The heartbreak of trying to save a tiny life

Yesterday I chased a rogue male cat who’d been aggressive toward the little feral colony we feed.  This cat, who we call Grey Guy, is usually quick to leave the garden when threatened, but yesterday, though I sprayed him with the garden hose, he hardly moved.   He didn’t move away very far, got a bit wet, looked back at me, reproachfully.   When Sekhnet encountered him a few minutes later, he was determined to make contact with her, though she at first sprayed him too.   

“He’s dying,” she told me afterwards, with tears, “he figured he had nothing to lose.”   She brought him a meal, and as she led him to it I saw for the first time how sick he looked, skinny, mangey, sad, with a distended stomach hanging to one side.  His eyes were barely open, he moved with difficulty.  He seemed clearly close to death.  He ate a bit of his last meal, before an opportunistic intruder named Giovanni made off with the last of it.   He was too weak to fight off the much younger challenger and Sekhnet was not guarding him at the moment.  We’ve taken to pegging the aggressive Giovanni with small stones when he hops the fence looking for food.

The cats we feed are Mama Kitten (so named because she gave birth to at least 20 kittens over the course of about three years, from a very young age) her three surviving daughters, Paint Job, White Back and Little Girl, and their probable father, Spot.   We watched almost every one of Mama Kitten’s offspring die or disappear.   We learned not to get too attached to the kittens, who tended to have very short lives in the wild.  Recently we trapped Mama, Spot and the three surviving daughters (who were old enough to get pregnant) and took them to a vet to be “fixed.”   Here is Mama with her first litter, back in September 2015.

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That big kitten toward her back legs we named Grey Guy.  He also disappeared after a few months, we assumed a hawk got him.  Hawks circle overhead here during kitten season.  They are circling today.

This stable little group protects their turf from intruders and we help them enforce their claim whenever we see another cat trying to get in on their action.  Giovanni (likely another of Spot’s offspring) has been a particularly insistent interloping pain in the ass, he bullies White Back and Paint Job and I’ve changed my attitude toward him.  It’s true he’s only trying to survive, but still, chasing our cats across the speeding traffic in the service road is a one way ticket to somewhere else.

About a year ago a haggard looking grey cat stood watching me on a street a couple of blocks from the house.   He didn’t run, or even back away, when I approached him.  He seemed to know me, and he was clearly hungry.   He appeared to be the grey kitten from Mama’s first litter, Grey Guy, a cat we assumed had died along with the others who all disappeared within a few months.   I called Sekhnet, and Grey Guy stood by, waiting with me until she brought a can of food and he ate it from a spoon, like he did as a wee pup.

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It was, in fact, Grey Guy.   He’d been living a rough life on his own and the years had not been kind.   After feeding him a couple of times we saw he was often savage with the other cats and we eventually drove him away.   He apparently came back the other day for one last visit before he died.

His presence reminded us how hard life is for a feral cat living on the street.  “He came as a harbinger,” Sekhnet said.  His poignant farewell came as we are completing the process of domesticating five feral kittens another mother cat dropped off in the garden, introducing them to big-hearted Sekhnet and the greatest cat buffet in the area.  Grey Guy’s appearance was a reminder of the short, brutal lives these affectionate little animals face in the wild. At five years-old he was ancient.  A house cat typically lives two or three times that long.

We became determined to find homes for these kittens, to give them full lives as beloved pets.   The boldest of them (and the runt of the litter) we named Alpha Mouse.  He was ready to be a pet right away.   His brother Beta was not far behind.  Both liked being petted from the start.  The other three were wary, as stray cats tend to be.   Here’s two shots of Alpha, then Beta:

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We found a shelter twenty miles from here that would take them, we caught them and brought them inside, into a large cage Sekhnet bought online.  We couldn’t bring them to the shelter for adoption until they are calm and happy being handled by humans.  A volunteer at the shelter gave us some good tips, the rest was just time spent with them, petting them in the cage, feeding them by hand, gaining their trust.

The patience and tenderness you need to show to get a feral kitten to trust you is repaid with a tender affection that can’t be explained.  The little creature who was afraid to be touched now solicits your caress, cranes her neck to be stroked just right, pushes her little face into the palm of your hand, purring in contentment.   They all sit on our laps now, after only a few days of adjustment.   

We are doing the right thing trying to find them homes, as hawks continue to circle outside looking for their little tidbits of delicious prey, as all of the hardships that oppose any animal’s existence rage out there at a moment when we humans are also hunted during this pandemic.   The right thing, the kind thing, turns out to not be easy sometimes.

I’m waiting for a call back from the small shelter that they have room at the inn for these five (they do).  A friend is on hold to do us a tremendous favor, renting a cargo van so we can drive them out to the shelter in their cage tomorrow, rather than stuffing them into the single cat carrier we have for a fairly long trip, their first in a car.

Meanwhile, Alpha sometimes cries and is only consoled by being petted a bit.  Sekhnet and I are crying all the time.   They are so affectionate with each other, it makes Sekhnet cry every time she thinks of them being separated.   

Every moment with them is a reminder of the relentless inevitability of separation, the pain of eternal leave-taking.    Having this constant reminder is hard work, particularly during this depressing pandemic, I can tell you for sure.  Operation Poignant, I told my friend’s voicemail yesterday, my voice cracking.

Here’s one of the last feral hold-outs, Devilhead, who now likes nothing more than the feeling of human fingers brushing lightly along the underside of her jaws.

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