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For Merlin the feral cat, a spell indoors was hell

STEVEN HUGHES/The Globe and Mail

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the popular expression warns. I wish I had heeded the caution before I started down that path with Merlin.

Merlin is a handsome and intelligent feral cat. His coat is glossy black with white markings. He has commanding yellow eyes and a patrician nose. We initially named him Stubby because he is missing the tip of his tail and one ear.

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My husband dismisses Merlin as "that cat in the backyard." For him, no name means no emotional attachment. I, however, am quite fond of the little guy.

Stray and feral cats proliferate in our part of downtown St. Catharines, Ont. Apparently we have a reputation for kindness to animals. Strangers have been observed driving into the area and shoving out a hapless domesticated cat that is then expected to fend for itself.

We plucked Molly, Lenny and Luna – two of them strays, one of them feral – from our property and they adjusted fairly easily to domestic life with our family. They have added much joy to our lives, and judging by the contented purring we often hear the feeling is mutual. I found homes for Molly's kitten and for Hannah, another black stray. Our limit is three indoor cats.

When we took on Merlin, it was with the understanding that he would remain an outdoor street cat. We fed him and offered shelter if he wanted it, and kept our fingers crossed that he would be safe from disease, predators, traffic, brutal weather and anything else that can befall an outdoor cat. Other neighbours also looked out for him; they had him neutered and implanted with a microchip.

Not wanting Merlin to suffer through another winter, though, I began a campaign in the fall with the good intentions of finding him a permanent home. There were no nibbles.

And then the unbearably long, cruel winter of 2013-14 was upon us. "Polar vortex" became part of our lexicon. I panicked the first night the temperature dipped to the minus mid-20s, the wind chill plunging significantly lower still. How could any warm-blooded mammal survive?

I cleared out a little bathroom on the main floor, scooped up a startled Merlin and settled him in. He quickly figured out how to use a litterbox, an encouraging sign of potential domesticity.

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We repeated the process with each polar offensive. Merlin continued to adjust to his brief indoor sabbaticals. Finally, we got good news at the end of February: a friend would adopt him. With great relief, I delivered Merlin to his new family, promising to visit once a week during the transition.

And that's when this kitty stepped off the road paved with good intentions and into his personal hell.

Despite the abundant love, unending patience, concern and attention from his new family, Merlin rapidly deteriorated. He simply couldn't cope with all the change – outdoor to indoor cat, unfamiliar home, strangers, different food, new sounds and smells, unfamiliar litter and litterbox, and another cat that bullied him.

For two months we tried just about everything recommended by friends and cat behaviourists. Nothing helped. Merlin continued to regress. He sat, terrified, on a high shelf almost all day and night. Moving him to another room literally scared the pee and poop out of him. His head would bob wildly as he scanned the room for the bully cat. My heart broke when he despairingly buried his face in the crook of my arm.

My good intentions to find Merlin a loving permanent home had robbed him of the joy in his life. My main concern had been for his physical safety, but I had badly miscued on his emotional needs.

In my mind, there was only one thing to do: respect his wild heart and give him his freedom. Leaving him cowering on a shelf was simply not an option.

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I asked my friend to make a great sacrifice. She loved Merlin, and she agreed that returning him to his former stomping grounds would give him a happier life. He had stopped eating and drinking by the time I brought him back to our yard.

When I swung open the gate to the cat carrier, he eased himself out. Seconds later he was wobbling across the yard on legs that had atrophied from lack of exercise. He looked back at me twice – was he cursing me or thanking me? – and was gone. I feared I would never see him again.

But, as the song says, the cat came back the very next day. He was waiting patiently for breakfast and a scratch behind the ears.

My experience with Merlin reminded me again of the folly of making assumptions about the needs and lives of humans and non-humans alike – especially those who can't speak for themselves.

In this diverse world, we should proceed with extreme caution when we try to cram the proverbial square peg into the highly overrated and one-size-fits-all round hole.

I will continue to feed Merlin, provide shelter on the coldest days, maybe even pay for annual shots. Beyond that, I'll take a detour around the road paved with good intentions, because misery often lurks at the destination.

Joan Wiley lives in St. Catharines, Ont.

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