by Brett Harrison
His name was Mufasa. I know because I named him. I met Mufasa just before Thanksgiving, 2006. I had recently moved into the neighborhood and had been hearing disturbingly loud cat sounds at night. I figured there were feral cats in the neighborhood, but I rarely saw them. One night I came home to see Ro, my neighbor, hanging outside the entrance of our section of the building looking at something on the lower level.

Before I had a chance to ask what she was looking at, she smiled and said, “Kittens.” There, right on the edge of the property were the three most adorable kittens I had ever seen eating out of little cans as their mother watched them warily. I fell in love instantly.

Brett Harrison was a good Samaritan when he began feeding feral cats, but the good feelings from feeding starving strays are often tinged with heartbreak.

I had considered myself a “dog person” up until that moment, but something told me they needed a friend. The man who put out the cans had a dog, and I wondered if he’d want to feed the cats on a regular basis. So I went right to the closest grocery store and got the cheapest bag of cat food I could afford.

I was hooked.

For a while I was just the guy who fed them. But gradually I got to know them, and each had his/her own identity. Sheba was a little gray and white female who was obviously the runt of the litter but also the most outgoing. I bonded with her first, and it was usually she who greeted me first when I came home.

Sheena was a dark gray tabby who wasn’t quite as adorable or friendly as Sheba but still exuded warmth and was just as glad as Sheba when I fed them. Then there was Mufasa, who looked almost exactly like Sheba but was considerably larger. He was the shyest of the group.

One of my earliest memories of Mufasa involved food. Or, more specifically, turkey ham. At some point I started giving them treats. They especially liked cheese. I know there are cat people who frown on this practice, but I come from a food family, and when we like somebody, we show it with food. It can be your best friend, a casual acquaintance or a feral cat.

Just as I wouldn’t give a friend a bologna sandwich, I wanted to give these guys something special when I was treating them. It made me feel good, and they enjoyed getting treated. One day I got a rather large piece of turkey ham at the store and felt the kittens might go for it. So after having a turkey ham sandwich, I cut up the rest for my buddies.

I live on the second floor and had already developed the habit of tossing snacks from my window. I didn’t put that much time into cutting up the meat, and some pieces were larger than others. I opened the window and tossed the pieces out to them. The two girls caught on immediately and started just eating as much as they could, sometimes growling if another got too close.

But Mufasa had a different approach. He went right for the largest piece and immediately made a beeline for the passageway under the fence. But before he disappeared, he looked right up at me, struggling to keep the piece in his mouth, as if to say “Thanks.” Then he was gone.

A lot has happened since then. Sheba died that summer. Sheena had two kittens and died during the winter. One of the kittens I know is dead, and the other disappeared. There have been others. But, with all the changes, Mufasa was always the constant.

At some point I even got Mufasa spayed and released back into the neighborhood. In 2009 my father was dying, having been sick for a number of years. I had to take several trips home until he finally died in June. Each time I had to find somebody to feed Mufasa and some other cats who were now part of my outside family. Trips home were not fun, and besides watching my father die, there were the usual tensions with my family.

But each time I came back to my apartment, I would hear Mufasa’s unmistakable meow as he knew I was near. He would run up to me, happy that I was back. And each time I was happier than he. When I came home after my father’s death, I was particularly happy to see Mufasa, and we hung outside on the stoop for quite a while.

Although Mufasa was a feral cat, he was more like a lap cat than many house cats I’ve known. It was not uncommon for him to come up to me while I sat outside on the stoop as I petted him. Sometimes, if he were so inclined, he would jump up on my left knee and just sit down.

It was always my hope to bring Mufasa in at some point, but there were complications. Namely, female cats who needed me more than he did. On two separate occasions I brought in a female cat who was pregnant. The first was Simone, whose kittens I found homes for. Then there was Neela, who  lost her kittens shortly after I brought her in. They are both happily resting as I write this. I wish Mufasa was resting with them, but it was not meant to be.

They found Mufasa in the vacant apartment downstairs about a month ago. It was gutted quite a while ago, and the owners have yet to fix it up. Ironically it was the same apartment rented by the guy who first put out cat food for Mufasa and his siblings. Mufasa had come to use the apartment as his home for a couple of months before that. I won’t go into the details as it’s not only painful to me but really doesn’t speak to who Mufasa really was.

And who was Mufasa?

He was my friend. That’s all you need to know.

Brett Harrison is a freelance writer who has lived in Philly for more than 30 years. At various times he has written film reviews, humorous pieces and light journalism. He is currently working on a loosely autobiographical play. He was a finalist in Philly Pitch in 2006, where he got to pitch his screenplay, “Mark of the Loser,” to a panel of industry pros.