Craig Field of Austin, Texas, was concerned enough by his ethical dilemma to rehearse it before the eyes of the world. In the New York Times Magazine’s column “The Ethicist” for December 16, 2012, Mr. Field asked: when a runaway cat returns home after several years, what obligation does the cat’s owner have to whoever it was that cared for her during her occultation?
Chuck Klosterman, the Ethicist, worked through the problem, but he was reluctant to grant Mr. Field’s factual premise. “First,” he asked, “are you certain this is the same cat? The idea of a prodigal kitty (returning home after ‘several years’) strikes me as implausible.”
It is implausible, no doubt, in what’s called the temperate zone. But in the warm climate of Hawaii, where I live, cats go feral and live on and on. In Roughing It, Mark Twain devotes a long, cheerful description to the contented cats of Honolulu. But the little cat who showed up on our doorstep some time around 2007 wasn’t contented. She was starving. I opened the door, she walked right in and made herself at home, and that was that. A few nights later I was startled awake by a thump on my chest and looked up to see a pair of big yellow eyes staring intently into mine. “Whither thou goest, I will go,” was the line that awoke with me, and from then on we called our new little cat Ruth.
But she grew ill in 2012, and her veterinarian discovered that she had been fitted with an identifying microchip and was much older than we’d realized: seventeen years. After she died, the attendants in charge of animal disposal for the Hawaiian Humane Society took one more reading of her microchip, and that’s when I discovered her previous name and the name of the previous owner who had had her neutered and microchipped in 1995.
Her previous name had been given to her by my daughter. Her previous owner was me. Her mother had been a feral cat who moved under our house and had two litters of kittens there. And Ruth, after a short time with her mother and us, had taken up her mother’s way of life and run away. She was gone from about 1995 to about 2007 – so many years that it didn’t occur to any of us that she and that little runaway kitten were the same cat.
The name-bearing magnetic microchip that’s injected under the skin of a cat’s neck is only about the size of a grain of rice. On behalf of folklore and against all plausibility, this one went to its end in the Humane Society’s crematorium as the testimony of a hard little fact.