By Joan Potter

Cats love to gather on the wide lawn behind the apartment house where I live in Mount Kisco. Probably that's because one of my upstairs neighbors tosses bits of food out her window--piece of bread, mostly, meant for the grackles and crows that wait on the tree branches. These treats also attract the cats, who wander over from a neighboring street. There's the jet black cat with startling green eyes, the striped tiger, the orange-and-brown calico, the slow-moving old gray guy.

And then there's the Pinto cat. Broad and curvy, sporting a red collar, this creature has a pure white coat with ebony markings, like a Pinto pony. And whenever he wanders into view, I yearn to rush out and grab him and bury my face in his fragrant fur, just like I used to do with my own black-and-white cat, Pinto, who left this earth two years ago, at the age of 18.

My cat Pinto came to live with me after his release from Sing Sing prison. I'd written a newspaper article about the lives of Sing Sing inmates, the ways in which they tried to humanize their time behind bars. I'd learned that some prisoners made paintings, some wrote poetry, others kept fish tanks in their cells. And many prisoners had pet cats.

The cars would find their way into the prison yard through small openings in the walls and fences, attracted by tidbits that the prisoners tossed between the bars of their windows, just like my upstairs neighbor. One prisoner I talked to said he'd attracted a devoted cat following by offering gefilte fish he'd begged from the Jewish chaplain.

After I finished my Sing Sing interviews, the newspaper sent a photographer to the prison. when my article was printed, it was accompanied by a touching photo of a young prisoner standing in front of the bars of his cell, holding in his arms a small black-and-white cat.

It wasn't long before I got an anxious letter from that prisoner, saying he'd heard through the grapevine that a cat purge was planned for Sing Sing. "They say they will give the cats to the SPCA," he wrote, "but we know they put them in burlap bags and toss them into the Hudson." He begged me to rescue his half grown cat, Pinto.

I got on the phone to the warden. "Are you getting rid of the cats because of the article I wrote?" I asked. He assured me that the article had nothing td do with it. Cats had begun to overrun the cell blocks, creating a nuisance as well as bad smells. He'd made up his mind: the cats had to go.

Now, this was the mid-'70s, a different era in the world of prisons. Only a few years had passed since the Attica rebellion, and lots of people in the outside community were still interested in conditions behind ban. New York's prisons had opened their doors to volunteers, college teachers, legislators and journalists. I relate this to explain how I was able to get permission to carry a cardboard box holding a small black-and-white cat out of a maximum security prison, while the guards unlocked the barred door for me and called, "On the gate, one cat, out on parole." Pinto did very well on parole. He grew into a solid, beautiful cat, loving, intelligent, and sweet-natured. The only remnant of his prison experience as far as I could tell, was the way he cowered fearfully whenever a man with a heavy tread entered the house. Some of the Sing Sing guards, I assumed, had not been cat lovers.

Pinto and I developed a pleasant routine. When I sat down at the kitchen table for my early morning cup of coffee, he hopped into my lap and stayed there until it was time for me to start my day. And in the evening, as I dropped onto the couch to read or watch TV! he curled up on my stomach. In bed at night, he stretched his warm body next to mine and purred me to sleep. He was a loving and peaceful friend.

The prisoner who'd nurtured Pinto in his cell eventually served out his lengthy sentence and was released. I offered, halfheartedly, to give him back his cat, but he said that Pinto really belonged to me now. I offered him visitation rights, which he took advantage of from time to time.

When Pinto was about 15 years old, my husband and I decided to do something different with our lives. We sold our Westchester home and moved to a log cabin in the Adirondacks. Although Pinto had always been free to go in and out of our suburban house, I was afraid to let him outside of his new home, fearing that he would wander into the woods and disappear--captured by a coyote or hopelessly lost as he tried to find his way back to Mount Kisco I followed me veterinarian's advice and walked him on a leash around the perimeter of the cabin for several days, until he'd gotten his bearings.

Pinto seemed content with his new rural existence. On cold winter days, he curled in front of the cast-iron woodstove in the livingroom. In summer, he stretched out under pine trees and snoozed among wildflowers. He co-existed peacefully with the chipmunks, birds and red squirrels, observing them with calm interest.

The year that Pinto turned 16, he developed a lump on his side that was diagnosed as a malignant tumor. We treated him with cortisone, and the lump subsided, but after several months it began to grow again at a great rate. Our vets, Diane and David, offered to operate, but warned us that Pinto might not survive. We told them to go ahead with the surgery; the alternative was unthinkable. Our sturdy old cat made a remarkable recovery, and we were grateful.

A year later, though; another growth formed and this time surgery wasn't possible. As the weeks went on, Pinto became thinner and weaker. When we let him outdoors he seemed bewildered. At the end of every afternoon I'd have to search for him among the trees and ferns in front of our house. He would wait silently until I spotted him and carried him inside.

One day he wandered way off in the wrong direction, and I finally discovered him crouching on a fallen tree. I realized he couldn't go out alone again. So every day I followed him as he slowly dragged his bony body across the grass, stopping now and then to rest in a sunny spot. Then I'd pick him up and carry him back into the house.

Pinto lost the strength to leap into my lap. In the evening I'd carry him to the couch and gently lower his body onto a folded blanket across my knees. Even that soft spot made him uncomfortable, and finally he chose to spend his days sitting on a towel in a corner behind the bathroom door. We could see that he was miserable, but we couldn't bring ourselves to make the decision to end his life. Sometimes as we watched him trudge into the kitchen for a few bites of breakfast, we'd say, "He seems to look better today," but of course we were kidding ourselves.

I wanted to place this dilemma in someone else's hands. The veterinarians, though, could only lay out the options, leaving me with the final decision. But one day, when I described Pinto's suffering to David, the warmhearted vet, he said, "Pinto has been kind and loving to you for 18 years. Now you can do something kind for him.

Two days later, David and Diane put our cat to sleep. We wrapped his body in a soft cloth, placed it in a box, and buried it at the top of a small rise that overlooks our cabin. We collected round, gray stones from the woods and built a cairn to mark the grave. When our young granddaughters came to visit, they painted bright flowers on the stones, and on the flat front of the biggest one they printed, in brilliant red letters, PINTO.

A couple of years after Pinto's death, we decided to leave the rugged Adirondacks during the winter months and spend them in a Mount Kisco apartment, where pets are not allowed. But even if they were, I doubt that I'd get another cat. None could be as perfect as Pinto. I have to be content to gaze through my window at Pinto's look-alike, with his stylish red collar, meandering across the lawn, stopping to watch a gray squirrel leap onto a tree branch, and crawling through a hole in the fence to return to his own back yard.

Taken from the Fairfield County Weekly