Assignment of Watch Duty
by Demetria Patras
I travel the alley routes six nights a week, feeding East side/West side on alternate nights. I go through hundreds of alleys a night yet each has it’s own approximate time for my arrival. Just like any pet -- or child for that matter -- street animals expect me to appear at a particular time. I do not know how the cats in the alleys perceive me, but I do know that sentries are assigned to watch for me. I have been doing this work far too long not to recognize the fact that the cats do watch for me and whoever is assigned the duty alerts the other homeless inhabitants of the alley that I am coming.
Within both East and West routes there are several alley groupings I travel in a consecutive strip; three, four, or five in a row. This is where we see the “watch duty” phenomenon most clearly. As we enter the first alley of the grouping I can look ahead to the next and see our headlights reflected back in pairs of eyes. The sight is quite remarkable; the eyes of the awaiting sentries become pairs of glowing orbs. The watchers sit at the entrance to their alley and wait until we are almost there, then all disappear. That is, until we have left their food at the designated places and have begun to move on. As I leave the alley, through the rearview mirror I see the hungry and homeless emerge from their various hiding places and go to the feed site to eat the small meal we offer. Looking ahead I can see more glowing reflections, the eyes of the next group beckoning me.
“Be sure to place the food in exactly the same spot,” I instruct my partners, for the cats expect exactness. Being creatures of habit, they need to know where their food is and when it will be there. They depend on it. They have no choice but to look for everything else they need to survive and I want this one meal to be something they can count on without having to desperately search for it.
The adults teach their young not only street survival but also how to conduct themselves in watch duty. When I swing from the main street into an alley we’ll see three or four kittens sitting in a row with their anxious expressions on little faces staring into my headlights while a couple of adults observe from a few yards away. The preciousness of it all can be overwhelming and the importance of the work we are doing clearly evident.
I’ve told my partners, “If you’re uncertain as to where the food goes, look to see if two or three cats are pacing expectantly in one place; they are showing you the distribution point.” Once we’ve established a feeding location we do not change it unless absolutely necessary, usually for safety reasons, and even then it takes an act of Congress to convince these creatures of habit to accept the change.
When I cannot make my alley schedule due to heavy rain or snow, I worry as to who is waiting at their posts and how long they sit there watching for me. The thought of animals who depend on us waiting and watching in vain bothers me greatly, but once in a while conditions beyond our control prevent us from getting to the alleys. When I’m thrown off-schedule or when I must alter my route during the night and arrive in sections at an unfamiliar hour, the watchers are not there. In these cases I give a quick call to alert the animals that we’ve come. When I resume my regular schedule -- it may be the very next night -- the watchers are back at their posts, their reflective glowing eyes welcoming us.
The street cats are my cats. I realize they do not actually belong to me, they are not house cats, they do not trust people, but they occupy a special place in my heart and I regard them as if they were my own. I am their guardian as much as is possible with several hundred alleys to cover in a single night. I am their watcher, and though they are wary of me, I know they understand, I know they count on me and that my arrival in their alley is the one consistent and, very possibly, the one good thing in their lives. If you are attentive and really interested, you will find that cats appreciate whatever you give them.