I have a friend who loves cats as much as I do. Her own cats have a wonderful home, good food, medical care, toys, plenty of companionship and a loving bond with their human caretaker. She went out of her way to care for any cat she could help - stray, feral or friendly - and her efforts almost always had a happy ending. So I was surprised when she told me the story of The Outcast.
A lovely stray cat had showed up at her doorstep a few months ago. Not one to let an animal go without food, she began feeding the stray, and a trusting relationship began to form. My friend allowed the stray to step inside a few times to check out her house and meet her cats. Everything seemed to be going fine, and my friend finally decided to invite this cat in to be a part of her family.
Now, experienced cat rescuers are not naïve. We know how to watch an animal for signs of trouble. A subtle grunt, a small change in the sway of the body, a tiny twist in the tail, a glint in the eyes - we know how to spot these signs of trouble. Up to now, there had been no indication of fear, no sign of distress, no symptoms of illness, nothing to indicate that the stray would do any more than come in and join the family. But as the stray entered the home, surrounded by its new, welcoming family members, the cat suddenly went crazy.
The stray attacked one cat, then another, then another in a seemingly calculated but unprovoked attempt to inflict as much harm as possible. By the time my friend got the stray out of the house, both she and her cats had injuries that needed treatment.
In telling a neighbor about the cat’s outburst, my friend was asked if she would continue to feed the stray outside the house. My friend said no. The cat had shown itself to be threat to her and her cats. She could not continue to encourage the cat to hang around her house, for the cat might attack her, her cats, or perhaps another animal or person in the neighborhood. So, that night, the food and water would be taken up, and should the cat show up at her door, she would chase the cat away until it understood that it was no longer welcome.
Her story upset me as much as it had upset her. Rescuers want to save lives and change lives, not turn them away or add to their burdens. She did not make her decision lightly. She knew that the stray would now have to fend for itself again. There would be no more easy access to food, water or shelter. Perhaps the cat would survive, but it would be a very hard life. But she also knew the risks of allowing the cat to stay. Her decision was rational and logical. It protected her and her cats. It ensured that she would not be held liable if the cat was to hurt some other animal or person. It seemed to be the only sensible thing to do, but I could see in her eyes that, while the decision was justified, it brought her no peace. Like me, she mourned The Outcast, this cat who had come so close to having a wonderful home and a loving family.
Like my friend, I too struggle to understand The Outcast. Why had this cat attacked? What went wrong? Could anything have been done differently? Rescuers ask these questions thousands of times over. We want to find a reason, an explanation, something to justify or to excuse the behavior, something to justify or excuse our failure, anything to ease the pain of having to turn an animal out into the cold cruel world. You see, a rescuer’s greatest fear is that he or she will do something to harm or kill an animal, so to turn an animal away is no small decision for us. We know the odds, and we know that by turning an animal away, we are most likely sentencing that animal to an early death or a harsh life. We find no peace, no consolation, and no joy in sentencing The Outcast to a solitary life sentence.
The truth is that we will never know what prompted The Outcast to throw away her greatest chance at happiness. Perhaps it was fear. Maybe she had been abandoned or abused. Maybe she had trust issues. Perhaps she was ill, physically or mentally. Maybe she suffered a flashback. We will never know. The only thing we do know is that tonight The Outcast will look for her food bowl and not find it. She will seek the company of the home that had showed her compassion, and it will be locked up tight against her. She will go to bed hungry, lonely, and afraid, and tomorrow night - if she lives that long - she will do it again.
Yes, we could blame The Outcast. It was her fault, after all. If she had behaved herself, none of this would have happened. She had her chance and she blew it. She is just getting what she deserves. But such statements of blame, no matter how correct they may be, are simply our way of saying, “We did everything we could do. There is nothing more we can do”. It is our way of trying to ease the pain we feel for The Outcast and for ourselves. By placing the blame on The Outcast, we insulate ourselves from our own fears and our own shortcomings. But placing the blame on The Outcast does not erase our pain. Any parent who has a wayward child understands. We feel powerless. We question our role. We wonder if we were to blame for the outcome, and we always wonder if we could have done something more.
I do not blame my friend for her decision. She has to protect herself and her family. She made the only choice she could. But like her, I find no peace in the choice. I wonder if I could make such a choice. Sadly, I think I could. The fact that I keep a gun in my home is just one indication that I could indeed harm an animal or a human to save my own life or my own possessions. I too have my share of outcasts, people with whom the relationship became too damaged or too toxic to continue. I avoid them. I sentence them to a life without my compassion, without my forgiveness. I justify my choice by saying that I did all I could do, and I can do nothing more. Perhaps I’m right to stay away from them. Perhaps to try to mend those relationships would just bring more pain or expose me to another attack. I just don’t know anymore.
But tonight, I grieve for The Outcast, and for all of the of outcasts out there in the world. Placing the blame on them does not help. Placing the blame on society does not help. Placing the blame on me does not help. It does not make them go away. They are still out there, still suffering, still The Outcast.
Tonight, it is cold and rainy. Somewhere out there is The Outcast - lonely, hurt, hungry, miserable, angry and sad - in part because of a choice made and in part because of a choice made by others. You see, it take two to make an outcast - the one rejected and the one rejecting.
I am reminded that Jesus ate and drank with sinners and hung with criminals. He understood The Outcast. He knew that we are all self-appointed outcasts, and when offered happiness we all somehow manage to screw it up, be it a relationship, a job, or some other part of our life. And when we fail we have to blame someone. That’s how Jesus became an outcast. He offered us happiness, just as God had done. We screwed it up and blamed Him for it. Yet somehow He still offers us the chance to come into His home. He does not blame us, no matter how much we have hurt Him, no matter how bad our behavior. He does not reject us, but continues to hold open the door to happiness and bids us to enter.
I have come to understand that only God can save The Outcast, be it a cat or you or me. But I know that I too must try to rescue The Outcast, no matter how hard it may be, no matter what it may cost. Maybe we can all give it a try, for if we could all just re-open the doors of our hearts, The Outcast could finally find peace and forgiveness. And perhaps there would finally be peace on Earth.