The Cat With Two Lives

In November or December of 1893, an American composer named Harry S. Miller wrote the song he’d later become most famous for: “The Cat Came Back.” If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s a humorous but catchy tune about a cat who makes himself a home with a guy named “old Mister Johnson,” but Mr. Johnson isn’t a fan of the cat. He tries to get the cat to go away — here is a version of the lyrics, and not all of his tactics are humane — but, as the title suggests, the cat came back, the very next day, each time. The cat, per the song, just couldn’t stay away.

The song, however, isn’t based in reality. Cats sometimes wander — and sometimes, don’t return home afterward. As asserts, “cats do have a special ability called a homing instinct that helps them find their way back home” but they’re not always in a hurry to do so: “an return home many days, weeks, months, and even years after they wandered off or were lost.” 

In other words, the cat may come back (it’s not guaranteed), and there’s a good chance that if it does, it won’t be the very next day.” Just ask Alice Alexander, who in 2000 bought a Siamese cat named Ming — to her, at least.

The Alexander family lived in Wellington, New Zealand at the time. They named the cat “Ming” due to his habit of mingling — per Stuff, he “had a habit of mingling [. . . ] and he once took a nap in a removal truck and ended up in the eastern suburbs, before being discovered.” The family moved about four hours up the coast to Strathmore (here’s a map) in 2005, and his habit of wandering increased. And in 2010, Ming left the house one day and didn’t come back. The family put missing cat posters around the neighborhood, as you’d expect, but it was to no avail. No one had seen Ming. He was gone.

And then, in May of 2014 — four years after he disappeared — Ming came back, all by himself. He just reappeared on their deck one day, as if no time had passed. As USA Today reported, they outfitted Ming with a microchip — a subdermal, scannable device that allows veterinarians to determine the owner of the cat. (It’s more reliable than ID tags on collars because they can’t fall off.) But it didn’t really matter, because Ming disappeared again, although this time only for about a month.. When Ming returned, though, he wasn’t in quite the same condition: per Stuff, “he returned with a shaved leg and had obviously been to the vet,” And the vet didn’t bother scanning the microchip.

The reason became clear about a week later. The Alexanders had — again — put up “missing cat” posters, and this time, the posters were successful in solving the mystery. In 2005, just after the Alexanders moved to Strathmore, Ming had meandered down the street to the home of Glenda Smith. She and her future husband, believing Ming to be a stray, took her in and named him Cleo. Ming’s “disappearance” in 2010 happened because the Smiths moved to Wellington and then to Auckland (here’s another map), and Ming’s reappearance occurred because in 2014, the Smiths moved back to Strathmore. Ming hadn’t run away from home — he just spent those years living with his other family.

The two families agreed to share the cat. As Glenda Smith told the press, they didn’t have much of a choice: the cat loved both families “and always comes back.”

Bonus fact: Cats may wander a lot, but from an evolutionary perspective, they probably find themselves most at home. House cats are descended from wildcats, but have adapted to become the docile friends many of us love. Why? Symbiosis. As Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Most archaeologists believe that cats probably domesticated themselves more than 10,000 years ago when the fluffy little murderbeasts realized they could get an easy meal by staking out Neolithic storerooms and farms for the rats and mice that were attracted to human settlements. More cats meant fewer rodents, which meant more crops for the hard-working humans. Over time, our ancestors started taking care of the felines, leading to the modern house cat.”

From the Archives: But the Cat Came Back: Poltiican 0, Cat 1.