IN PRAISE OF FERALS
I had been asked by a friend if I knew of any kittens looking for homes. Since it was November there were not many about and I personally knew of none.
‘Have you tried the local rescue?’ I asked.
‘Yes, they’ve got nothing but they’re going to let me know if anything comes in.’
‘I’ll phone my local branch of the CPL if you like,’ I said.
I breed Siamese and Oriental cats. I also run a Feline Advisory Bureau approved boarding cattery. Since all the cats that I deal with are of the much pampered variety I regularly collect and raise what little I can for the Chelmsford CPL. I had also had dealings with them due to a large feral tom who had until recently resided in my garden. Panda, as we called him, first came to our attention about 3 years ago. I think he’d been around before, but it was at this point that he became a nuisance and we realised that he was feral. One of our queens was calling [for a mate] and he found her irresistible. Every morning when we opened the front door we would be greeted with the aroma of tomcat and periodically throughout the day he would circumnavigate the house renewing his scent. Eventually the inevitable happened and Tabitha, our spotted Oriental ‘tart’ managed to escape, later producing some very beautiful black and white kittens - but that’s another story.
Every evening we feed the foxes and badgers on the lawn and it was about this time that we noticed Panda was waiting for the food to be put out every evening and tucking in ravenously. After that I bought him his own 2 bowls and twice a day I would put food down for him. He always remained wild but would wait by the cattery door at mealtirnes every day. We consulted our local CPL warden who advised us and offered the loan of a humane trap in order to catch him and have him neutered. We tried and tried and tried - without success. He was far to clever to walk into any trap, no matter how tempting the food. Finally we borrowed a dog trap from the local Dog Warden and being so much larger he eventually walked in and bang) I had him. The whole trap was loaded into the back of a Land Rover and off we went to the vets where he was neutered, de-fleaed, wormed, treated for ear mites and given antibiotics for his many abscesses. Following this, he continued to live on our premises, we even had a special kennel built to keep him warm and dry. During the summer months he would doze in the sun unless approached when he would dart off into the thickest part of the spinney which comprises part of our somewhat wild garden.
Despite the absence of physical contact we became very fond of Panda. We looked out for him every day and if he looked in need of veterinary attention a trap would once more be borrowed and a visit ‘arranged’, so it was with great sadness that we noticed his absence in early September last year. I asked all the neighbours if they had seen him, we looked in all the surrounding woodland, but there was no sign. I can only imagine that he is dead, by whatever means, as there was no reason for him to move on and he certainly wasn’t tame enough to have been taken in by anybody. We missed him and so did our clients, so many of them enquired about Panda every time they visited. Many had never actually seen him but were aware of his presence by the kennel and feed bowls close to the cattery office door. So, since the staff at the CPL knew of Panda, when I phoned to ask about kittens we naturally got onto the subject of his disappearance.
‘I was thinking about a replacement’ I said, just in passing. Lesson - never say anything about homing a cat ‘in passing’ to the Warden of a CPL shelter.
‘We’ve got a feral waiting to come in that needs placing’
‘Oh. I'd like to think about it before I commit myself.’
‘I don’t suppose you fancy two. We’ve got 2 gorgeous kittens of about 6 months old - really pretty- but completely wild. They’ve been neutered and they’re going to have to go back to where they came from. Unfortunately there’s no-one to look after them. They’ll just have to fend for themselves.’
‘I’ll give it some thought and maybe come and have a look at them.’
I put down the phone and told Carolyn, my assistant, about my conversation.
‘Let’s go now,’ she said.
‘No. I really need to think this over.’
‘Why? You’ve got the land, the kennel, plenty of food and there is always someone here 365 days a year. What is there to think about?’
Fifteen minutes later I was standing in a pen looking at 2 adorable but very frightened kittens, one, the male, was pure black and the other, a female, black and white. I had to admit they were lovely. Far from being scrawny or unkempt, the white on the female was spotless, their coats looked thick and luxurious and they were positively chubby. My heart was lost.
OK’ I said, I'll get a chalet ready and come back on Friday to pick them up.’
It was essential that they be kept confined to the premises for 3 weeks so that they knew that they would get regular meals and therefore stay around once set free. One of the chalets in the cattery was prepared for them, the largest we had, in order for them not to feel too confined, on the end of a row next to the woods so that they could see their future playground, and as far away as possible from any other ‘guests’. There was a limit of 3 weeks on their confinement as Christmas was fast approaching and we would need the accommodation. We left the chalet unheated so as not to ‘soften them up’ but provided warm bedding that would eventually be transferred to the L kennel so that it would be then be familiar to them. On the Friday, Charlie and Chloe were presented to us in 2 wire baskets.
‘Mind your hands.’ We soon understood why as they hissed, spat and lashed out at us. On being set free in the chalet they shot up the wire of the run to the top and flattened themselves against it as though they had been ironed on, their eyes like saucers.
They spent most of the 3 weeks together on the shelf of the run or running for cover should anyone venture too close - but they did enjoy their food. Everything presented was eaten with relish though not whilst we were present. Come the day of their release we left them unfed as I felt they would be more likely to stay within the if vicinity of a food source if hungry. Unfortunately I had no ideas of how to go about catching them in order to set Is them free in the garden. After several unsuccessful attempts I admitted defeat and called the CPL warden who arrived later that afternoon and put me to shame. She had obviously done this sort of thing before!
They were set free next to the kennel which had been lined with the bedding that was already familiar to Is them and where we placed 2 bowls of food. At the moment of freedom they darted into the undergrowth and were gone. I was warned that I might not see them for a day or two as they were obviously very frightened and in the back of our minds was the possibility that we might never see them again. Later that day the food bowls were found empty but that could have been our neighbours’ cats. We refilled them at tea time and called the kittens to no avail - but later that evening the security lighting in the back garden was suddenly activated and there, playing with the leaves on the lawn, were the kittens. At about 10.30 pm when we went to check the cats in the cattery, as we approached the office, the 2 kittens sprang out of the kennel and disappeared into the darkness. Again the food was gone and this time I was satisfied that it had been eaten by those for whom it was intended. This was a great relief; not only were they eating but they had also discovered their shelter and were using it.
Since then, they’ve been nothing but a joy. They are often seen playing in the garden, amongst the leaves or up in the trees, even in our garage if the door is left open. They will even play with small toys dangled on string from upstairs windows. During wet weather they often choose to sit in our porch using our large stoneware pots as litter trays! On warm sunny days they sunbathe on the grass. Often they play in the trees or thunder across the roof of the cattery. But, no matter where they are, twice a day I call their names and they come running for their food. Very often Chloe is sitting waiting for me - she hisses when I approach with the bowls but trusts me enough to remain on the roof of the kennel. There is no doubt that these are happy cats. When they look in through the glass of our front door or into the catterv at the guests in their heated chalets there is no envy. The complete transformation seen when they were given their freedom is enough to convince me that a feral cat should be left to live a life of freedom. Ours have the advantage of regular meals, a warm shelter and veterinary treatment should they need it. What more could they want?
I am not suggesting for one moment that the average household pet would be happy with this arrangement. My own cats were born into sheer luxury and expect it as a matter of right but for those born in the wild it is an extremely satisfactory existence. Being breeding queens my own cats do not have access to the garden and they don’t miss what they’ve never had, but we now get enormous pleasure from seeing our garden so enjoyed and well utilised by Charlie and Chloe. To anyone who has a large garden and can provide constant care I would say, please think about adopting a feral. They’re more rewarding than you think. (Incidentally, I never did find a kitten for my friend!)
It is now nearly two years since we became aware that a small and very nervous black cat was raiding our vegetable bucket, almost daily, and to our great surprise was actually eating carrots, cucumbers and even lettuce leaves. We found that he or she was living among old boxes and general builders’ rubbish behind the shop next door, Enquiries indicated that there was no-one admitting to ownership, and it soon became apparent that this poor little mite was not only hungry, but also very pregnant. We then started to put out food, which disappeared with great speed and regularity. We could hardly believe that this small cat could consume such large quantities, and it was then that we discovered that there were brothers and sisters too; hungry, very wild and with females in various stages of pregnancy. Oh dear, what had we let ourselves in for?Fortunately, at this stage we were approached by Lesley "The lady from the Cats Protection" who was already aware of this little colony, and was endeavouring to catch them in order to have them "seen to". Lesley’s love for cats is closely matched by her ability to delegate and I soon found myself in possession of a large cage trap, which after a few modification and TLC started to catch cats. Unfortunately it cannot distinguish between ferals and domestic moggies, but after the release of a few, wearing collars and puzzled expressions, plus a couple of indignant hedgehogs, we finally caught "our lot" who were then suitably dealt with.
We then learned that four of these cats would now have to be returned to what was questionably their original home. It had never been our intention to become cat owners, and in any case it was probably too late for them to become domesticated or even housetrained, but we did have a soft spot for the little "puss" who we had first fed some months before, and who had now after decent food and care, become quite bonny, albeit much smaller than her three companions. We therefore decided that we would endeavour to provide in our quite large garden, some suitable shelter for their comfort at night and during the winter. My bright idea was to obtain a dog kennel, and to replace the access hole with a cat flap. In the event the supplier, a garden shed maker at Danbury, when he heard what we had in mind exerted his entrepreneurial skills and convinced me that what we really wanted was a "Wendy House", which after all, if as was very likely, the cats moved off in the future to pastures new, we would at least still have a tool shed. So, we went out to buy a dog kennel for a cat, and came away with a Wendy House! There must be a certain logic to this somewhere!!
Suitably sited and erected, sealed, ventilated, and heated the "Moggie Motel" stood, awaiting its first tenant, a small feral who had no idea of how to use a cat flap, and who would certainly not allow me close enough to touch her. Fortunately or unfortunately, dependent on how you look at it, one of the other three who had been returned next door, was a large black ex-Tom, who had no such inhibitions and very quickly took up residence, and showed not only our little friend how to do it, but also introduced his two other brethren, and you don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that we now have four furry lodgers, who after nearly a year, show no signs of wanting to emigrate.
This family of four, now have separate bed, which they share very happily, have also been given names. The large all-black ex-Tom is Big Frank, the small blacks are Brownie (because she is not jet black) and Blackie, who certainly is black. None of these three have any white on their coats at all. The third is a quite elegant Tabby, who is slightly aloof from the rest, and who has been away on a couple of occasions for some 36 hours but so far always seems to return and this one we have named Tiger.
One thing we have found is that they have become very territorial, and where we used to often see visiting cats from round and about, these days we hardly ever have feline visitors, and those that do look in are usually given short shrift by Big Frank, who seems to have taken on the role of father to the family.As I mentioned earlier it was never our intention to become cat owners, and having now had experience of these four furry friends, I don’t think that they would want to be owned by anyone, and we are content to regard ourselves as nothing more than their guardians with a watching brief, and that in itself is very satisfying.