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From neglect to colony member: cat companionship in several halting steps

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Itsy and Jumper (and Scott)

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Don't feed the stray cats!" they told me. Who? Everyone, it seemed — neighbors, acquaintances, the mail man. They're feral, an infestation. If you feed them, you're just adding to the problem. But when the small tabby crossed into my yard again to nurse her new kittens, I discovered that what had been a litter of four was now reduced to three: one gray, one white, one brown. I couldn't remember the color of the missing kit, but saw these three clearly, and how tired their small mother seemed. Cursing "idiot," off I went to buy cat food at H-E-B.

When cautioned against continuing to feed the now backyard cats because their alley sauntering excited the chained dogs of the block, I persisted. Gray grew up to be a good birder, like his mother. White, crossed-eyed and dark-voiced as a Siamese, was the most friendly. Little Brown, the sole female, was timid and bullied by her mother, but her brothers doted on her. A thin adult male — a striking match to White, started hanging around the yard and kept an eye on the kittens when their mother was away on forays. Never trustful, she remained aloof, but the kittens approached visitors, looking for treats. They developed a taste for baked chicken, preferring spicy BBQ sauce, but disdained my neighbors' offerings of boiled chicken bones. I made plans, endorsed by my landlords (cat rescuers themselves), to get my colony neutered and vetted, but never got around to it. Last spring, during a late night working jag that lasted a few weeks, I vaguely noticed that the two white cats had not been seen for several days. Off on night journeys, I supposed. But when I finally got home at a decent hour, my neighbors, who shared the yard with me, told me the bad news. First one, then the other white cat had been found in the front yard, bloodied, with a broken neck. The work, it seemed, of a neighbor dog that often escaped his yard to go cat hunting.

When the rains stopped, both Little Brown and her mother were pregnant. Eventually, they both gave birth. For more than two weeks, the mother cat seldom came by, while Little Brown continued to sun herself in the yard. It seemed the older female was off to a hidden lair, but the young one had lost her kittens. But one day she disappeared, then returned with two white kittens in tow. The larger of the two still had one eye closed. I picked each up in turn, while Little Brown looked on patiently. "OK," I told her, "you're finally going to the vet."

When speaking with potential landlords, asking "May I bring three feral cats with me?" most often causes a stunned silence, followed by, "I don't think that's a very good idea." After searching a month for a place to relocate with the cats I finally met with a landowner who followed the usual silence with, "Yes, I took in some strays, too."

A phone number next to my zip code on the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition website led me to Kay Keane, a member of the Animal Welfare Society of Bandera. Her group, which also operates in Boerne and Bexar County, now has four Trap-Neuter-Release trappers. They began in 1998 long before TNR was legal in Texas. "There have been little old ladies doing TNR for decades around here, regardless," she told me recently. She explained that a grant (see "No kill ever?" page 18) through San Antonio Animal Care Services had chosen 14 zip codes in SA to receive funds for feral cat neutering, chosen as target areas because they reported high numbers of cats at ACS intake. Instead of euthanizing stray cats, TNR programs neuter and vaccinate the cat, then return it to its origin to continue holding turf — but without adding to the animal population explosion. I had decided to move to a new neighborhood, but my almost-wild but not-quite domestic cats were still eligible for the project, called the Community Cat Program. Keane would come by with several traps, pick up the cats, then take them to SpaySA, where they would receive a course of treatments, including spay/neuter surgery, vaccines against rabies and distemper, ivermectin for worms, and antibiotic shots. To mark them as TNR cats (and theoretically save them from euthanasia if they happened to fall in to the clutches of ACS animal control officers) their left ear would be cut, or "tipped," a process I balked at, but which hasn't seemed to bother them. Since they were being moved to a new location, Keane suggested I contact Jenny Burgess of Texas Barn Cats.

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