The Faces of Feral Cats

Trap-Neuter-Release is the most effective program for reducing the cat overpopulation. My first four articles on the topic presented the facts that support that claim. Personally, it wasn’t the facts alone that won me over. Even after wading through all the pros and cons of TNR, the cats themselves are why TNR is dear to my heart. What follows then are the stories behind three unique faces; ones which, if you’re unfamiliar with feral cat colonies, may surprise you.

THE KITTENS

Frankie and Annie are two cats who were born to a small, young, black cat in a feral cat colony. Caretakers affectionately dubbed that cat “Gravel Road Mama”. Those grown-up kittens now belong to Randy and Jill Flagel.

Back when Jill was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she would notice feral cats around campus. From day one, she worried about them, wanted to help them, and even desired to own one. She was understandably excited, therefore, when she learned about a volunteer group of students, faculty, staff, and friends of the university that formed in 2008 to ensure a high quality life for the campus cats. That group is called Husker Cats, which since its formation has stabilized and even reduced the feral cat population due to TNR.

Jill both donated to the group and kept up with news of the group’s activities. In the summer of 2014, through friends, Jill heard about the trapping of a feral kitten. According to the vet who checked the black cat, Frankie didn’t want to be feral. In fact, everyone who met Frankie was crazy about him. The Flagels requested a visit with Frankie, thinking they’d decide at the time whether to foster.

After returning from the Apple Jack Festival in Nebraska City, they jumped back in their car the next day and went to see Frankie. “We thought we were just going to visit,” Jill told me, “but they had Frankie ready to go.”

The Flagels took Frankie home. Because Frankie would need time to adjust before being introduced to the rest of the house and to their other cats, the Flagels isolated him in a bedroom with a litter box and food. In the morning, Randy would check on Frankie, and in the evening both Jill and Randy would spend time with Frankie in him room. As the days passed, it was evident from the number of paws being poked under the door that the Flagels’ cats were eager to get to know Frankie. It was also evident that Frankie wanted out of the room. One day the Flagels opened the door, retreated to the living room, and let Frankie venture out on his own when he was ready. He did this slowly, and none of the other cats bothered him. There were no disagreements, nor any hissing or fights. Frankie stayed out and became part of the family.


In the meantime, Frankie’s mom still lived in the colony and had eluded the traps. Not surprisingly then, several months later Jill heard that Gravel Road Mama had given birth to a kitten, this time a female. The Flagels now had three cats, with no plans for a fourth. But the kitten’s birthday fell on the same day Jill’s. In addition, the Flagels were tempted by the prospect of uniting Frankie with his sister. After some talk, they decided to ask to adopt Annie. Incidentally, this wasn’t their chosen name for her, but they decided to keep the name after learning it’d been chosen to honor a woman who had drowned during the floods that month.

Without early human contact, feral kittens will grow up wild. They’ll routinely face the threat of disease, starvation, flooded drainpipes, frostbite, and predators such as eagle and fox. They’ll also never know the safety, comfort, and love of a human family. In contrast, if captured at the right age, feral kittens can often be tamed within weeks. Such has proved to be the case with Frankie and Annie.

Today all four of the Flagels’ cats follow Randy around whenever he’s home. Frankie loves to have his head rubbed. At night, Frankie sleeps by Jill’s stomach and Annie sleeps next to Jill’s face. Jill notes that the cats have also connected her and her husband “into this family of cat lovers and special cats”. Pretty good for two cats who were born to feral parents and spent their first three months outside! And here’s a bonus: Gravel Road Mama herself was adopted this fall!

THE STRAYS

The dirty and skinny black cat looked like any other feral when he first showed up on campus. The shy and fearful cat was trapped, taken to the veterinarian for neutering and vaccinations, given a name, and then released where he’d been found. Day after day, caretakers of the feral colony brought food and water to JoJo and the other colony cats.

JoJo gradually began to warm up to one of the caretakers, even asking for attention from her before settling to eat. Then one summer day, this caretaker found JoJo soaking wet. She wrapped him in a warm blanket and picked him up. JoJo accepted this human contact and purred in response.

Adult cats that show up in feral colonies may be lost or abandoned, having long ago left behind memories of home and family. The longer these cats are separated from people, the more timid and defensive they can become. With time and patience, however, many of them can learn to reconnect with human companions.

JoJo is a testament to what can be achieved. When Ellen and Rob Shutt heard about JoJo, they wanted to get him off the streets and into a warmer environment before winter. Although JoJo was initially terrified, preferring to hide, he eventually learned to trust the Shutts. As Rob sat with JoJo and talked to him, JoJo became more relaxed. One day, JoJo even ventured onto Rob’s lap.

Only a month after that significant breakthrough, JoJo progressed from wanting to be held for only a few seconds to enjoying regular snuggle time with Rob. JoJo also began to rub up against Ellen’s leg and accept her gentle caresses. Ellen says that one of the highs of being a pet foster parent is seeing the transformation of a once feral cat into a loving companion.

In the spring of 2014, JoJo was placed in The Cat House with the hopes that he would find a forever home. Only a few months later, the feral colony caretakers received the news of his adoption. When his new guardian met JoJo for the first time, JoJo walked right up to her as if he had been expecting her. As one volunteer for Husker Cats said, “Obviously, he recognized LOVE when it walked in the door.”

THE FERALS

As far as anyone knows, Bootsie was born outside. She has been seen on campus as a kitten, so her age is known to be about three years old. I first met Bootsie while volunteering with Husker Cats. Immediately, she shattered my stereotype of feral cats being wild. Instead she became for me the poster cat for the potential of feral cats. You see, Bootsie would come up to her caretakers for back scratches and even would occasionally even show a playful side. Therein lay a dilemma.

Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species. The three groups, however, differ from one another in their relationship to and interactions with people. Feral cats are those which were born in the wild or have experienced minimal contact with humans. As such, they have socialized to their colony members and bonded to each other, rather than to people. These cats, who have learned by necessity to survive outside, typically do not allow humans to touch them.

In contrast, Bootsie seemed to have the potential to become someone’s pet cat and so, this past spring, my husband and I began the adventure of fostering Bootsie. At first, because we weren’t sure how she would adapt to indoor life, Bootsie stayed in a crate in our library. Within only a few days, Bootsie made it clear by her growing agitation that she wanted more freedom. In response, we opened the door of her crate and gave her the run of the library. By her interest in eating outside of the crate, playing with toys, and interacting with my husband and me, Bootsie showed us that we had made the right choice.

The next challenge would be our feisty and standoffish Tortoiseshell, Cinder. To acclimate the two cats to one another, we followed all the guidelines about initially keeping cats separated and then slowly introducing them. Initially, this involved exchanging scents through swapping beds, toys, litter, and even rooms. When the day of introductions arrived, we put a partition between the library and the hall to limit their exposure to each other. In addition, at first, the library door was only opened about a foot. We increased that amount daily and within a week, the cats were able to eat and play within sight of one another. When Bootsie tried to climb the partition, we realized it was time to fully integrate her into our household.

Doing such required introducing her to our toy poodle. The two quickly realized that neither proved a threat or even a competition to one another. Integrating her fully into our household also meant allowing Bootsie to explore the rest of our house. My husband and I had to learn to respect Bootsie’s timidity and to allow her time to realize that our home truly would be a safe haven for her. We also had to figure out that the first sound of rain will send Bootsie running for cover under our bed. Oh, and apparently, Miss Bootsie doesn’t care for robes or coats.

Bootsie_LapCatAt the same time, we’ve also been given the privilege of getting to know one of the most polite and loving cats you could imagine. Without our ever training her, Bootsie knows how to wait patiently for treats. She also responds well to: “No!” Every morning while I write these articles, Bootsie curls up on my lap. In the evening, wherever I am, Bootsie seeks me out.

Even now as I scroll through the hundreds of photos I’ve taken of Bootsie, I feel amazed that just over a year ago I didn’t even know she existed. In addition, when I finally did meet Bootsie, I simply thought of her as a cat who would safely live her life outdoors thanks to TNR. Now this gray-haired cat has not only been living inside with our family for almost eight months, but she’s become the most affectionate of our pets.

AND ALL THE REST

From the stories I hear from other TNR caretakers, I have no doubt that for every feral cat that has overcome its wild nature and learned to be a house cat, there are many others that can’t make that adjustment. Some are just too wild. Others do not get enough regular exposure to loving caretakers. For those feral cats to have a chance at a long and healthy life, the best place for them is in a TNR community.

No matter whether the feral cats remain outside or eventually find a forever home inside, my goal in introducing you to a few of them is to help you see past the debate. When thinking of how best to solve the problem of 40 million cats, we need to remember that each cat is an individual and each individual is important. Take a step today to help just one. For that one you do help, the difference might be their life.

Many thanks to Dick and Olga Paulick, who provided daily attention and affection to Bootsie’s feral colony and no doubt were instrumental in teaching Bootsie to be comfortable and even loving with people. Also, thanks to Rebecca Cahoon, who first introduced me to TNR and to Bootsie. I’m so blessed to have Bootsie in my life.

If you wish to support Trap Neuter Release right here in Lincoln, Nebraska, check out organizations that provide it. The Cat House and Husker Cats always needs volunteers, donations, and those willing to foster and/or adopt. Help them out today! To get involved on a more national level, check out the Community Cats Movement.

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