Lessons From a Feral Cat, Part II: Little Mama’s Final Legacy


Little Mama, one of Fran’s and my adopted feral cats, died yesterday, and we are devastated.

We made the heartbreaking decision for her to be euthanized after several weeks of an illness that led to her refusing to eat and rapidly losing weight and even losing the use of one of her back legs.

She was only about 9 years old — far too young for a cat, especially a pampered house cat, to die. Never mind that feral cats often only live 2-3 years “in the wild.” We had hoped to love her well into old kitty-cat age (i.e., over 15).

If you don’t know about Little Mama, I hope you’ll go back and read Lessons I’ve Learned from a Feral Cat which was published in March 2015. It first appeared in the Huffington Post and was reprinted by Day One before I archived it here on my website.

Little Mama, January 2019. After four years living with us, she’d let me get close enough to take a picture, but she still wasn’t about to curl up in my lap. That would come later.

As I wrote in that article, we discovered a feral cat and her litter of three kittens living in the crawlspace under our house. It was the fall of 2014, just a few months after our daughter died. Fran and I were numb with grief at the time, but these skittish cats charmed and amused us. Worried that they would keep reproducing, we set out to trap them so that we could have them neutered — but two of the kittens disappeared before we could make that happen, presumably killed by foxes, coyotes or even owls (we live in a forested suburb where all of the above are commonly sighted). Finally, we did manage to trap the mother and her lone surviving kitten, a boy we named Pete (after the children’s book series our daughter so loved). His mom, because of her diminutive size, we christened “Little Mama.” Although the main purpose of trapping them was to neuter them, we were thrilled to discover that neither of them had dangerous illnesses like rabies or feline leukemia, so we figured we’d give them a try at indoor living.

When I wrote my article, Little Mama and Pete had been living with us for over three months, and while the younger cat was quickly beginning to adapt to life with humans pretty well, his mother retained much more of her feral defensiveness. I wrote about how I was trying to win her over, but in the meantime was learning some important spiritual lessons from her, like “Calmness and tenderness can be conduits for healing;” “Walk slowly and gently” (necessary to keep from frightening her, especially at first); and “It’s important to feel safe before you can play.”

Three of our four cats. Left to right: Thumbs, Little Mama, and Pete (her son).

Until today, I never wrote another article about Little Mama, although I would occasionally share pictures of her, along with Pete and  our other cats, with the Patreon members who support my work. As I predicted in that 2014 blog post, it was a very long, very slow journey of earning Little Mama’s trust. Several years into life with us, she would on occasion hop into my lap, but only stay a moment or two — almost as if she were saying, “See! I’m not afraid of you” but then not sticking around long enough to take any chances. Fran nicknamed her “Smoke” because, as Fran would put it, “If you tried to pick her up, she’s slip out of your hands like she was smoke.” But Mama’s aversion to being held did not mean that she wanted nothing to do with us. On the contrary, almost from the beginning she proved to be quite affectionate especially when it came to being petted; she would also sleep at the foot of the bed with us — and she learned, no doubt from all the other cats, that it was a good thing to come get my attention in the morning, because she was more likely to be fed sooner rather than later.

Little Mama had the most distinctive way of communicating “I’m hungry” of any cat I’ve ever known; where most cats (including her son, Pete) typically make plenty of whiny noises when they’re hungry (I suppose all that meowing translates as “I’m hungry, can’t you see? So feed me already!”), Mama maintained a dignified silence — but she would make sure she was visible to me (or Fran when it was her turn to feed them), sit down right in front of us, and open her mouth as if to show us how empty it was. It was quite effective, but also unbearably cute and endearing. Truly, Mama was the strong, silent type, with one notable exception: when she would play with a cat toy like a stuffed mouse, she would pick up her “prey” and then walk with it around the house,  making a series of sweet “chirping” noises, which according to at least one online source means the cat is happy. We wanted nothing more than for Mama, who had such a rough start to life, to be happy, so this sound was certainly music to our ears.

But it wasn’t until the long secluded months of the COVID-19 lockdown — in other words, during the spring and summer of 2020 — that Mama truly became a lap cat. In other words, during those fearful weeks when Fran and I pretty much were home all the time, I wasn’t traveling for work and neither of us traveled for pleasure — only then did Little Mama begin to settle into the pleasures of being a lap cat. It had only taken her just over five years! But once she got the hang of it, she got a new nickname: “Needles,” because she would jump into Fran’s and (not quite as often) my lap, but with her tiny claws extended. Just to make sure she landed safely; I don’t think she ever really grasped that we found her “needles” to be unpleasant. I was just so thrilled to have her in my lap that I put up with it, and Fran took to placing a towel in her lap, so that “Needles” could jump up and settle down without causing her any discomfort.

It seemed almost like overnight, Little Mama went from a feral cat who would never get in our laps (aside from the afore-mentioned “I”m not scared” moments) to a dedicated house cat who it was almost impossible to keep out of our laps.

She still didn’t like getting picked up: she still was “Smoke.” But I noticed something: she would regularly come to me in the morning for affection, no doubt driven by her desire for breakfast but clearly engaged with the pleasure of human-to-feline touch (i.e. lots of rubbing and purring). Thinking that at some point in the future we would need to take her to the vet, I made it a goal to get her used to being picked up. So regularly — not every day, but at least a few times each month — I would try to pick her up. Pretty much the same thing would happen each time I tried: she would tense up and run away — but then she would come right back to me, offering me head-bumps in exchange for plenty of affectionate pets and rubs, especially on the back of her head.

It occurred to me that Little Mam was exhibiting some approach-avoid behavior. She didn’t want to be picked up, but I started to suspect that she didn’t want not to be picked up, either. She could see that all the other cats would let me pick them up. I began to wonder if part of her wanted to be picked up too (at least the part of her that enjoyed getting petted and hanging out in our laps) — but of course, the feral part resisted it. I tried to be respectful of her feral need for feline autonomy, but I also tried to be responsive to the cat that kept coming back for more affectionate touch. I’d say to her, “I just would love to pick you up and cuddle you!” But I figured if I could just get her to tolerate it enough that we could take her to the vet if necessary, that would be enough.

And then — about three weeks ago — all of our lives changed forever. Fran and I came home from church one Sunday and noticed that Mama kept vomiting. Even with her stomach empty, she repeatedly was throwing up saliva and then she was just dry heaving. We kept an eye on her, at first assuming she was about to pass a monster hairball. But that never happened, and we got concerned when we realized she was not eating.

After two days of this, Fran’s concern was upgraded to alarm and she decided she had to get Mama checked out by the vet. That particular day I had a doctor’s appointment, but Fran decided she had to try to pick up Mama and put her in a carrier to go to the vet — and Mama let her. It was the first of four veterinary visits over the next week. X-rays, ultrasounds, and several doctors exams later, we had sobering news: no hairball or other blockage, but Little Mama had inflammation surrounding her heart, indications of pancreatitis, and a possibility of cancer. The pancreatitis could be managed, assuming Mama would resume eating. The other possibilities, combined with her sudden lack of appetite, suggested a life-threatening condition.

Fran and I don’t have the financial resources to take a “no matter what the cost” approach to veterinary care — and the doctor assured us that, short of expensive surgery which he didn’t recommend anyway given how little Mama is, we could assume that, unless she regained her appetite, in all likelihood whatever was going on, that she was terminally ill.

With a sense of high stakes urgency, we tried feeding her with pureed food in syringes for several days, combined that effort with medicines for suppressing nausea and stimulating her appetite. No luck. Even with her reduced energy, Mama made it clear that she hated what was amounting to force feeding — even though she seemed very happy to sit in our laps and even was accepting of us picking her up.

Haunted by my words to her from even just a few weeks ago, I started saying “I love it that you are letting me pick you up now, but I sure didn’t want you to have to get sick in order for this to  happen.”

“Smoke” no more: Little Mama lets me and Fran cuddle her in the final days of her too-short life. That’s Pete photobombing the picture of Fran & Mama.

A Blood Clot, an Oozing Eye, and the “Difficult Decision”

Then about nine days after she stopped eating on her own, we noticed that she had lost the use of one of her back legs. She was still ambulatory but dragged her back right leg behind her. One more visit to the vet and he said this was probably caused by a blood clot, which could have been the result of pancreatitis, or liver disease, or the her inflammation surrounding her heart. If we were lucky, it might resolve itself in a few days; if we were unlucky, she could even lose the use of another leg. The final verdict: if she didn’t regain the use of the leg in 48 hours or so, we should assume her time was limited.

We knew what that meant; we had euthanized beloved pets before, and knew that the calm, sedated process of “putting to sleep” was far preferable to the risk of a protracted natural death, filled with discomfort and suffering. But Mama was only about nine years old. At first, neither Fran nor I could admit to ourselves that this very young — and, until recently, completely healthy — cat that we both loved dearly was terminally ill.

So each day we would do what we could to take care of her, giving her food through syringes, watching with humble admiration as she continued to drink and use the litter box, moving slowly from one end of the house to the other, even with one leg no longer functioning.

Forty-eight hours came and went, and the leg didn’t get any better. She didn’t lose any of the other limbs, but we noticed that it was taking her longer to get around. She’d walk partway down the hall leading from the living room to the master bedroom, and then stop to rest.

Finally, we realized that the syringe feeding was making her miserable. We stopped giving her food, recognizing that this was basically putting her into hospice. We tried giving her food in a dish a few more times, but she showed no interest. She continued to let us pick her up, and she would purr when we petted her. But we also could see that she was uncomfortable. We didn’t want her to die, but we knew it was selfish not to make arrangements for her to be euthanized.

Fran asked me to make the call to the vet. “I just can’t do it,” she confessed. I wasn’t wild about it either, but I knew it needed to happen.

For her last few days, Mama would still walk around the house, breaking our hearts as she would move just a few feet and then have to rest. A viscous liquid that we thought was pus began to ooze from her eye — we learned to our horror from the vet that it was actually body fat, being excreted as she suffered the ravages of her self-induced starvation. We picked her up several times each of those last few days to wipe her eyes, give her some water via syringe, painkillers that the vet had provided, and — most important of all — simply to pet her and love her. She accepted it all (although she continued to resist the syringes). We loved how she would purr when we would pet her or pick her up, and tried to ignore the fact that cats are just as likely to purr when they are in distress as when they are content.

On the last day, Fran picked her up and held her and cried softly. Mama made no attempt to struggle and get out of Fran’s arms. She accepted being placed in the cat carrier, and entered the vets office with curiosity more than fear. We were both crying as the vet explained the simple process of sedating her and then overdosing her on barbituates once she was fully unconscious. We held her and stroked and told her we loved her until finally the vet announced she was gone.

It was Good Friday, the nineteenth day after that horrible Sunday when she kept throwing up. Three weeks earlier, we had no idea she was about to leave us. Now, we were just relieved that she was no longer suffering.

A Legacy of Love

I wrote about Little Mama in 2015, suggesting that in my efforts to “win her over” I had unwittingly placed myself in a position to learn a thing or two from her. Eight years later, as I faced the horror of her suddenly refusing to eat and rapidly declining to the point where euthanasia was the only humane option, I realized she was still teaching me.

What, in fact, was Little Mama’s legacy? Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:

  • Live (and Love) Well Today, For Tomorrow Is Uncertain — An indoor cat’s normal life expectancy is about 15-20 years, which means twenty days in a cat’s life is like three months in human time. I’ve known human beings who received a cancer diagnosis and they were gone three months later, so in the grand scheme of things, Mama’s sudden departure is simply a reminder that the future is always uncertain. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” as the Beatles put it. The takeaway for us: live as fully as you can in the present, for today just might be all we’ve got. I say that not to be morbid, but to be mindful: don’t delay love. Love now.
  • It’s Never Too Late To Take a Risk (Especially for Love) — Little Mama was a feral cat and always had a strong sense of self-protection and defensiveness. But over the arc of her too-short life, she grew in loving us, trusting us, letting us love and care for her. And when you consider that meant trusting two creatures that were 20 times as big as her (!), that’s saying something. Whether we are young or old, rich or poor, confident or frightened, we always have choices — and love always involves a measure of risk or trust. Even after she got sick, Mama kept taking the risk to love and to allow us to love her.
  • Love Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect To Be Beautiful and Meaningful — As long as she was healthy, she was “Smoke.” She became a lap cat, only to be “Needles.” Sure, Mama wasn’t the perfect cat (and I certainly wasn’t the perfect human, either!). But somehow we managed to love each other even in our imperfections. I could tell that Mama wanted to interact with me, even if she never could manage to just let me cuddle her — until she got sick, of course. Love will grow even in less than perfect conditions, if we let it, and if we nurture it as best we can. Mama did that, and she inspired me to do that as well.
  • Don’t Stop Trying (To Love, To Trust, or Just to Move With Dignity) — On her last day, Mama walked from one end of the house to the other, to get to the living area where Fran spends much of her waking time. She had to rest literally every few feet; it must have taken her close to half an hour to walk  only about 100 feet or so (something in her prime she would done in just a few seconds), Fran, and I and even the other three cats watched her, with silent respect. Her dignity was amazing. Our vet said that we humans could learn a lot from the resilience of cats. I agree with him.
  • A Short Life Isn’t Tragic if it is a Life Filled with Love — Saint Ignatius suggests that one marker of spiritual maturity is that we stop investing our ego  into being wealthy, or socially esteemed, or even having a long life rather than a shorter one. I confess, I have an idea in my mind that a longer life is better than a shorter one (which I suppose is a sign of how much I love my life, not necessarily a bad thing). For a cat to die at 9 is like a human dying in their early 50s — so Mama’s short life is similar in length to that of Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross, or Caryll Houselander, three mystics I adore. Yes, their lives were too short, but they lived those short lives so well! And Little Mama lived her short life well, as well. Ignatius is right: it’s not the number of days we have, but the depth at which we live the days we are given, that ultimately determines the measure of the life. A life filled with love is a life lived well. May this be a fate we all share, no matter how short or long our earthly pilgrimage may be.

Rest in peace, Little Mama. We will miss you. But we also will carry your memory in our hearts forever.

2019: Our favorite picture of Little Mama. Fran took this photo where Mama appears to be impatiently waiting for one of us to pick up the can of cat food and feed her already!


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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman

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