A STRAY CAT’S STRUT: On the prowl for La Jolla’s legendary River

Just about everyone who spends serious time on Girard Avenue in the vicinity of Pannikin Coffee & Tea has a River story. He’s the precocious outdoor cat who can be found browsing the lower shelves at D.G. Wills Books, people-watching from trees and nuzzling up to students walking to La Jolla Elementary School.

Denise Murphy, an employee of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, says River brightens their shop’s doorway regularly.

“He meows to announce that he’s here,” Murphy says. “Then he jumps in my chair, meows and won’t let me sit until I feed him. And he knows where the refrigerator is.”

D.G. Wills owner Dennis Wills calls River “super intelligent,” and his worker, Ted Burke, is practically obsessed, sketching the grey tabby whenever he saunters into the store.

“This is no ordinary cat,” Wills explains. “He crosses the street. The cat knows how to cross the street!”

Wait, it gets better. River doesn’t always need to cross the street. One eyewitness says she saw him hitch a ride in the back of a pickup truck driven by an unknowing female driver. When the driver exited at Vons, so did River.

“He’s like a person,” Murphy says.

Ted Burke of D.G. Wills books displays a couple of his River sketches.
Ted Burke of D.G. Wills books displays a couple of his River sketches. COREY LEVITAN

The Light’s initial attempt to track River down fails. He is nowhere around the Pannikin, D.G. Wills or the map store.

Cat’s cradle

River’s not fending completely for himself. Stasia Osment, who lives behind the Pannikin, provides him with food, a water bowl and a litter box.

“He seems to understand me when I talk to him,” Osment says. “And he’s really polite. When I give him food, he stands back and waits. He won’t eat it until I finish serving him.”

Osment is not the cat’s original human. A phone number is printed on his collar tag, Osment says, but she doesn’t know it offhand. Osment says she called it once and was told by a woman that River was happier outside than inside.

Osment and her elderly father met River about nine months ago, while he was checking out birds in their courtyard. She put out some food and water and, she says, “he adopted us.” Now, he sleeps in Osment’s house.

“Either in my dad’s bed or mine,” she says, “but he also likes piles of clean laundry. He comes inside a lot more now that it’s cold at night.”

River runs through it

The subject of this story cannot currently be found on the grounds of Osment’s place, either. This may be due to his mastery of hiding. Noah Orloff, a baker who delivers pastries to the Pannikin at 4 a.m. every morning, says that River always picks a hiding spot to observe his entrance — either on the Pannikin roof or in a tree — presumably hoping for one of the pastries to fall to the ground.

“When he stylishly sneaks around,” Orloff says, “he is practicing mind control.”

One of River’s most notorious hiding places is particularly impressive: inside the top of umbrellas on the Pannikin deck, which has been known to delight or startle patrons. No one the Light spoke to has actually seen him catch and eat one of the birds that like to nibble on left-behind plates, but trying to is reportedly a favorite pastime.

“The birds at the café are now enslaved to River,” Orloff says, “The people will soon be next.”

Camera-shy River enjoys people-watching from unlikely hiding places.
Camera-shy River enjoys people-watching from unlikely hiding places. COREY LEVITAN

Suddenly, a tree behind the Pannikin shakes. A blur of stripes and grey fur reveals that River has been right here, observing the hourlong search for him. A human hand extends. River approaches tentatively, sniffing it. The motion to touch his tag to read it, however, is not part of this agreement. River backs away and meows loudly, raising his left front paw. Once the camera clicks commence, he makes up his mind for certain.

He is not talking to the media.

Fortunately, a close-up shot reveals the tag’s phone number. It’s printed beneath the words “La Jolla Local Outdoor Cat.”

Cat’s out of the bag

A woman named Kristen answers the phone. She provides her last name but asks the Light not to publish it, worried that she might be slammed for abdicating her ownership responsibilities.

Kristen says she adopted the neutered cat two years ago from All About Animals in Bird Rock on the day before Christmas Eve.

“He was all alone in his little cage, and I just didn’t want to leave him there,” Kristen says.

She named him River — “after all the rivers, I don’t know,” she says — and took him to his new home a couple of blocks from the Pannikin.

“I soon realized that he did not like being indoors at all,” Kristen says. “He was depressed. He hated being inside. Every time I let him out, he ran up a tree and had a ball.”

After two years of this, Kristen says, she decided to let River have his way. She bought him his current tag and they parted ways.

La Jolla resident Stasia Osment provides food, water, a litterbox and a bed for the night whenever River wants.
La Jolla resident Stasia Osment provides food, water, a litterbox and a bed for the night whenever River wants. COREY LEVITAN

“I hope he’s enjoying his new life and bringing joy to others’ lives,” Kristen says.

Kristen recalls meeting Osment once, atop a fence near Osment’s house.

“I picked him up one time to give him some tuna and this woman comes over and says, ‘That’s my cat, that’s my cat!’”

Kristen recalls correcting her. She explained: “He’s La Jolla’s cat.”