Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Our Very Own Backyard Prison Gang

Clockwise from top left: Elvis Vegas(m), Junior(f), and Marcel(m) with their gangland eartips

Our city is chock full of homeless cats, who make more homeless cats. And the offspring are truly wild creatures, who multiply like rabbits. I was shocked to learn a pair of breeding cats, which can have two or more litters per year, can exponentially produce 420,000 offspring over a seven-year period.

When we moved to this neighborhood 3 years ago, I noticed four wild cats--two gray, and two tabbies--hanging out in our unlockable garage. They liked our yard, but didn't like us, and left plenty of stinky pee on the exterior walls to let us know.

One morning we went to get in the car and there was a tabby sleeping in it! He bolted, but we realized he had probably been in the car for at least 24 hours--since my husband had unloaded groceries--and even gone on a beer run with my husband. We figured he was reaching out.

I noticed he was missing half of his left ear, so I called him Vincent. When we started feeding him, word got out. Another cat, Marcel, also had part of his ear missing. I wondered if this was more than a battle scar, and decided to do some research.

I learned that eartipping is the universal signal for a neutered feral cat. It makes sense--the marking is permanent, not harmful, and very visible. You can maybe get close enought to a male to see if he is fixed, but not a female. It's way better then putting her through the trauma of trapping and anesthesia, only to learn that the cat is already sterilized.

We realized quickly that there were three other regulars--the other tabby (Angus), the other gray (Rrose), and a tiny kitten (Junior) who did not have their ears tipped. What's more, Rrosie appeared to be pregnant. So off to a Neighborhood Cats class I went. I learned that the females have it worst, often kept away from food by territorial males, and since all their calories go to feed their young, they basically starve. I also learned that if a cat looks pregnant from ten feet away, she is probably days away from delivery. Sure enough, Rrose disappeared, to some secret spot to have her babies.

Meanwhile, Angus became friendly. Even needy, following the common pattern of lower-echelon ferals when they figure out that people are safer than other cats. He had a big abscess on his abdomen, which ruptured, looked like a lemon-sized hole in his belly. So he came inside, got neutered and tested for feline leukemia, and became our cute little cross-eyed buddy. The abscess healed, and we decided to keep him inside.

And then three adorable round white-and-gray kittens started following their skinny mother Rrose to the backyard food bowl. We named them Elvis, collectively, because it was impossible to tell them apart. They seemed to be surviving winter OK, but I started having nightmares about our backyard overrun with hundreds of cats and decided to get cracking. When the kittens were about 5 months old, we borrowed traps and managed to catch all Elvises, Rrose (now pregnant again), and Junior. We cared for them, in covered traps, in our basement, making sure they were healthy enough for surgery. Everybody went to the ASPCA Cares mobile clinic and came home without parts. (And yes--they do abort the unborn in the process. So this is a choice every feral colony caretaker has to make. I wasn't 100% sure about it at the time, but Rrose is now thriving, so I think I made the right choice, after seeing how skinny motherhood made her.)

We kept them in the traps for a couple days after surgery, then let them go in the yard, like Born Free. The whole process, from trapping to release, took about 10 days.

The unanticipated benefit (other than less smell, less fighting, and less offspring) is that neutered, they are much more friendly with us. Junior likes a good scratch now, and Rrose and her surviving two kittens (one lost to a car) are inching closer to our hands. Everyone likes playing with string and twigs. Maybe they will eventually be adoption candidates. In the meantime, we doing our best to look after their nutrition and safety.

And Vince is still the patriarch and ambassador. He cuddles with us, but also guards the yard. Occasionally he will go all the way around the block when with us when we walk the dog, which amuses neighbors. "Hey...is that your cat?" "No, just a friend, who likes to go on walks with us."

We have seen no new kittens this summer (knock wood). The neighbors probably think we are crazy for feeding them but who can resist when they look in the back window like that? Occasionally we throw catnip parties and Rrose lets her true colors show, rolling in the leaves, ecstatic dancing. She is a true flower child.



Blogger Sara said...

I salute you on your success (I'll knock wood too) with your feral kitties! (My project didn't go as far...but perhaps it was for the best since I wouldn't have been around to maintain the group after TNR...)

8:48 PM  
Blogger girlbomb said...

Wow. Homeless cats are lucky to have humans like you and Hubby in their lives. Thanks, on behalf of cat lovers like me, for all your work.

11:55 AM  

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