On April 20, Andy and began fostering a pregnant feral mom who gave birth in our house a couple of days later to six noisy kittens. I won’t be able to resist writing about them, but the mom’s story is equally special, and so this will be a two-part series.
The mom, whom we later named Chautauqua after the park where Andy proposed to me, had been living under a lady’s partially screened-in deck. This lady was caring for Chautauqua and a few other outdoor cats by giving them shelter, food, and water. In April, Chautauqua’s caretaker contacted the Trap-Neuter-Release Coordinator at our local no-kill shelter because Chautauqua was pregnant. Chautauqua’s caretaker lured her into a carrier, and then the TNR Coordinator took Chautauqua to the shelter.
Chautauqua’s story with us begins the evening of April 20, when we picked her up from our local no-kill cat shelter. Four volunteers were in the medical room. One of them opened her carrier so that they could medicate her and instantly she sprang from the carrier and began flailing around the room. One volunteer tried to catch her and was bitten for her efforts. Another volunteer used a net to trap her, and then Chautauqua was returned to her carrier. We were given her medication with the hope that she’d let us administer it once she’d settled down at our place.
Her first two days with us didn’t go well. As to be expected, every time we entered our foster room, Chautauqua stared unblinking at us and hissed if we got close to her cage. Because she was deemed feral, we were loaned a Tokyo cage to use with her. Although its smallness is supposed to make it easier to work with feral cats, we felt the Tokyo cage barely gave Chautauqua any room to move, especially after we provided her with a nesting box. In addition to the cage issue,. Just as big of worry was that she wasn’t eating anything. We tried all kinds of cat food and treats, but she wouldn’t touch any of them.
On the morning of the 22nd, I headed upstairs as usual to check on Chautauqua. Along with the creaking of our stairs I heard another sound. Distinct meows were coming from our kitten room, and they were too plentiful to belong to Chautauqua. I raced upstairs and discovered that, yes, kittens had been born overnight. Just as quickly, I raced back downstairs to tell Andy. He thew on his bathrobe and joined me in visiting our new kittens, born the morning after our thirteenth wedding anniversary.
Now that the kittens had arrived, we were even more desperate to give Chautauqua more space and get her to eat. To resolve the first issue, we decided to buy a dog kennel. If we ordered one online, it would take two days to arrive. But our local pet stores didn’t have any that were big enough. We finally found a large one at our local Tractor Supply Company and Andy went out and bought it that evening.
The question then became how to get Chautauqua and her kittens into the kennel. Moving Chautauqua by hand was out of the question. Instead, we pushed the Tokyo cage up against the kennel, and then poked the back of her nesting box so that she’d move on her own to the kennel. After she did, we checked on the kittens to make sure they were okay and to count them—there were six!—and then placed the nesting box in the kennel with Chautauqua. Initially, she showed no interest in returning to the nesting box, and so we again shooed her to where we wanted to go.
We still had the second issue to resolve: how to get Chautauqua to eat. Throughout the day, we offered her different people foods. We tried canned chicken and tuna, we tried cooked wieners – all to no avail. Per suggestion of the shelter, we then considered giving her some meat from a rotisserie chicken or maybe “cat-safe” fast food. Thankfully, whether due to her having given birth or having more space, that evening she began to eat.
All was well, except there was the matter of our needing to check on the kittens’ health and track their weight on a daily basis. To do this, we had to be able to lift them out of the nesting box. But how? Before we had moved the cats out of the Tokyo cage, Andy had tried grabbing the kittens (gently) with salad tongs. But Chautauqua let him know immediately that she didn’t care for that. Next, Andy tried elbow-length Kevlar gloves. Even so, he proceeded with great care and patience. He first allowed Chautauqua to sniff his gloves. She watched him warily, but we were surprised that she allowed Andy to remove her kittens one by one without protest. On subsequent days, however, Andy learned that Chautauqua’s tolerance only went so far, as she would not allow Andy to take a kitten that was under her or behind her. Those kittens we examined on a different day.
To make the daily routines of changing the feeding station and litter, and checking on the kittens less stressful, I began to work on gaining Chautauqua’s trust. Whenever I entered the foster room or opened the dog kennel door, I slow-blinked at her. I also began just hanging out in the room. I set up my phone or my laptop and worked for short periods of time on the couch. Gradually, Chautauqua got used to my presence. She began to eat and drink while I was in the room. Sometimes, I’d sit at a distance from the kennel and extend my hand for her to sniff from afar. The times she retreated and/or hissed became less frequent.
After a couple of weeks, Chautauqua had become calm enough that we decided to expand her space once again. We set up a mesh playpen which we had confined previous kittens to after they were spayed and neutered. Thanks to the extra room, we were able to upgrade the size of the litter box and to add a small scratching post. We also transferred the feeding station and placed it on a small cardboard box to keep it out of reach of the kittens. This left us with just Chautauqua and the kittens to move. They were all in their nesting box and so Andy just placed a piece of cardboard over the front opening and moved it to the playpen.
I continued to work on gaining Chautauqua’s trust. Via our Nanny Cam, we could see that she was beginning to feel comfortable enough in our absence to take a break from the kittens. As the days passed, she began to show fewer and fewer displacement behaviors when I hung out with her. The smacking of her lips, twisting of her head, and twitching of her tail began to fade. Soon enough, she was grooming in my presence.
After Chautauqua had been with us for about a month, we started trying to domesticate her. We wanted to see if she might be an adoption candidate. Even if she turned out not to be, the friendlier she was the easier it would be to work with her kittens.
I started my attempts to domesticate Chautauqua by opening the top of the playpen just wide enough to stick a spoon with food through it. At first, Chautauqua wouldn’t take the food. Then Andy managed to get a dab of food on her nose, which she licked off. That did the trick, and after that, Chautauqua regularly came forward to take food from the spoon. I felt good about our success. Soon, however, Chautauqua began to hiss and pace whenever I loaded the spoon with food. One day, when I put the spoon inside, she stood up and swatted at the spoon. I backed off, waited until she calmed down, zippered up the playpen top, and left the room.
At this point, I decided to do some research and to reach out for help. After talking with the Behavior and Training Manager at Friends for Life Animal Shelter in Texas, I changed our methods. Instead of visiting whenever convenient, Andy and I began going upstairs at set times. Although it posed a bigger risk, we began opening the playpen from the side instead of the top, as this would be potentially less threatening to Chautauqua. Being inspired by an episode of My Cat from Hell, we also ditched the wooden dowel the spoon was taped to and replaced it with a telescopic pointer. Finally, we began using clicker training. With it, every time Chautauqua sniffed the empty spoon, we clicked and rewarded her with a meat puree via the spoon. A structured routine and positive reinforcement were game changers.
After that, we slowly but surely made lots of gains. Chautauqua used to hunker behind the litter box during our training sessions, but day by day that changed. She began to stand, then she began to step forward, then she began to peek out of the playpen, and so on, until one day she came all the way out of the playpen for food.
Even the act of Chautauqua coming out of the playpen evolved over time. At first, she’d just come out long enough to sniff the spoon and eat the food, but then she’d immediately retreat. Soon, however, she was staying in place and waiting for the next offering of food. Eventually, she began coming up to us and putting her paws on our knees. At that point, I began to pet and brush her while simultaneously giving her food.
Despite our growing success with Chautauqua, we weren’t ready to give her continuous access to the foster room. However, the kittens were getting big enough that they needed their freedom outside of the playpen. As a compromise, we began leaving the playpen unzippered enough for them to squeeze through but not big enough for Chautauqua. On June 3, that changed.
I was working on behavior plans in the room when I looked up, only to see Chautauqua out of the playpen. Immediately, I messaged Andy, who was at work. He replied, “You’re going to die!” Although I believed that was entirely possible, I researched how to take a photo with my laptop. Photo taken, I then watched to see what would happen. Not much did. Chautauqua looked around, then retreated to the security of the playpen.
Still, it was the beginning of a new level of trust. We decided to leave the playpen door open during certain times of the day to test the waters. Would Chautauqua let us enter the kitten room or would she guard the door? Would she let us move about the room or would she jump at our every step? We had no idea, but trust always involves a measure of faith.
Trust can also beget trust. Initially, we allowed Chautauqua freedom only when one of us was in the foster room with her, but eventually we kept the playpen door open except at night. Chautauqua in turn started to stay out for longer periods of time. She stopped retreating to the playpen simply because I moved, and over time even began to stay put when I walked past her. In fact, she began inching further away from the playpen door and inching closer to me.
Only once was our trust misplaced. One week in June we ran out of pheromones. We also fell away from our structured routine. That was a scary week. Every time I entered the kitten room, Chautauqua would hiss and stalk me. I had to either go in only when Andy was with me, or I had to hold something between me and Chautauqua like a shield whenever I walked through the room.
Otherwise, our trust proved worth the gamble. We could handle and play with the kittens without interference. Friends were able to come into the room to see the kittens. During Chautauqua’s last month with us, she began approaching me for treats or toys. Her original caretaker visited, and I showed her how to clicker-train Chautauqua.
In July, Chautauqua was spayed. As you can imagine, getting her to the vet was no easy feat. This was primarily because we couldn’t just shoo her into a pet crate; the cat clinic we were taking her to requires that feral cats be transported in live traps. That’s because these traps restrict their movement and therefore make it easier to sedate them. But because the traps are so much smaller than crates, we knew we wouldn’t be able to shoo her into one. We’d have to use the traps as they were intended–we would have to trap Chautauqua.
It was decided that my husband would handle the trapping. First he set the trap up in the foster room, but he disabled it so that the door wouldn’t slam shut behind Chautauqua. He also left the rear door open so she could go in one door and out the other. (There wouldn’t be room for her to turn around.) Lastly, he laid down a trail of the meat puree that began a couple feet from the door of the trap and continued all the way through the trap and out the other side. He did all of this because he first wanted to teach Chautauqua that it was safe to enter the trap – that if she entered it, she could also get out again. And, when he returned to the kitten room sometime later, he discovered that his plan had worked: the entire trail of meat puree was gone.
Now he could start on the second phase of his plan, which was to actually trap Chautauqua. He did everything the same, including the trail of meat puree, but this time he reenabled normal operation of trap and closed the rear door. He then left the room and went downstairs, and he waited for the sound of the clanging trap door and, most likely, a loud protest from Chautauqua, as well as the sounds of her thrashing about in the trap. And he waited. And he waited. And he heard nothing. Was Chautauqua too smart to enter the trap when she saw that there was no way out on the other side? Finally, Andy decided that his plan had failed, and he returned to the kitten room to try to think of another plan. However, when he entered the kitten room he saw Chautauqua in the trap, completely calm. It was a miracle!
The day after she Chautauqua spayed, her kittens also went to the clinic for their procedures. The entire day they were gone, she looked for and cried for them. When they were reunited, she tussled with them and held them close to her. Then that weekend we brought her back to her original caretaker.
Chautauqua is now living again under her caretaker’s deck. We’ve gone to visit twice and have been able to feed her. I also receive occasional updates. Chautauqua has been reunited with her children from an earlier litter. She still loves the meat puree. Whereas Chautauqua used to dart away any time her caretaker came outside, now her caretaker is able to pet her, brush her, and she’s even gotten Chautauqua to step inside her home Given that Chautauqua is still feral, I can’t imagine a happier end to her story. May you have a long and happy life Chautauqua!