Confessions of a Cat Whisperer
I'm pretty good with cats...okay, more than good with cats. If that sounds less than humble, consider the animal I'm talking about and you'll understand that to be a cat whisperer, you have to have some attitude.
I can't explain why I have this gift...it wasn't like cats were a big part of my childhood. My family was more interested in dogs...and occasionally a cat would wander into our lives and hang around for a while. As I entered my twenties though, I began to discover that it wasn't unusual to have at least one around at all times...usually there was more than one though.
Visiting the homes of friends with cats, I would occasionally get the warning..."Oh do be careful. He/She is a MEAN cat. It will be all nice and when you get comfortable, it will shred your face to pieces!!" I'd look at the cat...the cat would look at me. My expression could only be described as, "Yah...so? I'm not impressed."
The Beast in the Basement
There was one cat that was deemed so unfit for human company that it was kept in the basement. I was visiting this home of my friend's aunt and uncle in Toronto when I heard how evil and vicious she was. They worried about my well being and cautioned me about venturing into this killer's lair...
I realized right away I'd have to sneak down there....
Early one morning, while the rest of the house slept, I crept down the stairs and silently opened the door to the basement. "Hello?" I said quietly. "It's just me...I'm coming to visit you." I reached out to the wall and flipped on the switch before striding down the basement steps.
There were a lot of boxes piled high. But in the far corner, I could see a rather ratty couch covered in hairballs. Aha! I'd found the nest of the killer kitty. I kept my eyes on the couch and walked toward it...I didn't want the cat to see me looking for it. Sitting, I sighed...put my feet up on the box before me. "So this is your place, huh?"
From above me and to the left I heard a very ugly hiss. I smiled...
"Yeah...you are right. I should have given you a little bit more notice so you could've tidied up the place a bit for company."
I picked up a hairball, examined it...and tossed it to the floor.
The hiss stopped and was replaced by a very throaty, feral growl...
"I'm not a morning person either. Well at least not until I have my coffee. Then I can be pretty sociable...but otherwise yeah...I'd rather still be asleep. What about you? Do you sleep a lot? Doesn't look like there'd be very much to do down here..."
The only sound is the cat's tail thumping hollowly against one of the boxes...
"Ah...so you are a musician? Y'know I wouldn't have figured you for one but (shrug) I've been surprised that way before."
"Me? Oh...well I play the flute. And pretty well I think. Have you ever heard a flute before?"
With that question, I turn and make eye contact with the cat....
The cat backs up....ears flat...
"Yah...well...my Dad didn't like the sound either. He called it a dog whistle...can you imagine? Well, he really didn't have much taste either...."
And so this conversation went back and forth. For how long? No idea. But eventually the rest of the house woke up and noticed I was missing. My friend's aunt was beside herself...this had simply never happened to her as a hostess before. My friend was not worried a bit though. He had a pretty good idea where I was and was only too happy to share his thoughts.
A herd of elephants is probably quieter than that family when it comes to scrabbling down a flight of stairs. When the sound ceased, I finally turned to look at them...and it was priceless. The entire family, still in their pajamas was standing there with their mouths hanging open.
The cat wasn't in the least disturbed. She was too busy purring in my lap...bumping my hand because I'd stopped petting her. Yeah...such a tough little monster. My understanding is that after this visit, the cat deigned to live upstairs with the other residents and never maimed or killed anyone.
Do I know why the cat was the way she was. Nope. Does it make a difference? Nope...not to a cat. They couldn't care less about pop psychology. It's just having the right attitude.
One cat however would test me to the limit of my ability...a little black feral kitten named Mojo.
A true feral kitten does not know anything but the company of other cats. Humans are to instinctively be feared. They've never felt a hand stroking their fur, they've never been fed on a regular basis and in the safety of a home...they only know that their survival is dependent upon their wariness.
There were two kittens in the shelter that day...both 5 months old, one male and one female. As I approached the cage of the female, she completely freaked out. She didn't so much cower as launch herself into the back of the small space, tipping her litter box, upending her food dish. The poor thing was having a full-fledged panic attack. I tried to talk softly to her...but rather than soothe her it only seemed to frighten her further. I seriously began to worry that although I only meant to be kind, that my kindness would cause her to accidently do physical harm to herself.
I wasn't sure that she would ever be socialized...and that perhaps the best thing to do would be to spay her and then release her back into her world. Still...
As I was pondering this, I wandered into the front room where my husband was snuggling the little male kitten. "I want him" was all he said.
"Ahhh...so you want the wee devil cat do ye?"
A small gnarled man stood about three feet away from my husband and seemed very reluctant to get any closer. He glared at the small furry bundle in my husband's arms.
"Do ye want ta see what that abomination did to me....d'ye?"
And with this he thrust up the swaddled bundle that was his thumb.
"Four stitches! Aye! His sister is bad....but this one...oh yes...he is MUCH worse!"
Sister? Of course...the hysterical female in the other room. Either she was his sibling, or they were just out dumpster diving together. Well...if we were going to try our hand at taming a feral kitten, it seemed a lot easier to start with the one that was sleeping so docilely. I couldn't honestly equate the damaged appendage to this rather complacent critter. I convinced myself that this caretaker was obviously not a cat person....and probably got what he deserved.
We named him Mojo.
It only took a day or two for us to discover exactly why Mojo was so...uh...mellow. He coughed, he wheezed, he sneezed nasty gungus all over the house. Looking at his watery eyes was painful. So off I went to the vet to get the cat version of the coughing, sneezing, achy, fever so you can rest medicine. I had mixed feelings about healing him. I didn't want him to be sick...but I had a sneaking suspicion that when he was well, I'd probably have a totally different cat on my hands....
I was right.
With the aid of my trusty computer, I did some research on feral kittens and how to approach them. The main advice seemed to consist of not letting them hide. Wherever they lingered, I was supposed to hunt them down, drag them out and then make them feel safe. Hmm...
We called Mojo, "the stealth kitty." He'd duck under a bed and we'd dive under to retrieve him. While we were flailing about with the dust bunnies, he'd slip out like a shadow and find another hiding space...unbeknownst to us. He was fast too...
After about three weeks of this rather undignified behavior, I was discouraged. This couldn't be the right way. There had to be something better...
While I thought about it, I kept an eye on Mojo, looking for clues. It wasn't easy since his appearances were rare. Sometimes late at night, I'd catch him off guard snuggling up to the refrigerator. It took my slow brain a while to figure out why. The motor...it purred. Even though I had two other cats, he was lonely.
It was time to ask a favor...
In a previous hub, I've told you about Bear...the canniest cat I've ever met. There are very good reasons for that statement. As Bear and I sat in our favorite chair one afternoon, I explained my dilemma to him.
"I'm at the end of my wits with Mojo...it's been over a month and he's no different than he was after he got over the flu. I figure though that you might be able to help. He snuggles up to the fridge at night...have you seen that? I think he's lonely and misses snuggling up to another cat. I think he'd really like it if you were to...maybe adopt him in a way. I know it would really help me...."
Like I said, Bear was a very unusual animal...and I didn't think it odd that one day Mojo was curled up by the fridge and the next, he was curled up beside Bear, purring like a fiend. This eventually made it possible for me to insert myself into their company. Mojo, seeing that Bear was unconcerned, would allow me to occasionally pet him.
After that we began to make progress...albeit very slowly. Whenever he would spy me and look like he was ready to bolt, I'd hold one hand out...palm up...and say, "I come in peace." Pretty silly, huh? Yeah...I felt rather silly for saying it too...as if Mojo was some alien from another planet and shortly thereafter I'd ask him to take me to his leader. But that phrase seemed to work for some reason...
I'd reach down and stroke the top of his head once or twice...and then walk past him. He wasn't ready for more contact than that yet. If he wanted more...he was going to have to do the asking.
Eventually, after petting his head, Mojo began to be curious about where I went when I left him. It was not unusual for me to look up from doing the dishes, or folding laundry to see him leaning against the door jamb in this adorable James Dean slouch, watching me with those enigmatic green eyes. It was as if he was saying to me, "I'm too cool you know. I'm not asking for you to pet me...but if you must...then go ahead."
I always made a point to hold a quiet conversation with him at these times. Then I'd walk past him again, occasionally stopping to scratch his chin. Still not ready to accept me yet...but getting closer.
There was never one of those "Aha!" moments with Mojo. His trust was earned so gradually that there was never a moment of triumph where I could say, "my work is done." I always felt, until the day he passed away ten years later, that our relationship was always evolving.
He never became a gregarious cat. While my other cats were rather vocal, it was a very rare occasion when Mojo would look up at me and squeak. Most of the time his lips would part and no sound would escape. I was the only one allowed to scoop him up and snuggle him like a doll. The rest of the world was treated to his James Dean impersonation...an invitation to pet, or talk to him...but still prepared to bolt if anyone got too friendly.
Do I think that trying to socialize a feral cat is a worthwhile endeavor? Absolutely. But as you can see, it requires a lot of patience. Are all feral cats able to be socialized? Unfortunately no. This is why the catch and release program to spay and neuter the feral population is so worthwhile. It's not an ideal solution to the issue of pet overpopulation...but it beats destroying an innocent animal.
Shelters are so inundated with cats and kittens that if releasing one feral kitten or cat back into the population after alteration allows them the opportunity to find a home for a domesticated one, then it makes sense.
Of course, we could all do our part and spay/neuter our own pets or adopt a pet that needs a home from a shelter. Perhaps then...there will never be a cat that has to dumpster dive in order to survive again.
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