Of Friendly Feral Felines

My wife Joanne and I are cat people. Very few weeks have elapsed in the past half-century without at least one feline member in our family. At one time there were 17, but that’s a story for another time. If you’re a cat person too, you’ll understand.

Back in the mid-1970s, Miss Lucky Penny showed up at noon in the parking lot near Joanne’s work. She was a tiny kitten, barely old enough to leave her mother. When she was still there at five o’clock, Jo couldn’t bear to leave the lost baby to the perils of traffic, and brought her home for safekeeping although we already had a pair of Himalayans in residence. That night, Jo bowled her best series ever, which is how Lucky got her name.

Since our Himmies were a breeding pair, we took care to see that Lucky lost her reproductive capability before coming of age. As she matured, she made it quite obvious that her hunting instincts were quite strong, and that unlike the Himmies, she wanted to wander the great outdoors and seek her rightful prey. She became an indoor-outdoor cat, roaming the neighborhood and learning that blue-jays are NOT prey but instead are dangerous enemies to be avoided.

When we moved to our present home in 1982, I had serious doubts about taking Lucky out of her territory, and feared that she would try to return to her familiar hunting grounds some 10 miles away. My fear was groundless; she seemed to realize that she was still a member of our family, and to greet the new surroundings eagerly. It was, at the time, a very new development — we were only the second family to move in on our block — well out in the boonies, and it abounded with small rodents, miniature frogs, and tiny snakes. The fearless hunter had a fine time, and spent most of her days and nights outdoors, bringing a fresh trophy home each morning.

So we put a small cat house on the patio for her, to provide shelter from sudden storms, and kept her food and water bowls next to it filled. From time to time she would come indoors for a few hours of human company; she loved to lie atop my computer monitor enjoying its warmth while I typed away.

Predictably, the ample amounts of free food (not to mention the abundance of bird life because of our many feeders) on the patio attracted the attention of feral cats in the neighborhood, as well as that of skunks, opossums, and raccoons. Lucky was less defensive of her territory than one might expect; she’d grown up in a multi-cat family, and welcomed most of the newcomers without opposition (although some of the opossums were driven away).

Eventually, age took its toll. Lucky went to wait at The Rainbow Bridge, after some 16 years with us. Her feral friends, however, continued to come calling — so the food and water bowls remained on the patio. After we added a wood deck in 1997, several of them formed a colony and moved in beneath the deck. The area remains occupied to this day, although the present tenants appear to bear little relationship to the original residents.

One of the first ferals to become a semi-permanent resident was a solid black fellow we called “Bigfoot.” Like Hemingway’s famous colony, he had extra toes (polydactylism) on all four paws, hence the name. He seemed to be a leader of the colony, and showed up almost every day for breakfast and for supper.

Soon a little white and brown female began appearing also, and before long she brought along a litter of four tiny kittens, barely old enough to take on solid food. By the time she succumbed to traffic on a main street a block away, the four had themselves become regulars at the food dishes — and had moved in beneath the deck.

One of them became attached to Bigfoot and would follow him around wherever he went. Unlike many dominant males, he tolerated and even seemed to encourage the attachment. I dubbed the kitten “Littlefoot” and their antics on the deck became regular morning entertainment for me.

As the weeks passed, her brothers quietly vanished from the scene. We never knew what, exactly, had happened to them. The life expectancy of a feral cat is only about three years at best; many never reach maturity. Hawks, owls, and coyotes — all of which are plentiful in our area — keep the population down. But Littlefoot eluded all the dangers and survived.

Then, as she entered the gangly stage of her growth, Bigfoot demonstrated his maleness one morning by attempting to mount her — without success. However it was quite obvious that unless we intervened, we would have a population increase before much longer, and we didn’t want that for a number of reasons. Not the least of these was the risk to Littlefoot of becoming pregnant at such a tender age.

A close friend has, for years, volunteered at a low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic. He offered to bring out a live trap to catch her, then take her to the vet. We set it up one night, and next morning found a furious Littlefoot inside. The necessary surgery performed, she spent one night indoors — still caged — to recover. Then we released her, and she sped back to her home beneath our deck.

Not long afterward, Bigfoot himself vanished, but Littlefoot stayed around. As she reached maturity, becoming not so little any more, her name changed to “Little Bit.” She stayed with us for a full three years, and eventually became socialized enough to allow Jo to stroke her back while dispensing cat chow. Then one day she failed to appear for breakfast. We never saw her again.

New faces, however, continue to show up on the patio. A few belong to non-feral neighbors such as “Boomer,” enjoying a night out. Those, though, are infrequent. Currently, we have three regular visitors: one solid black male we call “B.B.” (his gender is very evident) and two females, “Blue Lady” and “Okie.” Blue Lady seems to have settled into the space beneath the deck while B.B. and Okie may share it but might live elsewhere.

We’ve put out the live traps several times in efforts to control the population, with mixed success. When there’s a trap to be seen, both B.B. and Blue Lady disappear and don’t return until the trap goes away. Fortunately, they don’t seem to be a fertile couple.

Okie, however, went for the bait and got her surgery. Another female, Hobo, together with a very young male we named Coal, went for the food and thence to the clinic. Hobo seldom came back after we released her, but Coal hung around for several months and formed an attachment to B.B. that reminded me of Bigfoot and Littlefoot. Then he vanished, but not before getting himself trapped a second time, as we continued to attempt capture of B.B. and Blue Lady.

The names (Okie, Hobo, and Coal) were required by the clinic for their records. The “trap, neuter, and return” programs such as that offered by the clinic are the most humane way to deal with the overpopulation problem among feral felines, and I strongly recommend that anyone who cares about animals help promote them. Oklahoma City is fortunate in having at least three such clinics in operation. Many other cities have similar programs.

According to WikiPedia the movement is worldwide in scope. You can find out much more about such programs elsewhere on the World Wide Web. A quick Google search for “trap neuter release” returned some 175,000 hits for me. Here a couple of them: AlleyCat.org and NeighborhoodCats.org provide starting places if you’d like to learn more about the idea and spread the word.

And you don’t have to buy 25 pounds of cat food every other week, unless you want to.