Ritz the cat’s final journey came last week.
The gray tabby who captured our attention in April when he was reunited with his original owners — 16 years after vanishing from his Bear apartment only to be found moments before he was to be put down — passed away in his sleep.
"I found Ritz had passed when I got up on Thursday morning," said Caroline Clark, who cared for Ritz after being reunited with his original owners last spring. "He was lying on the floor in the family room with his head on a rolled-up towel I had covered a floor vent with."
They say cats have nine lives. If that's true, Ritz might have spent his final one returning to his original people.
After years of obscurity, the tomcat stepped into the limelight when his story was first shared on Delaware Online/The News Journal on April 28. It then made the rounds, including on national news shows.
What happened to Ritz?
Sixteen years ago, then-2-year-old Ritz escaped from the Bear apartment he shared with Clark's son-in-law, Jason McKenry.
McKenry, who'd had Ritz for two years, went looking for the young cat when a neighbor told him that while driving down Route 1, near Route 40, a person flagged him down to say a cat had jumped out of his pickup bed.
McKenry continued his search, including posting flyers, but after months of looking, the search came to an end and life for everyone moved on.
McKenry married his girlfriend, Liz, and the couple moved to Annapolis where they had two children and other cats — two of which have passed on, leaving them to believe the same fate for Ritz.
"We just kind of figured that if he survived the first months, surely by now he was gone," Liz McKenry told Delaware Online/The News Journal in April.
While it's unknown what Ritz did most of those 16 years, the cat did find a home and new name in the Hunters Run mobile home park near Lums Pond.
That's where Emily Russell took a shine to him and named him Tom.
Russell said she'd been feeding eight outdoor cats, but Tom, who would sleep under mobile homes, was the only cat that ever let her pet him.
"He was just so sweet and innocent," she said "I named this cat Tom because he looks like a Tomcat. He's an old man."
She fed and looked after Tom for about two years, but after an injury, Russell and her father took Tom to Lums Pond Animal Hospital, where it was decided that he would be put down.
Ritz's return home
Before doctors there were going to put Tom down, they found he had a microchip that McKenry had placed in Ritz.
The McKenrys were contacted and that night, drove up to Delaware. There, they were reunited with Ritz.
It was decided the now-18-year-old cat would stay at Clark's Odessa-area home and the McKenrys would come up and visit him.
"Some people have wondered why he didn't go to live with Jason and Liz in Annapolis instead of here with us," Clark said. "They have two kids, two cats and two jobs. They felt I would be able to spend more time with him.
"More importantly, since he was feral for those years, he was likely FeLV positive (a viral disease) and that would expose their two house cats to that virus (even though they have been immunized). And Ritz was just too old and injured to put up with the antics of two younger cats (who would not likely have appreciated his arrival)."
The April injury also left Ritz with a bone protruding from his right hind leg.
How Ritz spent his final days
Ritz appeared, Clark said, to be happiest with people.
"I couldn't sit in a chair without him lying on my lap," she said "He loved getting involved if anyone was tying their shoelaces. His broken leg didn't slow him down at all."
Clark said she only saw Ritz get aggressive twice: once when he heard the noisy trash truck "beep, beep, beeping down our driveway," and the other when the neighbors' two friendly dogs ran up the steps of the back porch.
"Ritz almost went through the glass door to attack them and make them feel unwelcome," she said. "They've not been back."
But as the months went on, Clark noticed Rtiz's health was failing.
"Usually he loved food, any food," Clark said. "He had his favorite snack items as well as his regular mealtime cat food."
Earlier this month, Ritz's appetite had decreased.
He started leaving food in his dish. He also didn’t want his favorite catnip-flavored Greenies, a dental treat that he always liked.
"Then he stopped drinking from the water fountain," she said. "That was another clue that he wasn’t doing well."
Ritz would eat a little in the morning and then spend the day sleeping in the sun, moving from one sunny spot to the next, as the sun moved around the house.
"As he slowed down more and more, every night I wondered if he would still be with us in the morning," Clark said. "I was starting to convince myself that if he was suffering, I should make an appointment with the vet for his 'end of life' visit."
But Clark decided she would wait for the weekend to make that decision.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, Clark said she was relieved to see Ritz greet her in the kitchen.
"Wednesday evening, I spent some extra time with him, petting him gently and making sure he was comfortably curled up in his bed," she said. "He purred very softly and I went to bed around midnight.
"Thursday morning I came down and he was gone."
Clark said she could see Ritz was not breathing and when she touched his fur, it was clear he had died during the night.
In some ways, Clark said she was relieved he’d died peacefully in his sleep, at home. But she said she was sad to say goodbye.
"He enriched our lives in the brief five months he was with us," she said. "Pets give more than they take."
Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, email@example.com or Twitter @eparra3.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Ritz, the cat who went missing for 16 years, dies months after return