The stray cat project

March 2021

How it all began…

It is early March 2021 and an unknown, small cat appears in our suburban backyard. The above picture is one of the first we were able to snap of her, through the backyard windows.

Both my husband and I are cat lovers and many have have allowed us to live with them over the years. We seem to attract small cats, rather than big ones, mixed bags rather than purebloods and in that respect, the unknown visitor touches our hearts immediately. She is a small run-of-the-mill tabby, with clear green eyes that look right at us. She does not seem to be afraid of us. It feels to us as if she is trying to convey a message to us. It does not take us long to understand that it is food she is after. A feeding routine develops quickly and naturally. Initially we call the cat ‘Kitty’, but later we officially baptise her ‘Mitsy’. It seems to fit her better.

In the early stages of her visits, she hides around the corner of the house when we step outside to bring fresh food. She only returns after we go back into the house. She has no interest in being fondled. We can watch, with the safety of the glass sliding door in between but we can’t touch – and that is fine. We admire her independence and other than feeding her feel no urge to try and touch or lift her.

The amounts of food she puts away are incredible. She easily ‘inhales’ 4 small-size cans of food per day and won’t say ‘no’ to an additional bowl of kibble either. In the beginning, we look at her and think: she looks really healthy. Clear eyes and nose, big furry winter coat, not emaciated at all… and we make up stories about her. Where she comes from, who she belongs to (if anyone), where she sleeps… Soon, we realise our mistake: this cat does not look healthy, she looks pregnant! When that realisation hits, we invest in better food with high nutritional value.

We wonder if this is a feral cat. Or could she be a lost cat? A stray? Maybe her owners moved house and she escaped? Or, a more morose scenario: maybe she does have an owner, but they have different standards about taking care of a cat than we have… I mean, who would let a cat roam outside at all hours of the day, rain or shine, while so obviously hungry and super-pregnant?

This is Mitsy in her winter coat. A few weeks later she looks completely different: slim and sleek and if we had not gotten used to her face by now, you would almost say this is a completely different animal! If someone loses their tabby it could be hard to identify it by just pictures.

We decide to publish some pictures we managed to snap of her, on a local ‘Lost and found’ websites and Facebook page. Nobody claims her. We get in touch with several cat rescue groups as well, to find our best course of action, if we want to ‘help’ this cat. Neither of us have ever been involved in trapping a cat, let alone doing the follow-up care for a pregnant and possibly (semi-)feral animal in our house.

One thing comes through loud and clear: there are many different opinions and (sometimes militant) rescuers out there. Quite a bit of forceful pushiness comes our way. Some contributors to blogs and pages want us to feel personally guilty about the ever-growing feral cat population. They tell us we ‘must’ trap this cat ‘immediately’, so she can have her kittens in a safe place. They tell us that “if you do not act, you are signing a death warrant for her kittens”. When we do not respond, we see quite a few offensive follow-up postings that make us into ‘irresponsible’ people. Some offer us the use of their traps, but tell us we will never see the cat again after it is trapped, “because only experienced people with knowledge in this field can do this”…

We tend to seek many points of view in order to understand things more fully; after all, no one person’s view is totally complete. When other people take a position unlike our own, we have a choice. we can assume that one of us is wrong and defend ourselves, or we can be grateful for the chance to see that there are countless ways of looking at things. An abundance of wisdom is available if we keep an open mind.
For a while, we contact many, MANY people and read many, MANY internet pages, trying to get all the answers. Assuming, of course, that we would be wise enough to sort out the right answer, from the wealth of personal and professional opinions… It almost renders us incapable of making a decision. We gradually start to understand that we need to find an approach that will work best for us and Mitsy.

“Do not search for the truth,” said an ancient patriarch,
“only cease to cherish opinions.”

So we keep feeding Mitsy a few times per day. As she is getting more comfortable with us, we also place some birthing shelters in our backyard. Not that any of them is ever deemed acceptable… Mitsy must have a good hiding place, that much is clear. When she comes over after a downpour of rain or snow, her coat is barely wet. So, not only must her shelter be dry, it also cannot be too far from our house, because even when it is still raining, her coat remains unruffled for the most part.

We do many, many walks in the neighbourhood and develop crooked necks from checking out alleyways and gardens… 🙂 But there is no trace of her – not even in fresh snow. The few times we try to follow her, whether on foot, on the bike or by car, we loose sight of her when she enters fenced-in private yards. Also, as soon as she becomes aware of us, she tends to cross the street and we have nightmares of her getting run over because we spook her. So we let go of the idea that we can ever find out where her hiding places are. Mitsy is quite the enigma. And maybe that is part of her charm…

One of the reasons we are not more resolute in taking action right away, is that we are the owners of a small rescue cat named Suzi. She grew up in a hoarder’s house: someone who kept huge numbers of cats in unsavoury living conditions. She has lots of health and emotional issues because of this background and simply is too vulnerable to introduce her to an outside stray cat. If only for medical reasons: Mitsy looks healthy, but chances are she is carrying some nasties, that might jump over to Suzi. So simply and literally opening our doors is not an option right now. Which is not to say that Suzi is unaware of the new guest in our yard. She sits at her usual perch at the backdoor and follows every movement Mitsy makes. There is a glass sliding door between the two of them, so both cats are safe. Neither of them makes overt aggressive moves. They just know of each other’s existence and respect each other’s boundaries. Or so it seems.

Suzi and Mitsy a mere foot apart, just the window separating them

Suzi has already proven, in the past, that she is very friendly to other cats. My 20-year companion Dixie, that walks the next world now, was never interested in her, but Suzi would have loved to interact with her. She sat quite close to Dixie’s bed and even sniffed her. But Dixie was just too old to appreciate a playmate. We added Suzi to our household in spring 2016, and Dixie passed in the fall of 2018. So Suzi has been an only cat for a while now.

Suzi and Dixie in close vicinity of each other. Dixie simply sleeping and not caring whether Suzi was there or not, as long as she left her alone…

Another element at play is that we are tenants. We do not own this house. A house with a fully carpeted upstairs, and no extra room that we can use to tend to this mom-to-be. If she is truly feral, she can potentially thrash the place, drop her feces and urine everywhere and it could all end in emotional and materialistic disaster.

But we can still assist her with food, without the need to own or control her. We can invest in high-quality food and give her the best possible chance of delivering a healthy bunch of kittens, without direct interference. We can observe her and enjoy the experience. There is no place for arrogance and entitlement on our part, there can only be humility and admiration for this creature of nature. We are witnesses, and available to help, but it has to be on her terms.

And so the story begins. Check ‘Mitsy’s Nursery Blog’ to keep updated with the project…