By Madeline Strong Diehl
Ever since we adopted our cat Naomi from the Humane Society four years ago, she has been content to live her life as an indoor cat. That is until one Sunday in late April, when the sights and smells of spring got to be too much for her, and she escaped unnoticed—probably while my husband was taking out the trash.
My husband, Ed, and I were surprised when Naomi did not sleep with us that night, but we figured she was probably caught up in hot pursuit of a stinkbug or a spider. But when she didn’t show up for breakfast or lunch the next day, I knew I had to take action.
First, I called the Humane Society, and I felt great relief when they said: “Most lost cats are found close to home.” But then I asked how close, and they replied, “About a mile.” This of course meant that Naomi was hiding within a circular area with our house at the center—a radius of a mile and a diameter of two miles. My memory recalled the number for pi from my high school geometry class, but I forgot how to use it. All of my attempts to try to figure out my odds were making me anxious. It was obvious that my husband and I weren’t going to be able to find Naomi on our own—we would need reinforcements. And luckily, I knew just where to find them.
If you haven’t used Nextdoor, it’s time to sign-up. The company launched in October 2011 and is now used all over the world as a way to bring “neighbors” together in order to find out the names of everything from the most highly respected plumber in the community to the tiny black bugs that are falling out of your walnut tree. I turned to Nextdoor at the very beginning of our search for Naomi as a way to tap directly into what the character of Blanche DeBois famously describes as “the kindness of strangers” in the play and movie, A Streetcar Named Desire.
I posted Naomi’s description on my neighborhood’s Nextdoor social network of 808 people, and I included all adjacent neighborhoods as well, comprising a total audience of 13,642 “neighbors.” Then I went walking around the neighborhood and called out Naomi’s name, interspersing the intimate inter-species language that Naomi and I had used with each other. I didn’t feel embarrassed about this at all—after all, this was an emergency, and I knew anyone who had ever lost a pet would probably understand. “Naomi, want a tummy rub? A scritch-scratch? Dinner? A treat?” After about half an hour, a young girl about nine or ten years old told me she had seen a grey cat hiding in the bushes across the street. Now I had a hot lead (I was certain that any grey cat was my grey cat), and for about ten minutes, the girl enthusiastically joined me in my mission. We searched all around the front of the neighbor’s house and underneath the sports car in the driveway before giving up, and I gave the girl my phone number to give to her parents in case she saw “my” cat again.
It turns out that “little girls make the best finders of lost cats,” according to a website called “PET MD: Vet authored, Vet approved,” one of several websites that my neighbors on the Nextdoor network had recommended to me by mid-day Tuesday, the second day after Naomi went A.W.O.L. When I signed into the Nextdoor site I was deeply moved to find that more than a dozen of my Nextdoor “neighbors” had sent me messages of emotional support, hope, and advice. When I followed up on some of the links they suggested online, though, I found there is a huge controversy over the most efficacious way to find a cat.
Whatever. By Tuesday afternoon I had grown anxious from all the conflicting information, and I tried to get some work done, but I found it very difficult to concentrate. I didn’t just miss Naomi’s company—I missed her for work-related reasons, too. Every hour or so she had jumped up on my desk and spread herself belly-up across whatever I was working on, reminding me that I needed to get up and stretch my legs. And whenever I was taking my work too seriously (and therefore neglecting Naomi), she would hide behind chairs, couches, doors, the shower curtain (wherever I would least expect her) and suddenly jump out in ambush when I passed by. How was I going to get my work done without Naomi’s help?
Two seemingly conflicting emotions were vying for my attention. The first was a sense that I was being bathed in kindness every time I walked down the street and called out Naomi’s name. Almost all of the people I passed let me know that they had read my post on Nextdoor, and they were searching for Naomi, too. I had lived on the Old West Side for twenty years and had passed many of these neighbors almost every day, but up until Naomi went missing, I had only exchanged names with a handful of them. Now Naomi—and her disappearance—was helping me make real connections with my neighbors that I probably would not have made any other way.
But intertwined with these feelings of hope and connection were feelings of foreboding that it might take a while for me to find Naomi, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do in the meantime. Naomi wasn’t just a cat—I counted on her for lots of very important things, like reading to me before I fell asleep each night and making me smile at her antics. She would often chase the rings from milk cartons and deftly use her paw to put them out of sight under rugs, then pretend some other cat had done it. Or she would jump into paper grocery bags and then pretend she couldn’t get out again. How was I to get along without these things? I mean, my husband surely couldn’t do them.
Finally, by Tuesday evening, I was absolutely frazzled. I cried on the phone when I told my friend Kathy what was going on, and she insisted that I take Wednesday off and wait until late Wednesday night to search again, when everything was quiet. “Remember that Naomi is scared from all the outdoor noises, and she’s probably hiding right under your nose,” she said.
Hmmm. Right under my nose. I went out at 10 p.m. Wednesday and tried to think like Naomi. Where could she be hiding that was close to our house, but still out of sight? I noticed that my next-door neighbor Roxanne’s deck had a small crevice in the side where it skirted around the trunk of a very stout oak tree. The hole was around four or five inches wide, and I wasn’t convinced that Naomi could fit. But it seemed like my best bet, so I sat there for half an hour and talked as if I knew Naomi was there, so that I would sound convincing if she was. “Naomi, don’t you want some dinner?” I suggested while shaking her food loudly in her bowl. “Come out and get a treat!” I was just about to give up and go home when I heard a soft shuffling noise—or thought I did. “Naomi?” I called again.
Naomi ambushed me, suddenly popping her head out from under the deck. She meowed at me with great indignation, as if she was mad at me for not rescuing her sooner. Yet she also seemed very disoriented and frightened, and wouldn’t venture out from underneath the deck for a full twenty minutes. When she did, I made the mistake of trying to grab her, and she scratched me like she meant to hurt me for the first time in our four-year-long friendship.
I watched blood seeping from the cut on my hand that was so precise a scalpel could have made it. Running inside for a bandage and some tuna, I excitedly told Ed that I had found the cat. We both donned heavy winter gloves to protect ourselves from Naomi’s irrational fight-or-flight responses and positioned ourselves on either side of the entrance to Naomi’s stronghold. At first, Naomi seemed mollified by the little bits of tuna we fed her through the hole. But then she began complaining bitterly, insisting that we had oppressed her by forcing her to live an indoor life when she was actually a sleek and proud panther with an untamable wild spirit and remarkable hunting prowess.
On this particular night, as with so many in late April, the winter let it be known that it was not entirely ready to leave yet, and Ed grew tired of Naomi’s unfounded accusations. He stood up to leave, and suddenly, Roxanne’s backyard light went on and her frightened face appeared in the window. She opened the door and asked us (not surprisingly), “What are you doing in my backyard at midnight?”
Ed apologized and explained that we had just found Naomi under her deck after searching for three days, but we couldn’t persuade her to come out, so we were going home to bed. I objected, but my husband reminded me that Naomi could take care of herself.
Roxanne interjected, and kindly said: “Madeline, if you are really concerned, you are more than welcome to sleep on the deck. But I am going to bed.” And with that, Roxanne retreated back inside.
Ed continued to insist that it was “totally ridiculous” for me to believe that Naomi needed my protection. “She’s gotten along fine these past three nights,” he said.
“How do you know she didn’t barely escape death?” I asked. “Why else would she be acting so traumatized?” I announced that I had made my decision, and I asked Ed to please bring out a sleeping bag, a flashlight, some popcorn, and a mug of hot chocolate.
Being the very kind and thoughtful husband that he is, Ed went inside our house to collect all of the high-performance cat-rescue supplies and survival provisions that I had requested. But unfortunately he brought them to me just as Naomi was starting to get enough courage to venture out of her hole. Naomi got spooked again and disappeared back under the deck. Ed let out an audible sigh and sat at the picnic table on our own deck. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’ve already stayed up this long in the cold,” he said, opening up a book to read by flashlight. “I might as well stay and see if she’ll come out again. This way we outnumber her.”
“You are truly a gem!” I commented to Ed.
“I know,” he agreed.
I continued to sweet talk Naomi, and she continued to insist that she would no longer settle for hunting mere spiders and stinkbugs. She even threatened to file a lawsuit against Ed and me for misrepresenting her to herself. Finally I, too, gave up and went over to the picnic table where Ed was sitting and found him with an empty bowl in his lap. “Well, how do you expect me to sit here for half an hour holding popcorn and not eat it?” he asked.
On Thursday morning, I woke at 7 a.m. and went to Roxanne’s deck, where I found that Naomi was acting much more rationally. I was able to persuade her to come out from under the deck by leaving a pile of tuna about two feet away. Then I kept placing little piles of tuna at one-foot intervals until she was finally in the house. Once inside, she polished off two days’ worth of food and water, then rolled over on her back for a long nap, content.
When I went out for my afternoon walk, I was able to greet almost all of my neighbors by name as I passed them on the sidewalk and announced the good news that Naomi had returned home. I also posted the story on Nextdoor (without the part about Ed eating all the popcorn), and thanked all 13,642 of my “neighbors” for their kindness.
“I just came home from a terrible day at work, and you have done me a great kindness by letting me know Naomi is safe,” responded one of my new friends. “Now I’m sitting here smiling just thinking about it.”
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