I rarely mention my cats. It’s the little prey animals I care for: hamsters and doves, parakeets and gerbils, rabbits and guinea pigs. When you have chickens, you soon discover the utility of cats. Most urban poultry experiments end abruptly due to raccoons, or over time after giving up after months of watching chicken feed disappear to expanding armies of rats. Professional exterminators can rid your home of vermin, but they roll their eyes and back away from promises to rid your chicken coop of pesky rat-devils. “Barn cats” are indispensable to a farm, even a tiny urban farm.
My first cat was a feral stray. I lived a mile from my mailbox, and that rural home came with a feral cat. I tried to trap her and failed, and she disappeared for a couple years. When I discovered her kittens in my woodpile, I fed her until I could take the little ones to Safeway in a cardboard box for “rehoming.” I had friendly mamma cat Smokey spayed and she lived outdoors until the dog left (he protected her from bears and cougars) when she moved indoors. I brought her with me to the suburbs and she lived here until her death at about 18 years old. She was what could be called an “adoptable feral stray.” My current cats are “unadoptable feral strays.” So, what’s the difference?
Kitty Hawk is an unadoptable feral stray cat. The Alley Cat Project received him from the Seattle Animal Shelter where they regularly adopt out FIV+ cats. Feral cats are not adoptable (as pets), and FIV+ adds another complication. Hawk is an FIV+ feral thug. Kitty Hawk had broken into the basement of a house and fought with the resident cat in order to steal his food. Unfortunately, the other cat ended up in a veterinary hospital and the owners had Kitty Hawk sent to “the pound.” The Alley Cat Project fostered him until I contacted them in search of a “barn kitty.” He’s been here since 2011, and he arrived on my birthday! He still bites and scratches sometimes, but mostly he waits for me at the gate and rubs against my legs as I perform chores in the aviary. I discovered recently that he is diabetic and now I am out there, morning and night, injecting him with insulin and opening can after can of the most expensive cat food available. He lets the rats meander unmolested and I know now who was the true barn kitty.
About six months later, the Alley Cat Project contacted me regarding a second feral FIV+ tomcat. By now they recognized me as a soft touch and before I could change my mind, they had dropped off Grover. Grover had been living near/at a local high school. He was friendly with other cats but would not warm up to humans. Don’t touch the Grover! Another feral FIV+ who could not be released, he was truly unadoptable. He lived in a large introduction cage until I was sure they wouldn’t fight, and eventually, he and Kitty Hawk became best buddies. They slept in a heap and the few remaining rats left the neighborhood. Grover didn’t tame down for six long years, and then he initiated “nose-bumps” and allowed me to touch his tail. He even let me comb and snip out some horrific hair mats, and I hoped some day he would let me pet him. A month ago I crammed his reluctant but distressed self into a carrier and took him to the vet where they pronounced his dental disease* too advanced for treatment. I drove home in tears without him and Kitty Hawk and I are still getting used to Life Without Grover.
The Alley Cat Project had been contacting me periodically in case I needed any more cats, but until now, I had two good cats, no rats in the aviary, and everything was hunky dory. But, wait, I have seen a couple rats lately. That should have been my clue that Grover wasn’t well. I certainly didn’t expect the diabetic cat to be ratting, especially since he never was any good at his job. There were two barn kitties available, did I want them? Well, no, I don’t even like cats, but two? It took me a couple minutes to think it through, but I agreed to take their two bonded but unadoptable cats. They are in an introduction cage, just like Grover was, but this one is big enough for me to crawl into. And they were here within a week of our tragic loss, distracting Kitty Hawk, giving him a new complaint, and creating enough soiled kitty litter to fill the multiplying rat holes in the aviary.
Half-Stache is a gray & white feral FIV- (un-infected) male cat with a distinguished mustache. No, wait, half a mustache! He was surrendered to the Seattle Animal Shelter because he was under-socialized and was scared and defensive when in their care. They transferred him to the Alley Cat Project so they could find him an alternative home situation, like a barn. After six months of their exceptional care, he became an affectionate friendly guy. Whenever he escaped the “catio” and got into the house, he marked the corners of the guest room in typical naughty boy fashion. That’s about as “un-adoptable” as a cat can get. But he had bonded with the other resident of the catio.
Larry is a gorgeous but not particularly intellectual FIV+ female. The FIV+ males infect each other by fighting, but the females can become infected by mating. There are probably some “Larry-ettes” out there, somewhere. Public shelters generally euthanize FIV+ cats if they are also feral. The Alley Cat Project adopted her out to a nice big home with other cats and an enthusiastic caregiver. One year later, she still would not allow her owner to touch her, so the Alley Cat Project took her back. After six months of exceptional care, she was as untouchable as ever, and dumb to boot. And fat, as I discovered later. So pretty but dumb Larry and playful Half-Stache left their cozy catio and came to the Funny Farm, leaving the Alley Catio available to other feral cats with a better chance of becoming adoptable.
There are many cat adoption agencies out there, but most of them deal with rehoming house cats, kittens, or other “adoptable” cats. The Alley Cat Project works with ferals: trapping, neutering, and releasing them to their colonies. They rehome kittens when possible, and work with the cats who seem to have indoor pet potential. They have a few manageable cats suitable as “barn kitties.” And then there are the Conundrum Cats: sick and/or feral cats with bad habits or no apparent desire for human companionship. My first cat, Smokey is an example of a feral with indoor pet potential, though it was eight years before she would step indoors. The next four: Kitty Hawk, Grover, Half-Stache, and Larry, are Conundrum Cats. That’s what makes this a sanctuary, and not a Crazy Cat Lady situation. I don’t even like cats: they eat all the little critters I really like. (Exception for feral rats, though some of you might remember hearing about Mortimer, the old blind rat that no cat or exterminator was able to kill. I felt so sorry for him I used to feed him.)
Dimwit Larry and gamer Half-Stache have been here a month, and you will hear about them from time to time. FIV+ and FIV- cats can be combined if they don’t fight, as it is passed only through deep bite wounds, so I will be watching closely to see that everybody gets along. It’s a struggle to undo the prejudice against FIV. Many people have FIV+ pets who live long, healthy, normal lives. Kitty Hawk’s diabetes is stabilized, with insulin and diet, and hopefully he won’t revert to his former thug-like persona and instead decide to accept the newcomers as he did Grover. His food and supplies are expensive, and so I’ll remind you about my gift shop and I have “donate” buttons all over the place. I also take donated items like insulin needles and high protein/no carbohydrate food (ask me first!). And finally, keep the Alley Cat Project in mind if you want to help out desperate cats in Seattle. You might want to poke around to see if there are any similar groups in your area.
*FIV+ cats often succumb to dental disease, I later learned. It can be treated, but ferals like Grover are extremely difficult to handle.