When St. Louisans think about the biggest news so far in 2016, what probably comes to mind is the New Year’s flooding or the Rams leaving town.
But for many people in one city neighborhood, the focus isn’t on football but a feline — a certain orange one, who has his own Facebook page and Twitter account. So how has this cat become the talk of Tower Grove South?
It started back in November. Matt the Cat — a large, fluffy, orange, indoor cat who’d rather curl up in your lap and snuggle than chase a toy — had lived happily for seven years with his human mom, Maire Murphy, and his brother, Oliver.
“He’s just a people person. Well, he’s not a person; he loves people,” Murphy said.
But then, one day about a week before Thanksgiving, Murphy said she was getting ready to leave the house when she saw something out of the ordinary.
“Usually they come running to the door, and I noticed only Oliver was around,” Murphy said. “And I thought, 'Well, he’s just hiding. Of course, he hasn’t gotten out because I monitor it.' But the next morning I realized he really was not there.”
The search begins
Murphy, who works in the American Culture Studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, immediately began putting up dozens of bright yellow flyers, offering a $300 reward. She also posted Matt’s picture on pet finder websites and the members-only Tower Grove South Facebook page.
Two months after he disappeared, she is still getting Facebook posts, texts and calls every day from people who’ve seen orange cats — hundreds of responses so far and more than a dozen photos of orange cats that didn't turn out to be Matt.
Even neighborhood children are looking for the cat. Seven-year-old Milo Marston put together and published a musical animation, which reads: "Matt the Cat, orange and fluffy, last seen on Connecticut Street in St. Louis, Mo."
"And he’s saying, ‘I’m lost right now,'" Milo said.
Milo hopes putting his work online at a Scratch community site will help bring Matt home.
"Now the whole world will see it," he said.
Milo’s mom, Amanda Doyle, became obsessed with the search.
“I swear to you, I have never watched a TV show or a cliffhanger with this much anticipation,” Doyle said. “It’s really gripped the neighborhood. I think it’s made people hopeful for something good to happen.”
Doyle believes it's provided the area with something positive to talk about with each other, "besides ‘Who’s parked on the wrong side of the street?’ or ‘Was that a gunshot you heard — or a firework?’”
The saga’s had many ups and downs. Last month, someone sent Murphy a photo that looked just like her cat. They met up and the cat leapt into her arms. Murphy was positive it was Matt, but the next day, she took him to the vet to scan for an ID chip, just to be sure.
"And when they said, ‘This is not your cat,’ I said, ‘No, no, no! Clearly, your scanner’s wrong.’ They said, ‘No, this cat is Tomato, Tomato the Cat,’” Murphy remembered.
Murphy found Tomato’s real home and returned him to a family who’d been looking for him.
The next time Murphy received a Matt look-alike photo, she asked “Lost and Found Paws” volunteer Tina Roe to bring a chip scanner to a scheduled meeting at a convenience store.
As they waited, Roe said she looked at her phone and noticed people were closely monitoring the situation on Facebook, with comments showing up every minute.
One post read: "It doesn’t take 11 minutes to scan a cat."
Thirty minutes passed, then an hour. It began to look like a no-show.
Roe told Murphy not to give up, that cats sometimes come back years later when people discover they’re actually missing pets.
“People take them into their homes. Then it’s not until they take them to the vet and have them scanned or whatnot and then find the chip,” Roe explained.
More than just a cat?
Still, for Murphy, it was an emotional end to a tense night. She said she was trying not to get upset, but she wondered how long she should keep up the search after what she began to think was a possible prank.
We are all Matt the Cat.
— Matt the Cat (@TG_Matt_the_Cat) January 16, 2016
It's not easy......being...orange.
— Matt the Cat (@TG_Matt_the_Cat) January 16, 2016
Night Owl Pub just named a drink in my honor - the Matt the Cat: Bourbon, ginger, and aperol (orange!)! Drink up!
— Matt the Cat (@TG_Matt_the_Cat) January 17, 2016
A few people on social media said they’re tired of the whole episode. But Murphy kept going. Reported sightings kept coming in, some as far away as the Shaw area, across the nearly 300-acre Tower Grove Park.
Then on Thursday afternoon, Matt's twitter followers saw this message:
there's been a sighting on the 3800 block of Cleveland in the Shaw Neighborhood. Is it me? Lure me inside & run the chip scanner ...
— Matt the Cat (@TG_Matt_the_Cat) January 21, 2016
Even though Murphy actually made the post (she's taken over Matt's Twitter account), she remained skeptical. Still, she drove over, and saw him on a porch. He looked just like Matt, but thinner. Neighbors said they'd been feeding him when they could. She got closer, almost afraid to hope. But then ...
“When I heard his meow on the porch, I said ‘that’s his meow, that’s definitely his meow,” Murphy said.
Neighbors helped wrangle the cat into Murphy’s car and she drove him home. Roe brought over her chip scanner for confirmation.
It was indeed Matt the Cat, home at last.
"We just exploded, like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it.'" Murphy said.
Murphy’s posting of “Matt the Cat is home safe!!!!!! Unbelievable!” blew up the Tower Grove South Facebook page with more than 900 likes and 250 comments.
Murphy said the response is about more than just a cat; it’s about a community of people like those who handed out missing-cat flyers in freezing weather.
“They delivered them at night, on that big snowstorm," Murphy said. "They don’t even know me. They just know I was a neighbor who asked for help.”
Neighbor Amanda Doyle, who’s been glued to the search, says this kind of bonding validates living in the city, a place people regularly talk back and forth from porches and on sidewalks.
“It’s that many more feet on the street, that many more eyes looking out for a cat, and in this case it had a happy ending,” Doyle said.
But in some ways, it's just beginning. Followers are making posters and T-shirts. Matt's return was even celebrated over the weekend in a Pensacola, Fla. nightclub with a band playing an original, impromptu song.
This Friday, the city of St. Louis will vote on a Matt the Cat resolution, honoring this adventurous feline who brought together a community. (Story continues, below.)
If people take away anything from this ordeal, Murphy said, it should be about making sure pets can be identified if they get away from home.
"Everyone should get their pets chipped," Murphy said.
Meanwhile, inside the Murphy home, Matt and Oliver are getting reacquainted, and Murphy can finally get back to her life. Still, there's talk of a Matt the Cat day, possibly next year on the anniversary of his homecoming.
"If that happens, I'd like for it to be a day that people volunteer to help animals," Murphy said.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
Follow Matt the Cat on Twitter: @TG_Matt_the_Cat