Rietta, a cat with a problem

Rietta came back after a two-month stint with a rescue organization nearby, and I noticed immediately something was different in her behavior. She had previously been a quiet, self-contained, calm, sweet-natured cat, friendly and easy to handle, and her chances seemed good for adoption, and these folks were willing to help. They had many more opportunities than I had at the time, being a larger, wellness-oriented non-profit organization, and I was overwhelmed with a number of issues. Rietta stayed in two of their three facilities.

Assessing Rietta’s emotional condition upon her return, I thought about the word “catatonic”, but it didn’t quite fit, though in comparison to her previous behavior, it seemed close enough. She was out of it. She found an unlikely roosting area, and never moved from there, rarely even changed position. I put it down to the trauma of three moves (from here to there, from there to another place, from the other place back here) in two months, and the cage confinement she’d become used to while at the shelters. She isolated herself and took up a spot on a rafter high above the window at the front of the garage, against the wall. A ledge only about 5 inches wide jutting out from above the intersection of wall and window, but she made herself a nest, and stayed there. I never saw her anywhere else. After a few days, I wondered if she was even coming down to eat. So I got on a ladder, climbed up, Rietta started to panic, I talked to her softly and slowly rolled a fleece blanket across the beam, folded it and stuffed it in so it would stay, placed a dish of dry food a few feet from the blanket in the middle of the ledge, and a weighted bowl of water a little closer. She went right to the water and drank, and then edged over to the food. I talked to her, but she wouldn’t let me touch her.

It took another day to realize she might not be coming down to use the litter boxes (umm, duh!), and I worried that she might be sick. So I took a capture net, climbed up again, caught her (she did not fight back, or try to run, which seemed strange as well) and carried her without incident upstairs to the “clinic”, a large cage in the main room, with three levels, bed, food and water, and litter box. I use this cage, and another one like it, for separating any catizens with health or behavior issues that might affect the others, and to give them a safe enclosed “cave” where they could be watched through recovery and treated as necessary. Most cats find enclosed spaces, boxes, bags, cages with coverings, or half-coverings at least, comforting – during trapping I learned how a blanket thrown over a trap would usually immediately calm a frantic cat, suddenly captured, unsuspectingly enclosed, terrified, thrashing and howling – with a blanket covering the cage on all four sides, the physical reactions would just stop on a dime.

Sigh. I went back to the ledge to collect her “belongings” and found she’d been using a space on the far side of her little abode on the ledge, as her “litter box” (though to a cat, it might be more like the remotest patch of woodland available). It was a BITCH to clean, just FYI. Why hadn’t I smelled it in that room (the front room of the garage-turned-cathouse)? – you might ask. It had, apparently been going on for some time. Either because that ledge is 14 feet high or I just can’t smell right. I don’t in fact smell the shelter with any appreciable discernment, I have to ask visitors, “where do we rank on a scale of 1-10?”, and most often I get 1 – 3. Which means it’s probably more like a 5, because people are trying to be nice.



Rietta is now 8 years old, and she has monopolized the 3-story kitty apartment upstairs. It isn’t that she’s been in the cage consistently. Usually a month-or-so stint at a time. Then we start the next cycle by opening the cage doors. She may stay in, she may have some visitors, she may go out. One time she was out for two months, was doing well, amazed me in fact, and then something (I don’t know what) triggered inappropriate P&P’s again, that time it was in the living-room, totally unacceptable (it did discolor a 2′ square on the floor). Rietta, back in her palace, seemed glad to be enclosed again, and had no problem using the litter box in the provided area, and there she is again now, and we start all over again for the nth time. But look at her. She is Rietta. Henrietta without the Hen. I still want her to be happier, while I’m seemingly not making progress fast enough, and at 8 years old, everyone says it’s too late, but I won’t give up trying, and maybe I should just start expecting her to change for the better instead of projecting a difficult scenario. “Rietta So Pretty”, I say that to her every time I see her as if it was her first, middle and last name. She knows me for that, at least.


the soul and sowelo

The word “sowelo” comes from the ancient nordic runes, and means “sun”. A Sun God, or Goddess, in this case.

Sowelo was an extraordinary kitty mama, she found her calling, she was born to be a mama, and her personality changed drastically for a time after she was spayed. She experienced the same sort of loss of purpose that Elsa, the original feral queen did, when, after several litters outside in the colony, and one last one inside the shelter, she was spayed, and immediately went into a deep funk. She had adjusted, reluctantly, to living indoors during the weaning, but without her nurturing duties as a focus, she seemed like she didn’t know what to do with herself. This was not the case for other spayed feral females who were treated before coming into reproductive capacities. If they are spayed before their first heat, before they get any older than 6 months, they haven’t learned the behavior pattern yet, it makes a difference in their personalities going forward. But Sowelo was acting stressed, became lethargic, wouldn’t eat. Imagine caring for your beloved little ones for the first twelve weeks of their lives, they are the pride and joy of your existence, then they are suddenly adopted out, they vanish, and you are carted off to a strange cold place you don’t understand, and when you come back, you are a completely different creature. I tried to put myself in her place, and even though it was necessary without any doubt, to keep her from further breeding, I had to consider how the changes in her hormones, instincts, practices would affect her future. This is a feral cat. The transition must be similar to a feral child, like “Wolf-Boy”, being taken and placed in an erudite home and dressed in fine suiting. There are going to be some issues.

sowelo and kittens

sowelo and her kittens

It has been common practice, due to limited funding, expertise, space, resources, etc. to focus the rescue work on performance of spay/neuter surgeries, making sure they take place, and considering the job done, and being grateful for that, because every day rescuers may be facing a boatload of new-found ferals who need the same treatment. While keeping the population from getting even larger, there is a lot more involved than just completing neutering and basic health-care agendas. The routine of having to dismiss the “emotional adjustment” these animals are challenged with, by default, in favor of just getting the main job done, is changing. The wake-up call has rung out, and a departure from the traditional triage consciousness is opening into an area of ideas with broader horizons. We need to see the whole gestalt with clarity. To honor and respect the souls, yes I said souls, of all creatures. Not just the spirit, mind you. The heart and soul.

It was a little rocky at first, but Sowelo came around, while having sublimated her “care-giver” temperament, she now is a frequent groomer of others. Sowelo is always grooming someone. She does so almost automatically, as if she were the nurse-in-charge.

the story of bo-peep

Regina was about to give up, one by one the babies in her litter died during their first week due to flea anemia. I’d been able to help one of them: “Bo-Peep”. A pale tannish gray ball of fluff who had a chance to get bathed (using vet recommended Dawn dish liquid soap and warm water  – safe for ridding fleas from tiny ones) and flea-combed, at an early stage but I was just lucky, I managed to pluck Bo-Peep out of the nest when Regina got up and went to the litter-box, which was very unusual for her, that is, to leave the kittens, for any reason, during those first few days. During that phase I had to bring food and water to her, crawling close enough to place the dish within her reach – or she would not have gotten up to eat. I had to be so careful about approaching the nest. Like walking on rice-paper, trying not to leave any marks, crinkles, or folds.

I cleaned her off, and because Bo-Peep was so young, too young to have any prevention meds, too young to be without the benefits of mother’s milk, I had decided to place her back in the nest, risking re-infestation – I didn’t think I’d be able to keep her alive separately at that point, she was just too tiny. I put her back, and knew that since Regina would not allow herself to be touched or treated, it would be a matter of a day or two until Bo-Peep would have fleas again. But she might get stronger in between, a few hours can make a big difference when kittens are less than a week old. Two out of four of the litter were still there. Regina was doing a good job as a mama, even with the disasters. She was fiercely protective of her ailing brood. It was important to realize that that kind of devotion, with feral cats and unwell kittens, is unusual. I wonder if it is a successful adaptation, or an anomaly. Feral queens are usually more practical, a queen in the wild wouldn’t normally nurture sick kittens beyond the point when she smells or senses something isn’t right. She’d remove or distance a sick kitten allowing it to slip away. Some say it is done to conserve milk for the healthy kittens, not to waste it on one who isn’t healthy.

In a few days Bo-Peep’s other siblings died. Probably the reason Bo-Peep survived, i.e., didn’t become deathly anemic at the time, was that she had been cleaned once previously, got stronger due to just a few hours of uninterrupted warmth and nourishment, a short span where her tiny body could use all it’s energy to thrive, without having to battle loss of blood and blood minerals. And so it went, for another week or so, Regina was an ever-vigilant and protective kitty mother to Bo-Peep, the last survivor, and she literally never left her side. Then, I walked in one morning for cleanup and found Bo-Peep alone, on the food-mat. I thought maybe Regina had put her there, to get her to crawl back to the nest, I’d seen kitty mothers do that before. Still, it was alarming.

I checked back every 1/2 hour and by the third time I checked, it had become clear that I had to intervene. Since Regina had apparently given up on her, I would take over feeding and cleaning. I scooped little one up into a warm towel, brought her upstairs, bathed and combed her, (yes, she was infested again) but it was easier to handle her as she’d grown some. She had opened her eyes by then. I thought there was at least a chance.

I remember blow-drying (lo speed medium heat about 8 inches away) the little kitten after her bath (the towel drying wasn’t fast enough and she was shivering), made a snug bed for her out of a tissue box and lined it with soft white washcloths (especially good for spotting any flea dirt), fed her kitten formula with an eye-dropper, tried to stimulate her for elimination as I’d learned was necessary (kittens that small have not developed enough muscle tone to push waste materials out, they need to be stimulated, which the mother cat does gently with her tongue). It was difficult at first to acquire the right feel for the stimulation, she was so small, and the washcloth was warm and damp, so it was hard to tell if she peed or not, and sometimes the greenish-brown smears of feces were so small it was hard to see them as well, and also, I had to rely on intuition to know when to stop. I just tried to keep my mindset (regarding how much pressure to apply, how wet the towel should be, temperature, duration, etc.) on mimicking a cat mothers tongue. Haha, good luck!  But it got easier every day, and she was beginning to turn around, she was regaining strength and developing an appetite. She gained a few ounces and looked rounder.

The first time she managed to poop on her own was a turning point, I knew then that she would be okay. I really had never raised a kitten starting that young before. But it just seemed that if she’d gotten that far in growth, her chances were good for survival. And she was proudly prancing around her little turd, she was excited and really seemed to be aware of the quantum leap she’d just accomplished. And she got a ton of well-deserved praise from me, as any mother would do!

I had to keep feeding her with a syringe for a while though, and about a week later, she surprised me and started drinking on her own from the bowl I was dipping the syringe into. We were splayed on the floor, Bo-Peep just climbed down my legs, went to the bowl, put her head and her feet in (that was comical) and started slurping. The next day I went out and got “2nd step” kitten cereal formula, it looks like cream of rice. For another week or so I alternated the milk and the gruel, and mixed them as well. The fourth week she got her first taste of chicken kitten food, mixed into the gruel, and she was thrilled about it. Over the next few weeks, Bo-Peep slowly began to eat less and less gruel and more kitten food (though she still had milk as well) and she quickly outgrew her little tissue-box bed. Inside a crate, she went everywhere with me – it was her “home base”, big enough to put a shoebox-top litter box (a kitten that small can’t climb into even the smallest commercial litter box), a blanket, some food and water, some toys and a little wiggle room. She slept in the crate in my room, but during the day she was allowed to explore whatever room I was in.

She made it, she’s almost 3 now, and she’s the most affectionate cat I have ever met, and probably the most playful too.




Bo-Peep at 5 months

Footnote: They could all have been saved if I’d had some help, but at the time I was in a 16-month long waiting line for an opportunity to get aid from an organization that supported spending time and money on feral cats. sigh. They are extremely rare. More on that subject later, but trust me, true feral cats are not the most popular recipients of aid beyond spay neuter and release provisions. And it took two years to get help trapping for those provisions.

It was a most difficult time during those years, the choices were either do it and get it right or fail, and I was teetering on the failing side, trying to figure out how to do the right thing considering health issues, feral natures and the flea infestation, which in retrospect, the odds of having to face that kind of test in a garage-turned-shelter with little experience seem predictable, but at the time it was completely overwhelming.

the eyes have it all


Earlier this day I was deep-cleaning the room where 4-5 of these cats sleep, which entailed moving of furniture, vacuuming, generalized spring cleaning purrmutations, and it created a stir in both Pache and Bo-Peep, while Tindi and Woobie just basically ignored it and hopped under the table, respectively. Tucci (after Stanley) was out in the living-room at the time, as she often is.


Bo-Peep is used to testing boundaries, but she looks to me for advice. Her eyes search my face. She seems placid while attentive. It suddenly strikes me how often I have seen her looking at me that way. It’s like I am her mother, and maybe I am, since I bottle nursed and poopy-wiped her as a tiny kitten after her mother, Regina, abandoned her suddenly after a few weeks of being a doting mama. I video-taped one of our early morning feeding sessions. You can watch it here.


Pache actually was terrified, not so much of the vacuum cleaner, as of the moving of the book case and chest and the box on top of it, her favorite little nest. She dislikes the vacuum, this I have known for some time, but the furniture moving was almost too much for her to bear. Pache is my little diva, she is hypersensitive, beautiful and sweet, but like any diva, she can really lose it sometimes. She is a nervous type of personality, and feels best when everything is just like it is, and everyone is just who they should be. She doesn’t ride the waves of change very easily. When the task was completed, Pache came out and begged attention. Her eyes told me everything. I will never forget what I saw in her eyes and how absolutely clearly it came across: alarm, upset, confusion, a little panic, then when I stopped to comfort her, it began to change to consolation-seeking, relief, slowly her eyes calmed with every stroke and sweet-talk whispered, at first barely accepted, tinged with disbelief, then emerging with something like gratitude or bonding, relaxing a little, then finally joyful again. Whew!