That night had all the elements and drama of an intense stake out. Shadows lurking in the cold darkness, dim lights flickering through branches waving in the wind, and the rustling sound of leaves scattering about the hard ground. The subject had been spotted here before and I knew she would return. Though she had managed to elude my previous traps, I had a new plan, and a new trap. I was determined to win this game of cat and mouse.
Only this time the roles were reversed, the mouse was actually a cat. Wait, why would a grown man be staked out in the parking lot of a grocery store in the wee hours of the morning trying to catch a cat??? It’s simple really. Each tear of a daughter is like a piercing dagger to the heart of a daddy. Clawdia had been at large for two and a half months and I’d lost count of how many nights I tried to hug away the tears. It was especially worse during the downpour of thunderstorms and the impending cold and snow was causing even greater angst. And it was sort of my fault she was lost. Well maybe it was all my fault since I was the one that left the door open.
My attempts of reassurance could not sway their distress. Jordyn and Jayde would not be convinced that Clawdia was fine and was out on the prowl having grand adventures. She had been born in a barn and knew how to survive, I told them more than once, and gave examples of all the places that cats might find to live. Under sheds and porches, or even under a house. Cats find warm dry places and they know how to hunt. For thousands of years it has been bred into their feline blood. Cats are crafty and cunning. We even visited a lady who had multiple cats, all living outside year round. Clawdia is fine I told them. They just wanted Clawdia to be fine at home.
Finding the cat had become somewhat of an obsession and I had not realized how much time and thought I actually gave it each day. Standing at the kitchen sink I would peer out the window into the back yard and the woods beyond, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Driving slowly along the roads near home and the surrounding neighborhoods I scanned every shrub, ditch and out building. At night, I waited. The advantage of all the years of scouting for game instinctively tuned in my radar. I knew that I could find her. I had to find that cat.
Ten thirty at night is not my normal grocery shopping time, but I needed a few items and it was on the way home, so I made a quick stop. The sparse parking lot and uncrowded aisles caused me to reconsider my schedule. Maybe late night shopping was not such a bad idea. There was no wait at the check-out line so I breezed through and was quickly strolling out the automatic doors. Later I would consider the course of events leading up to that moment and how incredibly unlikely it was, and how so many variables could have changed the fact that as I walked out of Kroger, there would be a cat standing in the parking lot 30 feet from my truck.
During normal business hours I would have blocked the flow of traffic, but at that late hour I stood alone with my gaze locked on what I thought must be, had to be, it must be her. That skinny little long tail tabby had to be Clawdia. Normally I’m there during the day when the Cave Spring Kroger parking lot at the corner of Colonial and Brambleton is an endless flow of chaos. I’m often surprised that there are not more fender benders or tumbled carts as anxious shoppers lobby for that lone parking spot. Of course in the daylight a long-tailed cat would be hiding somewhere safe and sleeping the day away, avoiding all the commotion.
Clawdia obviously did not roam the parking lot during the day, but at night I noticed it was wide open and offered a buffet of dropped and discarded items not yet swept away by the street sweeper. Later I imagined the treasures she must have found in the deli dumpster around back, but at that moment I stood motionless watching her eat something lying between two parallel white stripes. I had often imagined her prowling a patch of nearby woods, hunting mice and living in a tree. Never would I expect to find her there, but living near a grocery store had its perks. Slowly I approached and closed more than half the distance before she looked up. One step more and she darted off toward the shrubs lining the edge of the lot.
Entering and exiting on that end of the lot is often ‘at your own risk’, so like most drivers I was always too busy trying to navigate multiple lanes of traffic to ever really notice the landscaping that decorated the perimeter. Yet after following her over to the large shrub that she disappeared beneath, I discovered a whole world of opportunities for a cat to hide. Perched high above the ledge of a retaining wall and overlooking the overflow water ravine and flashing billboards was an area that literally thousands of drivers passed each day. Had she been there all along?
Quietly I squatted near the edge and called her name and could not believe it when she reappeared on the wall. More than a safe distance away it was apparent that she was not going to let me near. Heading back into the store to buy some cat treats, my mind was a rush of thoughts. This could not be real. Did I really just find Jordyn’s cat in the Kroger parking lot? I had to catch this cat.
After 30 minutes or more and multiple failed attempts at coaxing the cat near enough to grab, I realized it was not going to happen this way. My house was a mile away so in less than five minutes I was in the basement up turning boxes and shuffling around old furniture. I had not given thought to that squirrel trap for years but knew it was down there, and found it on the second self of my work bench, still in the box. Back at Kroger a few minutes later I was standing in the cat food aisle. Surely a cat on the roam for two and a half months could not resist the salmon and trout blend. I bought two cans and headed back out to the lot. Yes, that was me setting a squirrel trap with a can of cat food in the Kroger parking lot shrubs, just past midnight.
The exuberance of my craftiness and cunning peaked not more than twenty minutes later as I sat watching from my truck, one row removed from the action. I had strategically parked this time behind one of the pear trees, far enough away as to not distract her, but close enough to see the whole setting. From my warm perch I watched with excitement as the silhouette of a cat emerged from the shrubs. It was working and she simply could not resist the wet smell of fish. She sniffed and pawed all around the entire trap trying to find a way to the food without entering. After several anxious moments, she could take no more and crawled inside the trap.
For two and a half months I had been searching for this cat and hoping that it might one day return. Not because of my great love and affection for the animal, for I barely knew it, but because my girls, especially Jordyn loved that cat. Clawdia had come to live with me because the girl’s new step-sister was allergic to cats, so she could not stay there. I must confess that I really did not want the cats, yes there are two, but could not say no. Of course I left the door open the first night they were with me, and both escaped. It took me an hour to get one back in, but never found the other. Could she really be the cat scrunched up in the squirrel trap devouring a can of food? But why had she not tripped the door plate yet? My excitement was quickly turning to angst as she ate and ate and the trap door remained opened. Eventually she grabbed the can in her mouth and backed out of the trap. No way, I yelled! I cannot get this close to catching the cat and miss!
Three times that night I reset the trap and three times she escaped. The traffic light at the busy intersection of Colonial and Brambleton will not change for 15 minutes or more at 2:00 am when there are no cars tripping the sensors, a fact that I painfully observed. Literally thousands of cars pass through each day, but I sat there alone wishing I could have tripped that door closed. Another hour later and I would go home defeated and tired. Later I would figure out that she could eat without tripping the door because it was made for a squirrel, not a cat. Her neck was long enough to lean over the plate and her feet never touched it. That trap was not going to work so I went back at 5:30 AM to retrieve it. I had a new plan.
The next day I returned from Home Depot with a bigger trap, one designed to catch a raccoon, or a cat. That night I had a dinner engagement and called my friend who would be staying with the girls. After I informed her of my plans to catch the cat after dinner, she graciously agreed to stay, and refrained from telling me how crazy I was. Yes, that was me a little past nine in my dress slacks and coat in the freezing cold setting a bigger trap in the shrubs next to the Kroger parking lot. Amazingly, not once during the entire adventure did anyone ask what I was doing. I had fully expected at some point to be explaining my story to a disbelieving Roanoke County Police Officer. But no one asked and I set up camp once again.
It was still early and a few cars pulled in and out, but my far corner was mostly vacant after the lady in the orange vest retrieved the last of the shopping carts from the stalls. I figured the cat would be out as soon as the lot cleared and the fresh smell of salmon and trout swirled in the cold air. A trail of Ocean Whitefish cat treats had been strategically laid through the shrubs leading to the trap from either direction. I had studied her for hours the night before and tried to cover all the angles. Forty-five minutes in and still no site of her. One of the managers walked past to the lone vehicle, other than mine, on that end of the lot. He paid me no attention and after he left I had a full view of all the shrubs unobstructed.
Minutes ticked slowly and my mind wandered from one thought to the next. Trying desperately to not wonder ‘what if I had only had the big trap last night’. The cat would be captive and I would know for sure whether or not it was actually Clawdia. All of my efforts the past two nights could be in vain. I could be staked out trying to catch a feral cat and Jordyn and Jayde would once again be disappointed. Which is why I had not yet told them about the sighting the night before and my plan for that night.
Another daily ritual had been to check the Facebook Lost and Found Pets of Roanoke page. On two separate occasions we made the trek to the SPCA certain that someone had found Clawdia and turned her in. The pictures posted on the site looked exactly like her, the second even more than the first, and Jordyn smiled real big saying; ‘someone found Clawdia’. On both occasions we left dejected and I struggled to find words of hope and encouragement. The past two and a half months have taught me many things, not the least of which is the fact that grey stripped tabby cats are a popular breed and there must be hundreds, if not thousands of them. That knowledge kept my hopes somewhat in check, but my heart and instincts would not let me leave. I had to catch that cat, again.
It’s true that I did not actually catch the cat the previous night, but I had caught her before. The girl’s mother had mentioned that she wanted to get a cat for them. So when I found the kittens in the barn at the farm after a duck hunt, I sent her a message and a few pictures and asked if she wanted me to catch one. Later that day she replied; ‘get two’. That was my first stake out and I sat patiently in the cold barn next to a bowl of milk watching kittens only weeks old as they stumbled and fell over boards and hid behind hay bales. They chased and played while swatting each other and biting tails. I had my eyes on two and they seemed to know it, but they were two young to notice each time I slid the bowl a little closer. One at a time they hissed and clawed at my leather gloves as I scooped them up. Later that day Jordyn and Jayde cautiously opened an old computer box to find their two little kittens, and thus began the story of Clawdia and Purrll.
Almost exactly two years later I was once again trying to lure in a cat, only not from a barn, but rather in a grocery store parking lot. An hour and a half had passed and I had long ago lost interest in the Thursday night football game on the radio. It had seemed like a good way to pass the time, but it was much colder than the previous night and I began to wonder if Clawdia, or the random cat at large, was hunkered down somewhere warm. Remembering that day in the West Virginia barn helped erase that thought, because it had been much colder that day. I thought, it’s not too cold for a cat to roam about at night, and just like that she came trotting around the far right side of the shrubs.
From bear and elk to squirrels and quail, I’ve hunted and trapped all sorts of species and the thrill of that moment when it all starts to come together is always full of heart pounding excitement, and yet the wait continued and I could only sit and watch. Again, I studied the outline and features and believed that must be her. It had to be. Skirting the edge of the curb on my side of the shrubs, her tail was high and it was apparent she was on a mission. The scent of fish danced in the brisk night air and she could not resist. The plan was working! But why did she abruptly stop, along with my heart? A brief pause ended after what seemed like nine lifetimes and she continued. Anticipating this moment my biggest fear was that someone would happen to drive by and spook her back into hiding, but no cars approached and she found the trail of treats.
As she stopped to enjoy each morsel dropped along the wall next to the shrubs, I wished that I had put out less and placed more distance between them. Finally she made it to the big group of trees where I first tried to coax her the previous night. The trap sat level atop a manhole cover on the opposite side and wedged between the next cluster of tress. It was purposefully placed with the opening facing the edge where I knew she would circle around. Like clockwork she disappeared behind the brush. The moments of waiting after losing sight of the target are always the most anxious, and she was taking forever to get to the other side. A rush of panic began to set in, but then I remember dropping a few more treats back there. More waiting.
The trap was placed lengthwise so that the street lights beyond provided enough light for me to see the opening on the other end, and hopefully to know when the door slammed shut. Once again those long ears and that long tail emerged and she again circled the metal cage. To soften it up a bit I placed a little brown blanket on the bottom inside the cage, covering the hard wires. It was the same blanket the girls used to dry the kittens after their first bath at grandma’s house and thereafter was placed in the basket they slept in. It led right up to the trip plate, which she would have to step on in order to reach the open can of salmon and trout flavored Purina.
BOOM!!! When that door slammed shut and the cage went dark I smacked the dashboard with excitement and reached for my light. Fifteen minutes later I was standing next to Jordyn’s bed trying to wake her up on a school night. Still, I was not 100% sure that I had caught Clawdia. The cat had been with me less than a day before she escaped, and most of that time had been spent hiding in the basement. After 72 days at large the cat born in a barn was not happy at all, and looked and acted like a wild animal, in a cage no less. She had hissed and clawed at me as I carried her across the cold parking lot and rattled the cage the whole ride home. I so wanted to be excited, but uncertainty prevailed until I walked a sleepy-eyed and confused Jordyn in her pajamas into the garage. She stood at the open hatch of my SUV and in one glorious moment of triumph and reunion, all of the grogginess disappeared into a sea of hope restored. “Daddy, you found Clawdia!”