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A cat's tale: one month in hiding

Ralph's owners thought she bolted when they moved. Now they are back together.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 22, 2002


TAMPA -- When the Kelley family moved from one Tampa neighborhood to another in December, they faced a harrowing question.

Where's Ralph?

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Ralph sits with Jim Kelley on Feb. 15 after being reunited with her family. Ralph apparently hid when the family moved from one Tampa home to another in late December, then survived on toilet water until she was found Feb. 1.
Somehow, along the way, the Kelleys lost sight of their cat, a female feline named Ralph. Thinking she had slipped out of the house during the week of busy moving, the Kelleys were inconsolable.

Ralph was a wild kitten before becoming a member of the family. And she was given to hiding when company called.

So maybe the 3-year-old cat was still holed up somewhere in the now-empty house.

"We left food there," said Jim Kelley. "I went almost on a daily basis. We were in the house quite a bit and just never saw her. The food had never been touched, so we thought without a doubt that she had gotten out and just run away."

Weeks passed.

Then in late January, Time-Warner employee Marshall Phillips went to the house to turn off the cable service.

"I knocked on the door and realized the house was vacant," Phillips said. "But I could see a cat sitting in the living room."

Phillips told a neighbor, and the rescue mission was on.

The neighbor called Hillsborough County Animal Services abuse investigator Loretta Magee. Magee visited the Kelleys' former Westchase home but didn't see a cat inside. "But on (Phillips') word I went forward with obtaining a search warrant," said Magee, who had no record that the Kelleys had been renting the house. "So we had a sheriff's deputy, a locksmith and the cable guy there and we all went in looking for the cat. I had caught a glimpse of Ralph the day before, so we knew she was in the house."

The search party poked around every nook and cranny of the house but came up empty. Two more visits yielded the same sorrowful results.

In the meantime, a neighbor boy who went to school with one of the Kelley children had noticed the commotion at the home and alerted the family.

"My stepson goes to school at Westchase Elementary and one of our old neighbors had told him some people had been by the house looking for a cat," Kelley said. "He saw a note on the door saying that Animal Control had been there but could not find the cat, but that Ralph had been seen in the house."

What made the revelation even more astounding was the fact that open cans of tuna had gone untouched.

"My wife Barbara went over there one morning and looked everywhere, and actually heard her meow," Kelley said.

On Feb. 1, Barbara Kelley followed the plaintive mewing and discovered Ralph's hiding place behind a panel in the space beneath the kitchen sink.

Apparently, Ralph had subsisted on nothing more than water from the toilet bowl for about a month. She'd lost weight and had a slight fever, but otherwise she checked out well at the vet clinic.

"It was certainly joyous for us," Kelley said. "Even though it's just one little cat, it was quite great to get her back. She's totally normal now."

That includes the behavior that inspired her uncommon name. "She likes to cough up hairballs," Kelley said. "It's not the prettiest of names, but she's an unusual cat."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or mabe@sptimes.com.

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