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A Free-Roaming Cat Family (AKA Feral) and Me, Part 1 of 4

A Free-Roaming Cat Family (AKA Feral) and Me, Part 1 of 4

Two little kittens on the patio

Eight weeks ago, Barry and I watched three half-grown cats roaming under houses and on the streets and backyards of this upscale neighborhood in lush upper Manoa valley above the University of Hawaii. Barry’s brother Peter lives with us and his 100-year-old mother Lily in this redwood house built six decades ago.

Peter thought I shouldn’t feed the cats. But their bony frames loosely covered by skin cried out to me for food. So I left tasty scraps for one of the three, a beauty with white paws, light brown, tortoise shell markings, and a sweet disposition unless I came too close. Little did I know I was feeding a female with a family.

Before the cats arrived, I’d hung a bird feeder in a Drasino Tree, changing the ecology of the down-sloping backyard overflowing with strawberry guava, tangerine and banana trees, ferns, and the anthurium plants my mom called little boy flowers. Dozens of rice birds, cardinals, a few wild parrots and some black-headed birds I didn’t recognize swamped the feeder, fighting for rice or black sunflower seeds, entertaining Lily, who sits on her long couch watching through a bank of picture windows. A thick branch grows parallel to the ground beneath the bird feeder, forms a perfect hiding place for a cat to lay in wait until an unsuspecting dove pecking for spilled seeds on the grass becomes complacent. Since the birds caw raucously whenever a cat’s around, this hasn’t happened. Yet.

Unknown to us, Mama Cat hid behind Peter’s spidery, torn cardboard boxes occupying the left side of the covered patio, alongside a spare wheelchair for Lily. Barry’s and my plastic boxes with clip-on lids, and a metal trunk stacked flush against the wall, occupy the right side. Unlike our boxes, Peter’s leave a bit of space between boxes and wall. I had no idea there was a kitten-sized sliver of an opening to the outside.

It amazes me what small spaces a little cat can fit into. I never saw the petite beauty when she looked even the least bit pregnant. Barely past the kitten stage herself, this Lolita kept her babies hidden behind Peter’s boxes until they were two weeks old and they started scrambling around, exploring, falling off boxes, peeking out from under the wheelchair.

The first time I knew about the little creatures was when I carried a bucket of towels and T-shirts to hang on the rope clothesline spanning the length of the patio. The sound of rustling plastic made me look down. Wedged between the spare wheelchair and the chair covered in plastic, three tiny kittens, one yellow, two white, suckled Mama Cat, who looked at me with baleful eyes as they kneaded their tiny toes on her underbelly.

I started feeding Mama more; cans of tuna, leftover bone-broth chicken after I picked out the bones. At first I tried to keep the cat family hidden from dog lover Peter. I was worried he’d want to take the little ones to the Humane Society, where 99 percent of feral cats are euthanized. Humane killing, they call it. What I’ve read about some of these killings makes me shudder. If kittens pass the Humane Society’s health and socialization standards, however, the animals are kept in cages until they’re adopted. But socialization, at least by me, was out of the question for these kittens. Mama Kitty was not about to let me anywhere near her children.

I tried to find homes for this cat family before Barry’s two sisters flew to Oahu in mid-July in case they looked at me askance for feeding the stray cat family in the backyard. Barry told me not to worry, so I didn’t, and visualized everything working out for the best. I thought about how precarious life can be for a little homeless cat with kittens.

Luckily Mama Kitty found us. Luckily Barry and I were privileged to watch the kittens grow and play, climb trees, chase leaves and lizards and Mama Cat’s tail. We watched them from the picture windows as they leaped and raced and pounced on each other through the lush, overgrown yard. How great to live in a house rather than a high rise, with birds flocking to the bird feeder and kittens looking longingly upward, wishing they could fly.

I snapped pictures of the kittens and advertised them on Craigslist. I was emailing a guy named Allen who claimed he wanted the kittens as a companion to his rescue kitten, even though I told him the kittens were wild. Then a cat lady from a Facebook forum clued me in that some people take free kittens on Craigslist and use them for dog or fish bait. I shuddered and removed my ad.


A Free-Roaming Cat Family (AKA Feral) and Me, Part 2 of 4

A Free-Roaming Cat Family (AKA Feral) and Me, Part 2 of 4

Little yellow kitten eating

I prefer the term “community” to “feral,” which means “wild” or “savage,” because humanely cared for outdoor cats become more like domesticated cats than wild cats fighting to survive. Once cats are neutered, they become quieter as mating behaviors like yowling and fighting stop, and healthier, because deadly diseases can be spread during mating.

Emily, who helps feed a colony of 200 community kitties, tells me it’s too late for socialization when kittens are 8 weeks old. The time limit is about a month. The most humane solution for outdoor cats is to trap, neuter, and return them to the area from whence they came.  Emily helps manage such a program. In the past 20 years, she has trapped more than  1,500 cats and had them neutered. Kudos to Emily and all the others who help these cats live outdoors, and get them fixed so they stop birthing babies every 3 or 4 months.

I give the cats water as well as dry and wet food but I don’t see them drinking it much. Emily tells me free-roaming cats nurse longer because they don’t get enough water. She advised me not to get the family neutered until the kittens were 8 weeks old.

They made 8 weeks on Saturday, 21 July. Emily loaned me her trap and showed me how to set it. I tested it; put tuna in oil inside, watched mama and her biggest white kitten walk inside and eat the food. The following Sunday, Mama Cat and her kittens headed to Cat Friends to be fixed. I hoped she would fatten up. She’s skinny as a stick from nursing the kittens for so long. Now, weeks later, she’s still skinny, perhaps because this dedicated mama won’t eat much until after her three kittens are fed.

I’m glad this is her last litter. Cats who keep having babies become more aggressive because they’re constantly fighting to defend their new litters of kittens. My hairdresser said her neighbor’s cat is constantly birthing kittens so she’s always ready to fight. That Queen Cat, as multiple-litter females are called, has beaten up two neighborhood dogs so far.

During frequent downpours in rainy Manoa Valley, the cat family stays dry. Mama Cat moved them from patio to under the house six weeks ago. They are safer there, sleeping on top of boogie boards and ice chests and Barry’s and my cardboard boxes, beneath the tarp we threw over the boxes to keep spiders out.

I spend hours Googling articles about community cats. Their ancestors were domesticated. Cat owners abandoned them with no food, no water, and no birth control. Inhumane owners, unfortunate cats.

Thanks to Emily’s help, this cat family will have no more kittens. Emily loaned me a large food trap for Mama Kitty. I almost didn’t catch her because I had to manually drop the back door since I couldn’t set the front door. Mama Kitty twirled fast as the wind inside the cage until I covered the cage with two towels and she couldn’t see out. I nearly captured her three wee ones in a cat kennel by hooking the door while they were busy eating. But Little Yellow got away.

So it was back to Emily to borrow another trap. The trap caught Little Yellow, who managed to stick her paw through one end of the wire cage and bat at some leaves. How could anyone deliberately kill a playful little kitten like L.Y.? I will never understand.

People say feeding free-roaming cats is feeding the problem. I agree, unless feeding is done as a prelude to trapping, to get cats used to eating in a certain place. Otherwise, feeding these animals increases their ability to give birth to even more kittens who are destined to suffer and die premature deaths. Getting these cats off the streets will prevent not only their own suffering, but also the suffering of their kittens.

In Hawai’i, anyone can check out a trap from the Humane Society or Cat Friends for $100 deposit – the money is returned when the trap comes back. Cat Friends charges $5 to neuter a cat. They notch the ear (left for males, right for females because females are always right) and chip the animal. The cats are supposed to be returned to the zip code from whence they came.

Experts say the only program that works to curb the feral cat population in an ethical, effective way is T.N.R. – trap, neuter, return. Catch and kill doesn’t work because of the vacuum effect – some trap-savvy cats are always left uncaught, and their offspring quickly fill the gap left behind by the missing cats. Catch and kill becomes even more inhumane when cats are shot or poisoned or otherwise inhumanely killed. Horror stories abound. I know of one violent man who seduced feral cats with cans of tuna then bashed their heads in with a baseball bat. I wonder if he is a serial killer. I read about hunters who shoot feral cats, skin them, and sell their fur.

Bird advocates claim feral cats kill billions of birds every year. Those cats must be faster than my little prey-stalking-belly-creepers. Every time they run after a dove pecking grain on the ground, the bird quickly flies away. They don’t even get close.

T.N.R. stabilizes feral cat colonies, improves and protects cats’ lives, is the humane thing to do, and answers community needs. (For more details on T.N.R., check out the article at

A Free-Roaming (AKA Feral) Cat Family and Me (Part 3 of 4)

A Free-Roaming (AKA Feral) Cat Family and Me (Part 3 of 4)

My cat family lives outside. The only times we touch are when Mama Kitty initiates contact. She now trusts me to feed her and her kittens, so she rubs against my legs when she’s hungry. Sometimes she gets underfoot, almost tripping me when I walk down a rocky path to place their bowls of wet and dry food on concrete blocks.

People trying to domesticate free-roaming cats tell a different story. My friend Rhonda had two kittens, both rescued, one completely sweet, docile and rarely upset, and the other, Pixie, sweet and purring then suddenly angry and scratching. “These were my children’s indoor/outdoor pets,” Rhonda says. “They said Pixie had ‘mood swings’.” Sometimes other children, who would come by to play and try to rest their head on Pixie’s pillow, ended up getting scratched or bitten.

Trying to domesticate a free-roaming cat or kitten is a long, hard, time-consuming task and it doesn’t always work. Rhonda had fits just trying to get half-feral Pixie into a carrier to get her to the vet for shots once a year. And when Pixie arrived there, it took the vet and an assistant to hold her down. The vet said she would never be completely domesticated.

I, however, am committed to helping these four female cats live healthy outdoor lives. The cats are starting to scratch again. So I’m figuring out how to keep fleas off them because I can’t apply Frontline or other chemical flea treatments to their backs because I don’t dare touch them. I would never spray chemicals on the ground that might hurt the cats. I ordered Wondercide Flea and Tick Spray from Amazon (I’ll spray a wide swath of ground where they eat and sleep with a hose.) From Natural Pet, I ordered Brewer’s Yeast and Garlic pills (to combat fleas and ticks) as well as HW Protect Herbal Formula (to fight heartworms). Reviewers of these products say they work better than the chemical stuff. I hope that’s true. As soon as I find out, I’ll let you know. Please keep your fingers crossed for me and the feral female felines family.

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