Monday, April 23, 2007

A House-Warming Present

With all the usual joys of moving, one of the things I determined would be going with me would be the Stray Cat.

Last summer, perhaps even in early June, a small orange tabby appeared on my back porch in town, clearly a feral street-born cat. Naturally, I put food out for it and after it had kept coming back every night, I decided I should probably try rescuing it except I already had three cats in a small, already cramped one-bedroom apartment. Regardless, this cat was immediately named Farrell. And they say when you start naming the strays, the next step is to adopt them.

One night the cat showed up twice, which was unusual: “but I just fed you,” I argued. Still, my cats had not eaten everything of theirs, so I put some ‘left-overs’ out thinking this cat was really really hungry.

The next night, there were TWO cats on my porch, identical, side by side like bookends! Apparently they were from the same litter. As the summer wore on, they would both appear either together or fairly close together and I realized there was a pattern here: the one would head out to the street in front of my house; the other one would always head out through my back yard and across the neighbor’s lot toward 2nd Street. Later, it turned out one was pregnant. So I named her Frieda and was wondering if Farrell was going to be Uncle Dad...

No matter how much I fed them or stayed out on the porch with them while they ate – and they always were waiting for me and ran to the door when I’d come home from work – they never allowed me to get close to them. I had to be at least four feet away from the bowl before they’d come in closer to eat. Thoughts of catching either of them were pretty slim and what was I going to do with TWO cats and a litter of kittens?

Sometime toward the end of July, the female stopped coming around. I assumed Frieda may have gone off to have her litter and she’d be back. At the end of August, she returned but now I was afraid to catch her for fear the kittens, though probably weaned, may not be ready to be on their own. It was over Labor Day weekend that she stopped coming around again: Farrell kept coming by until 10 nights later, then I saw him for the last time. Small as he was, he bushed himself up as much as he could and chased a big black bruiser of a tomcat off the porch. Once chasing him off, he turned right when the tom turned left and just kept going. Never saw him again.

All through the fall and winter, I wondered if they’d ever come back. What is the shelf-life of a city stray cat? I figured someone may have caught them, or they may have been killed by other, larger cats or perhaps the dogs that kids sometimes sic on street-cats (I rescued one stray from that fate in 1985 and had her for 15 years) - or perhaps they had become road-kill on a city street. I preferred thinking the first option.

So it was much to my surprise that a not-quite-as-small orange tabby appeared at my back-door, waiting to be fed, in early March just a week or so after my mother’s funeral. I immediately put food out for it and recognized the scar on its tail, though I couldn’t remember if that was the way I could tell which one was Farrell or which one was Frieda. She came by, often greeting me on my porch, every night when I’d get home.

Well, I figured out it was the female – she was getting a little fuller around the belly, clearly pregnant again. I hadn’t noticed she’d been in heat at any time, so I don’t know when she might have gotten “hit” but she was still the same, wary street-wise cat she’d been before. Sometimes she’d dash in to start eating if I sat beside the food bowl but I still couldn’t touch her: she’d turn and run, even run away without eating if she thought I was trying to catch her. She’d come back minutes later, waiting until I was safely inside before she’d approach the bowl.

Fair enough.

Then, when I started moving out of the apartment and into the house, now that I’d taken my own cats with me, I could try just leaving the kitchen door open in hopes she’d come inside to eat. Every night after work, I’d come into town just to feed her (and do a little sorting and packing) and finally she’d hop up on the step and eat there... then maybe inside as far as the doormat but no farther.

I had caught one stray years ago by making a bread-crumb trail of ground-beef which I’d happened to be cooking at the time, and that cat was so hungry, despite any misgivings, she followed the trail into the center of my kitchen before I shut the door behind her (I had her for 15 years, also).

Frieda, however, turned out not to like ground beef. She became warier and ran off. The next night she wouldn’t even come close to the door and even ran off before I put the food outside for her (the ‘possum got that dishful).

Which brings me to last Friday night – and I had decided (a) maybe I’m not supposed to have this cat even though I’ve now got room for her and (b) I’d wait until Sunday night because I knew with the symphony’s pre-concert talks, I’d probably be too busy with everything else to deal with settling a stray cat into a spare bathroom.

But Friday night, she decided to come in. She hadn’t eaten much the past two nights and it seems like she hardly eats anything anywhere else, for all I know. She looked longingly at the dish. I moved it in further – far enough to be able to shut the door behind her. I was able to block off the hallway out of the kitchen: once the door was closed, she’d be trapped. Then I’d grab her and put her in the carrier, already waiting for her.

It took maybe 20 minutes but she worked up enough courage to come in – first a bite, then a dash back to the porch... then another bite or two, then a retreat to the step. Then she settled down to eat. That’s when I shut the door behind her, hoping I’d be faster than she’d be and that I wouldn’t cut her in half in the process.

Slam! Bam! Gotcha, ma’am!

After she took two laps around the kitchen, during which I was afraid she might start spitting out kittens left and right, I managed to corral her. I have the bite-marks on both index fingers to prove it. Once in the carrier, she was quiet – wide-eyed but quiet, no yowling or crying. In fact, I didn’t hear a peep from her all the way out to the house (which is more than I could say for two of my long-domesticated cats). I stopped to buy some band-aids and peroxide, having already taken some time to wash out the wounds and add a little Neosporin.

But Frieda was now mine. I’m not sure either of us were really ready for this.

I figured I couldn’t put this off any longer because I didn’t know when she’d have the kittens: after they’d be born, I would be long gone from the apartment if she should return. I would never see her again.

I put her in a spare bathroom at the back of the house, out of the way from general traffic and isolated from the other cats. Once out of the carrier, she immediately flew up the wall and hung (by one claw) from the curtains. Then she settled down on the counter-top. She sat in front of the mirror (see picture, left), finding some comfort, apparently, in this other cat. Did she think it was Farrell? She actually allowed me to pet her and I spent a few minutes nuzzling her behind her ears and down her neck, under the chin, down over the back but not too close to the mound of kittens deep inside her. She eventually curled up in the sink (see picture, below). After sitting with her for a while, it was now past 3am and I decided to get some sleep.

When I checked her in the morning, she settled into a corner under the counter. She would not let me pet her – and I have claw-marks to prove it – and I figured, okay, she’s pregnant and she’s very defensive, so I’d just let her alone. It might take a week for her to adapt. Okay, I could handle that.

On Sunday, she’d moved over to a different corner, even more inaccessible: behind the toilet.

The plan was to try catching her again to take her out to the vets, have her checked out, get her what shots she could have, given her condition, and see how the kittens are progressing.

Monday morning, when I woke up around 8:45, I discovered she had no intention of going to the vets. She had just given birth to what will be her last litter of kittens.

She was still licking one off. They were all soaking wet, looked more like hairballs with rat-tails except they were squirming and mewing. I wasn’t sure but I think there were four or five. I decided she needed to be left alone: the more I check in on her, she might feel threatened and destroy them.

About an hour later, I cleaned the litter box (so relieved to discover she actually was using it) and put down fresh water, trying to be quiet and non-aggressive. She was now on her other side and the kittens were out-of-view behind her. There was a pile of dark something-or-other about six inches from her which I took to mean one of them didn’t make it but I wasn’t about to reach back and try taking it away.

Meanwhile, I had called the vets, asked “OMG WHAT NOW?!” and they said basically just let her raise them, I don’t need to do anything except make sure she has lots of food and water and to clean the litter box a couple times a day. And then wait until they're weaned – uhm, maybe 4-6 weeks.

If this had happened at the old apartment, she would’ve been in the only bathroom I have which would be a real disaster trying to accommodate her. Fortunately, I’d gotten her out to the house in time where it won’t be anywhere near the inconvenience. But still...

Out of cat food, I made a quick dash to the store, then just put a can of food down for her, the kittens mewing and crawling around. They were now dried-off and looking more like cats than drowned mice. Earlier, I thought there were two dark ones, one orange tabby like her and another one kind of nondescript but partly hidden. But now I could see three orange tabbies and one so pale it looked like a white kitten with pale orange tabby markings (I decided, okay, if everything works out, I’m keeping that one). And the one I thought was dead may be the dark one I now see nursing from her. By the time I got the camera, I could now see only three (or maybe four) of them.

So there you have it – Frieda Plus Four, Maybe Five. The excitement continues to build!

Dr. Dick

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