The cats next door: A pet feeder's adventure

Slow to trust: Bobby (left) and Maud, the cats next door.

Slow to trust: Bobby (left) and Maud, the cats next door.

For the past few days, I've been on pet-feeding duty for a neighbour. It's not a new thing for me. But this time, it opened my eyes a bit.

Maud and Bobby are the cats next door (though out of respect for their privacy I've changed their names). I often see them sashay across the front lawn, Maud the brown tabby and her white-socked brother Bobby. They're in the prime of life and are deeply attached to their human dad.

They've always been shy and skittish when I've seen them in my yard. They've shunned my invitations to come over for a tickle despite my self-image as something of a cat whisperer.

So when I started the twice-daily 50-metre journey to my neighbour's house to feed the cats, I was hoping to build a relationship with them.

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I thought of myself as a suburban David Attenborough, a Hutt Valley Dian Fossey. My plan was to observe my animal subjects, learn their ways and gain their trust, till finally they would greet me joyously and engage me in harmless frolics on the dusty savannah just like Elsa the lioness.

Did I succeed? You be the judge.

I noticed progress early. The first time I approached their home, Maud and Bobby sped away in different directions. This was despite my whistling, as my neighbour did to call his cats to dinner.

A sign of contentment: Bobby washes after a feed.

A sign of contentment: Bobby washes after a feed.

But I put the food in their bowls and watched Maud approach. As I sat on a chair a careful distance away, she dug in. After a minute, Bobby joined her.

I didn't push it; I rose and left as quietly as I could, though this still caused both cats to freeze in surprise.

Feed by twice-daily feed, the cats got bolder at my visits. Maud even rubbed around my shins as I stood at a table and filled their bowls.

Bobby was more distant but more vocal. He took to talking to me each time I arrived, sometimes darting up the front steps ahead of me.

Maud warmed to her food-bearing visitor.

Maud warmed to her food-bearing visitor.

Then after a few days, a breakthrough: Bobby edged up to me and accepted some pats. And when I rose from the chair to leave, this time both cats stayed calm.

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The next day brought another unexpected milestone.

The feed went as usual, with Bobby meowing and Maud rubbing around me, then both dining peacefully as I watched from that safe distance.

But as I left, something new happened: Maud followed me down my neighbour's steps and leapt on the car parked in the drive. Then – and I could hardly believe it was happening – she began to follow me as I walked the few metres back to my own driveway.

Maud and Bobby explore their neighbour's driveway. Their journey next door was a breakthrough.

Maud and Bobby explore their neighbour's driveway. Their journey next door was a breakthrough.

She kept about 10 metres behind me. I sat on the low wall that flanks my driveway, and she glided up to me. As I patted her, she arched her back against my hand and pushed her head into my palm.

The cat whisperer triumphs again, I thought.

The triumph got better. The next evening, Maud followed me to my driveway again, and I sat again to pat her. But this time, Bobby had come too.

They had both followed me home. Not to stay – they both sought and accepted their pats and rubbed against my knees, but then they trotted off to sniff around my garden and make their eventual way back home.

I took some photos. I wanted to document my social and zoological success with Maud and Bobby.

Bobby loved his food but kept his distance.

Bobby loved his food but kept his distance.

But the work of a suburban Attenborough must bring setbacks among the victories. The following evening, both cats mobbed me as I arrived, arching and tiptoeing around me as I put their bowls on the floor.

I thought, I've totally won them over!

Then I bent to stroke Bobby's back as he began eating. As I backed away my head bumped a decorative metal lantern hanging above and knocked it off its hook. I let out an "agh" and the lamp clattered to the floor right next to Bobby.

He rocketed away. As I rehung the lamp, I noticed him at the end of the deck, looking at me with hurt eyes.

At the next feed – the last before my neighbour was to return – Maud was as warm as before but Bobby wouldn't come near me. Just before I left, though, he meowed to me again.

I like to think he was saying "Hey, food man, you let me down. But eventually I might just forgive you."

I wonder if Attenborough ever gets the same message.

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 - Stuff


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