Sunday, January 31, 2010

HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED



Yes, I am talking about the big C. Here’s a hint: Wiley C--- If you care for a colony of cats in just about any rural or sub-rural area in North America—even if that spot is within close proximity to an urban center (try 8 million people in the greater NY area!)—then you know the one of which I speak. The truth is I love coyotes. Until I began caring for feral cat colonies, I got excited every time I spotted one loping across a roadside field. I have owned rough collies throughout my life, and the collie’s relative genetic proximity to the northern timber wolf has always made me a huge fan of both wolves and coyotes. Well, that is until now… Although I have never seen a coyote at the colony, I know they have been spotted as little as a half mile away. I also know that I have frequent other visitors such as raccoon, wood chuck, and fox. Adult cats and raccoons usually maintain an uneasy alliance with one another. This may also be true for fox. Fox and raccoons generally do not want to mess with clawing and biting cats. An adult cat is a feisty predator that can inflict a lot of damage. Colony caregivers often report cats and raccoons eating kibble side by side. Aged, sick, or young cats and kittens may be a different story. Kittens especially are easily nabbed by fox.


So what to do about coyotes? Unfortunately, other than feeding when most other predators are having their siesta—say, between the hours of 9AM and 3PM—as well as being certain that the food is completely gone by dusk there are few other precautions typically available. Some caregivers place the food on platforms that cats can jump onto. Raccoons are climbers but they can’t jump, and this also provides the cats a degree of safety while eating, as they have better visibility of what may be stalking them. I have also heard of feeders fencing off eating and sleeping areas that are accessible to cats but not larger animals. Obviously, this is not an option if the property owner is not amenable or the finances for fencing are not available.


The good news is that cats are quite adept at tuning into the slightest deviation in their environment. I am always amused by neighborhood cats that spot my dogs approaching at fifty yards, but if the dogs are upwind of the cats, they remain oblivious to the feline’s presence, even when she is only a few feet away. It is my personal opinion that cats readily observe and decipher other animals’ reactions to the environment. I am amazed at how the Stone Ledge cats will eat while birds fly and chatter in the woods around them, but will abruptly leave the feeding station and scatter at a sudden change in bird flight or bird call. Wile the birds activity seems random to me it appears to be anything but that to the cats. There are days when I swear the cats speak “bird.”

So, I hold my breath and pray that “he who shall not be named” stays far, far away. Like the cats, I watch for signs and try to read the woods. I examine feeding dishes for teeth marks, I check for shed fur on a bush or tree trunk, and carefully search for dog-like tracks in the mud or snow.



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THOUGHTS OF HAITI



                                                               CRY BABY

Construction has begun at a site about fifty yards from the edge of the woods--close to Thomas Moore's shelter-- and all the cats are nervous wrecks. With the grinding truck gears and clanging metal, they could barely lion-down their breakfast. On top of this, Cry Baby showed up with what appears to be a bite wound on his tail and will require antibiotics. Drugs are easily administered by putting them in a tablespoon of kittie pate and offering it on a separate plate to the cat in question; however, if the patient does not show up to eat or another cat grabs the doctored food it's a problem. To add to what was already turning into a gray day (cloudy with intermittent rain), I found a dead vole floating upside down in one of the water dishes. Surprisingly, this is the first dead creature I have found at the colony in two years. Not certain if it was an accidental drowning, or somebody left me a little thank you note?

Of course, to magnify the gloominess, news reports from Haiti are horrific. I can't help but think that the cats at Stone Ledge are faring better today than tens of thousands of humans on that crumbled island. Yet human suffering and disasters like this always seem to beg the question (or perhaps the 'defense') of why do all this for a bunch of cats? Why spend the resources to feed and house undersocialized animals that live in the wild when so many people, even in this country, are food insecure?

I have no satisfactory answer. For animal and cat advocates the response may be 'why not?' That is, who are we to assign a value to the suffering of any creature--human or animal? Another argument might be that we, a highly evolved species, must be the stewards for these helpless creatures. If people do not advocate for their welfare then who will? For me, I take care of the cats because they are here, I believe that I can improve the quality of their brief lives--at least in some small way, and I enjoy spending thirty minutes of my day with them. In many ways, they are my daily prayer.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

JANUARY THAW!

JANUARY 16, 2010

WOW! The temperatures actually got into the 40's today. If you're a feral cat, this is a mitzvah from nature. Almost everyone ate--except for Samson. Thomas appeared, and Samson left his dish to go stand on a rock and glower.  I guess it's like having an old acquaintance you've had a falling out with get seated at a restaurant table next to you. It takes the appetite away. I waited for a good ten minutes but Samson never went back to his dish, so I left. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

HERE COMES THE SON....(TNR: OCT. 2009)



Samson, with his softly rounded nose and thick head is surely one of Snow's progeny. He and Delilah have the same whorls of color through their coats, as well as Dear Prudence's eyes, so I am fairly certain they are siblings and Prudence is their mother. I have met trail walkers who recall having seen Samson and Delilah playing near the trail when they were just small kittens. (Why did no one rescue them?) I even met a woman who says she has fed them since they were young and is now able to pet them. I believe this is true, as I am able to stroke Samson and scratch him behind his ears. 
At the time of Samson and Delilah's spay/neutering, a veterinary team assesed their sociability. While Samson might successfully adjust to a home environment, it was not indicated for Delilah. I could never purposefully take beloved Samson away from Delilah, so I have accepted that Stone Ledge, at least for the time being, is their home.

DELILAH (TSR: NOVEMBER 2009)


 Although Delilah is a tabby with lovely swirls of of black and gray fur, she has Snow's same rounded, Persian looking nose. I also suspect her mom is 'Dear Prudence,' and that she, Samson, and Max are litter mates. Donna gave Samson and Delilah their names. Like most jellicles, however, they have multiple names:  'Red' and 'Baby' being their other most common ones. When I first met Samson and Delilah they alternated  between sleeping in a garbage dump and in a hollow stump. They have now adjusted to sleeping in one of the feral houses I provided. Delilah is physically lithe, but seems mentally ditsie. In fact, if it were not for the fact that she is almost always in the company of Samson, I suspect she would not survive. When you see Samson, Delilah is usually a few feet behind. It's obvious that she worships him. She constantly head butts and rubs against him. Some days, when he's not in the mood for her attention, he halls off and whacks her on the head with his paw. She just shakes herself off and continues along behind him, adoringly.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

PHANTOM! (TNR: JUNE 2009)



Run for your life! It's Phantom!
Everyone at Stone Ledge was terrified of Phantom when he first arrived. Phantom appeared about a year ago and has been a full-time resident ever since. When I first saw him, weaving through the tall reeds where the woodlands meet the marsh (a.k.a. 'no cat's land'), beyond which certain predators who shall not be named live, I thought he was a small dog. (So much for near-sightedness!)

Phantom is now BFF with Max and Cry Baby. The "boys" share the same feeding station and often the same feral villa. It turns out that Phantom never really wanted to pick a fight, he just wanted a few pals to hang out with.

SIR THOMAS MOORE (TNR: MARCH 2009)


When Thomas Moore first showed up at Stone Ledge I had several other names for him: Evil Catnievel, Nasty Bas---d, Ol' Flat Top, and a few other choice ones. He growled at the other males and terrorized the females. He was, to put it mildly, full of himself. After tolerating his shenanigans far longer than I should have, and with spring mating season just a few weeks away, I knew I had to trap him. The other reason I hesitated was that, other than young cats and kittens, Thomas was the first adult feral I would have to trap on my own. Until this time, I had relied on Donna. Yet I knew that if I was going to be involved in cat rescue then I had to solo trap. While the idea of trapping a thrashing, snarling, feral made my heart race, the part I was absolutely terrified of was returning to the woods and releasing the cat. I had visions of an enraged twenty pounder stepping out of the trap and lunging for my jugular. Or worse, running up my leg and then ripping my throat out!

One morning, after the others cats had eaten, Thomas came strolling into the area. I made a quick call to the local shelter to reserve a spot on the day's TNR list and then went about setting the trap. It is my opinion that male cats are more controlled by their hunger than females--especially females that have been mothers. I can only guess that having to care for and protect kittens makes the queens wary of anything out of the ordinary. Thomas, being a typical guy, went straight for the bait.
I was a wreck and barely remember driving him from Stone Ledge to the shelter. Then, all day I worried about his release.
When I returned to the shelter clinic at the end of the day all of the cats were resting except for Thomas. He was rolling and thrashing in his trap. 'He certainly looks alert enough to be released,' the receptionist smiled at me. Mt stomache was in my throat. By the time I paid and returned to Stone Ledge the sun was setting.

DEAR PRUDENCE - AN UBER-FERAL



Prudence is an uber-feral. I rarely have the opportunity to get close to her. In fact, I usually catch her out of the corner of my eye and then--she's gone! It also does not help that her tortie mane is great camouflage amid the leaves and rocks. She does not scamper and dart between trees like Midnight and Delilah; rather, she stealthily skulks across the the forest floor. Prudence is a hunter, I have no doubt. She often disappears for months at a time. This photo was taken in April of 2009. I thought it was my last glimpse of her. For months, Prudence was MIA. On this last sighting I noticed that her eyes were tearing and she did not look well. When she did not appear at the colony for weeks and then months, I assumed the worst and assumed she was dead. Then, more than eight months later, on New Year's day, while feeding the other cats, I had the eeriest feeling that someone or something was watching me. Delilah must have felt it too because we both turned at almost the same instant to look towards the eastern hill that overlooks the feeding station. There, perched on a pile of logs, her tortie fur glistening red in the sunshine was Prudence. She looked clear-eyed and alert. Prudence quietly makes it known that she is the grand dame of Stone Ledge. As soon as they saw her, Samson and Dlilah quietly moved away from the food dish and waited for the queen to dine first.


Prudence does not live in the feral houses I have provided. Instead, she prefers to live under an old shed near the colony. Unfortunately, because she is so erratic and clandestine about her comings and goings, I have not been able to trap her. This has become one of my greatest frustrations. A few weeks before Prudence disappeared last spring, I saw the other girls--Delilah and Midnight--creeping off to the shed on several occassions to visit Prudence. (The other cats rarely show any interest in the shed.) Although no kittens appeared, I believe that Prudence may have had a prematurely born litter that did not survive. (I also thought her belly was suspiciously big.) I have read that queens often have designated babysitters for their litters. (This is something I saw play out in another colony and will talk about later.) I believe this pregnancy and ill-fated litter may explain Delilah and Midnight behavior. Curiously, Samson and the other males was stayed far from the shed area during this time period.

CRY BABY (TNR: JANUARY 2008)



Cry Baby, named for the fact that he cries non-stop for food, used to be part of Donna's colony. Donna cares for a dozen cats a half-mile away from Stone Ledge. Her colony used to be comprised of sixteen cats but several have gone missing. 'Cry Baby' was one such MIA. He disappeared sometime in June of 2008. As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, and he did not return, Donna assumed the worst. Then, one morning in December of 2008, a lovely, wheat colored tabby approached me at Stone Ledge. I heard his cries before I saw him. In fact, since the other ferals rarely meowed, I was pretty startled.  When I called Donna from my cell phone and described the very vocal cat that was eating at my feeding station, she immediately high-tailed over to confirm her hopes.
The moment Cry Baby saw Donna and heard her voice, he began a high-ptiched meowing and circled her with his tail held high. They were both thrilled to be reunited ! So where had Cry Baby been for six months? Having heard, and even witnessed, first hand, many tales of disappearing and reappearing ferals, it is my opinion that this can simply be chalked up to
 'the lives of cats.' 
As for Cry Baby, he has chosen to stay close to Stone Ledge in a feral house we provided for him. Although, every now and then, he disappears.

WINTER BLUES

January 14th, 2010
We have had four weeks of icy, cold weather. December's snow is still on the ground. I think that Samson hates it as much as I do. He high-tails off to his shelter the moment he is done eating. He doesn't even stop to wash his paws. Every day I marvel at how these creatures, who seem so content to luxuriate on cozy beds and atop warm radiators in a home, can cope with the frigid winter weather from which they have no escape. Sometimes, on the coldest days and nights I dream about bringing them home--just for a little southern-style comfort. Yet the woods at Stone Ledge is their home. In my heart, I know this is where they want to be--it is where they belong. I suspect that most caretakers have these same winter rescue fantasies. Ultimately, we become citizen meteorologists, checking wind velocities and watching thermometers and barometers rise and fall while we wait for spring.

Monday, January 11, 2010

TRAPPING IN CHANELS (BACKGROUND CONTINUED...)

Feeling overwhelmed with so many random, homeless cats that might need human intervention, I went back to my rescuer's list and started calling. Once again, everyone was deeply empathetic and full of helpful advice, but totally inundated with "fall kitten season," and unable to help trap, spay, and neuter (TNR) the cats. (Note: In the northeastern climate where I reside, queens generally have two to three litters a year; fall kittens being the last group before winter sets in.) 

The following day I headed out to the trail armed with more Fancy Feast. As I was returning to my car I met a woman walking her dog and struck-up a conversation about the cats. She said a woman named Donna managed a feral colony about a half mile away, and that she might know something about these 'unfixed strays.'

I went home and checked my rescuer's list. There was no 'Donna' on it. When I contacted the shelter they admitted to having Donna's phone number, but because she only managed one colony they had neglected to put her name on the list. A guestion kept running through my mind: exactly how many homeless cats and feral colonies were there? 

I contacted Donna, and she agreed to meet me in the parking lot near where I had seen the cats. Her instructions were explicit: 'Go to Boston Chicken the night before and buy a quarter roaster. (The more nasty hormones the chicken has the better!) Just before you leave your house, debone, chop into penny size pieces, and nuke the chicken for 45 seconds on high. Place it in a plastic bag and wrap in foil. And don't forget to bring a paper plate cut into quarters.'

Was I about to meet my first crazy cat lady (CCL)?

I was waiting alongside my car when a Toyota SUV pulled into the lot. A stylish, petite woman hopped out. She was wearing a cashmere blazer, obviously designer jeans, multiple diamond- accented necklaces, and delicate looking ballet flats. Not exactly typical trail attire, I thought, as I continued to wait for my 'cat lady.' 

 "Hi, I'm Donna," the J. Crew ad said. My expression must have registered shock because she added, "I love to trap in Chanels. They always bring me good luck!"   I looked down at my oversized, polyester 1X sweats and Wal-Mart sneakers. No make-up and greasy, pony-tailed hair, two weeks overdue for a color, completed my look. 

"Let's nab this baby," she said, and set off into the bushes and weeds with her Tru-Catch and bag of nuked poultry. I watched in rubber kitchen gloves as Donna baited the back of the trap with a little paper plate triangle that she neatly arranged the chicken on. Using bare hands, she then squeezed drippings out of the remainder of the bag in a circle around the trap. I stuffed my rubber gloves back into my pocket.

Note:  A Tru-Catch is light, small, and easier to maneuver than many other traps. It also makes a quiet 'snap' when it shuts which is less frightening for the cats. I have even seen young cats and kittens continue to eat their bait, unaware they have been caught.

Within five minutes, a hissing, snarling, male tabby was thrashing in the trap. In a flash, Donna pounced (yes, exactly like a cat!) and checked to be certain it was securely fastened. (One of these running around the back of a car would not be fun.) She then covered the tabby with a towel, and placed the trap in the back of her car. She explained that she would pick the cat up after neutering and release it in this same spot. Donna then instructed me that I should continue to provide food, water, and shelter every day for the rest of the cat's life--or mine--whichever came first. What???

WHERE ARE ALL THESE CATS COMING FROM? BACKGROUND CONTINUED...

Shortly after we trapped Snow, I went back to the spot where Jo and I had seen the little gray tabby with the white nose. But instead of finding this particular jellicle, I was astonished to meet another gray tabby, sitting on the log where I had first seen Snow. He was a mackeral gray striped cat with large caramel colored eyes. Fortunately, I had wised up enough to carry little cans of Fancy Feast in my bag, so I popped a can and faded back to a spot where I could observe my diner. The tabby devoured the can, washed his paws, and headed back into the bushes. No other cats appeared. The following day I returned to the log and spotted a small, longish-haired black cat with lovely green eyes. The scenerio with the cat food was repeated, and I was little the wiser. The third day I went back to what was beginning to feel like an ocean fish feast drive-thru and-- you guessed it-- another cat! This time, a tan and black cat scurried into the brush as soon as it spotted me. The following day, however, the little gray tabby with the white nose and paws reappeared. This time she was accompanied by a red-orange tabby. They did not seem especially afraid, but kept their distance and did not eat until I was a safe distance from them. 

 I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed. Where were all of these cats coming from? Was it really possible that they were all homeless?