The Cat Who Had 9.9 Lives

This is a tale of a Foreign Service cat.

Huckleberry Jim, or Huckle for short, is Czech by birth and your basic yellow tabby. He was supposed to be a calico female. The secretary at my kids’ school in Prague regularly brought in kittens birthed by her barn cats to give away because, she said, “I can’t drown them.” I was looking to adopt another kitten so my kids would quit fighting over the one we already had. I came in to pick up the calico, and was told that one of the male cats had killed that one, but would I like this tabby male instead? Sigh. Rather than send him back to be murdered in the barn, I took the filthy little critter home.

That was Huckle’s first lucky break. Of course, he turned out not to be six weeks old, as the secretary had said, but a very undersized three months old. We had adopted the runt of the litter. He also had a bad case of kennel cough. Fortunately veterinary care in Prague was cheap and effective. After several visits to the vet for antibiotic shots, the little scrap began to improve and eventually became a normal-sized cat. An affectionate, cuddly one, as a matter of fact.

Over kennel cough and into trouble.

The thing about runts, though, is that they always have a bit of a screw loose. Huckle never quite got the cat thing down. He has never killed anything, as far as I know, even though in Virginia we had a yard full of chipmunks (AKA “cat candy.”) Sometimes, the other cat would feel sorry for him and give him a dead chipmunk to play with. He has never been very well coordinated for a cat, either, and he seems to have no sense of direction whatsoever.

Huckle is also extremely timid. So, he has one talent in life. He is an expert at How Not to Be Seen.

This cat is in the habit of simply disappearing, usually somewhere around the time of a move. Shortly after our move to DC from Prague in 2004, he vanished. We waited and waited, and finally, after several weeks, adopted another cat. Then, one evening, a woman called and asked “Do you have a cat named Huckle?” He’s at my door and he wants dinner!”

Huckle had managed to survive for over two months out in the woods before successfully identifying a Cat Person and getting her to call us. He was two miles down the creek that ran in back of our house, skinny, dirty, and hungry, but otherwise OK.

After that adventure, he developed a pathological fear of closed doors. He never went more than a few yards from our front door, and panicked if anyone closed it. This was a problem during our flight over to Vienna in 2011. I was seated in the back, by the bathroom, and so every time the bathroom door opened, the stupid cat was convinced it was the way out of the plane. And every time it closed he cried. It was a really, really long flight.

A couple of weeks after we arrived at post, Huckle jumped (or fell) out of the window of our fourth-floor temporary apartment. With no German to speak of, I made up flyers using Google Translate, figured out how to register him on a local lost pet site, and so on. About a week later, my son and I went out calling for him, and his head popped right out of a hedge in the garden of one of the apartments below us. Once again, he had survived unscathed, at least physically. But after that, he started chewing on his tail (which he had long been convinced was stalking him) in a big way. A few months later, we had to have about a third of it taken off just so he couldn’t reach it.

Huckle’s very bad day.

On a hunch, we adopted another kitten, thinking that Huckle might like some company. Cats are actually social animals, after all. At first, he was wary of Taz, making all those weird karate moves that cats make when they are telling a new cat how it’s going to be. Then he became fascinated with the noisy little furball that was in constant motion. Then he decided the furball needed a bath. Pretty soon, Huckle and Taz were good buddies, regularly chasing and boxing with each other–though there was no doubt who was in charge. Finally, Huckle had a chance to be the alpha cat. And it was very good for him indeed. His coat looked better, and he stopped worrying about his tail so much.

Cat compatibility.

Now, two years later, and at 14 years old, Huckle is nearly completely deaf, has had all his teeth extracted, and of course, only has 2/3 of a tail. This affects his already not-great coordination, and may have had something to do with his latest adventure.

A week ago, one of us left the patio door of our seventh-floor terrace open at night. Huckle got out, which is normally OK, but it being night-time, he got some urge in the dim recesses of his feline brain to jump up on the roof and go wandering about. That would be the roof that is seven stories up from the sidewalk. In the morning, he was gone.

I went out first thing to look for a kitty pancake on the sidewalk below. We called for him, we made up signs, we listed him on the lost pet sites again. At first we thought he might have ended up on someone else’s patio, given that our building is one of several adjacent ones that occupy a city block. But after the first couple of days, our hopes faded. I was sure that he must have fallen from the roof and crawled off to die somewhere.

Then, this morning, I got an email from the Vienna animal shelter. They had Huckle! He had been found across the Donaukanal in another district of the city, and his microchip connected him with me. Huge shout-out to the pet-loving Viennese here. Huckle didn’t even have a collar, so it was so nice of someone to pick him up and take him to the shelter. Whoever you are, good Samaritan, danke sehr!

Let’s review what had to happen in this scenario: there was only one way for Huckle to get down to ground level from our patio, and that was to fall seven stories to the pavement. There is nothing anywhere around our building to break that fall. No awnings, no trees, nothing. Then he would have to cross two four-lane busy roads and cross a bridge (or swim the canal!) to end up where he did.

I went to pick him up, and the vet at the shelter said that x-rays didn’t show any broken bones. He is filthy, exhausted and walking stiffly, but he has eaten and used the litterbox so he is probably going to be OK after the bruises heal. He was so happy to see me, it was really sweet. Maybe he thought his number was up this time, too. Huckle must have one frazzled guardian angel.

Waiting to see the vet at the shelter.
Waiting to see the vet at the shelter.

Of course, he has returned just in time for another major disruption in his kitty life: our move back to DC. At least we will be in a TDY apartment there with no balcony, so he can’t run (or fall) off. But I am seriously wondering if it would be better to find a retirement home for the old guy when we leave for Warsaw a year later. He has definitely used up his nine lives, and I am not sure either of us can handle trying for number ten!

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