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.


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 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!