A Very Purrculiar Practice: Kitten Wranglers of the Wild Frontier
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

Kittens, kittens, they come in from everywhere during the height of the kitten season. There used to be a well-defined kitten season between April and September, but nowadays it's a year round thing so the April-September period has been re-designated 'the height of the kitten season' when they simply arrive in greater numbers.

They've come in with travellers who've turned up in a convoy of caravans; they've arrived in the hands of a huge sobbing construction worker who had unearthed a mother and kittens and managed to halt his JCB in time to save two tiny kittens from the clawed scoop of his JCB, but alas not the mum or the third kitten. In the latter case it took half a box of Kleenex before we managed to persuade the huge and very macho JCB driver that he had at least saved two of the kittens which could be homed as pets and that the other two had met mercifully swift ends and not suffered. The mother cat, we explained, would have been feral and he would not have been able to handle her even if he had cornered her, or worse, the whole family might have been buried alive if not for his swift reflexes - small consolation for a huge man who admitted to swerving his flatbed truck to avoid hedgehogs, but the only consolation we could offer through our own handfuls of Kleenex.

At least he left us knowing that he had done his best and brought us the kittens while they were tameable. Feral-wrangling is, after all, a specialist job. And of course, cat shelter workers are the specialists whose job it is to round up feral kittens at no little risk to themselves as Yvonne found out when she first accompanied me on a feral kitten gathering expedition.

To be honest neither Yvonne nor I had much experience of kitten-wrangling when we were called out to collect a litter of spitty kittens which a terrier had nosed out from their nest. We were assured that the kittens had been secured in a container and set off with high hopes of picking up a grocery box fastened with twine or masking tape. Assured that the kittens were tiny and not very wild we didn't even pack a pair of gauntlets.

"They're in the living room," said our host when we turned up.

In the middle of the sitting room was a 30" tall plastic drum at the bottom of which sat three small and very confused five week old kittens. Confused they might have been, but fishing them out of the drum with bare hands was not a task for novice feral-wranglers. The three of them were as lively as crickets, had more sharp bits than a cactus and were as slippery as eels despite being confined at the bottom of a big plastic bucket. Finally all three had been deposited in a wire basket and we were about to retreat to the safety of Yvonne's Citroen when the chap told us of 'the other kitten'.

"There's a mum and kitten living in my neighbour's shed, can you pick that one up as well?"

"No problem," we told him despite sinking hearts, "Lead on!"

His neighbour was a lady in her eighties whose shed was a rickety affair largely held together by the weight of dead lawnmowers, an ancient garden roller and several rolls of room-sized carpet remnants in various stages of decay. It was easy to see how a feral kitten could have gotten into the shed since the bottom board was more hole than wood. As we approached, an extremely wild female cat shot out from the shed and an equally wild eight week old kitten shot into it.

"I'm afraid we'll have to remove the carpets and your lawnmowers," I told the old dear.

"What was that?" she asked, "Only I didn't have my hearing aid turned on."

"We'll have to remove the carpets and stuff so we can get into the shed," I said in a louder voice.

"No need to shout, it's turned on now," she beamed, "Yes you can remove my bits and pieces, but I hope you don't mind that I can't help you. I'll go and make a nice cup of tea," she said as she bustled back into the house.

"I'm not going to be much good either," said her neighbour apologetically, "I'm signed off on the sick with my back," and he clasped a hand to his lower spine to illustrate the point.

As Yvonne and I heaved the rusting carcasses of garden equipment out of the shed, the feral kitten raced around hissing like a kettle and finally settling for spitting furiously at us from the cover of a pile of wood faggots (left there since the days before the gas board had reached the place a couple of decades earlier). Mother cat had obviously abandoned him to his fate and not knowing where else to go he was sitting tight for the time being, having decided that humans could not possibly get into his tiny bolt-hole.

"He keeps going in and out of that hole in the corner," I panted to Yvonne, "You move that bit of kindling and I'll grab him as he shoots out."

The kitten duly shot out and straight between my ankles, leaving a serrated sock and four neat red lines in his wake. He darted out of the shed through a convenient ventilation hole between an old piece of double glazing and a wheel-less bicycle frame. As I stepped outside to take stock of my injuries, the little beggar dived back in again.

"I'll block that hole and we can try again," Yvonne said, electing me kitten-wrangler of the moment.

This time, he shot out through a hole on the other side of the shed, leaving me sprawled flat in his wake with kick-marks on my wrist from where I'd nearly hung onto him and face down in a pile of ancient dried chicken manure.

"We'd better block that hole as well," I said, brushing cobwebs from my sweatshirt.

Wily feral kitten shot back into the relative safety of the kindling pile, his little green eyes glinting evilly at us as he awaited the bell for seconds out round three. This time, however, Homo sapiens was determined to triumph by fair means or foul. All available holes were blocked by rolls of carpet and the garden roller. The shed's owner popped out to see how we were getting on.

"You will put that back afterwards, won't you," she said in consternation.

I re-entered the confines of the shed with trepidation and Yvonne pushed the door to behind me. The only light came from a cracked and cobweb- shrouded window; it was reflected from two squinting eyes from kindling pile corner. As I reached for a bundle of kindling, the kitten shot towards the gap then skidded to a halt when it found the gap was no longer there. In that moment I grabbed it. Unfortunately, when handling high-velocity felines, the textbook method of scruff-and-bum remains firmly in the textbook - you grab whatever bit of feral kitten you can find and hang on for dear life like an Australian crocodile-wrestler. I grabbed the protesting feral round the middle and yelled for the basket.

Cats are attached to their fur at only six points - their head, their tail and their four needle-tipped paws. This allows them to turn right round in your hand and do the maximum amount of damage to human flesh by raking it with those four very well armed feet. By eight weeks, kittens have small, but excruciatingly sharp claws capable of making very painful flesh wounds at astonishingly short intervals between swipes. I was hanging onto a very fierce animated cactus who was making short work of shredding my hand and forearm while providing a running commentary on its work in piercing tones.

"Yvonne, where's that effing basket!" I squealed, causing the kitten to redouble its efforts. Strips of flesh were hanging from my hand like bandages hanging from a horror film mummy.

Yvonne opened the basket just enough for me to shove my hand, complete with attached kitten, into it and not release the three other occupants. At that point, the kitten decided it did not want to be detached from my hand and clung on with all four feet and needle-teeth. Shaking it just made it hang on harder and alerted the other three kittens to the escape route which the fierce little creature was holding open like a wriggling furry doorstop. Eventually I scraped it off by closing the lid as far as possible and pulling my hand free. Rather a lot of skin was left behind, attached to the evil grinning feral kitten from hell.

"You are putting all my things back, aren't you," insisted the old dear.

"You wouldn't happen to have some antiseptic, would you?" I asked hopefully.

"Not until you've put all that back, after all there's no point cleaning your hand up and then getting it covered in dirt again." Her logic was impeccable, despite the undertone of sadism.

"Right," she said, once several rolls of carpet and the dead garden equipment was forced back into a shed too small to accommodate the accumulation of garbage, "Who's for a cup of tea?"

"I'd rather have some antiseptic, if that's possible," I explained.

I held my shredded appendage over the sink as a full bottle of TCP was poured over it. The saying 'rubbing salt in the wound' made abundant sense at that point. It was all I could do not to scream. I decided to forgo the cup of tea in favour of a trip to the local A&E department for a quick embroidery job and a tetanus booster.

As we left the house, the old dear beamed at us, "Shall I give you a call when the mother comes back, so you can catch her as well?"

Halfway back to the shelter, I was nursing a throbbing hand when Yvonne asked, without a hint of sarcasm, "Are they all as easy at that?"

Nowadays, of course I am older and a little wiser. Many's the terrified and entirely submissive tiny feral kitten who has sat quivering in the palm of my welder's glove. Overkill, maybe, but I'm not taking any more chances.

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