First appearances: a recap

November 23, 2021

Sorry for not writing new entries in this blog for so long: I was busy doing the final entries in the Nursery blog (lots of new photos, take a look!) and then life took over… But I am back and there is lots to talk about.

Let’s start with a trip down memory lane.
What was our starting point with ‘Project Feral/Stray Mitsy’?

11 March 2020

There was still some snow on the ground from February and temperatures were circling the zero point (Celsius).

One early morning, while making breakfast for our cat Suzi, Wim suddenly noticed a tabby cat in the backyard. She seemed very skittish and in first instance fled when she noticed him in the house.

It felt to him as if this was not a first-timer, that we had seen her before, walking the fences, but never did we see her right there, at the backdoor.

She came back and then was looking right at Wim through the window, and I think that, if we had not had a cat in the house already, he could have opened the door and she would have walked right in. Her eyes just bored into his and the general message seemed to be: “Help me! I am hungry!”.

He filmed her and took some photographs and showed them to me when I got up and immediately I knew that this was a hungry cat. Although she did not look emaciated at all, we threw handful of kibble on the outside steps. We kept an eye out for her during the following days and sure enough, she came back and practically inhaled the food we put out. The daily feeding quickly became routine.

We tried putting out a bowl of kibble on the front porch and when she was eating, we tried to open the door to see if she was open to human contact. But that never worked. She was quick to disappear as soon as she spotted us coming out. And this cat had eyes front and back! There was no move, no matter how stealthy we tried to be, that she did not notice. Whether we peeped from behind the curtains or stepped outside around the corner of the house: her eyes were on us immediately. We generally only saw her twice a day, with the express objective of getting food. She did not utter a single meow. She spoke with her eyes.

We decided to make our backsteps her feeding spot. We put out some bowls, including one with water and before long we moved some of our security cameras so that we could keep track of her comings and goings and respond. A veritable chain of events was triggered whenever the camera apps notified us about her approach. We never wanted to attract wildlife to the food (raccoons, black birds, possums etc). So we let the camera app warn us of her arrival in order to only offer fresh food. Even our resident cat Suzi started to react when the familiar ‘Tring’ of the app went off on our phones. It would be funny to make that into a cartoon some day! We all sprang into action! Below is a short 30 second video that shows Suzi observing Mitsy and, when Mitsy looks up, giving her an audible piece of her mind 🙂 Even though the door was closed, Mitsy must have heard it, because she falls off the steps in response 🙂 The fact that she never once hissed or growled back at Suzi endeared her to our hearts. Mitsy is feisty, but has a golden, friendly character.

(Sound on!)

Questions, questions, questions…

We both work from home, so both of took turns to bring the food out, depending on our work schedules. Mitsye would creep up within a couple of minutes, belly close to the ground and start eating. The amount of food that she devoured was amazing. Sometimes she put aways 3 small cans of food in one sitting! It dawned on us that she was not ‘in excellent condition’ as we originally thought, but that she was pregnant. Very pregnant. That got us thinking. Surely this cute cat had a home? And if she did, why did ‘they’ not feed her enough? Did ‘they’ not see she was pregnant? Thousand questions bubbled up in our heads and even today we still wonder where Mitsy came from. And talk about the unknown ‘they’…

We tried to ‘follow’ her a couple of times when she left down the alley next to our house, but to no avail. Whether on foot, on the bicycle or in the car: she was aware of us. And ran. We posted her photograph on a couple of local ‘Lost and found’ sites: no reactions. This cat started to become our obsession for a while, to find out where she came from, make up stories, and honestly, judge ‘the people’ who had presumably left her to her own devices at a moment in her feline life when she needed ‘them’ most. We had a lot to say about that 🙂 But it was useless: we never found out. We also stopped trying to follow her, because whenever we did, she tended to cross the busy road in front of our house at a run and that freaked us out. We did not want her to be hit by a car, even though we could see she carefully watched out for traffic.

‘Our’ outdoor and indoor cat

Mitsy did not look like a feral to me, but she was certainly super cautious towards humans. There was no trust. Just the knowing that humans equalled food. Cats are opportunistic that way. If given the choice, they will keep company with other cats, or be alone. Us humans are usually their last choice. So we never even tried to get physically close to touching her and we accepted that. We just wanted to help her out with extra food. Wim said jokingly: “Maybe she can become our outdoor cat!” and he painted a picture of us enjoying a coffee in the garden in summer and the cat then joining us. Being able to give her a little pet. But never expecting her to join us indoor.

Besides, our Suzi cannot go outside. She is too vulnerable with very bad eyesight and no teeth. I actually think that she never lived outside anyway, so she would probably get herself killed within moments. She was content watching Mitsy through the backdoor windows. The two of them were aware of each other. But Mitsy was always super respectful. The few times we experimented with putting the food bowls close to the window, with Suzi supervising everything from the inside, she literally crept to the bows on her belly to eat. If Suzi hissed or growled, she would either disappear or give her a slow blink with both eyes, as if to say: “It’s OK, I am not a danger, I am just her to eat”. There was no apparent aggression in either one of them. But obviously, Mitsy was aware that she was in another cat’s territory.

A taste of wet food

Below are 3 short videos that show Mitsy’s introduction to good quality wet food, caught on one of our security cams. Up until that point we had been putting out kibble for her. But this shows her, barely 3 days before delivering her first 2021 litter and this little creature was hungry! We had already tried to trap her in the days preceding this footage. But here is the thing with pregnant cats: they are very good at hiding their big belly. Mitsy did not show up on the 2 days we tried to trap her. When we spotted her again, it seemed as if she was a lot slimmer and we were afraid that she was no longer pregnant. Which meant there might be kittens out there somewhere that needed her. So, at the recommendation of the rescue group we worked with at the time and after studying our video footage, we took the trap down. Even in the below clips it is hard to tell if this is a female with a big winter coat, or a cat close to her delivery date. One thing is for sure: she loved wet food and she even came back at night to see if there was more at the exact same spot. We had put out the wet food as an experiment and placed it in the alley between our house and the next. It was the first time we got a really good look at her. She cleaned out the bowl and the night footage shows her sniffing around to see if there was anything left. Like I said: this cat was hungry!

It’s getting serious now

From that day on, things got serious. We made another effort to trap her when she came back. We revised our opinion: she had not had her kittens yet. Up went the trap and she once more did not show up. Was it coincidence or was she just trap-shy? Did she know what the trap was for and could she not be fooled? It happens…. cats are not idiots! But a couple of days later she returned and there was no doubt that she had delivered her kittens. She was significantly less big, but her appetite was huge. We spotted some plucks of hair on her belly, which seemed to indicate she was nursing. Which meant that it was no use to try and trap her for at least 12 weeks: that’s when most kittens are independent and fully ready to leave mom’s care, if given the chance to stay with her that long. So we took away the traps and returned them to the Rescue group.

Pregnant again 6 weeks after delivery 🙁

Several people told us that cats sometimes move their kittens after 3 weeks. And that Mitsy might well introduce her little ones to our yard. But that dream never came true.

What DID come true was the fact that she was pregnant again within 6 (six!) weeks. And that was the impetus for us to consider trapping even more seriously then before, before she would deliver her next litter…

We realised it was a big thing to commit to and we got somewhat overwhelmed gathering as much information as possible about such a project. The thing that freaked us out most was that we did not really have a house that was the perfect place for a possibly feral feline family. Our upstairs was fully in use AND had carpet. Our basement was unfinished and messy, with two tiny windows and also fully in use. Combine that with our own resident vulnerable rescue cat and you might be able to imagine a few of our dilemmas. We know today that it all ended well, but we did not know that when we started out.

But the die had been cast: we had fallen in love with this little cat that seemed to be homeless. So we kept feeding and filming her and made plans for her future.

The fascination with cats runs in both of our families of origin so I guess we were genetically predisposed to get involved…

My mother and her bond with cats

I am smiling while I am writing this: my mother, who lives in The Netherlands in a small town, has always been the driver of having cats in our house for as long as I remember. She comes from a long line of animal lovers – I remember my grandparents pottering around on their property surrounded by cats, goats, chickens, rabbits… My grandfather, after retiring, took me with him to dairy farms where he took samples of raw milk, right at the moment of the cows being milked, out in the fields. I loved that creamy taste of the approved still warm milk…

My grandparents have passed a long time ago and my mom has been widowed since 2008; when her love-of-a-lifetime Pukkie, a big white/tabby Tom-cat passed in 2012 we were starting to worry that she was lonely in the empty house where I spent my childhood. Pukkie’s death caused deep grief and we could tell she missed him very much. She told us she was doing fine and that she was too old for another cat, but my sister and I did not believe her. So we took it upon ourselves to take her to the Humane Society and find her a cat.

She indulged us, under protest, and came home with a beautiful adult female, by the name Marlies. This was the very first time she owned a female cat. To make a long story short: it was not a good match and it was because of the gender. This cat was very active and assertive enough to put her nails in Mom when she had had enough of petting. She was a very playful cat and could be a little bitchy. My mom started to dislike her; she was used to the much softer temperament of Tom cats, so in the end she wanted to return the cat to the Humane Society. And so it happened.

We were sad for her and we had many sibling-talks about it: what to do now? Mom needed company! But, unbeknownst to us, the Universe was already working on a solution. Not long after, a lone Tom cat strolled casually into my mom’s backyard. It was spring and my mom spends a lot of her time in her garden. She was delighted. At first she fed the cat some kibble. Then some left-overs from her dinner. And cat milk. This quickly became a daily routine and we one day found her napping on the couch with a deliriously happy Tom-cat on her belly! He was only the first, many others followed, and it is the perfect arrangement for my mom!

She never had to go back and find a cat at the Humane Society for the simple reason that cats found HER. Plural. There are always one or two or four cats in her yard and some of them are allowed inside. They keep her company, in return for caresses and food. The cats hardly ever stay overnight. My mom has no idea who they belong to and it works out perfectly like this. She is no longer lonely (she still lives independently in her late 80s, in the house where I grew up!), and she is not 100% responsible for them. She does not have to take them to the vet or anything like that: she has the best of two worlds! Isn’t it funny how those things work out sometimes!

Marlies, the cat that could not stay. Two assertive females in one house: not a good match…
Mom with one of the stragglers that regularly keep her company. Look at those happy faces!

Patience and no expectations

Both Wim and I have endless patience when it comes to kids and pets. We also operated from the assumption that expectations had no place in Mitsy’s project. It ultimately started to pay off. After six weeks of consistent feeding, I decided to do an experiment to find out how far along we were in desensitising Mitsy to human contact. After putting out fresh food, I did not return inside, but sat in the yard instead. I positioned myself sideways, so as not to be confrontational, and kept the phone camera aimed at the feeding place. It took as good 10 minutes for her to feel safe enough to crawl to her food, but once she was eating she seemed to forget about me. Or at least accept that I was there and striking me off the danger list. It was an awesome experience, I really got some good footage and one of the outside cameras caught me and Mitsy in the same shot.

I kept repeating this experiment now and then, with Wim joining me, having lunch outside, while Mitsy was eating. She hung around a bit longer sometimes and studied us with a steady gaze, but never made physical contact. There was one day I was sitting under out gazebo tent that she seemed to make a decision and walked right up to me. I kept very still, it almost felt as if she was coming for a pet. But she sat down at a yard or so, washed herself and vanished again. For me, all of these were little milestones.

Our progress was visible in our camera footage as well. At first, she would be seen hiding around the corner of the house until we put the food out. Then she would sit next to the AC unit, waiting until we closed the backdoor. And not long before we managed to trap her, she would only move away an arm’s length before she went for the food. What struck us about this cat was how intently she looked at us. I wish we spoke her language because we kept wondering what was going on in that little head of hers.

An indoor experiment

It made me think that, if I left the back door open, it would not be that hard to get her inside. Making sure that our resident cat was in another room, I did exactly that by way of an experiment. I kept the backdoor open, stayed in the kitchen and put the food on the inside-mat. It did not take long. I saw Mitsy appear on the steps, observing the room for probably 2 minutes and then stepping up and eating inside. The next day, I repeated the experiment, with the food bowls a little further from the backdoor. Now I truly had her inside the kitchen. After finishing her food, she looked around the kitchen in a curious manner, and went to explore. Still staying close to the open door, but I considered it a huge step in the right direction. I was at the sink, all that time, the dishwasher was going so there must have been enough elements in her surroundings to frighten her, but none of that seemed to affect her. I did this 4 days in a row and then we set the trap and caught her.

We had the courage to do this now that we knew she was not feral in the classic sense.

A story about true ferals

I remember meeting feral kittens once, a long long time ago. I was working as a journalist, in the early eighties, and somebody had tipped me off about a bunch of ‘cute kittens’ that needed attention. The person told me that they had always been fed by a lady, but that this lady had passed and the mother cat had gone missing.

The kittens were begging for food but were too wild to approach and the neighbours were wondering if somebody could catch them and bring them to the Humane Society, possibly for adoption. I felt called to do this myself. The local Humane Society was one of the places I regularly visited, because they always had one or another nice story that I could investigate and write about in the local paper I worked for. The lady in charge was one of my main tipsters!

I was filled with confidence, at the time. Not a hair on my head had doubts about my ability to grab these kittens. It turned out to be really, really difficult! These were truly feral kittens. They lived in an old dilapidated factory building in the middle of town. I had to ‘break and enter’ the fence that surrounded it and I thought it was a great adventure. At the time, I did a lot of photography for the local paper and the inside of an old factory always produces interesting pictures. I walked through the building, snapping photos, when I saw the first kitten. I tried to entice it to come to me, but it growled and hissed at me and had no intention to come to me. I had cans of food with me, and when one of the little ones came towards me and had a bite, I thought it would be no problem to grab it by the neck and put it in a carrier I had brought. Wow. That was NOT what happened! Instead, I was attacked with such fierceness that I had to drop the kitten. I had to come back later with a pair of thick gloves to hunt them down!

I managed to get them all, I think there were 4 or 5, but I paid the price and was covered in scratches and bites! The carrier was of no use. Instead, I put them all in a gigantic box that I found on the premises. It barely fit in the backseat of my old yellow Volkswagen Bug. When I drove up to the Humane Society, the manager stepped out looking at that box and asked me what the heck I was bringing. A tiger or something like that? She could hear the kittens scream and fight in protest… She was a wonderful character, that manager, and together we took the box out and released the kittens in one of the enclosures. They were wild! They were feral! It was simply too late to socialise them. Their mother had taught them to stay as far away from humans as possible. They took up residence in the Humane Society’s building. They became their ‘on premise’ cats and found a home there. But they remained completely unadoptable. There was not a mouse to found though, in that building!

Cautious but not feral

Getting back to Mitsy: by comparison, she did not come across feral to me like that. She was (and remains) a cautious cat, that observes rather than attack, she is a very smart cookie. We were extremely nervous about allowing her inside, because we were aware that unwilling cats can thrash a house, both with their nails and with their excrement. They can even attack people and other pets and cause injury. We also knew that it is almost impossible to grab a cat that does not want to be captured.

But thanks to the assistance and guidance of the rescue group we worked with during the trapping and the following nursery months, we felt that we were able to offer this cat a safe place to have a litter. All of this hinged on being able to trap her and transfer into her indoor birthing crate. Anything beyond that was not our focus when all of this started. We could dream, but we knew had to put away all expectations. This was about Mitsy delivering healthy kittens, adopting them out and getting Mitsy spayed, releasing her from the endless cycle of getting pregnant and delivering litter after litter after litter. Finding her a good place could vary from a barn where mouse hunters were needed (and cared for), to an experience foster home or an foster/adoption home that knew how to deal with unsocialised cats. We consider it a huge blessing that everything went so smoothly.