Freelining with Mike Freeman: The morning duet with Crabby Tabby.

This stray cat, nicknamed the Crabby Tabby by Mike Freeman, is more than ready to eat when he brings him food. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

I could see just how scared he was, so I moved very cautiously.
At first, it was almost like a duet between the two of us. He would glance up, almost in anticipation of me coming closer, with just a hint of excitement in his eyes. At the same time, there was that look of apprehension, even dread. I towered over him.
I knew I had to walk over to him so slowly that I would not appear to be moving in a threatening way. Too fast, and he might bolt.
So as that brown tabby sat there on the steps of a vacant house, close to the side yard that he appeared to be living in, he didn’t move as I inched closer, with a blue plastic bowl in my hand, filled with fresh canned cat food.
I placed it in front of him, an inch or two away from where he was sitting.
He didn’t move.
So I stepped back a couple of feet.
That was the reassurance this cat needed to head for the bowl – and then ravenously devour the food I’d brought over. I stood there a moment, watching him eat, but he kept glaring up at me, nervously, and growling, so I decided I wasn’t going to spoil his meal, so to speak. I walked back across the street to my house, leaving the tabby to finish what he’d so eagerly started.
I’ve seen this brown cat quite a few times wandering around my neighborhood, usually resting at the house across the street that hasn’t been occupied in the four years that I’ve been living in this neighborhood. This male cat, which is no kitten and probably considerably older, often sleeps on the front steps of the house. He runs whenever people come around.
Not all stray cats react this way. Some, when they figure out you’re going to feed them, have no fear of you whatsoever and even rub against your leg as you’re putting the food down.
Some of nervous at first, but begin to understand that you don’t pose a threat – and hey, the feeding part is pretty good, too!
But then there are always the ones like this brown cat that, no matter how many times you feed them, still look at you with a high degree of apprehension and downright fear. He still hisses at me a lot, even when I’m setting down food and he’s obviously starving.
I nicknamed this one the Crabby Tabby as a result, but the truth is I don’t think this cat is “crabby” because of a sour personality or general disposition. I don’t even think this is a feral cat. My guess is he was owned by someone, lived in a nice house somewhere in my neighborhood – and then got abandoned. He now wanders the streets, alone and hungry; having been raised by people, he didn’t fear them – at first.
Now he does.
Most likely, I would guess, that’s because people have badly abused him in his new position as a Colonialtown stray. He was used to be fed regularly by his owners, and doesn’t know how to find meals on the street. But those who dislike cats, particularly strays, can be awfully cruel in finding ways to get rid of them.
Why would anyone abandon a beautiful cat like this one? The housing market, perhaps? You lose a job, then your home is heading into foreclosure, so you get out – and can’t bring the pets with you to your new apartment, or when you move into cramped space with relatives. So they get left behind – shelter one day, the street the next.
And after learning, the hard way, that not all people like and appreciate cats, this one now knows only fear.
Fear and hunger.
Obviously, this makes it difficult for anyone to want to adopt this cat – people like friendly, warm and cuddly pets. I’ve tried to let Crabby sniff my hand, to see I’m not a threat, but even that hasn’t worked. I hate to think of what this cat had endured alone on the streets.
Crabby Tabby, if that truly is what happened to him, isn’t alone in this situation. Talk to any animal shelter in Florida, and they’ll tell you that as bad as the recession has been on families, it’s been equally devastating for pets. The number of abused, neglected and abandoned cats and dogs that they’ve taken in has skyrocketed since the housing market crashed in 2008. Finding a home for them all is a tall order.
I thought about this as I was trying to feed my tabby neighbor, who now comes over to my house every morning to see if there’s any food available – and is still nervous around me, despite the umpteenth feeding I’ve given him.
I thought about this as well when I get an email from Gail Irwin, letting me know that “We have another graduation here,” and that “We are graduating two more veteran dogs! You are cordially invited!”
I could tell the enthusiasm she had, and in fact, I shared it.
Because in a unique way, the state of Florida has been trying — successfully — to help these animals – and, most remarkably, is using prison inmates to do it.
Irwin is a corrections officer at the Tomoka Correctional Institution, a work camp in Daytona Beach, and she helps supervise a program that the prison adopted about three years ago. It entrusts inmates with a special responsibility, to work in partnership with the West Volusia Kennel Club and the Halifax Humane Society.

Inmates at the Tomoka Correctional Institution take part in the Pups N Pals program. (Photo by Michael Freeman).


Tomoka operates Prison Pups N Pals, a program that transfer dogs from a humane shelter to the prison, where the inmates are taught to train the dogs to be more obedient and friendlier to people. The idea is to make the dogs easier to adopt since they no longer fear being around people, while the inmates pick up a work skill they can use after they serve their sentence.
“We’ve got inmates who got out of here and into animal shelters as jobs,” Irwin told me in January, when I went to the work camp to watch the graduation ceremony for the ten dogs – Amelia, Bud, Buster, Ceaser, Charlie, Duke, Poncho, Peanut Butter, Remi and Speck – that participated in the seven-week program in that round.
At the ceremony, the prison’s warden, Monroe Barnes, handed certificates to the 18 inmates who provided the obedience training to the dogs.
“What we’re doing is giving a dog and an inmate a second chance,” the warden said.
Having several friends who have been in prison, and knowing how exceedingly difficult it is for them to find a job when they have a conviction and time behind bars on their record, I can appreciate what this program is attempting to do. My friends are not career criminals and deserve a second chance – and it’s difficult when they tell me how many doors get slammed in their face when they have to check off on a job application form that yes, they have been convicted of a crime.
But I’m also impressed that the state is actually trying to help animals, often the last ones to receive any type of assistance, help or care in very tough economic times, when entire social programs are getting shredded in repeat budget cutting.
Watching families attend these graduation ceremonies at the prisons, eager to adopt one of those now well-trained dogs, is a poignant and wonderfully rewarding experience.
I only wish there were more programs like this.
As I sat there watching Crabby Tabby eat on Sunday morning, I hated to think what he’s been through that’s made him so positively fearful of me, the one person who seems not only eager but repeatedly willing to help him out.
I can guess the reason why.
And I can assume, quite sadly, that this tabby isn’t the only abandoned feline to get cruelly tossed into this terrifying situation.

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