Winter

The current colony outdoors is facing the toughest part of winter right now. Here, inside, we are safe and warm.
     The cold and snows we’ve had recently require regular pilgrimage to the feeding stations – depending on which way the wind blows, adjustments need to be engineered to keep the food from getting buried, to keep the walkways under the decks where they hide, clear, to make it as easy as possible for them to get to the food source. Dry food, in large heavy plastic, or metal bowls, will not freeze into bricks, but even if laced with frost will remain bite-size. Wet food provisions need to be timed with sightings, otherwise it just freezes before they get to it. Wherever possible remove snow from their “rights-of-way” and do not use chemical salts and snow-melts on trailed land.

tigre
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Little Bo-Peep

Here is a video I’m glad I took the time to do. It goes back almost five years, to the “infant care” phase of BoPeep, who was abandoned by her feral kitty mama at 4 weeks because of severe flea infestation. This video documents some of her consistent care during the first weeks (hand-feeding and stimulation) but it doesn’t show the first few days of cleaning her and flea-combing (what a tedious but successful method of removing fleas, however it had to be performed for 4 days in a row, several times a day). A kitten less than a month old with a flea infestation will fade away from anemia if not treated asap.

This is Bo-Peep nowadays:)

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Communication

In the beginning, when I first started working with the cats, all the time they were talking to me, I couldn’t hear them.

I could hear my heart pounding during prolonged eye contact. I could wander my gaze over the face, look into the eyes, but never really knew what I was looking at. I would notice the silence, the air was filled with their eyes. I was sure they were intelligent, but their communications remained a mystery, partly because I wasn’t fully aware of the possibilities and points to ponder.

It took a long time to begin opening communication on a level where I could be sure of what I was transmitting/receiving so as not to be utterly improbable and ridiculous. There had to be solid evidence, I was skeptical, but open. I actually thought the potential for ridiculousness was greater than that for reward, until I found out.

When I was three years old, my brother started school and almost every afternoon when he got home he would teach me what he’d learned that day. By the end of his first year, I surprised my mother one day when we were out shopping, by pointing to a sign, and asking her, “Does that say speck-ee-al?” Once over the shock, and the “when did you learn to read!?!” she said “There are rules, in this case the “c” is called a “soft c”, and the “i” is silent, so it’s ‘speshal’.” My mother taught school, she later became a specialist in teaching elementary school children to read, but she hadn’t known before then that my brother was teaching me to read during our afternoon play-times. “Let’s play school! I’m the teacher” he would say.

The reason I bring this up is that the willingness to learn needs to be opened up by a need once we get beyond childhood more often than not. So I didn’t even know I needed to learn how to communicate with the cats at first. They had to tell me, over and over again, with great patience I might add. Another point: unique communication can be happening right under your nose but you might not see it if you aren’t looking for it.

My poet friend, what was it you were saying about communication?

About how words are only the sprinkles on top, the little delights, the pins and needles, satin ribbons, elastics, egg-shells, twisty things….

In the cat’s ears, it’s not the words, just the drone and tone and pitches and switches of voice. It doesn’t matter what the words are saying, they are only communicating something about the heart’s true place. The cats, like children, pick up on that. However, sounds including the sound of their names and certain keywords will catch on, and remember, never accidentally impose limitation because you’re inadvertently accustomed to assuming animals can’t learn one thing or another.

So to communicate the first two steps are
1. Be quiet and observant
2. Get used to having your heart in a strong place 24/7, that is, focus all faculties, connect with the animal in whatever way you can. Best if you actually feel the love for that animal like it was your very own dearest baby, that is the big love without any smudges, doubts or interruptions. It isn’t easy, I don’t automatically love everyone all the time, even though there’s no reason not to. So if you’re stubborn like me, it takes practice.

The third step is listening, not with your ears but with your eyes, hands and heart.

You’ll be amazed at what you hear more often than not.

And the 4th step, well, it’s an invention. Every cat must have a song. A short ditty with a catchy melody and their name as part of the lyric. You sing it to the cat repeatedly until he/she knows it’s “my” song. You sing it whenever they approach. You sing it when you give them food. Whenever they are nervous or upset you sing it. You sing it just for fun. You sing it up close, you sing it from 20 feet away, you dance while you sing it if you’re 20 feet away. (I’ve found that always gets their attention.) You sing it every chance you get.

Every cat, especially in a shelter, needs a song. It communicates something to them: I see you, I know you, I care about you, you are “speshal”.

Example: Take the song “Row Row Row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream” and change it to “Slow slow slow your pace, like a little prince, Mortdecai Mortdecai Mortdecai Mortdecai, you should nap on chintz”. To “At the Copa”: “His name is Tylo, he makes me a smile-oh, he’s the best looking cat in Ohio”.

I know it’s silly, but it’s fun and it works. The thing is, don’t use the same tune for different cats in the same shelter. You don’t want anyone shortchanged. You’ll need a repertoire of nursery rhymes and 6 bar phrases.

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a learning curve

The ex-feral cats are both scared and fascinated by regular household noises and routines.
One of the singular advantages of living above the shelter is to offer selective exposure to things like a human’s kitchen, bedroom, bath, closets, locations of windows, window ledges, an intro to the machines, like the vacuum, the dish-washer, the coffee-grinder. Sounds, like toilet flushing, shower running, bath-tub filling/draining, and the ambient sounds of tv, radio, the telephone or other transmission devices, human voices — the beeps, bleeps and buzzing of a relatively peaceful abode. Just in case they ever live somewhere with teenagers who have a rock band in the basement, I now and again put film noir movies (because of the drama and undertones) and MTV (rhythmic beats, usually high volume) on the television. There’ll be an audience trickling in and out usually, and a few who just take up residence near the tv for the afternoon. In the shelter itself, the cats listen to a classical music station 24/7 from a compact boombox radio next to the water main that sounds surprisingly clear and good. I often see them relaxing, grooving on the music. I stop and listen and wonder if it’s a language we can share, if they can feel the flowing of sound emotionally or in any way “understand” the reflection of various emotions evoked, I watch them. Today, during an Aria by Handel, they were transfixed and seemed to be breathing with the sound.

Not just that, but if they are upstairs exploring the human abode, it is interesting to note how they react to any sound of footsteps (not mine, they know my footsteps) coming through the front door, passing the shelter, across the mud room, up the stairs. Over time some have learned to relax and stay put when new people/sounds come into the picture, securely they remain steadfast, maybe not entirely calmly, but the “fight or flight” response has dissipated, they’ve “learned” to temper the stresses with curiosity/acceptance. They once would stampede, knocking over anything in the way, like bowls of dry food or a broom standing in the corner, whenever they heard a sudden loud sound, or a voice calling out at the door they didn’t recognize (in fact, in the early days they would stampede even when I walked into the room), but now they keep still for the most part. Even when the exceptionally loud gravel-crushing garbage truck backs down the driveway bleeping and blaring, and halts, the engine grinding and sputtering as it idles, the crank squealing as it lifts a bin — they stay put, staring intensely. However, the town fireworks display on 4th of July, with the nearby repetitive blasts and bangs filling the air, drives them to scatter for cover every season, without fail. The “night-club” gets filled to the foyer, standing room only.

Hanging out at the Club

Hanging out at the Club


What is important to understand is that short repetitive (once a week for instance, the garbage truck comes) experience (lessons) with unaccustomed/alarming things (pretty much everything to a feral cat newly indoors) works to ease transition efficiently, daily practice more so, but if a particular trigger comes yearly (like 4th of July), or intermittently (like thunderstorms) they’ll be at least in mid-life or later when they graduate. But what is most important to know is that feral cats of all ages, any age, can learn to be good house-mates and companions. It simply is not true that you have to get them as kittens, that after three months a feral cat is a lost cause for any potential adoption, etc. etc. etc. blah blah blah. Hello, animal rescue orgs out there? Stop branding feral cats as intractable and admit out loud to the world that you just aren’t equipped to house and rehab SNR feral cats just yet. Use some of your savvy to get funding for it. Build shelters tailored to their needs, employ people to live/work with them. Find homes for the graduates or let them stay. Be bigger.

Back upstairs, I have to consider sometimes what I must look like to the cats in the home environment.

An example: I was showering, having left the door ajar, and a curiously daring new convert to the domestic scene slinked into the room, sniffing around, up to the edge of the tub, hoisting tenderly up on front paws staring at the rushing water through a 4-inch opening in the shower stall door. Moments later I open the slider slowly, step out, she retreats to the threshold and while I’m toweling off, she’s staring from the doorway, watching every move, her eyes darting all over, and she steals herself before looking towards my eyes, but once there, locks onto my gaze. In order to keep her eye-contact going longer, I quickly look down, turn to the side, and return a look from the corner of my eyes, look down, return a look, squint, look down, return a look, squint, etc. It is an engagement process so to speak and works best in small intelligible steps. If you know that a squint = a smile in human-to-cat body language translation, and prolonged direct eye contact can be felt as a threat, it makes sense.

While I’m busy doing the squint exercise, she’s saying
“omg is that how you clean up? that’s too weird. you don’t have very much fur — why would you want to dunk yourself in buckets of water? how peculiar. that piece of rag, you use that to lick the water up off you? ugh, the water smells like medicine. the whole thing is so awkward — you look like a giant four-legged pink insect stretching, I don’t see you flying though, no wings, thank god, and you move about 4 times slower than my pace, so I can dodge you pretty easily, even if you try to catch me unawares, but…(moving back 1 foot)”

“Yes, this is how I take a bath, you see, it is always a bit uncomfortable at first, coming out of the warm water into the cooler air, that is, especially since people don’t generally have any water-repellent fur covering, that’s why I scoop up my towel as fast as I can and wrap it around my shoulders and pat down at shiver-repellent speed. Then, you see, I change into my clean clothes, one piece at a time, to get warm again, I have to wear clothes, at least after September haha. These are my socks, they go on my feet….”

She cocks her head, watching the putting-socks-on action, but then she dashes away when I stand up to finish dressing.

“There’s only so much a cat can take, after all, you are so peculiar and I thought socks were for catnip toys, maybe your 2 stub-pads called feet double as toys sometimes or something?” she says from outside the door.

“a couple more times, you’ll get it, don’t worry”
I grab my clothes and peek around the door at her. She freezes mid-action, then bolts down the hall, down the stairs, looking for the comfort of the safe-zone, the familiar base. I think if I’d just tip-toed up to peek, she would probably have stayed long enough to regain eye contact. Apparently it was the sudden grabbing of the clothes, my usual inclination to multi-task, that foiled the attempt. As far as opportunities to give attention are concerned, it’s gotta be more presence and more presents.

Speaking of which, toys, especially catnip toys, are needed so send toys or make a donation for more presents. Thank you:)

The Gentle Giant

moby

Moby

When Moby was a kitten his paws were extraordinarily large. Most kittens are all eyes and head, Moby was all paws. He had the biggest kitten-paws I have ever seen. Everyone remarked about it. A friend of mine was completely bowled over by Moby’s paws, her eyes wide, “Will you look at the size of those paws!” She was floored, amazed. Several of the cats have Maine Coon characteristics: long hair, feathered bushy tails, thick ruff, large body, long legs — big cats. One of the sweetest things about Maine Coons are the tufts of fur between their toes that makes them look like they’re wearing poofy slippers. Tufted toes = Maine Coon haha. Large paws go with large bodies, Moby’s are bigger than any of the other Coon types here:  Viktor Kapukin and Zorro, who both have the dark and varied stripe patterns, Leo and Ginger Baker (both of whom are golden-furred) and Taj, the beautiful pewter-colored—who is no longer with us.) Clearly there are Maine Coon genes in the colony, Viktor and Zorro could pass as Maine Coons with breeding papers. Some of the others have a Coon/American Shorthair mix of design and then the rest are who they are. We have quite a few Tortoise-shell cats, three are long-haired “pale torties” (light gray, gold, tan and white patches), Bo-Peep, Candi and Turina, and then some dark torties with long hair (Gebo and Tindi), and some dark with short hair (Kukla, Tucci and DiamondGirl and Cookie—who is no longer with us) and Pearl the short-haired pale torty. She’s called PearlyPearl, it’s just something that evolved. Deolinda also was a short-haired pale torty, another unforgettable creature who was adopted a few years ago). There are several who have both torty and tiger markings mixed, like Danika.

Ali and PearlyPearl as kittens

Ali and PearlyPearl as kittens

Deolinda the day before her adoption

Deolinda the day before her adoption

Moby was born to Elsa, the second feral queen and the slipperiest cat I have ever encountered. Elsa could not be caught. She could outsmart and baffle any professional team. As for myself, since there were no intact males inside then, it didn’t seem necessary to rush things with Elsa. Even though I didn’t stop trying. Persuasion takes longer but to me it is much better. She died before ever having been spayed because no one could catch her, even after she came inside the shelter, even in the enclosed rooms, she always got away. One time a team of three pros spent 3 hours trying to corral her and finally gave up. Another time a group of rescue volunteers were similarly frustrated in their efforts to grab her, they even had a large net, but she got away. She just quietly passed 4 years ago in January during the night, curled up in her tent. It was sudden, there were no warnings or prior indication of illness or discomfort. It seems like she died the way she lived, on her own terms. The day before her passing, at feeding time, she ate well, with gusto. She was always among the first to come out for food. Who gets to eat first is a definitive status indicator with feral cats (and domestic cats as well in some cases). She was the reigning queen, and took the benefits of privilege routinely. That next day, I thought it was strange that Elsa didn’t come out at feeding time. She would always pop out at the first whiff of fresh wet food. I called her, but no answer. I put the food down and went to her usual haunt, a fleece kitty tent on top of a cot. She was curled up, I could see her in there. “Elsa, Elsa!” I whispered — no response. I felt a bolt of electricity switch up my shoulders. I reached in and touched her, and her body was cold. My stomach hit the cement floor. Elsa! Oh! It took my breath away. A gray fog come over me, I couldn’t move, I just stood there at first, then I fragilely wrapped her blankets around her, lifted her out of the tent so the others could see her, but it was as if they already knew. Most of them didn’t eat, just Rocky* and Tara (2 of the 6 in the litter Elsa brought inside the first time—another whole chapter about how I got them to come inside without using traps) went in for a nibble. I went upstairs and called for help, I couldn’t do it alone, too devastated. Everything changed in the shelter after the day Elsa died.

Elsa in the wild circa 2003

Elsa in the wild circa 2003

Elsa was a beautiful cat and an amazing kitty-mama, she was gentle yet street-smart and wise. She was graceful (not all of them are—some are burly, maybe even clumsy) and perfectly lovely. I will never forget her soulfulness, intelligence and sweetness. Tink, especially, changed a lot after Elsa’s passing, he was so in love with her. He’s never been the same. Tink will probably have difficulty being adopted, he’s an older cat now with a “skittish on the one hand, bold on the other” personality, but he’s been allowing me to pet him lately, just at the back of his neck. I had to back off a few months ago when in an attempt to pet him, he whipped his claws out and got me in my right thumb. When a few weeks passed after that and he realized I’d stopped trying to pet him, he came forward and asked for it — I complied, gingerly. He’s actually a funny guy, a comic and prankster, but he’s reclusive and passive as well. I have other stories about those subjects, for later. Cat personalities are not that simple:)

There were two kittens in Elsa’s last litter, Moby and his sibling Zippy. They’re almost 5 years old now, and different in physical features (Zippy is not a large cat, he’s a short-haired light gray male—who has astonishingly big round eyes) but they’re very similar in character, except that Zippy is less comfortable with human touch. Moby has grown into the largest cat in the shelter. He weighs 22 pounds and looks like a small bear. He’s also the gentlest—a quiet and meditative cat.

Everything about Moby is sensitive, yet laid back, unassuming. I think of him as a boddhisatva cat materialized on the planet to make us weep with joy. His eyes are globes of deep calm. He’s perpetually unruffled, easy-going and all-accepting. Even though he’s bigger than Julio, whom I wrote about earlier as the most likely candidate for King, his personality would likely have kept him below that lofty post in the wild. He’s relaxed by nature —  and, he seems to understand it’s a waste of energy once indoors to behave as if we all were still outside in the colony, vying for the top spot. There’s plenty aplenty for one and all—Moby “gets” that, he’s chill. Or maybe it’s just because he IS so big. He just wants to relax, it’s work to move that body around. Don’t get the wrong idea, he’s not obese, he’s just BIG. Moby says “no, thank you, no Kingliness for me” and the “thank you” is genuine. Moby is one cat who is always saying “thank you” in one way or another, he’s unspoiled and innocent that way. He has enough heft to beat out any other cat for the prime food spot, but he won’t. In fact, he often retreats at feeding time, politely waiting for the others to eat first. He’ll hesitate to come forward even if a special plate is prepared just for him (we usually feed cafeteria-style, several laden trays)—but Moby is one who needed to be “brought out” and part of that is learning to eat from one’s own dish.  He’ll look around to see if any of the others might want it. Then I have to coax him, and predictably he acts like the heavens just dropped manna on him, he’ll dance around the dish for several turns, interspersed with eye-contact and shin-rubbing, and finally he’ll settle in to eat. And if I stay there and watch over him, he’ll take short breaks and look up at me for a few seconds between bitefuls. There is something very soulful about Moby, a soul model inherited from Elsa, I like to imagine.

I’ve been told by an expert that personality characteristics in cats usually come from the paternal side. I haven’t researched the concept, but it was stated by someone with a PHD. Still, in Moby’s case, he really seems to have inherited Elsa’s gentleness, his gentleness is mellow, an amiable Stradivarius. I don’t know who the father was. It’s difficult to say with feral cats, though I witnessed a number of howling-time matings outside in the colony. For instance, Tindi, when she was still out, in broad daylight openly mating with 2-3 different males. My cohort that day joked “What a hussy!” But it’s not uncommon, and in fact a queen can carry kittens conceived with different males all at the same time, don’t ask me how or why. But it is also true that sometimes when a queen is already pregnant, another dominant male may force mating on her, and usually when that happens the kittens she carries are spontaneously aborted. It is one of nature’s ways of consolidating the aggression genes, aggression is life-saving in the wild. Sad but true.

The result of Tindi’s spree were her last litter born outside. They didn’t survive. She came in a few months later, pregnant again, that litter was born in the closet of my bedroom, all were well, healthy and adopted at 12 weeks, except Tylo. He stayed with us for three years. Tylo is another subject entirely. Much beloved, really someone special. He liked to hang out in the studio with me, one time he got green paint on his paws and did some artwork on the floor.

Portrait of Tylo at 5 months

Portrait of Tylo at 5 months

Even though ASPCA statistics show an astounding increase in feral population, in this colony, survival is not a given. These feral queens have to keep trying over and over just to have one or two survive out of several litters. Of course if even a few survive, there eventually will be more, but the truth is, they most often don’t, especially in winter, and yes, there are kittens born in winter, especially where there is a trustworthy food source, I’ve helped with winter litters a number of times. And then, adult ferals rarely live beyond 5 years. I’ve watched them come and go. Whenever there are feral cats I’ve seen repeatedly for a year or more at the outdoor feeding station, I’m saddened but not surprised when they disappear. There is one female named Bootsie, who’s been a queen in the colony since 2010. A very smart cat, she avoided the traps and kept having kittens. She would come to the feeding station every day like clockwork. I haven’t seen her in two weeks. She has gone missing before and then come back, those disappearances were due to kitten-births, but it would only be for 2-3 days, and then she’d show up, ravenous and ultra-hurried. Sure sign of tiny kittens somewhere nearby in a nesting place. Bootsie may have used up the last of her nine lives. I’ll keep you posted if she shows up again, you never know…..*

Moby is a highly adoptable cat, but his size seems to put people off. I explain that he’s most amiable and easy-going, but prospective families and individuals tend to overlook him, at least so far. But he is a very special cat, and whomever should ever want to adopt him will be scrutinized mercilessly. To make sure he/she/they can give him what he needs:  an even temperament, a good heart, peace and merriment, good food, space for playtime, a window perch and a lot of love. Looking forward to finding someone who is equally as gentle as Moby is, to live happily ever after in a perfect pairing/combining (if there are other cats also in the home) of characters.

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*Rocky is what might be called a “slow” cat. One of the borrowed volunteers from a shelter nearby called him “a pig”, meaning a big slob, not an intelligent creature. I did not appreciate that, a label like that reveals the labeler as having a basically cruel attitude, even if said in jest, which this wasn’t. This was spoken with disgust. Shameful for someone who works with animals to say that under any circumstance. But yes, Rocky is the only cat who will sit in front of a television and stare at it. There is some folklore out there that states cats who watch TV aren’t that smart. It’s all attitude. Some people who watch TV aren’t that smart either, and some are quite smart haha. Any comments or input on the cats-watching-tv-are-not-that-smart concept would be most appreciated.

youngrocky

rocky

Rocky in a reverie

* I saw Bootsie today, two days after I posted this entry. She is VERY pregnant. Wonders never cease.