She went outside at around 3 PM and I saw her around the back yard every so often for the next few hours. But then dinnertime came and went, as did 7:30 PM (when I generally try to make sure she's indoors for the night, as most cats who get hit by cars do so after dark).
By 8 PM I still had seen no sign of her, not even when I went outside and opened a can of food (I recently discovered that while she disdains the expensive hippie wet food I've offered, she's quite the fiend for Fancy Feast).
I walked up and down the street and checked all her usual spots (under neighbors' bushes, etc.), but did not see or hear her anywhere (if she's outside and nearby, she usually answers if I call her name and meow).
Needless to say, I was worried. Very very worried. Apparently I have inherited the Corwin familial tendency to assume the absolute worst whenever someone I care about is out of my sight (and past due their usual arrival time back home). All these positively awful scenarios kept popping into my head, and I kept going round and round wondering if maybe I should have tried to turn her into an indoor-only cat, but then reminding myself that it's not like I forced her to go outside, and frankly she is probably better at gauging outdoor dangers than I am.
So...essentially I spent the better part of last Friday evening pacing around the living room, staring pointedly out the windows, periodically going out and calling Nikki's name, listening as hard as I could for any sort of answer, and generally Freaking Out.
(As an aside, Shadow was sort of following me around the house all evening, looking up at me and mewing and then curling up and purring on my lap when I sat down. He is turning out to be quite the Empathy Cat!)
At a certain point, though, I managed to convince myself that worrying would not bring Nikki back home safely, so I put some food out (near both the front and back doors), wedged the gate to the back yard open using the trash can (so she could get into the back yard more easily), and went to bed.
I woke up at 4 AM to use the bathroom and checked once again then to see if Nikki had perhaps returned, but still no luck. The food bowl I'd put on the front porch was empty, but that didn't tell me much, considering there are at least 5 other outdoor-access cats living on my street (not to mention a cadre of squirrels, and most probably opossums and racoons as well), so it could have been anyone. I went back to bed still worried (enough to dream, TWICE, about the situation) but exhausted enough to crash for another few hours.
Then, at 7 AM, I heard Shadow shrieking at the bedroom door (one of these days I simply must record some of the noises he makes, they're pretty incredible) so I figured it was as good a time as any to get up. I went into the kitchen and started preparing the kitties their morning breakfast (they get a portion of canned food in the AM and some dry food later in the day). I got out four dishes, figuring I would put a bit out on the front porch again for Nikki (just in case).
But, as it turned out, I never even got a chance to finish filling the cat dishes before Nikki ran up (yowling all the way!) across the back patio toward the kitchen door. I opened the door and she hopped inside without a moment's hesitation. She inhaled her food like she'd never seen food before, then proceeded to jump onto the stove (it wasn't on, don't worry) and try to lick the grease off the pan Matt had cooked hamburgers in the previous night! (Which means she had to be starving because I have never before seen her go for anything like that).
I gave her a handful of dry food after watching her a bit to make sure she wasn't going to hork up the canned stuff from eating it too fast, so she ate that, and then trundled off to my bed and slept. And slept and slept and slept, not even getting up or giving us an Annoyed Look when Matt and I made the bed (pulled the quilt up, etc.).
Nikki, all crashed out after her adventure!
She looks fine (no scratches, limping, etc.) and clearly her appetite is intact so I don't think anything awful happened to her. However, I did get the impression that she had probably been trapped somewhere (such as in a neighbor's garage -- she loves exploring garages for some reason) because of how hungry she was and the way she RAN into the kitchen like she had just escaped something. Her eyes were very wide and she was chattering at me in a "you would not BELIEVE the night I had!!!" manner.
In any case, I am just terribly relieved Nikki is okay. It's been a few days now and she is back to her usual energetic, demanding, vigilant security-guard-cat self. I've still been letting her outside every so often during the day but I've been making sure she's in for the night by 5 or 6 PM. And so far, ever since her adventure, she's been a lot more inclined to stick around the yard.
I know some people would probably think I'm being awfully irresponsible for letting Nikki out at all, especially after her overnight trip to who-knows-where. But as I explained in my post on "indoor-outdoor agnosticism", I personally do not hold firm beliefs either way about whether cats-in-general should or shouldn't be allowed outdoors unsupervised.
Rather, I think the decision is always going to be a very individual one based on each individual cat and his or her particular circumstances. And in Nikki's case, I can just see this huge difference in her overall demeanor and stress level when she's allowed out at least part-time versus when she's kept in 24-7.
Moreover, she seems very good about avoiding situations once she's determined they are Not Good in some way. If she was indeed trapped in a garage or something along those lines, my guess is she'll be much more careful to avoid that sort of thing in the future. So in a sense I am actually a little less worried when she goes out now, because of the fact that she came back after having been out all night; I know at least that she knows where "home" is.
So while the type of "compromise" she and I maintain in that regard seems to be ever-evolving, I guess what it comes down to is that I don't want to mistake my own tendency to worry when I can't see her for the actuality of serious danger. That, to me, seems like the sort of mistake that tends to lead to improper use of power (and humans have a lot of power over cats).
And in general I don't believe in using one incident of something scary happening as "proof" that someone needs to have their liberty to do something they love completely taken away.1
1 - PLEASE don't take this as meaning that I believe "all cats need to be allowed outside, otherwise you-the-human are abusing your power". I don't believe any such thing (if I did, why would three out of four felines living with me currently be indoor-only-unless-leashed?), and I think I've said so multiple times already. But I just want to make absolutely sure I am not misunderstood on this.
The actual point I am trying to make here is more along the lines of "I need to be careful not to confuse alleviating my own worries with actually making the best possible decision in a given cat's particular circumstances".
Which is a point that I think applies to relationships (particularly where power differentials are present, regardless of species membership) in general.
That is, when one person is in a position to control the amount or type of risk someone else is exposed to, it is not valid ethical reasoning for the more powerful party to simply decide "oh, I will just keep the other person under lock and key all the time, that way I won't need to worry about them".
Because in that case it's not actually about keeping the other person* safe. It's about the powerful person using their power to eliminate their own discomfort. Which is not the same thing as, say, using one's power to accurately assess risk and balance their decisions with the needs and wants of the less powerful person. I think it's important not to muddle the former with the latter, as that sort of muddling tends to lead to the total disregard of the less powerful person's needs, wants, autonomy, etc.
In other words, I feel that I have pretty rigorously assessed the cost-benefit scenarios associated with letting Nikki out sometimes or keeping her in all the time. And based on the relative quietness of the neighborhood here, lack of coyotes or other predators likely to attack domestic cats, presence of other outdoor cats who seem to be in good health (one of whom I know is 11 years old), etc., I figure there is a much higher probability of Nikki going on to live a good, long life than there is of her meeting an early, horrible death even if she has part-time outdoor access.
Oh, and bird enthusiasts need not worry about Nikki depleting the local sparrow supply -- whatever her other talents, she's a total failure as a hunter. She has no stealth and no sense of timing whatsoever. I mean, seriously, it's pretty hard to catch birds when you're running toward them yelling in Siamese fire-truck tones the whole way!
* In my personal lexicon, "person" is not restricted to meaning "human". And this should not be taken as "anthropomorphism", but as one of the ways I try to express respect for cats and various other non-human species.