Coping by cat spotting

Feline encounters during the pandemic

Jackie Lee, Copy Editor

Picture a circus tiger. Beholden to the cruel whims of circumstance, ensnared in a system that renders its life to nothing more than spectacle, it prowls the perimeter of its cramped cage with Sisyphean contempt. Here is a tortured—though cool as hell—soul. But Jackie, you say, you’re a university student with a delicate emotional constitution. How could you possibly relate?

Enter the pandemic. I am a nervous person by nature, a quality that the COVID-19 circus only exacerbated. My daily state-sanctioned walk was a source of catharsis (I’m outside!) but also stress (I’m outside…). Each day, like an echo of the proverbial tiger, I traced the same six square blocks of my neighbourhood, nebulously discontent but nonetheless grateful to escape the blue glow of my laptop screen.

Amid this deluge of screen time, my first fully online semester was a study in staying afloat. Tides of academic commitment swallowed my free time, and my work day often bloated into the evening, and then night. Usually, I had to delegate my walks to the wee hours of the night in effort to focus on class and avoid people in the day.

Of course, walking in the dark brings its own flavour of anxiety—I’m no stranger to the classic image of a woman alone at night, house keys fisted like claws. I was, and still am, prone to paranoia. Anything from a mysterious slam to a literal toaster can prompt an adrenal response out of me. For this reason, I couldn’t wander alone, even though I knew logically I’d be fine. Two of my roommates went to bed at a reasonable hour, but the third, Josie, was a fellow night owl like me. We buddy-systemed our way into a routine: Stumble through Zoom class in the day, wade through the afternoon in a depressed nap, before eventually stalking the streets in feline parody around 1 a.m.

I remember that it rained during our first midnight excursion, damp soil blooming under the drizzle, street lamps casting the puddles into oily orange on the concrete. Josie and I trekked out regardless. Here’s another fact about me: I distract easily. While the night was more peaceful than nerve-wracking when we were together, my mind still jumped around, electric with the day’s energy. We reached a small park that bordered an apartment complex. As the rain slowed, we used our hands to deposit snails from the gravel path into the garden, when something shifted at the clamber of our footsteps. Five cats streaked out of the bushes, leaping through the garden like spooked antelopes before disappearing down the block. A beat passed. I still had snails in each hand. Buoyed by the bizarre encounter—and an unhealthy dose of sleep deprivation—we laughed. I declared that since I had spotted the cats first, I was the winner. What I had won, I didn’t know. But the concept rooted into our shared vernacular, inoculated into our speech like all good inside jokes. We appointed the site "Cat Park,” and the act of spotting cats was given a name: Well, cat spotting.

The next day Josie and I relayed our adventure to our other roommates, and the competition began. One point for an indoor cat spotted through the window. Two points for an outdoor cat on ground level; three points for one on a balcony. A staggering six points for every cat on a leash. Photographic evidence was preferred. We operated on an honour system, as with all our other roommate-sanctioned processes. On a large sticky note pinned to the fridge four names were scrawled, aligned in equally spaced lanes like horses readied behind the gate of a racetrack. We jockeyed for points, the tally marks gradually congregating into inked clusters that advanced across our score paper as time galloped on.

As we navigated communal life with each other in our stamp-sized apartment, cat spotting became an outlet: An excuse to walk with friends, to delight in grainy photos around our kitchen table. Venturing outside during the day was now a novelty, since I could channel any nervous energy into a careful swivel of the head, hoping to catch a flash of fur in my peripheral vision. This was a pacifist sort of hunt in which a photo was the ultimate trophy—a fulfilling yet harmless coping mechanism during the semester’s growing pains.

Although cat spotting remained an insular practice within our household, it did lead me to connect indirectly with my neighbours, albeit through a feline proxy. Anxiety crippled my ability to conjure extroversion on demand during those beginning months. Instead of assigning friendly faces to various houses, I mapped the alleyways by its regulars: The brown longhair lived parallel to our apartment, the grey shorthair adjacent; the tortoiseshell resided near the end of the block on the left. Occasionally, my efforts led to real conversation. One day in late April, my roommate Tasmin and I embarked on our daily pilgrimage to visit another local cat, an old soul named Mofo BFF. While feeding Mofo some treats from my stash (I like to give back to the community when I can), we were greeted by a knot of people gathered on the balcony over. We learned that they were major Mofo fans like Tasmin and I—one of them even lived in my neighbourhood in Toronto. It was the first time I had spoken at length with strangers—students—outside of Zoom since February.

Let me backup—I’ll contextualize with a tidbit of Jackie Lore. The aesthetic reasoning behind cat spotting was definitely in line with my personal brand. I was happy to play paparazzi with the local felines. But there was another reason, I think, why I latched onto cat spotting. In July 2020, a few months prior to that inaugural, rain-soaked vignette, my family made the difficult decision to put down one of our cats. Her name was Raven, and she was an eight-year-old rescue who had medical issues that we were no longer equipped to handle. A perennial dilemma, it had simmered ominously on the backburner of our collective familial consciousness for years. Until the pandemic erupted, and like volcanic ash, its billowing consequences touched every facet of lives, including our stalemate with Raven. What had been put off indefinitely, a kind of slow-crawling magma, scalded when it finally arrived. I was in the vet’s office alongside her as she took her last laboured breaths, small paws entombed in gauze. It was a traumatizing experience. I’d never before cried so intensely.

After losing Raven, seeing the neighbourhood cats in passing stung. My mind projected images of Raven’s final moments in nauseating succession during the day, with sleep offering little reprieve. I learned that I had to acknowledge the pain head-on. I sought out my favourite kitties—Optimus Prime and Bobby Fischer—during my walk to and from work. Each time I passed them, I could crouch on the pavement and extend a hand in greeting. Patting that sun-dappled fur was an anchor, the twisted ball of guilt unraveling by a thread. Grieving is an ephemeral state with permanent scars. With each feline interaction, I allowed myself to begin to heal.

Returning to Montreal in the fall, during those first pandemic-induced lockdowns, cat spotting was a source of respite—it sparked joy amid the roiling waves of work shifts and deadlines. But beyond their fluffy fur, outdoor cats have a dark underbelly. Domesticated cats are not native species anywhere in the world. In fact, their introduction has had a staggering toll on wildlife. According to scientists in a report from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service, domestic cats in the U.S. kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals—native ones like shrews, not rats—a year. Stray and house cats together cause disproportionate harm to ecosystems, more so than indigenous predators, since their density is concentrated in urban or suburban areas. And the consequences are in many cases irreparable: Cats have been directly linked to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild. Though some see restricting cats to indoors as unacceptable, intermediate solutions like special collars have so far proven ineffective. Many environmentalists argue that keeping cats indoors would prevent this unchecked loss of global biodiversity, but whether the majority of outdoor cat owners would subscribe to this shift remains to be seen.

It’s tough to reconcile the two sides of these feline friends—the environmental harm they cause, and the joy I feel seeing them. Regardless, these cats remained part of the fabric of my daily life. As the curtain closed on my second year of university, I was excited to bring cat spotting to the corporate world during my stint in data entry over the summer of 2021. The original game’s paper format transposed beautifully into a spreadsheet left pinned on the team’s google chat room. We ended up expanding the parameters to add other categories of small mammals such as foxes, rabbits, and coyotes, which were more common in the remote suburban outposts my coworkers inhabited. Although the spring and summer fostered their own stressors that in many ways eclipsed my past struggles, cat spotting was an anchor over which I could bond with my team during the isolating tenure of remote work. Whether I was strolling through the farmer’s market or cycling to a friend’s place, it was a reminder that love is found in the most mundane of things, in all life, in all its forms.

These days, I find myself cat spotting considerably less. I hustle to campus on my bike and do most of my walking between lectures accompanied by sleek corvids and rotund squirrels. But I don’t think I will relegate cat spotting to a relic of the pandemic, a spark of novelty during a strange and fugacious period. Students and staff have flocked back to campus as restrictions lift, breathing new life into the once-empty halls. As winter approaches, we’ll see fewer cats roaming the streets. But I know I’ll still have a community to cherish.

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor