After getting home one day, Lezlie McCrory was greeted by both a neighborhood cat and a man on the street near her house in Muncie on 9th Street. McCrory told the man the cat had been greeting her for years, not necessarily wanting to be touched or let in the house.
“Is that your cat?” The man said.
“It’s complicated,” McCrory said.
The man cut her off, “That’s your cat.”
Now, McCrory lives her days with her black cat Kung Fu sunbathing on her front porch as McCrory responds to emails as president of the Muncie South Central Association. Her husband, Pat McCrory, is an elementary school teacher for Muncie Community Schools, and her children — 12 and 14 — are both in middle school.
For years, Kung Fu was a neighborhood cat who often roamed the blocks surrounding McCrory’s house. The couple she once belonged to left Kung Fu behind when they moved, and she officially became a street cat. But, around 2015, McCrory took her in and decided to make her part of her “purr-fect” family.
“At this point, she lives her own version of her best life,” McCrory said. “Neighborhood kids come over, and there's one girl who lives a block over. She used to come over to see the cat because she knew Kung Fu would be outside, and she could pet her. I would see her every day come down to the cat. [Kung Fu] kind of ties together different houses in this neighborhood just through her own little story.”
Muncie’s 8twelve Coalition is an organization tucked away between the streets of the Muncie community. It’s composed of lower income households and an intergenerational, diverse population — a population one wouldn’t think would intermingle well. But, one thing draws them all together: their pets.
Like many living in the community, Kung Fu has faced a lot of adversity after being taken in by a family once, abandoned, taken in again and cared for by strangers who gave her veterinary attention over the years. She has gone by many names — Meow Meow, Toothless, Pooh Bear — but McCrory decided to stick with Kung Fu. Like her name, the cat is tough.
“The house she used to live in, even after the people abandoned it, burned and then was later torn down,” McCrory said. “I wonder what that was like for her for such a familiar place to be just gone one day.”
McCrory said it has taken at least three years to turn Kung Fu into “at least half of a house cat,” as she now enjoys spending the evenings inside instead of out on the porch. Now, Kung Fu asks for pets when McCrory gets out of the shower and sleeps on her bed at night.
“After three years, that's her morning and night routine now,” McCrory said.
Before adopting Kung Fu, McCrory owned Sophie, an Australian Shepherd mix, for 16 years. Sophie was smart, McCrory said, and loved to perform tricks. Neighborhood kids would stand on the front porch and watch Sophie toss her toys in the air and catch things in her mouth. Children came to watch dog tricks, McCrory said, but they left with new friendships.
“We'd hang out with neighborhood kids who would come over to see the dog,” McCrory said. “The day we took Sophie in to be put down, one of the kids came over to be with Sophie and cry over her in our house.”
Sophie was a “connector,” McCrory said, “because when you’re walking the dog, you’re meeting neighbors.”
Losing her left McCrory feeling the need to fill Sophie’s paw prints on her heart, so she adopted her now 4-year-old mixed breed dog, Ollie.
McCrory takes Ollie on walks around the neighborhood to connect, and Ollie greets people at their doors — his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
McCrory turns the corner, and Ollie stiffens with his nose pointed up — there’s another dog outside. It’s a muscular Pitbull with black, white and dark gray spots. It perches on the fence surrounding its red home.
The Pitbull belongs to Shellie Williams, one of the neighbors McCrory and Ollie connect with on their walk. Williams and her Pitbull, Lady Gaga, have lived in Muncie’s South Central neighborhood for four years.
Lady Gaga, also known as “Gigi,” has been in Williams’ care since she was eight weeks old, and, ever since, Williams said she has felt safe in her home. In October, Williams’ home lost electricity, and she was fearful of staying there in the dark.
“If I had to stay here, and I had no lights on, I wouldn't stay here,” Williams said. “After my husband died, somebody went in the alley and bombed my front door down. [Gigi]'s nice, but, if she knows I have that fear, she'll like to come and stay right in front of me, and it just amazes me because I've never known that [from a dog].”
McCrory said she used to cross the street when she walked Ollie past Williams’ house to avoid Gigi’s snarling and pacing. But, after a few walks through the neighborhood, McCrory said she realized Gigi was all bark.
“Gigi is a great one,” McCrory said. “She’ll be in her yard, and she'll act like she wants to eat you, kind of scaring you away. She looks like she's ready to launch up on the wall, but she never does.”
Like Williams, Cindy McCormick, another Muncie resident involved with the 8twelve Coalition, feels a sense of protection from her “two best friends,” Muffin and Molly, who live with her just off Tillotson Avenue.
“They love me, and they keep me active and happy,” McCormick said. “They're just good company, but they're very clingy. They’re on my lap all the time.”
Muffin, a 6-year-old black Shih Tzu mix, made her older “sister” Molly, a 9-year-old tan Shih Tzu mix, jealous when McCormick first brought Muffin home. For a little while, McCormick had to keep her puppies apart, but as the two got used to each other, they not only became McCormick’s best friends, but each other’s as well.
“They run and play and chase balls together,” McCormick said. “I've taken them to a lot of things like church and Trunk-or-Treats, or the walking club over at the Ross Center. People know them and people love them.”
McCormick walks Muffin and Molly around the neighborhood for the same purpose as McCrory: to connect with her neighbors. For McCormick, her pets act as “mascots” for her community, and she does what she can to spread cheer through bringing them around town in colorful knit sweaters.
“They just make me happy,” McCormick said, “and they make others happy, too.”
After their stroll, McCrory and Ollie return to their little home on 9th Street with the green porch. Kung Fu sits perched on the brick ledge, licking her paw as the others walk up the front steps. The cat “owns 9th Street,” McCrory said, and she isn’t bothered by anything that would threaten her reign — even the Pitbull around the corner.
Since the day she met the man on the street, McCrory has taken to making Kung Fu her cat, or “owning” that she is her cat — with a name she wouldn’t choose and habits she wouldn’t endorse.
“But here she is, and I like her,” McCrory said. “She's my cat. Choosing her to be mine reminds me that I can choose people to be my people even if I wouldn't endorse everything about them, either. It's kind of a basic lesson in love, but an important reminder when we're trying to love people — whether they live under our roof or somewhere else — who are different from ourselves.”
So, while McCrory may not know the name of the neighbor with the fluffy cat down the block or the one across the street with two dalmatians always sunbathing in the window, McCrory knows her neighbors are there, and she knows they are a part of the place she calls home.
Contact Taylor Smith with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @taywrites.