Above all else, 8-year-old Christian Nielsen wanted one wish for Christmas this year — for his little gray cat, Thistle, to come home.
The real Thistle, the Winter Garden third-grader wrote on his list for Santa, “not a new one that looks like him.”
This was going to be a tall order. Thistle had been missing for over five weeks, and he really didn’t know his way around the family’s still-under-construction neighborhood.
On top of that, the Nielsens — four kids ages 3 to 11; mom; dad; and, until Thistle disappeared, two cats — had just moved to the area from Boston in August. So everything about the area was foreign.
And truth be told, Thistle — a shy, nervous, gray-coated feline known as a Russian Blue — didn’t like foreign environments. A rescue cat, he had already traveled from Georgia to Boston and then Boston to Orlando in his two short years. He hated car rides, loud noises and strangers, and unlike his sister, Rye, who would explore and hunt, Thistle rarely ventured even from the screened-in back porch of the Nielsens’ new home, where he had his own cat house and litter box. He could go in the mostly fenced backyard if he wanted, but he usually preferred to be cuddled up with one of the children, who carried him around like a baby.
“He sleeps with me,” Christian’s little sister, Nora, would tell people. “He loves me. He licks my ear.”
“Thistle was like the teddy bear of the family,” said Christian’s mom, Taylor Nielsen. “My husband said, ‘What are we going to do? Christian specifically said he doesn’t want another cat.’”
At first, the kids cried themselves to sleep each night. And each day, they searched the neighborhood, going door to door and stopping everyone they passed. They even checked another neighborhood nearby, just in case, and Taylor posted on a lost-pets website, PawBoost.com, that links to a network of 785 local lost-and-found Facebook pages.
Taylor got a lot of sympathetic — and empathetic — messages, but no solid leads. After a few nights, she and her husband gathered the kids and tried to offer a cheery scenario.
Thistle had probably been taken in by some kind family — maybe an elderly woman who didn’t use social media and couldn’t hear them calling Thistle’s name on their daily searches — and so he was keeping her company and getting lots of affection and the kind of soft food he always loved.
“He’s out there living his best life,” they said.
But privately, Taylor worried. She’d seen a neighbor post about coyotes in the area. Her heart sank.
“That’s when I started crying,” she said. “I started thinking about what Thistle must be going through, imagining he was thinking, ‘Where’s my family?’ And I wondered, if he had been caught, how long it took him to die. It was just a dark, dark hole to go down.”
Twenty-two miles away, just east of downtown Orlando, Laurie Bobletz was busy looking after her colony of street cats. For 10 years, she had fed any feral or stray felines that wandered into her yard, earning their trust until she could catch them and get them vaccinated and spayed or neutered.
Even with low-cost sterilization programs at the Pet Alliance and then Spay ‘N’ Save, it was a hefty investment for the pet sitter.
“It started with my neighbor’s cat,” she said. “My neighbor just moved away and left the cat. So I convinced the kitty to come across the street to our house. She was my first outside kitty. But she kept getting pregnant and pretty soon I had 13 kitties before I was able to catch them all and get them fixed.”
Her own kids — now in their 20s and 30s — loved the cats, but her husband was less than thrilled with the idea. Still, as long as the cats stayed outside, he didn’t object.
Some of the cats would disappear after a time. Others, Bobletz would find dead, killed by cars or racoons. Recently, she too had seen there were coyotes in the neighborhood, despite being so close to the city’s urban core.
Try though she might, she couldn’t save everyone.
In mid-November, very late one night, she heard a persistent mewing from outside her door and went to see what the fuss was.
“Usually it’s when one of the feral cats catch something,” she said. “They walk around with it in their mouth, and they talk. So I went in search of which kitty had caught something — and what they had caught. And this little gray kitty was there.”
He was clearly hungry.
Bobletz made him a separate plate of food, set it down and watched him devour it “like he was starving to death.”
Then he turned around and stood on his hind legs, reaching up to her until she knelt and picked him up. He snuggled his chin into her neck and licked her ear.
“This is somebody’s kitty,” she told her husband.
But when she put him down, the cat dashed off into the darkness. And when morning came, when the other cats showed up for breakfast, he didn’t join them.
“There were several new people who had moved into the neighborhood recently,” she said. “So I thought maybe this was their indoor-outdoor cat, and he just saw where all the other cats were coming to eat.”
Then that night, the gray cat came again — and the next night and the next night and the next. And each time Bobletz fixed him a special plate of food, and he nuzzled his appreciation.
In the day, when she wasn’t working one of her several other jobs, she went door to door on her street, asking if anyone was missing a gray cat. She posted about it on the Nextdoor app, and she regularly checked lost pet sites. But she didn’t see anything that seemed to fit.
Nothing in Orlando, anyway.
She began to lay out a plan to catch this mysterious gray cat and get him scanned for an identifying microchip that could lead back to his owner. She felt increasingly certain he belonged to a family, probably a family with young children.
“The way this kitty acted, it was clear he was used to being snuggled and he’s used to being held and he’s used to being inside,” she said. “Somebody out there loved him.”
One morning about two weeks later, when she happened to see the sweet gray cat in the daylight, she opened her door and he dashed inside. Then, she only had to put a towel and some food in a cat crate and wait for him to take the bait.
Coming to terms
Meanwhile in the Nielsen house, days had turned to weeks. The kids had stopped crying, but they hadn’t forgotten. Nora, 6, figured Thistle was so cute that someone had snatched him. So did Christian, but he also thought Santa — or whoever — might be able to intervene.
“They just don’t want to put his picture on Instagram or anything because they want to keep him,” he said.
Kalei, 11, the oldest, sometimes worried that something bad had happened, but she tried not to think about it. “I wasn’t completely convinced that he was just in somebody’s house,” she said.
On the morning of Dec. 1, right after Taylor had dropped off her children at school, her phone rang and some woman she didn’t know was asking her if she now lived in Florida. Then the woman said someone had found her cat, the Russian Blue.
“What?” she said. “He’s alive? How? Where?” The woman connected the call to Bobletz, who gave her the address.
When Taylor entered it into her phone, she was even more shocked.
“It’s like a 45-minute drive,” she said.
She drove straight there. Bobletz kept the cat in a bedroom until Taylor was standing in her living room with the front door closed. There would be no risk of the wayward feline panicking and dashing off again.
“I opened the bedroom door, and he comes out and sees her and just takes off running to her, and she just scooped him up in her arms,” Bobletz said. “It was just the best feeling in the world.”
And it was only the first reunion.
‘A Christmas miracle’
Back at home, Taylor Nielsen reunited a now-thinner Thistle with his sister, Rye, keeping the two of them in the garage with the door closed. Shortly before the school day ended, Taylor put Thistle in a big box with a crack at the top, wrapped the box in Christmas paper and tied a bow around it. She put the box just inside the front door.
“We have an early Christmas present for you,” she and her husband told the kids as they arrived home.
Their eyes widened. Then the box started to move. And before they could open it, Thistle pushed his head up through the top and jumped out.
Christian sums up the moment by motioning like his head exploded.
“And then we all just screamed for a while,” he said.
“This went on for, like, an hour,” Taylor said. “I have never seen my kids so excited. They all took turns hugging him and wanting to carry him around. Then, after a while, the other kids went and did their homework or went to play outside, but not Christian. He did not leave the house the entire day. He just stayed with Thistle.”
The kids still argue over who gets to sleep with Thistle — who has decided he prefers a strictly indoor lifestyle — and everyone still wonders what happened to him during those three weeks between the time he disappeared and the time Bobletz found him on her front porch. Could he have wandered that far on his own? Did he get picked up and taken home by someone?
Or did he take a nap in someone’s truck bed, not realizing what he was getting himself into?
But mostly they marvel at the kindness of the greater lost-pet community that embraced them — and especially the woman who went out of her way to help bring Thistle home.
“I am just so stuck by, one, her generosity with her taking care of all those cats that she does,” Taylor said. “And then to be able to notice a difference with Thistle and to take the time to try to see if he’d been microchipped. It would have been so easy for her to just rope him in with the other cats she’s taking care of and not worry about his story or where he belongs.”
Kalei nodded. “He probably went from house to house to house and then he finally found somebody who was nice to him,” she said.
“I would tell her thanks for giving him back to us instead of keeping him because he’s so cute,” Christian said. “It’s like she gave us our Christmas miracle.”