Last week, my dog Special Agent Dale Cooper, started obsessing over something under our shed in the back yard. He’d squeeze his big melon head under the shed with great interest, then scoot backward and bark defensively. He spotted something. There was something under our shed. Something alive. I thought, Please don’t let it be kittens, please don’t let it be kittens.
Guess what was under there? You guessed it. Kittens.
My life in feral cats
I work in nonprofit technology now. I sit behind a desk and manage projects and respond to emails and send GIFs on Slack. (I am very, very good at GIFs.) But before I moved into technology, I worked in animal sheltering. I fought my way from working as an animal caretaker at on shelter to doing admissions in another, better shelter and eventually moved all the way up to a big national nonprofit that helps all animals. I worked in the companion animals department, and spent a lot of time talking, thinking, writing and learning about feral cats and community cats. (There is a difference!) And I also used to feed several managed cat colonies.
So I was well-prepared to deal with these kittens. Given all the sheds and piles of leaves they could have been born into, it was a good thing they were born under my shed.
Kitty rescue plan
The kittens appeared to be about a week old, maybe a little older. Their mother had nested under our shed. They were well-fed and clean, so clearly their mama had been taking good care of them. My husband spotted her coming and going under the shed a few times. So they had a mom. But… she was feral. So that posed a problem.
Caring for young kittens
Here’s who is best able to take care of young kittens: their mother. Here’s who is not: anyone else, really.
Kittens who aren’t weaned need to be bottle-fed. Bottle-feeding is a ’round-the-clock sort of deal. Newborn kittens need to be fed every 2-3 hours, so for a litter of kittens, that means waking up throughout the night to feed them formula from a tiny bottle. Bottle-feeding kittens isn’t an intuitive thing — you can actually harm them if you don’t know what you’re doing. Kittens also can’t go to the bathroom on their own (because mom helps them out) so you need to stimulate them to urinate and have bowel movements. Very young kittens can’t regulate their body temperatures either, so you have to be careful to ensure that they’re warm. And you’re also mom, for all intents and purposes, so all of the bonding and nurturing and grooming is on you.
That’s why it’s essential to keep litters of kittens with their moms. Bottle-feeding is a great way to save the lives of orphaned kittens. The volunteers who bottle-feed kittens for shelters and rescues are saints. But it’s a last resort. If they have a mom, they should remain with mom.
So we hatched a plan for the whole family.
It’s a trap!
Knowing that it was best to keep the litter with their mother, but also knowing that it’s critical to socialize the kittens while they’re young so they can grow up into spoiled house cats, we made a tentative plan. We’d grab the babies, trap mom, and keep the family in our garage.
Getting the babies was easy. We waited for mom to go out for the day, and simply picked them up from under the shed and put them in a carrier. Voila! Kitten rescue.
We acquired a humane trap (Havahart Easy Set) and used her kittens as bait. Here’s what that looked like.
We set the humane trap near her nest under our shed, then we took the carrier with the kittens inside and placed the front of the carrier at the back of the trap. Then we covered the whole set-up with blankets. The hope was that mom would come back to the nest, realize where her babies were, circle the trap, and realize the only way to get to her kittens was to go into the trap. The trap would snap its door behind her as soon as she stepped on the trigger to go check on her babies, and boom! Mom would be trapped.
She did eventually walk into the trap. It took about 8 hours. We had to watch closely, repeatedly go outside to ensure the kittens were warm and safe, but we finally got her just before sunset.
“Oh shit, now there’s a feral cat in my garage…”
My husband cleaned out the garage so the kittens and mom could safely live in there. (Which was no small task, he has a lot of tools and a giant 1970s Lincoln and assorted car parts strewn all over the garage.) We removed anything small that could post a risk, anything that could be knocked over by an outraged feral cat (which is a lot of things, really) and any toxic chemicals that were not sealed up tight.
To keep the kittens warm and contain them, we used what we had on hand: 3 plastic storage containers tipped on their sides, arranged in a semi-circle, with some warm blankets in them. We got the kittens set up, put out food and water and a litter box for mom, and then, very cautiously, released mom from the trap.
Climbing up the walls
Mom is feral. Not just scared of people. Not just shy. Feral. She wants nothing to do with people and does not want to be enclosed. She is basically a wild animal. So, when we opened the trap, we ran out of the door as quickly as we could.
Mom was climbing up the walls (impressive), doing backflips, jumping and running around frantically.
At that moment, we doubted whether we were doing the right thing. She was freaking out. I had expected her to do that, but the panicked response she had was startling. Would she ever calm down? Would she feed her kittens? Would her kittens be harmed by her flailing? How was I going to get to the kittens and give mom food and water if she behaved liked this the whole time?
I cried. My husband tried to calm me down. I worried we’d done the wrong thing.
Thank the heavens, mom calmed down in about an hour. First she hid, and then she climbed out of hiding to feed her kittens. Once I was able to visually confirm that the babies were being nursed, I was able to go to sleep.
A new routine
The timing of this kitten party was not ideal. My husband is currently attending a forensics school 2 hours away from where we live. It’s an 8-week program. He comes home on the weekends, but is away all week. So, that means that I’m home alone. Taking care of the house, our 2 pets, while working full-time, while fending off my anxiety about ghosts and house intruders. And now I had six more animals to worry about.
But it has been going well, so far. Mom is super feral so when I turn on the lights in the garage, she hides. That allows me to get into the garage, refresh her food and water, snuggle with her babies, and clean up. She watches me from behind some shelves. When I leave, she takes over tending to her kittens. We have an arrangement. It works for both of us.
And the babies! They’re precious. I mean.
They have a great mother — she does all the hard work. The kittens, all five of them, are healthy and clean. I’ve seen zero evidence of fleas. They’re doing wonderfully. They are too young to really have personalities of their own yet, but they’re getting there. Today they just started play-tussling with each other. They’re going to be just fine, and if all goes according to plan, these will be the five friendliest kittens in the world when I’m done with them.
The long-term plan
The great news is that I have tentative homes for each of the kittens. Once their sweet little faces went up on social media, it was a done deal. Once they’re weaned, I’ll separate them from mom and bring them inside, most likely in one of our spare bedrooms. They have their first kitten appointment with my veterinarian in a few weeks, and once they’re old enough and big enough, I’m getting them spayed and neutered before they go to their new homes.
I am working with a local TNR group to get mom spayed after her kittens are weaned. She’ll be spayed, vaccinated, and ear-tipped and then put back outside. If she still comes around, I’ll feed her. She’s a known cat in the neighborhood. Apparently her name is Mrs. Jenkins. (Who knew she was married?!)
Doing the right thing
So, full disclosure, literally none of this was easy. I had big plans for the weekend, and none of them included putting a feral cat in my garage. Work and life have been stressful and this was not a welcome development. I was not looking to take on the responsibility of caring for a family of cats.
But once I knew they were there, I couldn’t not help them. That’s the thing about doing what’s right: it is never, ever easy or convenient.
Helping community cats
Community cats are a human-created problem. We domesticated cats to begin with. We made them dependent on us. And then we did not do right by them. We let them outside, without spaying and neutering them. We kept them as pets, and then dumped them outside when they were no longer wanted. Outside, they bred. They produced litters of kittens. And those kittens grew up and produced even more litters of kittens. And now feral cats live in practically every neighborhood, suburb and city in the United States. Some of them are feral, meaning they were never socialized with people, and some of them are friendly. (The term “community cat” refers to any unowned cat living outdoors, feral or friendly.)
We get annoyed when they urinate near our homes, because it stinks. We fight and point fingers at cats because they kill birds. We round them up and euthanize them. We even shoot or poison them … or worse. We consider them a menace and get irritated when they knock over a trash can in search of food. There are veterinarians and even nonprofits who advocate for the killing and eradication of community cats.
But none of this is the fault of the cats. It’s on us, folks. We did this.
I did not personally create the feral cat problem in our neighborhood. I’ve only been here a year! And my pets have always been spayed or neutered. But because this cat problem is a human being-created problem, and I am a human being, I feel an obligation to whatever I can do to help alleviate the suffering of outside cats.
Trap-neuter-return (or TNR) involves humanely trapping community cats, taking them to a clinic where they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, sometimes tested for diseases like FIV and feline leukemia (depending on the clinic), and then released back outside once they’ve recovered. If you’ve ever seen a cat walking around outside with the tip of one of its ears missing, it means that cat has been through a TNR clinic. An “ear-tip” is the universal symbol of TNR.
Here’s the thing about TNR. It’s not perfect. It’s not an elegant solution that magically solves the world’s community cat problem. In order to be successful, it needs to be implemented by a municipality and then strategically executed to reduce the number of community cats over time. And we’re not there yet. Many communities still consider community cats to be pests, and treat them as such. People still bring feral cats to shelters, where they are euthanized because they’re not suitable for adoption. Animal control agencies still cling to trap-and-kill, which is expensive and ineffective. (Also? Mean!)
TNR is a harm reduction approach. It doesn’t necessarily solve the bigger problem, but it does reduce harm. It improves the quality of life of the cats, who aren’t breeding every heat cycle. It improves quality of life for communities too, because sterilized cats are less likely to cause disturbances and it prevents litters of kittens from being born. It addresses many public health concerns, because cats are vaccinated against rabies at TNR clinics. Managed colonies are fed, their health is monitored, and they’re less likely to do things like hunt for food in people’s trash cans.
TNR can only work if people are proactive. If you see community cats without ear-tips running around, contact a TNR group. Offer to learn how to trap and get involved. If you find kittens, try to find a solution that does not involve bringing them to a shelter or looking the other way.
I know that not everyone has the capacity to do what I’m doing. (I barely have the capacity to do what I’m doing, to be perfectly honest.) But by allowing myself to be inconvenienced and taking on the responsibility of helping these kittens and their mom, I’m making a difference. It doesn’t solve the problem of community cats. But it does prevent mom from giving birth to any additional litters, and it’s saving the five kittens from living outside like their mother (and producing kittens). And the people who adopt these kittens will have lifelong buddies.
So, it’s not easy. I certainly didn’t envision myself doing this. But when the opportunity to help presented itself, I took it.
Because, at the end of the day, I don’t want to be the sort of person who can turn her back on six lives that I could have helped. I don’t want to add to the problem because I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. That’s how we ended up with this problem in the first place. I want to be one of the helpers.
Okay, first of all, bringing a feral cat into your house is not something you should do. Even bringing a cat into my garage was risky. It was stressful for me, and for the cat. (Mostly for the cat, I think. I cried but I did not do back flips in panic.) It can be super dangerous. So, unless you have lots of experience with feral cats, DO NOT DO WHAT I DID. Okay? Okay.
If you come across kittens or a feral cat in your neighborhood and want to help, call an expert! Email a TNR group, call your local animal shelter. Tell them your situation, and let them guide you through how you can best help.