My friends, thank you all so much for your outpouring of love and support regarding my last post. Your comments, messages, texts, and phone calls have meant more to me than I can say. This last week has been a total nightmare, and today has been particularly brutal. I woke up crying, cried through most of my workout, and cried on and off throughout most of the day after that. In the middle of the night last Saturday/Sunday, sometime after I last saw her at around 1am, my Salem was taken from me. She was taken and killed by a Great Horned Owl.
I didn’t think too much of it when she didn’t come to eat her breakfast on Sunday morning, but I grew worried when I didn’t see her lounging in the grass in the afternoon… and more worried yet when I took her dinner plate out that night and she still wasn’t there. She wasn’t there when I went out at midnight to connect with the stars, either. I couldn’t concentrate on the stars. I came back in quickly, distressed by Salem’s continued absence. That was when I got really scared.
Salem loved our nighttime bonding more than anything. Every night, she sat by the sliding glass door eagerly waiting for me to go out. It was her favorite time, because it was our time, just the two of us. (She never had to share me with Geronimo at midnight.)
It didn’t make sense that she wasn’t there. She wouldn’t miss our midnight mommy/daughter stargazing adventure for the world! We had a whole ritual! She would wait for me by the door, and I’d go out with her bag of snacks… but instead of running to her dish, she’d run to the gravel, throw herself down, and roll around in happiness. I’d sing her favorite song to her, and then I’d step out to meet with the stars and planets. I’d sing more songs. Before going back in, I’d sing Salem’s favorite song to her again. She loved it. She loved all the songs, all the stars, all of the time I spent out there with her. She was so happy! She was in absolute bliss.
But she wasn’t there on Sunday night.
The dread in the pit of my stomach deepened when she failed to appear for her breakfast on Monday morning.
Monday afternoon, I was intent on pulling myself together and thinking positively. I tried to convince myself that Salem had done something highly unusual, like take an extended hike somewhere. She’s fine! She’ll come home eventually! But I couldn’t make myself believe it. Salem was not the kind of “feral” cat who did things like that. For a while now, she’s been a most “unferal” feral. Salem had become 100% my cat, and she was a homebody. She never really went anywhere. If she wasn’t here in the yard, she wasn’t far, and she didn’t stay away for long. There’d been times I’d thought she was out somewhere, only to discover that she’d been here the whole time.
Monday evening, I fed Geronimo flowers while crying, because another one of Salem’s favorite things was to be with us when Geronimo was out. She was fond of Geronimo, too, and she enjoyed being a part of Geronimo time. If she could have been there, she would have been there. What was keeping her from being there?
After nightfall Monday night, I knew in my heart that Salem was never coming home. I felt in my core that I would never see her again. I wasn’t hungry, didn’t want to cook, and could barely eat, but I managed a bowl of cereal, because I knew that I had to eat something.
I felt sick.
At that point, all I wanted was to know what had happened, because I knew that something happened. Something happened between 1am and 8am Sunday morning. What could have happened to Salem in the middle of the night? In despair, I kept the last pic I took of her up on my computer screen and stared into her eyes intently, pleading with her through my tears. Tell me what happened to you, Salem. Tell me what happened. Please just tell me what happened. I need to know.
The next day, Tuesday, Salem did tell me. She told me through two angels on Nextdoor.
I posted about Salem on Nextdoor after work and almost immediately received a message from a woman who said that there’d been a post two days earlier from someone in the neighborhood who’d found a deceased cat matching Salem’s description and photo. She said that she would contact that person. Within 30 minutes, that person, Becky, messaged me. It turned out that she’s a neighbor who lives in a very close-by apartment in the complex behind my house.
On Sunday afternoon, Becky said, she found Salem’s body next to the apartment complex laundry room, which is across from my backyard.
When Becky met me at my back gate so she could show me where she found Salem, I collapsed, bawling in the arms of a complete stranger, because just the fact that she was meeting with me made everything real. This was no longer a nightmare from which I could wake up. Becky was there to show me where she’d found Salem’s body.
Salem’s final resting place was a mere 15 feet away.
Becky told me she knew when she saw her body that Salem wasn’t a stray, because Salem was a bit plump. Salem looked healthy and well-fed and well-kempt and clean, clearly someone’s beloved furbaby who was missed, and that was why Becky posted on Nextdoor. She wouldn’t have posted on Nextdoor about a homeless stray who wouldn’t have anyone looking for them.
Becky showed me exactly where she found Salem, and she described how Salem had been positioned. There was a small pool of dried blood where her head had been. That was it. There was no other sign of anything. Salem’s body was completely intact, Becky said; the only sign of anything wrong was dried blood matted on her belly. She had no visible wounds. There was just the blood on her belly and the blood on the ground beneath her head.
It was like Salem had been dropped from the sky.
I told Becky how the last time I saw Salem was after midnight Saturday, near 1am Sunday morning. In turn, she told me that a few hours before that, at around 10pm Saturday, she’d seen an enormous owl on the apartment rooftop. She’d never seen it before.
Several more breakdowns later, I finally came back into the house and sat down at my computer to look up owls in Phoenix. I found an article called “The 13 Owls of Arizona.” The Great Horned Owl is on the list. Twelve of the owls on the list have wingspans measured in inches. The Great Horned Owl’s wingspan is three to five feet.
The next day, I texted Becky and asked her to describe the owl again. About how large was it? Did it have tufted ears on top of its head?
“It definitely was a HUGE owl, I heard it flapping and land on the roof of the apartment. I saw it Saturday night because I was walking back to my apartment from the pool. I definitely saw ears. I wish I had saved the Snapchat I took of it. But yeah scared me bc it was just watching me as I walked by. I’ve never seen an owl like that before. And must have been around 10pm?”
Three hours after Becky’s encounter with the owl that night, I’d spent my usual time outside with Salem as I bonded with her and the stars. As usual, the last thing I did was sing Salem’s favorite song to her before going in. I left her happily rolling on her back and twisting and stretching out on the gravel in the center of the yard, which was her favorite place to sleep on summer nights. We exchanged eyeblink kisses. And that was the last I saw of her. Salem would stretch out on her side and fall asleep.
On the other side of the fence was the apartment rooftop where the Great Horned Owl sat while watching Becky walking back from the pool.
With Salem’s body being where it was and the way it was, and with the huge owl watching from the rooftop that night, it was clear what had happened. Becky and I are sure of it:
At some point after I went back into the house, the owl swooped down over Salem while she was sleeping, sank its talons into her exposed belly, carried her away over the fence, and dropped her, probably because Salem was struggling and putting up a fight. There was blood on the ground beneath her head because her skull probably broke on impact. The blood matted on her belly with no visible damage indicated puncture wounds from the owl’s talons. Judging by the pool of blood where her head had been, it’s more likely that she died from the fall.
My friends, I cannot express the horror and anguish I feel when I think of the way Salem died. My heart is in pieces thinking that her last moments were made of unspeakable terror, pain, and violence. I can’t understand why that had to be her fate. Why did that have to be her death? Why my baby??
This is not a rural area. This is downtown Tempe. I thought that Salem was safe and protected because she was smart, fast, and very cautious, and she mostly stayed here in her yard. I never would have thought that a huge raptor would glide down into an urban neighborhood to hunt small animals. Salem had no inkling of such a danger, either. Sleeping out in the open yard the way she did, she had no chance against it.
Cats get hit by cars in urban neighborhoods, I figured, or they run afoul of dogs or malicious humans, or they die of infection from contaminated water or food or some microbe in the dirt, or they die of thirst. They do not get snatched from their backyards by Great Horned Owls… except, apparently, they do. I read this morning that Great Horned Owls can be found in both urban and rural areas, and that they’re the most common owl in America.
Now I know.
This is the last pic I took of Salem. I took it a week ago Wednesday, not knowing that 13 days later it would be used to identify her body:
If there’s one thing that comforts me, it’s knowing that Salem went down fighting. There’s no doubt in my mind that she fought like hell until the owl was forced to drop her. That owl did not get far with Salem! It dropped her next to the apartment complex laundry room, which is close enough to the house that I can smell it (that sickly sweet dryer sheet scent) from my sliding-glass door. She wasn’t even disemboweled in the attack. Her belly was bloody, but intact.
I’m devastated by Salem’s death, but I’m grateful to know what happened. I’m grateful to Nextdoor and to Lara who connected me to Becky who ultimately delivered Salem’s message to me, and who held me while I cried. I wanted to know for certain that I would never see Salem again so I could stop calling for her, waiting for her, canvassing the neighborhood searching for her, and expecting to see her. Thanks to the angels around me, I have the closure that I wanted, and now I’m left with my grief.
Right now, everything just hurts. Every little thing. It hurts unlatching the sliding-glass door, because the sound of that lock would bring Salem running from wherever she was. If she wasn’t there on the patio, I would unlatch the door and wait, and she would appear.
Just walking by and looking through the sliding-glass door is painful, because Salem very often just sat there in hopes that I’d notice her. Sometimes, I’d sit at the end of the dining table facing her, and she’d settle into a comfortable meatloaf position, happily blinking her eyes at me. She loved just being near me. That was all she wanted.
Salem made my world fuller and brighter. Now, everything feels empty when I go outside. Everything feels wrong, in general. I feel alone just knowing that she isn’t there, and never will be again. Salem was my special baby and my sweet daughter of the night. Salem’s reaction when I’d start singing her song was precious and priceless, she was just so happy.
I always imagined that she would live a long life and gradually become ill with something natural, and if I wasn’t able to touch her by then, I’d at least be able to touch her when I’d take her to the vet to be euthanized. I would have her in my arms while she passed away, and her passing would be peaceful. There was no room for a fatal owl attack in my vision of Salem’s last moments.
My heart is broken, but I know that it was an honor to have been chosen by Salem, and to be loved by her.