Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Mad Cat Capers

I am not a cat-person.  I don't understand them, I'm allergic to them, and ever since the time my mom decided to start her short-lived career as a persian cat breeder, and she locked up about 20 cats in cages in her garage, I have been turned off to cats.  The litter box is a disgusting invention, and the smell of it permeating a home is way worse than any dog smell, in my opinion.
Mama and her 3 kittens

But when I noticed a black and white cat hanging out in my backyard with her three kittens on Memorial Day, I couldn't help but want to see the babies.  I'd been told by my 93-year-old next door neighbor, Eloise, who had just moved into a retirement home, that she felt bad about leaving a cat behind.  It wasn't her cat, she said.  She'd just been feeding it scraps whenever the kitty would show up on her back porch.  So, I knew this mama cat resting with her babies in the bushes had to be the same cat, and now that Eloise had moved, the mama-cat had transplanted her kittens over to my yard.   I immediately knew I had to help.  I may not like cats, but I love babies of any kind.

Knowing nothing about cat behavior, I  learned quickly that the mama was feral, or a stray that hadn't been touched by a human in a long while.  She hissed any time I got closer than about 4 feet.  Still, she was hungry, so I'd put down a can of cat food and walk away.

In the mornings, I started watching the cats from my bedroom window.  I'd call out "mama" and "meow" to let the mom know I was there.  (I read an article that told me it was a good idea to "meow."  I figured it was worth a shot).  It turned out that mama was more frightened of me than the kittens were.  After just a few days, the first brave soul came out of the bushes to eat wet cat food from my hand.  I couldn't believe his mustache!  I named him Charlie. I didn't know if "Charlie" was a boy or a girl, but the name could work for either sex.  When I snapped my first photo, I could see that Charlie still had blue-ish eyes which meant the kittens were around 7-8 weeks old.

Charlie Chaplin, at 8 weeks old
From the moment I had two of the kittens eating out of my hand, I became obsessed with them, but I had no intention of bringing them into our home.  With three large dogs, we have our house full.  I didn't want to have to train the dogs not to kill the cats, and then there's that litter-box repulsion.  So, I started spending about a half-hour each morning and evening in the backyard with the cats (before walking the dogs out our front door).  I thought maybe I could train the kittens to get used to human contact, so that possibly I could find someone to adopt them.  It got to where I could pet two of the kittens while they ate, and I was almost able to pick them up (before they'd jump out of my hands).  The third kitten usually hung back with her mother; she was much smaller than the other two, and much more skiddish.

After three weeks of positive interaction with the kittens, just as one of the kittens was beginning to play with me, I came home that evening and all 4 cats were gone.  I was heartsick (but also a little relieved because I knew I couldn't keep them!).  My friend told me it was for the best.  If I wasn't going to bring them into my house and tame them, it was best for them to learn their feral ways from their mother so that they could survive in the wild.  Nonetheless, I was worried sick about them, and concerned that the mom could get pregnant again while she was out roaming the 'hood.  I spent a week searching and asking neighbors if they'd seen the kitties, and then I looked out my window one morning and they were back!  They all ran up the stairs to my back porch crying for food, and I wondered where in the hell had they gone, and why??  

Rudolph Valentino,  starting to play
It became clear after it happened several times that the mom was taking her kittens away from me so that they wouldn't have human interaction.  After another couple weeks of on-again, off-again appearances, I found out where the cats were living on the off days.  I spotted them four houses down, hiding under a car about 11:00 p.m. one night.  The next morning, I asked those neighbors if they had seen the cats and if they were feeding them.  They told me yes, they had been feeding the mother cat, that she'd given birth in their yard, then she had taken her kittens away but had recently brought them back!  I was stunned.  Mama Cat had another family!  I felt cheated on.  Those neighbors said they'd been feeding the mother cat occasionally for years, and that they'd watched several litters come and go.  

Meanwhile, I had been reading up on feral cats, and how quickly they can multiply.  I had already contacted "Nashville Community Pets," a feral cat organization who could help me get the cats fixed.  I borrowed traps, I was ready to catch the cats, but they had moved down the street!  I asked the neighbor if she was willing to trap and neuter the cats.  She said she didn't know how and was afraid to try.  So, I convinced her to stop feeding the cats, so they'd come back down to my house for food.  I'd trap them, and take get them to get fixed.  Once they were fixed, they could move back down to her house, but at least they wouldn't procreate and have more generations living on the streets.

My plan in place, I watched day and night for the cats to return.  With my flashlight, and my cans of cat food, I'd walk four houses down at midnight and meow, and one-by-one the kittens would meow back, then they'd creep out from under a car, run along some bushes to the edge of the neighbor's property where I laid in wait with the food.  This went on for several nights.  I even recruited my sister to help me when she visited in July.  They'd come crying to me for the food, but they wouldn't come back to my house.  

I was discouraged, and the feral cat organization wanted their traps back.  Then, after 10 weeks, when I was on the brink of giving up, I set the traps in my backyard, hoping I'd get lucky.  The kittens decided to come back at just the right time, and they walked right into the traps.  Then the mama came back and she walked right into a trap too.  I also caught a possum, but I let him go.  Unbelievably simple.  All four cats were fixed one month ago today.  The mama was indeed pregnant again, so she was fixed just in time.   

After they recovered in cages in my basement, I released them all, and the mother quickly ran away.  The kittens apparently decided to stay.  Or else the mom abandoned them.  I don't know.  But now I have three semi-feral, five to six-month old kittens living in my back yard, sleeping in my carport, eating square meals, playing with me and coming when I "meow."  I still can't pick them up, but they are warming up to me!  Rudy caught his first mouse.  Lillian finally let me pet her (for a moment) this morning.  And Charlie will meow like a Banshee when he's hungry.  Mama has shown up  a couple of times for a free meal, but she hisses and bats at her kittens and won't let any of us near her.  

I still don't understand cats, but spending time with them is opening my heart and mind--I just might be a cat-person, after all.

Rudolph Valentino (Rudy), at 5 months
Lillian Gish, at 5 monhs
Charlie, at 5 months

Monday, February 11, 2013

Breathing Deep

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.  Don't resist them--that only creates sorrow.  Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like."       --Lao Tzu
I woke up last Sunday morning in Carefree, Arizona, feeling like the name of the town suggests.  While everyone else at the wellness retreat I was attending slept, I journaled, writing down my positive thoughts about the workshop we had on Saturday, which was all about how a breathing practice can change one's physiology, creating balance in the heart and mind.  I went for a 40 minute contemplative walk taking deep breaths and snapping photos of the cacti, the jack rabbits and the golf course.  I was remembering my dad, who died three years ago to the day--but I didn't feel much sadness, just fond memories.  I felt peaceful and connected to the Universe. After my walk when I looked in the mirror, I noticed how calm and happy I felt.

Then I called Steve.  Steve was holding down the fort at home the best that he could, while grieving the unexpected death of Eric, one of his best friends, since Friday.  Spike, our 11 year old great dane mix, had been sick with a very high temperature a few days before I left; but she'd been treated by the vet and her condition was stabilized, so Steve and I thought it was okay for me to leave town.  

"Spike is lethargic again, and she wouldn't eat her dinner last night," Steve said.  I took several deep breaths, recalling an exercise from Saturday, to help me stay calm.  "You're going to need to take her temperature," I said.  (Steve had told me before I left that he wouldn't take Spike's rectal temperature-the thought of it grossed him out, or scared him, or something).  "You're going to have to take her temperature," I said, without emotion--(while feeling a freaked-out fearful anxiety welling up in my chest). 

Slowly and methodically, between deep breaths, I walked Steve through the process of how to take a rectal temperature: where to find our digital thermometer, how to turn it on, where to find the sanitary probe covers, and how to cover the thermometer tip, how to lubricate it, how to insert it, step by step, over the phone, while I sat in the arizona sun by the pool, acutely aware of my breathing.

Spike's temperature was 105.  I knew this was dangerously high, as we'd already been through this with the vet last week.  So, I coached Steve all day Sunday while he iced Spike down and covered her with wet, ice cold towels that he changed every 15 minutes.  I called Steve every half hour for a temperature update.   While Steve stayed by Spike's side, I worried from 1,700 miles away.  And I started thinking about the inevitable: Spike is going to die.  Just like my dad.  Just like Steve's friend Eric.  Just like we all will.  I went from bliss to grief in a matter of seconds and I kept breathing.  I felt raw, just like I felt from the moment my dad was diagnosed with cancer, until he died four months later.

Steve and Spike were both troopers.  Steve saw Spike through two hellish days until I came home.  And Spike could teach me a lot about grace and dignity (and breathing deep).  She has always been a regal girl.  She was calm and agreeable while Steve took her temps and kept the ice coming.  She gently responded as the veterinarians probed, ran tests, took shots and x-rays, and gave her an ice cold bath.   She apparently has some mysterious disease that is incurable, and the vet says that if we can keep her stable with steroids, "to consider it a win."   

Spike, in her younger days

Today, one week later, Spike is feeling somewhat like her old (younger) self--I know this because she wanted to hang out in the front yard this morning and while I was on the phone she managed to escape and she took Little Shortie with her!  Lily, our great pyrenees,  came to the door to let me know her friends had gone AWOL.  I felt my panic rising, as I searched for the two of them and I went to the worse-case scenario in my mind.  I was breathing deeply when I spotted Spike and Shortie in our back yard (somehow they'd wiggled through a hole in the fence), visiting with a neighbor's pitbull (who had jumped his own fence and was in our backyard too).  Spike was enjoying the moment.  I went from panic to gratitude in a split second.  Breathing Deep.