Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Happy Birthday, Gabriel

Four years ago today, on Friday the Thirteenth, I stopped at Joan Benson’s place in North Jackson to pick up a new black kitten. I’d been expecting a short-haired cat, like all the other cats I’d had, and I was startled to see a little furball no longer than my hand, with big eyes and a plump little tail. With her long hair and the wisps of silver under her chin and along her belly, she was a tiny image of my mother’s cat Angel.

Now, Angel was a feral cat who lived in the woods around my mother’s cabin, which was a mile or so from the Bensons’ place. Ma fed her for a long time before the cat trusted her enough to come inside. From then on, until Angel’s death, the two shared a loving companionship. Angel was one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever known: with her lushly plumy tail, long black hair, touches of silver at her neck and belly, and her demure velvet paws, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.

But Angel was clearly a wild animal. Though she was affectionate and friendly, she went on hunting. She also performed amazing feats of agility and strength. I once saw her somersault ten feet through the air from the railing of my mother’s deck (a good 15 feet from the ground) to grab the trunk of a tree.

Angel was probably 5 or 6 years old when she came through the woods to my mother’s door. But this little fuzzball was a new kitten. I debated names, but it was clear I had to name her after Angel. So she was christened Gabriel. Not Gabrielle. Angels are sexless, and Gabriel is a much better name than Gabrielle.

I stopped at Ma’s on my way home so she and Angel could exclaim over my new baby. Clearly there was a relationship here, possibly even a direct lineal descent. Which wasn’t surprising. Gabriel’s mother was a member of a tribe of feral cats whose independent existence overlapped the life of the Benson farm and extended into the woods surrounding it. The cats lived, hunted, bred, and died outdoors but mingled with people when the notion suited them.

These wild felines resembled Maine Coon Cats and Norwegian Forest Cats, which makes sense. In the 1970s, a couple of Maine Coon housecats had run away from various households and may well have added their genes to the local cat population. Also, given the snowy, bitter winters in Jackson, natural selection in feral cats would favor the typical Maine Coon/Norwegian Forest characteristics of intelligence, agility, climbing skills, and a thick double coat of long hair. Angel and Gabriel were clearly both members of the local feral breed: Jackson Coon Cats, or maybe Jackson Forest Cats.

What was so astonishing wasn’t that these cats had all the skills they needed to survive in the wild. It was that they were so loving in the home. My little bundle of fuzz was very clearly *my* baby from the minute I took her home. She spent time just cuddling with me, wrestling my fingers, or sleeping on my feet, but she would also go forth fearlessly to explore. Oh look, there’s a world behind the couch! Then she would realize she was alone, stop in her tracks, and start meowing. We had company that weekend, and I would excuse myself: “Sorry, I’m on call.” By the end of that weekend she had me trained.

Since then, she has been my friend, companion, and delight. When I pet her, she grabs my hand in her paws and starts licking me. She steals my covers, sometimes sits in my lap, and stands up to hug my knee when I am opening a can of cat food. Happy birthday, Gabriel. You’ve been a great delight for the past four years, and I hope you’ll be with me for many years to come.

I don't have pictures of Gabriel up on the web, but these pictures of a black Maine Coon look a lot like her. Check out the second page, too: kitties opening presents on Christmas morning.

Edited to add: Gabriel that first weekend. The picture at the top is Gabriel as an adult.

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