There’s good news, and there’s bad news. But the bad news is good news. Sort of. And the good news, well… it remains to be seen how it will be cataloged when the chapter is completed.
I’ll get the first news out of the way now, because its hard for me to write about. Those of you who know me well know that I love cats. I’ve had at least one cat ever since I’ve been an almost adult, for over 46 years. One of the best cats I’ve ever had is Sushi, the cat I got 11 years ago at the Dane County Humane Society. Sushi is fine, don’t worry, I’m not working up to tell you that she’s died. As a matter of fact, she’s never been happier. She’s just not at Redstart Farm.
Long story short: I’m allergic to cats. A lot. So much so that when I went to the humane society to look for a cat I held prospects up against my face and waited to see if my eyes would redden, my lungs would close and I’d break out into hives. That’s what happened with my first three choices. Sushi was the only cat who didn’t elicit that extreme a response. And so home she came, a young stray who liked to be in the same room as me but hated being touched. We worked on that, and after a few years Sushi became a cuddly lap cat, who hunted the barn religiously but loved nothing more than to be in your lap when inside. She slept in bed with me in winter, on my lap in the evenings and purred and rubbed her way even further into my heart.
As she became increasingly cuddly, my allergies became increasing worse. I will not bore you with what I have done to turn my allergies around. I’ll just say, it’s a lot. (Nor will I even discuss that fact that my allergist says I’m allergic to dogs. “La La La” I say, with my hands covering my ears. But yes, I’m working on that too, but both dogs and cats appear to be just too much for my system.)
The worst consequence of my cat allergy has been asthma, which got so bad it made walking up my own hill difficult unto itself. After years and years of western and adjunctive, alternative medicine, I asked dear friends to take Sushi for a week so that I could have the house deep cleaned to see if it would help my lungs. It helped. Not 100%, but the difference was notable. But here’s what was far more significant: For the first time in years, I wasn’t feeling guilty because I couldn’t let Sushi in the bedroom anymore. I didn’t have to say, ten times a day, “I’m sorry Sushi” as I picked her up and put her out of my lap. I had known it was hard on both Sushi and me, but as is often the case, I didn’t realize how hard it was until things changed.
After a week, I went to my dear friends with some more cat food and to visit Sushi. I’d had almost daily reports, and she clearly was in heaven. She slept in bed with her new humans at night, made friends with the dogs (she loves dogs, and these ones won’t herd her), and carefully, slowly, was allowed outside into a perfect environment for an indoor/outdoor cat. The house is a good third of a mile from any road, and it’s off the road that’s off the road that’s off the road from my house, if that makes any sense. (If it doesn’t, just read “safe from cars.”) There’s woods and fields and comfy laps to cuddle in. They adore her, and she adores them. When I went to visit after a week I knew I should ask them to keep her. Eyes brimming with tears, I began to ask, but Gary, cat lover and already Sushi’s best friend, said “You don’t even have to ask.”
It broke my heart, and it was the right thing to do. Sushi has never been happier. (On my first visit she actually avoided me. The message was clear: Do NOT remove me from this perfect place. Thankfully she no longer worries I’ll move her and comes up to say hi.) Her new humans, Beth and Gary, are the best new family for her imaginable. They move heaven and earth for their animals, and wrap their lives around their pets. Sushi is a very, very lucky cat, and I will always be grateful to Beth and Gary for giving her a new home. Predictably, for days I felt like someone had died. I grieved for Sushi and for my old life, cried a lot, and kept reminding myself how much happier Sushi is now that she can cuddle again. (I thought Willie would be happier too, but he actually became more hyper after Sushi left. Very interesting response, I have to say. He’s settled down now, thanks in part to his acupuncturist.)
The Cycle of Life: Two days after Sushi left I saw a tiny, dark cat run into the barn. I thought it might be the stray male that neighbors have told me about. I’d never seen it before, not surprisingly. Sushi had no interest in opening up the farm as a feline bed and breakfast, and would have aggressively kept other cats out. A month after I saw the little cat I was feeding the sheep on the back side of the barn and saw a fuzzy little tail disappear down a hole. I’ve seen far too many tails lately in the barn: after Sushi left the rodent population seemed to explode. But this tail had hair on it, light orange hair at that. Sure enough, a few hours later a tiny, little kitten face appeared under the barn’s old cement foundation. That night I only saw the one, and had no idea whether it had been dropped off (a common occurrence in the country), moved by mom from another location or what.
The next morning there were two. Then three. And four. And finally, about a week later, I can attest that there appear to be five kittens in total, probably just about 4 weeks old. I’ve never seen all 5 at the same time, but there appears to be 3 oranges, one orange and white, and one calico (Mom is a tortie). I’ve seen mom a few times now; once she almost ran into me as I walked around the corner, her mouth stuffed with a large rodent as she exited the barn.
Here are 2 not very good photos of the kittens. I’d have taken more, but the noise of the shutter bothers them, and I’m working hard to habituate them to my presence. (Look carefully and you’ll see a second orange kitten behind the first in the photo on the right.)
Right now I have a large dog crate set out now beside where you see the kittens, door affixed open, for them to get used to. Soon I’ll start putting food inside. My goal is to use the crate to trap the kittens before they are too old to socialize. Kitten socialization is earlier than dogs, it’s estimated to be about 3 to 7 weeks of age. Alley Cat Allies, an excellent resource for anyone with feral cats or kittens in their yard, recommends keeping kittens with their mother if you possibly can until 6 weeks of age. On the other hand, my Facebook page is full advice to trap them right away, lest they become impossible to socialize to people. It’s all a trade off, one can argue either side, from “Catch them yesterday” to “Wait until they are older.” I’m going one day at a time, balancing that oh-so-important time with their mother and getting them around people before they are too hard to tame.
Daily now I am spending time beside them as they play and explore a few feet from the barn and their hidey hole. Last night I began tossing them chicken — clearly their first introduction to solid food based on their attempts to gum the pieces — and it is already helping them habituate to my approach. This morning I was able to stand within 2 or 3 feet of two of them (the orange ones are the boldest by far) while they watched me attempt to toss chicken pieces close to them. (A video of my lack of aim would go viral. I got 1 out of 5 pieces of chicken anywhere near them. Sigh.)
Soon I’ll start putting food inside the dog crate, in hopes that I can catch them inside eventually. Yes, there are live traps, and lots of folks have used small ones on kittens, but I’d much rather use this method (sit outside dog crate with a string on the door and pull it shut once the kittens are inside) than take the risk of a live trap. The door to a live trap slams shut when an animal stands on a plate in the back of the trap, and the danger with a litter is having one kitten killed by the door as the other kitten sets off the trap. I may end up taking the risk, but only if I have no other choice. Right now I’m going day by day, slowly teaching the kittens that I’m nothing to fear when I appear behind the barn.
It’s doubtful though that they will become tame enough for me to pick up, so I’ll probably have to use some form of safe trap to catch them. Once the kittens are caught I will set out a live trap for mom. If I’m successful (I am already feeding her in the area where I’ll try to trap her, and will set out the trap there tonight for her to get used to), I’ll have her spayed. My wildlife ecologist friends will be displeased to hear that I’ll bring her back to the farm and let her out in the barn. She is excessively shy and wary, and I think she would spend the rest of her life hiding in a basement if someone tried to make her a house pet. And who knows; perhaps she’ll eventually decide that people aren’t monsters after all. I’ll keep you posted on all this; I’ll write a more instructive blog post next week about what to do about lost or feral cats and kittens. But for now, time to go…. gotta go spend some time with the kittens again.
MEANWHILE, ON THE REST OF THE FARM: The primary news is that it is hateful weather. 97 predicted today, humid and still and just plain awful. We haven’t had rain in forever; my pasture is a disaster and I’m feeding hay twice a day now. It’s too hot to work Willie, for the sake of all 3 species. The poor sheep are miserable, I feel so sorry for them. Jim set up a fan in the barn which helps them immensely, and they spend much of the day in a stupor in front of it now. Even sitting outside with the kittens is tough for a border collie like me; it’s not too bad in the evening when it’s shaded, but early in the morning it’s in full sun and I just can’t spend too long there or I wilt. I sit out at night in a chair so I can spend longer beside the kittens, but in the sun I toss them food for approaching, or I turn around and withdraw if they even lean forward toward me. Both should be good reinforcers, so I have hopes I can make a lot of progress in spite of the heat…. Cross your paws for them, they are damnably cute and of course I’ve become attached to them already.
So, here we are: I had to say goodbye to one cat, and now I have 6. Life is one amazing adventure, isn’t it? And what about you… ever tamed or trapped feral kittens?