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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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When outdoor cats aren't ready to domesticate, but have no colony to return to, Texas Barn Cats places them in barns as working cats, where they earn their keep by keeping the vermin population in check. Part of the process involves keeping the cat in a kennel (a large cage) for two weeks so they can start establishing their territory while other animals have a chance to look at the them, smell, and generally get used to the new resident. Though she doesn't usually provide people not using her service with kennels, Burgess offered to loan me one. Burgess is also active with the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, and teaches TNR classes to new volunteers weekly at the Thousand Oaks Library. Born in England, Burgess finds attitudes towards cats in Texas not always as pleasant as the English habit, which accepts cats as part of the indoor household while allowing them to go in and out of doors as they wish. Asking me about my relationship with the cats, I confessed that though the kittens liked to be handled, their mother preferred to keep a few feet off. Reminding me of the dangers of dogs, which I knew all too well, Burgess asked me to consider giving indoor life a try for the cats until I could arrange safe outdoor perches, or even better, a fence or other enclosure.

Two days after the three cats — and one bonus, the old mother cat — had been picked up and had their surgeries, my three were brought over to my new apartment, while the older cat was returned to her own seldom seen kittens, who had avoided detection. Gray had been missing for some days, so he escaped a good vetting, too. Though part of the original colony, the older cat and Gray left the backyard when Little Brown brought up her litter, though they had sometimes visited. Is someone feeding them? Are they OK? I don't know.

Following protocol, I kept my three cats in their kennel for the first few days, though continuing to pick up and play with the two kittens several times a day. They have ridiculous names: the male is Jumper, the female, Itsy. Little Brown cowered in the kennel, but on the third day, left to explore the one room I allowed them. Most time was spent back in the kennel, but all three made their opinions known by much comment. Over the days, all three were given the entire apartment to wander about. The kittens resumed their daily games of Greco-Roman wrestling, adding new skills of wood floor sliding to their athletic routines. At first inquisitive, after two weeks Little Brown found the most hard to find hiding places in the apartment, where she would spend most of her time in silence. I started to think that perhaps she would not make the transition, and that the whole group should get on with acclimating themselves as TNR cats in a new location, where they would be fed as before, but live outside all the time.

Then the thunder and lightening struck last weekend. I stayed up with the kittens, who decided to play with balls when they weren't hiding in corners. Sometime during the night, I kicked a ball into the dining room, and Little Brown batted it back at me. It was the first time I had ever seen her play (her own dam was a severe mother). The next two days, instead of hiding when I came in, she instead left her place, and as she had when we all lived in that other place, looked straight at me and talked and talked.

Now, I find the kittens sleeping on the corner of my bed, and while their mother hasn't made that jump yet, she is tucked nearby in her own cat dreams. Adopting even quasi-feral cats isn't for the faint of heart. Outdoor cats are finicky clean, and mine won't tolerate litter box smells. So prepare a large space, and use the mop often. They need privacy, but much interaction, too. And remember, it's up to them to decide whether or not to adopt you into their colony.

For more information contact The San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition at sanatonioferalcats.org.

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