Bear came into our lives 11 years ago. He was a rescue – young, underweight, a bit skittish. He was a Christmas gift for my daughter, Liv, who was 11 at the time. He joined our pack which then consisted of 2 dogs, 2 cats and 2 kids. The reason I agreed to this addition is because Liv had been asking for her own pet for years. She had a hamster, but they are nocturnal and have short life spans. She asked for a rabbit, but I dismissed that when I learned what that would require. I decided to stick with what I knew. And so I told Liv that when one pet died, I would get her a kitten. It seemed reasonable given the ages of our pets. But a few years passed and all the pets were still doing great. The cats, 16 and 14, and dogs, 11 and 9, showed no signs of slowing down. So on Christmas morning, 2011, Liv opened a box with a stuffed animal kitten inside along with a note “This pretend kitten will soon be a real kitten, just for you.”

Liv went to the animal shelter with her dad. (If I went, I would almost certainly come home with the most unadoptable animal in their care in addition to Liv’s promised kitten.) There weren’t a lot of kittens because of the time of year, but she found the one she wanted. His given name was Gingerbread Man. A strange name for a cat, we thought. We soon learned how fast he was and that when he got outside, he would not be caught. “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man.” In spite of the fittingness of his name, we changed it to Bear.

Bear settled in quickly. He was independent and not fussy. He didn’t mess with others, and he didn’t tolerate being messed with. He would casually walk away from any pack drama and find a quiet place to hang out. He was easy to have, with one exception. He wanted to be outside. With two dogs regularly being let out, he learned how to take advantage of the opportunity.

We worked very hard to not let Bear out, but his escape would happen on occasion. And when he got out, Gingerbread Man would not be caught. We could see him and get close, but not close enough to scoop him up. And so we learned that we would have to wait for him to come to us. We would prop open the screened porch door. He would stay outside for just a few hours at first, but soon that stretched to the remainder of the day and then periodically overnight as well. He never seemed to leave the surrounding yards. He just wanted to be outside.

I had never experienced this with a cat before. Typically I would let a cat out to roll on the ground, eat grass, and maybe explore a bit. But there was never an effort to escape. I figured Bear was part feral and part domesticated, caught early enough to not fear humans but late enough to remember his freedom. I worried though when he was out. He was declawed in the front. And we have lots of birds around. It felt irresponsible to both Bear and the environment to let him out. So the fight to keep him in continued.

Early 2015, one of our cats and one of our dogs died a week apart from each other. And they were the younger of our geriatric crew. It was devastating for all of us. And five months later, our 18 year old cat died. Bear and 14 year old black lab Lucy remained. Shortly after our 3rd pet’s death that year, Bear got sick. Bear is already thin. He has always had minor health issues that kept him on the low weight side. When Bear gets sick, he can’t afford to lose any weight. So off to the vet we went with me in a panic. “This is our young pet!” I said to the vet, as if this couldn’t be happening. We learned that Bear had a UTI, something he’d never had before. The vet said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the stress from losing his friends is to blame.” Fortunately the UTI was an easy fix. The grief, not so much.

I sat in my car and wept. Bear’s body seemed to be bearing the weight of our sadness. “As soon as you’re better, we’re getting you a kitten!” Bear seemed unimpressed. I was wondering how much longer we would have with our black lab and was scared what that would do to Bear, to all of us. Once the antibiotics did their thing and Bear was feeling better, off to the shelter Liv and her dad went. Bear had never really been Liv’s cat. He was far too independent. Maybe this cat would be a better companion for her.

Fast forward to spring 2020. We are in the midst of a pandemic and in lockdown. My kids have come home to stay for a few months. Since I work in a hospital I was the only one not working from home. Just before work I let the dogs out. Bear decided to join them. I propped open the porch door and left a note not unfamiliar – “Bear’s out.” When I returned home that afternoon, my son told me that Bear had made a new friend. “Come see,” he said.

We walked to the back yard. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. I saw Bear with a large grey cat I hadn’t seen before. They were chasing bugs and wrestling with each other. They perched themselves under the trees to watch the birds and squirrels, uninterested in catching them. It was one of the sweetest things I have ever experienced. Bear was living his best life. And in that moment I decided that if Bear wanted to be outside, he would be outside. I set up food, water and shelter on our porch and kept the door propped open. I would rather have him live one month this happy, than 5 years imprisoned. Bear came and went as he wished from that day forward.

We soon learned that the grey cat was named Gus and belonged to the neighbors behind us. I also learned that after meeting Bear, Gus had become a happier, more confident cat. Before Bear, Gus clung to my neighbor when she came outside, unwilling to leave her side. Now she comes out and he may stroll over to her for a few pets, or he may just give her a nod and keep doing what he’s doing. We got to know Gus, and our neighbors got to know Bear. Gus and Bear now have two families looking after them and loving them. They never venture too far. They love getting fed twice as much. And Bear’s minor health issues have diminished significantly. He has even gained some weight.

Each winter since, Bear has gotten more acclimated to the cold. The first winter he would come in at night. The second winter, he would come in when it dipped into the 30s or below. This winter we see him for his meals and a periodic respite from the cold. But otherwise he is outside. Bear is definitely more comfortable outside. When he comes in, he retreats to the basement for a nap. Then he finds a human to let him out. Or he waits for the sound of the dogs being let out. But now, instead of running out the door as fast as he can, Bear simply strolls outside to go back home.

Bear living his best life, every day

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