Monday, May 18, 2009

The Cat Who Fell to Earth

Can't I just get through one of these off-rotations without experiencing some sort of major mental trauma?

My mom and her next door neighbor have gotten into the habit of feeding the local stray cats. In the Winter, there's a real humanitarian concern there - without someone providing food and shelter, there is a good chance that some or many of the cats would not make it through. But in the Spring and the Summer...well, it seems that there are plenty of mice and voles and baby bunnies and birds of all sorts to keep the cats well-fed. And if not, they can always move on and seek other territories.

The life expectancy of a feral cat is not long. Two, maybe three years, before disease, the elements, traffic, predators, and fights with other cats bring their lives to an end. The current bloodline actually started a few years ago with a mated pair that were probably brother and sister. After they had their first litter, my mom named them: Mommy and Butterfly.

Butterfly is gone. I haven't seen Dot and SpookyBear, the two black cats from that first litter, in a few months. (SpookyBear was always my favorite. He had no fear of humans. When other cats would scatter, he would hold his ground and wait for you to get within arm's reach, and then stroll off.) Squiggles is still around. Tortoise and the look-alike tabbies from last year's litter are still around. Socks, the oddball singleton who I suspect is the lone survivor of a litter sired by SpookyBear and Sugar, a neighbor's pet cat who often wanders into our yard, is still around.

Mommy had yet another litter about six weeks ago.

This is getting to be a problem. Even with attrition, the neighborhood is starting to look like an open-air version of a crazy old cat lady's house. Somebody is bound to complain to somebody - or worse, take action on their own.

I decided I needed to do a snatch-and-grab of at least some of the kittens. I could set them up at my house across town, maybe two or three of them, and reduce the neighborhood cat population. I had set my sights on two of the kittens: a blue-eyed black cat I named BlueBear, and a brownish tabby with diamondback markings on the tail that I planned to name Willow.

I had planned to do this grab on Friday morning, so we could have all four of my days off to figure out what to do with the kittens. Unfortunately I wound up having to work on Friday into Saturday, which threw my entire schedule off. Still, I got things nearly under control enough that I should have been able to grab some kittens this morning.

Things didn't work out that way.

Last week a kitten managed to squeeze around our basement window fan through a hole in the window screen. It fell from the window and landed on some storm door screens that were being stored standing up next to an old unused stove. My mom heard the kitten crying and was able to retrieve it and return it to its mother, who growled anxiously.

This morning the same sorts of cries came from the cellar. As I rushed into the room to see what was the matter, I watched a kitten lose its grip on the basement windowsill and fall straight down. I tried to reach it, but it was wedged between the screens and the stove. I ran to get the most amazingly useful pieces of equipment we have - a toy robot grabber arm purchased at either the Kennedy Space Center or Cracker Barrel. (We've bought them from both.) When I got back the cat had moved to an even more inaccessible position, but with the robot arm I was able to quickly pick it up and get it to safety.

Now that we had it, what were we going to do with it?

I got out the large Sterlite container and cat bed I had purchased with this in mind and put the cat in there. I also went straight outside to see if either of the two pre-selected kittens were available, but there was only a Tabby kitten who ran away when I tried to get to it. So it looked like one was all we would have for now. I established that this is a girl cat (I think) and she is capable of lapping kitten milk out of a bowl. She also loves the sound of keyboard keys clicking, and wants to join in.

When I took her across town to my house and put her in my kitchen for safe keeping while I mowed the lawn, I also discovered that she is very good at hiding.

She was snug in her bed when I went out to mow, with a towel for a blanket and a pie pan full of pine litter as her bathroom. She had a bowl of kitten milk if she was hungry and a crackly catnip mouse if she wanted to play. I saw my neighbor outside when I mowed, and he was delighted to hear the story of how I had gotten a new kitten. I was about two -thirds done with the lawn when I decided to go and check on her.

And she was nowhere to be found.

I couldn't see her. I have very acute hearing, despite my tinnitus, but I couldn't hear her, even her breathing. I killed all the lights and got a flashlight and looked for reflections if her eyes, but I couldn't see them anywhere. Where was she?

It was a locked room mystery. She hadn't gotten past me - I knew that. She could have been hiding. She could have crawled into the kickspace under the sink, in which case she would have to crawl out again. Anywhere else?

My flashlight shone on the stovepipe leading from the disused coal stove to the chimney. There was a corroded hole at the bottom. Could she have gotten in there? Maybe...crawled up the chimney, three stories, and headed onto the roof? Maybe tumbled down into the clean-out area, or fallen into the furnace? Even if the furnace isn't running, would the pilot light generate enough suffocating gases to kill a kitten?

I looked and looked and finally gave up to finish the lawn. But soon I was back looking for her again. I repeated this sequence at least three times. At one point I noticed that a rain gutter that directed water from a second-floor overhang onto the back porch of the "vacant" side of the house had become detached. A scenario formed of a kitten emerging from the chimney at the apex of the roof, tumbling off onto the second floor overhang, then shimmying down a rainpipe to the porch roof below, detaching it in the process - well, cats don't shimmy down raainpipes. Do they?

I looked and looked and couldn't find her.

I went to my mom's house and retrieved my Havahart trap, the one which has caught a cat, an opossum, a groundhog, and a mystery animal that might have been a wolverine. Would the weight of a kitten be enough to set it off? I baited it with the bowl of kitten milk, and carefully added the cushion from her bed, her litter pan, and the catnip mouse. I set the trap and left.

When I returned with my mom a few hours later the trap had not been sprung. I could only assume that the chimney escape was what had happened. I had my mom shine her flashlight behind the stove to see what I was talking about.

The kitten was behind the stove.

She was at first, anyway. She ran behind the refrigerator as we tried to catch her. I was in the process of moving the refrigerator when I spotted her watching me from within a stack of ancient pots and pans. I grabbed her - by the tail, first, then by one foot, and then by the whole body.

She was cold and scared. She also peed as I picked her up. I washed her off and, after chastising her briefly, attached her to my shoulder, which is one of her favorite spots.

So now she's back here. Until we've both decided to trust each other a bit more, I won't be willing to let her stay anywhere without being confined or supervised. She has spent most of this evening tucked into my shirt, sleeping. Now she has decided it is time to play, and she is clawing and chewing on all parts of my shirt. She'd also like to use the computer, but I won't let her.

She's taken quite a bit of milk, but most of it by bottle. I think we'll wait at least a week before we try to grab more kittens. Still, she could use the company. She's used to sleeping in a kitten pile, and nestling under my shirt or in the crook of my arm is a poor substitute. She will have to sleep alone in a big pet carrier tonight, but we have a fabric-covered hot water bottle in there that she can snuggle against.

As for her name - at first, based on the stripes across her shoulders* on a mostly-solid back, I was going to call her "Taz", since Tasmanian Devils have similar markings. Then I remembered that my friends named their cat Taz already! So now I'm leaning towards "Bowie", in commemoration of the manner in which she entered our lives - it's a reference to the David Bowie movie "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Plus, it's gender non-specific enough that it will apply even if she turns out to be a he!

*Note: on further reflection, I realized that these were the diamond markings I had noticed earlier on one of the kittens outside. So Bowie is, in fact, Willow.

1 comment:

dee said...

Clover and Fern found places to hide in my house I didn't even know existed. Fern stopped hiding the minute I brought her back from the vet, having had 7 teeth pulled. They must have really hurt and I was her best bud after that. Clover, on the other hand, managed to crawl BEHIND the drawers next to the sink. That was a little over a year ago. Now both of them are sleeping next to me, one on either side. And that's only until I turn off the light. Then they'll both be on top of me.