Life on the Emotional Streets: The Feral Human

Spirit of Change 20th anniversary issue reprint from Nov/Dec 1998

In April, one of my greatest mentors died. He had been my teacher and friend for seven years. His name was Angelo and he entered my life as a feral cat. Emaciated, ill and dirty, Angelo arrived at my doorstep struggling to survive on the streets.

In actuality, he did not arrive at my doorstep at all. My doorstep and all that come with it, was far too scary for an animal worn in the cruel and neglectful ways of the human world. It took many months of patient attendance for Angelo to actually “arrive” on my doorstep.

The process of building a strong enough relationship with Angelo slowly over time that allowed me to open the door of my house and him to walk in freely and stay, has taught me more about being a good therapist than any other training or experience I have had over the past twenty years.

Angelo was not only one of seven feral cats I have had the privilege of working with since that time, but also the gatekeeper to important insights into the nature of trauma and physical, emotional and spiritual resilience. I have come to see that the feral cat is not the only animal who walks the streets. Many of my clients have responded to the metaphor of the feral cat.

For many humans, living in today’s world is an experience of emotional and spiritual neglect and desolation. As anthropologist Ashley Montagu so beautifully captures in the preface of his book Touching, “the impersonality of life in the Western world has become such that we have produced a race of untouchables. We have become strangers to each other, not only avoiding, but even warding off all forms of ‘unnecessary’ physical contact…

“Because of our untouchableness, we have failed to create a society in which people touch each other in more senses of the physical.” We rely on the “distance senses,” sight and hearing, and have largely tabooed the proximity senses of taste, smell and touch. “Two dogs may use all five senses in their communication with one another, but the same can hardly be said for two human beings in our culture,” says Montagu.

Whether human or feline, the body and spirit have only so much capacity to respond to trauma. All experience is held in the body. In this sense the body is both an emotional and spiritual vessel that has a limit to its holding capacity. Our bodies and spirits have a capacity to hold and work with pain and trauma. But once we overload, when the pain and trauma we experience is too constant, too large or just too much, we overload our emotional, spiritual and physical circuits and burn-out.

I have found that if a person lives through one traumatic experience, in spite of the terror and pain and the healing process required after the trauma has passed, there may be a spiritual strengthening. However, when trauma is not isolated but recurrent, sometimes in subtle and insidious ways, the spirit can be broken with it and our capacity for resilience.

Marlene knows both the experiences of trauma as a strengthening, spiritual turning point, and trauma as a degenerative process that compromises the life force. Now 45, Marlene reflects back on her experience of surviving and escaping from an attempted rape as a teenager. “It was really a turning point — a time the power of God really came into my life. I wasn’t raised with any religious background so God did not really exist in my experience. I feel like my escape and survival were a spiritual gift. I emerged internally stronger and more able to focus on purposeful pursuits in my life.”

Later in her life, her resilience was shattered. A relationship with an alcoholic partner who was emotionally abusive, legal battles over custody of her two children and trying to make ends meet as a single parent with little family support eroded her spirit. If life’s challenges become too great with an absence of emotional and spiritual support, the spirit can start to collapse.

The Emotional Landscape of the Feral Animal

Feral animals are quite remarkable. They are alone, neglected, often starving and injured and incredibly creative in spite of it all. Without medical care, the injured animal limps its way around the territory it calls its own. Homeless, the feral cat finds makeshift shelters — a garage, a shed, a crawl space under the foundation of a house. Unprotected, the feral animal is vulnerable to the elements and exposed to the cruelest conditions. The will to live and the quest to survive shine brightly in the feral soul.

And yet, the emotional costs of such a lifestyle are very clear. A feral cat lives hypervigilantly. Being alert at all times and on all levels (from physical to psychic) is a prerequisite for survival. Anticipating any threat or potential threat, the feral animal does not let any signal go unnoticed. Even the most subtle cue that is impalpable to the average human being is cause for attention. A profound lack of safety and mistrust of human beings is crystal clear. Human beings have abandoned these aniamls’ ancestors or perhaps their kin, chased them from their landscapes, and left them to fend for themselves without the means to survive. They run from even the possibility of human contact, darting through a driveway faster than the human eye can fix on his/her presence. The feral animal chooses safety over nourishment or shelter. Even if it is snowing outside and she/he is starving to death, a feral animal will not risk contact with a well-meaning person who wishes to bring him/her in from the cold.

Someone once told me that cats were spiritual mirrors for human beings. The fact that so many cats are leading feral lives may be telling a reflection for us humans. Unfortunately, emotional neglect is normalized from the very start of life. Little consideration is given to the fact that people have emotional and somatic intelligence as well as intellectual. People who feel deeply and show it are often called too intense, too sensitive, too needy, too much. When a person shows vulnerability and need, the most common response is rejection, judgment — hitting an emotional wall. Babies and young children do require tremendous presence, energy and both emotional and physical stamina. The pace of our culture and focus on professional advancement/material acquisition does not allow for the slow, in-the-moment lifestyle required to really attend to the needs of a baby, a young child or even an adult who is really in touch with his/her feelings.

The technologization and medicalization of conception, pregnancy and birth, with due credit for its benefits, can also remove our focus from the emotional and spiritual process of bringing new life into the world. In our “expert” culture, books that offer how to’s gain more attention than listening to the body, trusting instincts and practices that have stood the test of time. Mothers of young babies, deprived of sleep and personal space, delight in following the advice of Dr. Richard Ferber, who advocates “solving your child’s sleep problems” by letting them cry it out. A baby’s cry for food, touch, comfort or contact is a very intimate communication. If we cry long enough and no one responds, sooner or later we learn not to reach out anymore. As we become cut off from our own needs, we become unable to sense and respond to the needs of others. We perpetuate a cycle of senselessness — dissociation from our emotional, somatic and spiritual essence.

Bringing the Feral Animal Off the Emotional Streets

Most simply, inviting a feral animal to come off the streets is no easy task. It takes time, patience and profound commitment to the animal’s internal process. It requires more sensory involvement than intellectual analysis. The feral animal needs our pure heart, our sensitivity and our being.

When I first started to build a relationship with Angelo, he would not stay in my driveway long enough to even notice the food I had started to put out for him. It took many months of my softly allowing his terror and distance before he felt safe enough to check out the fact that food was there. And he could not eat it for the longest time when I was watching. He needed me to leave the food outside, at the bottom of the stairs, go inside, close the door and give him his space. I never knew if he even got the food at first. Over time, as rapport and trust built he would let me watch him from my kitchen window. I knew we had made progress in our relationship when I could move the food from the bottom of the staircase to the top. And I both rejoiced and felt gratitude to the powers that be when he allowed me to open the door and be with him as he ate.

The same principals central to my work with Angelo and the cats that followed apply to working with people who have emotionally and spiritually and been walking life’s streets:

  • Creating safety is the core building block upon which all other pieces lie. This involves a respect for the unique needs and pacing of an individual being, a sense of internal spaciousness — having both the time and psychic attention to just be with the being, and arriving with no agenda other than honoring the being as she/he is.
  • Offering presence with no strings attached is paramount. Any physical offerings — food or shelter included — need to be made without being attached to how they are received. One does not give to the feral cat out of the need for appreciation or response, but just out of the desire to offer for its own sake. Respecting the free will of the being is central to this process. Some animals will simply choose not to connect or make contact.
  • Management of your own psychic energy is a skill worth cultivating. This involves a sensitivity to not only how physically close or distant you are to the being but also emotionally and psychologically how you stand in relationship to the animal. Sometimes an animal needs your energy to be pulled back to give it space and safety. Other times the animals may need to feel the strength of your commitment and non-attachment to results. Managing psychic closeness and distance is an art form.
  • A lot of groundwork will have to be laid before attempting to touch the animal. Even if the animal is starved for touch and ultimately will need safe touch to soften and heal, safety at other levels will need to be established first. The animal will come closer to you as it feels safe and ready and as you have earned its trust. A first touch may be greeted with a hiss or a swat. Perhaps in its defended state, making physical contact has an emotional sting to it. Asking permission before making contact, and looking for cues from the animal show respect. In time, the animal might seek out your touch.

Know that there are a series of steps involved in making contact and building relationship with the feral animal. Each step might seem small or insignificant if one doesn’t understand the feral psyche. However the more empathy a human has for the feral experience, the more spacious each small step can be.

If you invest the time and energy it takes to bring a feral animal off the streets and into your home/heart, you may discover the spirit of these animals is softer and gentler than any domestic one. While it took Angelo years to feel safe enough to forget his instinctive swatting response, in time he choose to sleep on my heart every night and offer me his loving purrs as I slept.

Rarely do we as a society invest the emotional and spiritual energy it takes to help individual humans awaken from their trauma-induced numbness and come to their senses. It feels like the chicken-or-the-egg situation. If we have not had our most intimate needs met over the course of our lives, we are both likely to perpetuate the pattern and be unable to provide a new road map for others.

In 1990 my colleague Brian Schulz and I completed a list of six basic human needs. Each one is pretty simple. Yet most of us live our lives without receiving our recommended daily allowances of most of them:

  1. The need for abundant, nurturing, non-sexual touch and holding
  2. The need for full expression of emotions and a listener who responds to this expression with warmth, understanding and respect
  3. The need to play and pleasure
  4. The need for satisfying and creative work
  5. The need for a satisfying and uninhibited sexual life with a loved partner
  6. The need for immersion in and contact with the natural environment

A friend of mine who experiences a profound sense of isolation and disconnection once shared with me her deepest wish. “All I really need is to be held for two hours a day by someone with the time, skill and desire to do so.” Too bad she shared it half in jest because the reality of having it felt like such a futile pipe dream. Perhaps we as a society need to restructure our priorities and our life design in order to nourish our souls and spirits and help more of us come off the emotional streets.

Linda Marks, MSM, is a body-centered, heart-centered, psychospiritual therapist. She is founder of the Institute for Emotional-Kinesthetic Psychotherapy in Newton, author of Living With Vision, and active mother of a 2 1/2 year old son. To reach her, call 617-965-7846.

2007 Postscript: For more information about Linda Marks, visit