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 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.

regina

Regina

bopeep2

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!

 

Pache

Pache

Bo-Peep

Bo-Peep