The cat came back … again

PHOTO: Tim Lenz, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Nineteen years ago I was the 21-year-old boy editor of the erstwhile Hibbing Daily Tribune. That year I wrote the most consequential article of my entire career. It wasn’t my best work. The story could have used another edit. Its journalistic veracity was thin, to say the least. But more people read this story than anything I’ve written since.

Skittles, an orange tabby cat, returned to his family in Hibbing after last being seen 350 miles away in southern Wisconsin.

That’s it. That’s the story.

Skittles’ owner, Charmin Sampson, attended Hibbing Community College. She casually mentioned her feline miracle to my wife who worked there. Christina told me. I called Charmin. And within a day I was at her house in Hibbing, visiting with Charmin, her son Jason, and the cat of the hour: Skittles.

The story became a case study in circumstantial evidence. Charmin, Jason, and three cats stayed in a trailer to work at the Wisconsin Dells over the summer. When they left for Hibbing at the end of the season they couldn’t find Skittles. Sadly, they returned home less one cat.

Many weeks later a weary, emaciated cat casually appeared at their home. At first, Jason didn’t recognize it. But the other cats accepted the strange kitty. Soon, he recognized the cat’s features and realized it was Skittles.

However it happened, Skittles came home.

Now, officially speaking, no conclusive evidence proved that the cat walked home from Wisconsin. The cat’s paws were rough and calloused. It was missing for a period of time that might have allowed it to walk that distance at a steady pace. Nevertheless, other factors could explain those facts.

That cat could have come home hidden in the car; stashed somewhere on the vehicle. A lot of cats die that way every year; but some also survive such ordeals. But a cat stowed away under the hood or in a wheel well isn’t a very big story. A cat that walked home is a HUGE story. So even though I formed no conclusion in the story, Skittles family believed he walked home and that’s what came across.

The Associated Press picked up my story the day after it ran in the Tribune. From there it spiraled into a media sensation. All the local TV networks showed up. So did the Twin Cities networks. Then CNN came, along with dozens of inquiries from newspapers and magazines. By the end of the next week, Skittles was featured in Jay Leno’s monologue on The Tonight Show.

There were two big reasons for the disproportionate cat frenzy.

The first was the fact that it was “sweeps week,” one of the times of the year when local TV stations determine their viewership ratings. Networks base their ad rates and budget on their rankings during these periods. So, we watched in real time as a sort of “space race” for Skittles footage became a mad siege on the sleepy village of Hibbing.

The second factor was 9/11. It had been a dreary fall and early winter of anger, grief and fear — of draconian new security rules and the creeping sense that a unified country was starting to split apart. People were hungry for hope. Any hope. And there’s nothing more hopeful than a cat that walked home against all odds.

Even if it wasn’t true, we all wanted to believe. It was faith, really. In Skittles we trusted.

Time passed. Skittles fever ebbed. Other cats entered the American psyche. Keyboard Cat. Grumpy Cat. Pretty much all the cats on the internet. Years went by. Skittles faded from my memory.

Until Dec. 2, 2020. That was the day Christina’s day-by-day “OMG Facts” calendar revealed an unexpected memory. Did you know that a cat named Skittles walked 350 miles home to Minnesota after being lost in Wisconsin?

Well, it’s in the calendar. It must be true!

To quote a great old western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “when the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”

I like to think Skittles is still out there somewhere. Walking home. Take me home, Skittles.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the DATE edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. And people say that journalism is dead.

    Your analysis of the reason why the story caught fire (this was before “viral” became a thing) is spot on in my opinion.

    However, I think this also is an illustration of part of the reason that newspapers and real electronic journalism are dyign a slow (or in some cases, a not so slow) death.

    Stories like Skittles are fun to read. They catch people’s attention. News media of all sorts focus more and more on this type of thing (see all things Kardashian) because editors and publishers know that that is what people like to see, apparently along with stories of people decapitating their spouses and kids in distant states.

    People especially like this a lot better than stories about the economy of Vietnam, on-going failure of their local schools to educate 50% or more of their inmates, sociopathic behavior of international mining companies in Indonesia and New Guinea, or the debate over sewer pipe diameter at the utilities board. Those stories are the Brussel sprouts of journalism: not what people want, but where the actual nutrition is.

    But the “journalism light” stories also make papers and other media not really relevant to people’s lives. If you can skip reading your local paper for a couple of months and mostly miss out on cat and Kardashian stories, there is no harm done. Coupled with people’s anger at reading things that don’t validate their own prejudices about the state of the nation, this makes a good excuse in the end to just skip buying the paper and watch a few extra YouTubes and read blogs that you know agree with you.

    Of course all sorts of changes having to do with advertising are probably more central to the epidemic of newspaper deaths (or zombie life, like the Duluth News Tribune and other Forum papers.) But IMO the fact that newspapers and other news have raced to make themselves trivial is a major factor. When the local news consists only of a puff piece about a favored politician or Chamber of Commerce initiative, cat and Kardashian stories, a lurid murder in Texas, and sports, why bother to read — or buy? The paper, despite its arguments about the critical nature of local news, is actually making the opposite case, to its own longterm detriment. They are deliberately irrelevant.

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