The Back Road: Friends just the same

The Back Road: Friends just the same

Andrew Malekoff

Among the few home movies I have from my childhood are a few clips with me and Bingo, the German Shepherd my father kept at his bar and grill in Newark, N.J. I can’t say that Bingo qualified as “my dog” since she didn’t live with us. I visited with her on Sunday mornings when my dad took me to work.

After we married, my wife and I agreed to get a dog. Kirby was a feisty off-white Cairn Terrier who lived with us for 15 years. She was a part of our family. We haven’t had a pet living with us since Kirby died more than 20 years ago.

Four years ago in early spring a family of mourning doves settled on the second story deck of our home in Long Beach. First it was just one or two. They left quite a mess. Despite that, I thought better than to chase them off. I just put up a ladder from the yard, climbed up and washed down the deck with the garden hose.

I did a little research and found that mourning doves are monogamous; they mate for life.

The pair had a baby – a squab that, when he was able to fly, roosted on our deck all summer long. I learned that young doves are able to fly about 35 days after hatching. Did you know that mourning dove parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs; the male on the nest by day and the female by night?

I named the little guy (or gal) Sonny Jim, based on a character from the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks that I was watching at the time. Typically if a bird landed on our deck it flew away whenever we opened the sliding door to the deck. Not Sonny Jim. He seemed content to just hang out, regardless of how closely we sat by.

His mom visited to feed him when we weren’t around. Dad came by less frequently. In time, a mourning dove’s diet converts from “crop milk” (secretion from the lining of the crop of parent birds that is regurgitated to young birds) to seeds. The mother dove digests seeds before feeding them to her young.

As the fall approached Sonny Jim flew back-and-forth to a low branch in a tree in our yard. He stayed still as I photographed him in the tree. By summer’s end he left for good.

This past spring a white cat showed up and hung out in our yard. I’m fairly certain that he is a feral cat. I learned that stray cats and feral cats are different in their relationship and interactions with people. Strays probably lived with people some time in their lives, while the latter were always on their own. And, no, his ears were not cropped, which would signify he was neutered.

One day I left some tuna on a plate for the newcomer. He slowly approached and ate the tuna after I went inside. A few days later I tried sardines, which he also liked.

I decided to name him Virgil. I’m not sure why. The name just came to me. Virgil is a mostly white cat, with a dark patch above his left eye and a grey and black striped tail.

Maybe I named him after the ancient Roman poet Virgil or Virgil Caine, a fictional character from The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song that tells the story of the final days of the Civil War through the eyes of a southern farmer. In any case, it was not a conscious decision.

After a few months Virgil started showing up daily. I picked up some dry cat food. In time, Virgil started to approach me when I came outside. He lets me scratch his head when I feed him and he eats snacks out of my hand. But I don’t push it. Sometimes we sit in the yard together, although he keeps his distance unless there is food involved.

Virgil stretches out almost anywhere in the yard; like he owns the place. I do feel a connection with Virgil. As far as he’s concerned I imagine I’m just a food source.
Virgil opens his mouth when he sees me but I don’t hear a meow. I’ve learned that some cats give silent meows as a simple a way of greeting you and telling you that they’re glad to see you. Who knows?

Kirby was our dog and, although Bingo didn’t live with us she was a part of the family. Is Virgil my cat? No more than I had any proprietary rights over Sonny Jim.

I’m sure that some cat experts reading this will take issue with my relationship with Virgil and suggest that I somehow get him to a vet to get checked out. Sorry, but I’m not going there. And, no, I’m not inviting him inside my house. But I will respect his boundaries.

It’s clear to me that, whatever you call it, there are often opportunities to interact with and develop relationships with animals, even when they don’t live with you.

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