Merlin was born during 2007’s storm season in the Carolinas, and it was a hurricane that took him from his mom and siblings.
“He was found all alone in rubble and ruin,” his human mom, Meg Ferra, recalled. “Rescue picked him up but mom and litter mates were nowhere to be found, and Merlin was inconsolable. He was not yet weaned.”
Merlin’s kittenhood and first few years were chaotic, cruel and marked by repeated disappointment: The little guy, then called Shadow, was cycled through seven shelters and two families who adopted him, only to bring him back to the shelter system like a defective toy.
He was traumatized by his early experiences, shy and fearful, the kind of cat who huddled miserably in the back of the cage while more outgoing kitties found their forever homes.
His last stop — and last chance — was a kill shelter in New Jersey. The shy grey tabby with tufts of epic white-and-grey fur may have sensed his time was running out and uncharacteristically reached out to a couple that wandered into the shelter one day.
“Merlin put his rather large paw out and grabbed my husband’s shoulder — a feat in itself since three bullies kept pushing him into the corner and making him sit in his food,” Ferra said. “He was malnourished, skinny, oily, messy and sad.”
Ferra hesitated. Long-haired cats usually mean lots of shedding on clothes, carpets and couches. A cat with such a complicated history would present challenges as well.
“Once my husband held him, well, my thoughts of avoiding lots of hair went out the window,” she said.
The Ferras brought Shadow home and renamed him Merlin, a name befitting such a regal feline. They were surprised to discover he didn’t shed much despite his great tufts of wild fur. A subsequent DNA test identified him as a Siberian forest cat, an ancient, accidental breed that developed its characteristics naturally because it lived in isolation from other cat populations, deep within the Russian tundra.
Siberians have quite a few unique qualities. They have three fur layers — guard, awn and down hair — and rival Maine Coons in their floofiness, but their fur is easy to maintain and resistant to matting. They moult twice a year. Their moulting phases are milder than similarly-floofy cats, and their fur has lower levels of the allergen Fel-d1.
Merlin was fearful and shy in his new home, and it became clear that he was not going to soften any time soon. He’d flinch, hinting at past traumas: “You couldn’t raise a hairbrush near him, or hold your hand over his head to caress him.”
“It took five years to break through Merlin’s wall of anger and fear when we brought him home,” Ferra said. “We played it low key, never loud, pushy, punishing, forceful or insulting. By insulting I mean with Merlin, you don’t make deals! Deals always hurt his feelings.”
One day, Ferra was trying to get Merlin to play with one of his toys when he lashed out at her.
“He tore up my forearm. I was dripping blood from wrist to elbow. I didn’t move. He didn’t move. His eyes were black orbs. I could see the wheels spinning. ‘Will she hit me? Yell? Throw me? Send me away?’
“I exhaled slowly and in my calmest demeanor said to him: ‘Merlin, what are you still so angry about? Frightened about? Don’t you know by now no one is going to hurt you here? It’s been five years and you’re safe, honey. You’re home, nothing will ever harm you again. They’d have to go through your family, daddy and me. You’re not alone, my love.’ And damned if his pupils didn’t recede. He let out a little whimper and his whole body relaxed.”
From there, Ferra said, “it’s been belly kisses and raspberries,” but Merlin “was not a cuddler.”
“But like clockwork every week he would approach me, tap my leg and stare up at me. Not too mushy, but as if to say ‘I want a hug now!’ I ate up those two minutes. I’d pick him up and simulate his lost mom’s cheek rubs, which he loved and craved.”
Merlin developed health problems. In particular, his hips and neck began to bother him. Those are side effects typical of his breed, which has longer back legs that make Siberians powerful jumpers. He began suffering from hyperthyroidism and arthritis in his later years.
At seven years old, Merlin fought off a bout of pneumonia. But when he came down with it in early December, he didn’t have the strength to fight it off.
Ferra and her husband, Joe, stayed up with their beloved cat for almost 48 hours, monitoring him. Her husband even put off his dialysis to stay with the little guy.
But by Tuesday, when Merlin could no longer lift his head, Ferra knew it was the end. Merlin was euthanized on the morning of Dec. 9 at the veterinarian’s office. He was 13 years old.
The typical symptoms of grief set in: Ferra kept looking for the little furball, momentarily forgetting he was gone. She left his food bowl and his water fountain untouched. Her life suddenly had a vacuum in it.
That this happened now in the midst of a pandemic, as the death and infection rates skyrocket, lock-downs begin anew and the prospect of a dark winter casts a gloom over life, makes Merlin’s absence especially challenging. The Ferras’ children are adults, and their house is now quiet. Merlin’s presence mitigated the isolation and dreariness of life in a pandemic, as cats and dogs have done for millions of Americans this year.
For Joe, even his treatments remind him of his cat: Merlin would stand guard when Joe settled in for dialysis, remaining for the length of the treatment.
Ferra said she and her husband are considering adopting litter mates or inseparable friends. They feel Merlin would want them to provide a home to new cats.
“Joe has asked me how long I need until we open our home and hearts to a bonded pair. My husband can’t stand the emptiness. I just need a little more time. But with COVID and and the overflowing shelters I feel even Merlin wouldn’t want me to wait too long.”
Special thanks to Meg for talking to us about Merlin despite her fresh grief at losing the special little guy. We wish Meg and Joe the best this holiday season, and when they open their home to new kitties who need some love and a place to call their own.