Had she better breeding and fresher food, I could perhaps have called her a tortoiseshell. But she was an undernourished, neglected garbage-bin cat, a member of the local feral tribe that lives off the huge green dumpster that stands in front of our 38-unit apartment building in Jerusalem. She first caught my eye one morning when I descended to the office I’ve made out of our basement storeroom. She was curled up in the crib on wheels that we keep at the bottom of the stairwell. My wife, Ilana, runs a small preschool in our fourth-floor walkup, and the contraption is what the toddlers hold on to when she takes them out to the park. The cat gave me a mean look, scrambled out of the crib, and was gone.
At the bottom of the stairwell, with its bars and its sheeted mattress, the crib-on-wheels felt soft, dark, reasonably warm, and protected. I kept a cat when I was a kid, so I knew that pregnant cats seek out such cozy places when placental hormones get into their bloodstreams. I made it clear to the faux-tortoiseshell street queen that she was unwelcome, and then made her birthing room uncomfortable by rumpling up a piece of plastic sheeting I happened to have handy.
Few cats in Jerusalem are pets, but the feral cat population is huge. Dumpsters and garbage bins are located on the street, and never close properly. So each one becomes the property of a feline community. The cats generally avoid human contact, but there’s a long-established symbiosis. The human population produces plentiful refuse for the cats and the cats return the favor by hunting down any rats so brave as to try to compete for the scavenging rights. At the time, our tribe consisted of six or seven cats, led by a muscular, gray alpha male with white paws and a scar on his nose.