she had her hand bandaged up. He spent the first 48 hours at our house literally hiding inside the sofa. Instantly and instinctively finding a gap where he could crawl into the frame, only his little black nose and white whiskers emerging to eat the food we left underneath.
Rob and I were determined to go forward gently with these two kittens – to coax with food and treats, toys, soft words and low voices – and to let them decide the pace of contact. It was several days before Rob even caught a glimpse of Scooby, and even then it was just him darting from the litter box to back under the sofa. His sleek, dark brother was a different story. His brother realized on the second day that if he hung around the dining table we proved to be a good source of roast pork. He would reach up to grab the meat on offer, and then lick our fingers. Not much wildness in this one. And gradually it was his boldness that drew Scooby out and showed him we meant no harm. The braver kitten got that good smelling food, and toys that looked like fun. So long as we didn’t push, it really wasn’t long before Scooby chose to shoot out from under the furniture from time to time, in order to kill a turkey feather.
Of course, exploring the inside of a house posed its own challenges. We opened rooms up gradually. Scooby’s discovery of the toilet, and getting pushed into said toilet by his brother, helped seal their names. Rob has a long history of naming pets after TV characters, so I suggested that we should name the big, clumsy, scaredy one “Scooby” and the little, feisty, brave one “Scrappy”. Zoinks! When Scooby shot down the hall soaking wet, I just couldn’t stop laughing, and he already knew enough about human communication to glower at me in my hysterics.
They lived as captives inside our house for three weeks. Three weeks to get used to our smell and to learn that those words we called out would mean that they were getting fed. By the end of three weeks, they were sleeping on our bed. Scrappy would loll in front of the TV while we scratched his head. Scooby would still flinch away from touch, but would take treats out of my hand and bash at me with his wide paws if the treat supply started to slow down. He would also meow at the fridge come five o’clock. This was a good sign.
It was near the end of their three-week captivity that I had to take them back to the vet for their booster shots. Scrappy was easy. Already letting himself be picked up and carried around without fuss, he went into the cat carrier before he even realized what was going on. Scooby was… not easy. After my attempts to distract him with treats and wrap him in a blanket failed spectacularly, he decided that he would go back to hiding under the furniture. I moved the furniture. And thus we went on a frantic, panicked chase round and round the living room. Neither of us would concede. It wasn’t until he made the fatal error of breaking for the bathroom that I knew I had him. I shut the door and trapped him there. After bolting straight up the shelves and across the wall, he landed in the bathtub, and I landed on top of him with the blanket. Hissing, spitting and shedding, he gouged a gash so deep down my forearm that the scar is still there, but I got him by the scruff and deposited him in the carrier. Unfortunately, that was only the second prolonged physical contact he’d had with a human. I bundled them into the car so that their separate cages were touching, and they could reach for each other as needed. At the vet, Scrappy was scared but put up minimal resistance, and even let himself be measured and weighed. I thought Scooby would be another clawing, hissing tornado… but he wasn’t. He was so petrified that he sat still on the table and buried his face between my stomach and elbow. It was so sad, and so endearing, that I stroked him gently and cooed my reassurance, and made sure he just got the shot with no extra poking and prodding.
In some ways that vet trip may have been a turning point. Sure, they associated the cages and the car and the smells with their first terrifying day of captivity, but this revisit actually proved to be quick and relatively painless. The fear was worse than the reality. And perhaps Scooby began to understand that, as much as he lashed out at me, I wouldn’t hurt him back. Two days after the vet trip, I walked through the back door of the house and scooped him up in my arms as I’ll instinctively do with a cat I love. And for a couple of seconds as I walked across the room, neither of us seemed to realize that anything was different, and that a mountain had just moved between us. But then he looked up at my face and we both remembered that he was still not a house cat, but was meant to be wild and feral, and he jumped from my arms without so much as a single unsheathed claw. Fear was clearly no longer a constant grip on his soul – it was now more of a role that he was playing because he didn’t know how to be anything else.
And it was watching Scooby become something else that really made my heart swell. Within a few more days, he would tolerate being picked up and petted. Soon after that, he started to be the one who initiated cuddles. You still had to go slowly and gently – staying away from the back of his head or indeed anything that felt like you were coming up behind him – but when you got it right he began to unleash something we hadn’t heard from him ever before. That deep, loud, throaty purr that made his whole body rumble. At five weeks in, he would lie on his back, eyes closed, front paws kneading contentedly at the air, while I scratched his belly and pretended to nibble on his back feet. He had given up all pretense of the wild cat now – belly scratches were just too good.
As his confidence grew, we began to see a completely new side of this previously scaredy cat. Soon, pats and belly scratches just weren’t enough. We simply weren’t allowed to stop cuddling him. When I brushed my teeth he’d jump up on the edge of the bath, and then launch himself at my back until he’d clambered up on my shoulder to rub himself all over my face and be part of this curious thing I was doing. When we patted Scrappy, Scooby would push him out of the way. Literally. When I slept, Scooby moved from snuggling against my stomach to splaying himself across my mouth, long fur suffocating me, purring loudly. It quickly reached the point that we had to shut them out of the bedroom at night or else we wouldn’t get any sleep at all. I started to call him the Cuddle Bully. It would have been deeply annoying if it wasn’t so darn adorable.
The next thing we learned about Scooby was that he was quite a bit smarter than his brother. Two months into this “house cat thing” he’d figured out how to open doors by jumping up and turning the handle. He started to arrive home in the evening with not just mice, but dead rats. One afternoon, Scrappy brought in a live mouse out of the field and then lost it somewhere in the kitchen because he was too busy looking at it instead of killing it. Our other, older cat, Jack eventually caught it and took it outside. Then I watched amazed as Scooby took it off Jack, thankfully killed it, and brought it back to Scrappy so he could play with it a bit more. That was brotherly love. So long as Scooby was there to take care of him, Scrappy would be okay too.
We’d been planning a trip overseas for the end of April, just 10 weeks after we got the kittens. Rob’s sister had agreed to stop in a couple times a day to feed them. Initially I had fretted a great deal about whether they would be too scared and too feral for a stranger to come and feed them, but it turned out that I needn’t have worried. After a day or two of adjustment, Scooby decided that this new lady was to be his own as well, and when we returned from holiday she complained half-heartedly about how this smoochy kitten wouldn’t seem to leave her alone.
Such was the enormous change in Scooby over just three months. That was how I knew what had happened when I came home that same Monday night in May, and called for him to come inside. He didn’t come. And he always came when I called. There was never a mouse or bird compelling enough to make him defer a cuddle.
I walked into the bedroom and woke up Rob. It was just after 10pm, but he was tired.
“Oh, he’ll be somewhere. I let him out at around 8.”
“I think he’s dead on the road,” I replied sadly.
We lived out in the countryside, and there were often dead animals (including cats) on the road. Perhaps it was a dark part of my nature, but whenever I drove past a dead cat I glanced over to check whether it was one of ours. Fortunately, so far I’d never found one that was.
But that Monday night, Rob dragged himself out of bed, and together we drove back down the road to where I had seen this furry shape in the fog. Honestly, it was hard to tell. No part that made him easily recognisable was left. If there was any mercy in the scene, at least it appeared to have been brutally quick.
We returned to the house and sat outside on the porch steps in the darkness and the cold fog, both unsure of what to do. Rob didn’t want to go back – couldn’t face that again. I’d faced and tended to death before, and knew I couldn’t leave Scooby there. We called out for him again – hoping, praying that we were somehow wrong. But we knew it was pointless. In the end, we collected up a spade and the only thing we could find to hold him – a garbage bag. And we went back. Rob tried but couldn’t do it. So I scooped him up and put him in the bag… His feet. His wide, fluffy, treat-swatting feet still stick in my mind…
I buried him under the hazelnut bushes, and eventually gave him a little stone memorial…
I’ve heard people say that cats don’t feel attachment, but Scrappy was clearly very despondent over the following weeks. He went off his food. He stopped playing. We bought him new toys. We bought him a cat tree. But nothing really worked. He’d never known a world without his brother, and now he had no idea where his brother had gone. To Scrappy, Scooby just went out one night and never came back. He was abandoned.
After three weeks like this, nobody in the house could take it anymore. We already knew that Scooby and Scrappy’s mother had so far avoided all of my parents’ attempts to trap her, and in the meantime had borne another small litter of kittens. Now those kittens were just over three months old, and onto solid food, and starting to explore my parents’ house when they thought they couldn’t be seen. So the whole saga really needed to repeat itself. While initially we’d thought that there was no way we could take in more kittens, the loss of Scooby and subsequent depression in his brother convinced us that there was now a gap in Scrappy’s life that no well-meaning human could fill. However, he still had six months on his younger siblings, so we figured it would be better to get him two playmates instead of one – just in case he got too rough.
It was always going to be an experiment – we’d owned enough cats over the years to know that there’s no guarantee that any two (or three) cats will get along. Scrappy had never met these other kittens before. And we would have to resign ourselves to another few weeks of feral kittens in the house, hiding in the furniture, convinced we were out to murder them.
As it turned out, we had little reason for concern. The same towel-covered cat trap turned up at our house one June evening. Scrappy was instantly scared of the trap, but quickly curious about its contents. When we let the kittens out, and they skittered under the table, Scrappy jumped up on one of the chairs and gave his younger brother a playful bop on the head with his paw. The terrified brother jumped up on the chair with him. Scrappy sniffed the new arrival, and then wrapped his arms around him and started grooming him. They always knew they were family.
The new pair of kittens were named Gomez and Eva. Together they brought a light back into our household and into Scrappy’s life, but that’s a story for another day. In a strange way though, they owe their lives to the big brother they never met. If Scooby had lived, we just wouldn’t have found the space for two more kittens in our household. He gave them his place, his brother – and the humans he’d trained so well. They just don’t know it.
But we remember Scooby. Every so often, he reappears in his feisty little sister (who similarly won’t let you stop the cuddling) and his wily little brother (who actually hunts and knows what to do with what he kills). And now it it Scrappy pushing the others away when he wants a pat. He’s still bigger than them, and I’m convinced he’s has never forgotten his first and best playmate.
Our Cuddle Bully who lies beneath the hazelnut bushes, and who changed all our lives in just a few short months.