Pet Diaries: What a Street Savvy Cat Taught Me About Building a Community
Introducing Pet Diaries: Life lessons learned from our pets. This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®, and explores how having a pet can change your place in your neighborhood, community, and beyond. Check out more stories at the GOOD Pets hub.
When I moved into a courtyard house in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles with a bunch of my friends and boyfriend, I had no idea that a neighborhood raccoon of a cat (i.e., a Maine Coon) would become our other roommate. Every time we opened our front door, this mysterious cat would run inside.
Originally from Wisconsin, I had attended college in Orange County and moved up to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. I met my boyfriend at an art show where we were both showing our work, and later we started writing and performing comedy together. Being young 20-somethings breaking into Hollywood, free from real responsibilities, we took care of this stray cat in the most casual way possible. We’d put him back outside and leave him food. But, as time went on, his friendly presence was so captivating that we wanted him to stick around. If you fed him a treat, he would jump up on his hind legs and catch it between his paws. He was always interested in what you were doing and would intently watch. He also had the ability to trick you into napping with him, which was quite comforting. He was sneaky, yet charming, and we loved being around him, so we named him Fernando Greyskull, to reflect his beautiful grey fur and charisma.
Anytime I hadn’t seen Fernando in a while, I’d be so concerned about his whereabouts that I’d scour the streets looking for him, but it turned out he always stayed in our enclosed courtyard area. By being physically close to everyone that lived around us, he built a community of people who cared about him. In fact, he’d visit neighbors so often that I naturally started to get to know them and trust them, just like Fernando did. One neighbor once told me, "Oh yeah, ‘Fern’ was over at our house and he fell asleep next to us.” Whenever our neighbor Brian would have parties, Fernando would be there, with ladies always fawning over him. Fernando’s savvy social skills connected us to that courtyard community.
One day Fernando came inside looking terrible. His hair was all matted and mucus covered his face. Until this point, we had always assumed that he belonged to one of the other neighbors, but when we asked around, it turned out they all thought he belonged to us. This cat had come to us for help, so we wanted to do something. Since we weren’t positive that he was a stray, we took him to the local shelter, where the staff told us that he was very sick. They kept him for seven days, and in the meantime, they put his picture online in hopes that his owner might claim him. During this process, we found out that Fernando was microchipped, but that the chip was blank. We were also surprised to learn that he was already 10 years old.
After his week at the shelter was over and the cat was well again, we were given a one-hour time slot to claim him, and we rushed right over to become the official guardians of Fernando Greyskull.
Fernando was a “man of mystery.” I liked to imagine what the first 10 years of his life had been like. We knew for sure that he was a city cat — an Angeleno through and through. He rooted for the Dodgers and Lakers, but also kept it old school by still rooting for the Raiders. He loved the ladies and was an expert salsa dancer. He drove a black and grey El Camino with hydraulics and often bumped the song “Low Rider”. He was the definition of machismo.
Over time, Fernando became more than just our cat. Fernando became the most well-known personality in our little courtyard area. He was like a therapy pet for our neighbors. If you had a bad day Fern was always there for you. And because he was like everyone's cat, it made it even more special when you got a chance to spend time with him one on one. When my boyfriend and I decided to move in together and live without roommates, we took Fernando with us, and his friendly, savvy charm made him a special part of every party we (he) threw.
Fernando was a real character. He managed to woo all of our new neighbors, friends and family members into caring about him when they’d come over. If you danced for him, he would smile and purr. He had long chest hair and his tag hung down in it like a medallion. When we had barbecues he was so social that he would stand amongst groups of people as if part of the conversation. His personality exceeded “cat” — to me he was an old-fashioned gentleman who enjoyed watching me cook and do dishes. When we spent time outside together, he would hang out with me the entire time, rather than venture off like most cats.
Over the six years that we had Fernando, he had a history of stomach problems. We took him to vets time and time again, but no one had been able to diagnose him. We tried everything. On a Thursday in February 2012, we found out that he had cancer, and he died at our home on Saturday that same week. Those three days were some of the hardest in my life. The sense of community that Fernando had created with so many people meant that we had rounds of friends come over to visit him and give him a proper send-off. Although we had long since moved from the courtyard house, we were reunited with all of our old neighbors (now friends) as each came to say goodbye and share stories of Fernando’s charm.
Fernando’s outgoing personality touched so many people and brought a lot of strangers closer together. He fought to the very end to stay amongst his human friends. My boyfriend and I finally told him that it was OK to go. We held him in our arms and told him we loved him until the light left his eyes. Although it was sad to lose him, it gives me so much comfort that he was able to touch so many people. I realize I no longer have Fernando to liven up our parties or help me through tough times, but I now have (thanks to him) friends who felt the same way about him, and it was that gift he left for me that helped me through losing him.
Top photo courtesy of Sharon Alagna