As we were leaving Greg’s mom’s house one afternoon, Greg said, “Listen to that weird bird call. Almost sounds like a cat, doesn’t it?” It was an intermittent call, raucous and raw, and we didn’t know what kind of bird made it. It wasn’t like anything we’d ever heard before, except a cat, sort of, but not really.
Next morning Greg went to his mom’s again to do some yard work for her, and when he came home he had a tiny black-and-white kitten in his mom’s cat carrier along with a can of cat food and a towel. He’d heard the noise again, decided it had to be a cat because it was coming from ground level, and searched until he found it huddled close to the fence. Greg’s mom said it had made that weird sound all night long.
It was a young kitten—old enough to survive away from its mother, but not without some help. There was no sign of a mother cat or other kittens in the area. How did it get to Greg’s mom’s? It was too young to walk far on its own and there was no place close enough for it to toddle from. Did someone really drive it to the country, find a likely-looking house, and just drop it off? I know such things happen but the idea is just too much. I’ve never really been able to wrap my mind around it.
The kitten was still meowing its bizarre meow in the cat carrier. Now that we knew it was a cat, the sound seemed urgent and scared rather than just weird, but still, we figured something must be wrong with its meower for it to sound like that. I held the kitten, and it quieted down. What sort of night had it passed, a baby, hungry and alone in a strange place?
The kitten was male. I called him Mumford after someone else I knew of with a raw, anguished cry.
Mumford came at an opportune time. A few weeks earlier Emilie had brought home an orange kitten whom I’d named Bucky (that’s Winter Soldier Bucky, not Get Fuzzy Bucky), and a few days later she brought home Winky, a solid black female, so Mumford had a foster brother and sister right away. Bucky is the biggest and likes to wrestle the other two, giving Mumford fresh cause for yowling.
Winky is a bit older than Mumford, a bit more graceful and poised on her feet, and a bit more reserved. When Bucky wrestles Winky, she doesn’t yowl; she gibbers and fights back. At night, when Bucky and Mumford curl up close, Winky beds down about a hand’s breadth away—near, but not so near.
It turns out that Mumford has a normal meow after all. There’s nothing wrong with his meower; he was just so frantic that first couple of days, so frightened out of his senses, that he couldn’t sound like a regular cat. Emilie said he was using his mama-meow, and I think she’s right. It’s an urgent, piercing, strident cry, with the sole purpose of catching the mother cat’s attention and bringing her running. The cry of a human newborn in distress has a similar quality; any mother knows instinctively the difference between a fussy or tired cry and the cry of a baby that’s frightened or in pain. Mumford’s mother, if she’d been around, would have responded right away. We are humans and it took us a little longer to figure it out.
We heard the mama-meow off and on again for a few days, whenever Mumford couldn’t find us or was suddenly startled awake. This little animal’s first waking thought was that he was alone again. Now that he’s settled in and seems to feel safe, he doesn’t do it anymore. He does follow me around a lot, put his little front paws on my ankle, and urgently meow up at me, wanting to be held—he’s needier than the other kittens—but now he just uses a regular meow.
The thing about the mama-meow is that it is absolutely useless for any purpose other than summoning the mother cat (or a sympathetic human, or the occasional dog with cross-species maternal instincts). It is the ultimate admission of vulnerability. It sure wouldn’t frighten predators; in fact it would draw them. In the short run it would seem safer to keep quiet. But what good is that really? Hiding from danger is no use for a kitten that young. It’ll die on its own, if not from predation then from hunger or exposure. The mama-meow is its only chance.
There are times when your best and only hope is to cry out for mercy. Don’t try to be clever or cautious or defensive; don’t hide; don’t rely on your own resource. Put all your heart and hunger and loneliness and poverty and need into your cry, and pray it falls on sympathetic ears.
Sometimes mercy is all that can save you.