In the beginning...
Updated: May 3
...a sweet feral cat came to us looking for help.
Our MamaCat. She was the first of the feral cats we fed and looked after. It took us three years to make friends with her.
Over the next three years, we were able to earn her trust sufficiently that we could come out on the porch to sit with her while she ate…eventually we could even touch her.
Over the course of a decade living in and around the Paint Lake area of Dorset, Kyal started noticing cats around his home. There were a couple of strays that he began to feed during the harshest of winters, a couple of whom became quite friendly. Eventually each of them would move along, or disappear. One very small female began to come on a regular basis over the course of a few years. There were others, but this very tiny girl was special.
One year, there was a very long and cold winter that followed a year with a low rodent population. By this time I was spending much of my time at the cabin, too. We started to notice this one tiny little cat coming by more and more, and it seemed so hungry, that we finally put out some bits of ham under the porch. Slowly, we enticed her out from under the porch - she was still only a flash of fur and eyes - until eventually she started to let us see her. Bit by bit she would come closer, until we could feed her ON the porch, while we retreated into the house to watch her from behind the door.
Over the next three years, we were able to earn her trust sufficiently that we could come out on the porch to sit with her while she ate…eventually we could even touch her. She filled out, and grew into a healthy cat after her small malnourished state. One spring, she came back to us to present us with her first litter of kittens! Three adorable little balls of fluff who grew up in our yard, among the plants and gardens, hunting crickets and grasshoppers in the driveway, and learning to survive and hide and climb trees. We dubbed them Silver, Little Girl, and Fuzzy, and they all became friends of ours. The little cat that we had previously just called “Cat”, became “MamaCat”.
After this first batch of kittens, we decided to provide the cats with safe spaces to sleep, eat and keep warm and dry. A variety of shelters were built for them, with heated dishes in the winter to keep water and food from freezing.
MamaCat went on to have three other litters that we know of. The next kitten that we met seemed to be a solo. After she had her babies, she was very secretive about their location. And then one night she showed up right beside our doorstep with just one tiny baby, and she was spooked! We believe that she had several kittens, due to the size of her pregnancy, and early indications told us that she was nursing more than one. But when she came to us with this baby, it was all alone, and very very young…we estimate it was about 4 or 5 weeks old. Obviously something terrible had happened, and was the only one she had managed to save. We named it Bijou, and it had a very pronounced umbilical hernia. MamaCat kept moving this baby from place to place, so we were never able to get our hands on it. Fuzzy was still around at this point, and seemed to be helping her babysit! MamaCat used to bring it to us to eat on the porch, but it was very very shy. We tried to socialize it a little, but it was not able to let down its guard. And then one day MamaCat went back into heat, and left it somewhere nearby. It was able to come for food for a few days, but we didn’t see it and couldn’t figure out where it went afterward. One day it just stopped coming. We don’t really know what happened, though we worry that it was very vulnerable out there with that dangling hernia.
MamaCat also disappeared for a period of time, and then she started coming back again late in the autumn to eat and warm up. We realized that she was pregnant, but she was still too sketchy to really get our hands on her. At this time we didn’t realize how wide-spread the feral cat problem in the area actually was. But we were starting to get an inkling that we would have to take steps, and soon. There was a period of time when she disappeared for about a week, and then showed up again NOT pregnant. She would come and eat large amounts of food, cat milk and bone broth. We could touch her sometimes, but she was still so very cautious of us. This continued until around Christmas time. I woke up one morning and looked out the window to see if MamaCat was sitting out on the porch in her heated bed waiting for food, only to discover she had brought a kitten with her!
ShyAnne was about 5 weeks old, an adorable short-haired silver tabby with white tips on each of her toes and the end of her tail. Again, only one kitten. We waited. Would she bring others? She never did, and we always wonder what happened that winter. ShyAnne remains with us to this day, semi-feral still.
In the space of about a month, MamaCat reappeared - pregnant again, we suspected. And very shortly thereafter, we felt that Shy was in similar state. She was just 6 months old. It was at this point that we realized that we needed to take serious action on the feral cats within our sphere. We continued to feed them and try to get close to them and befriend them.
MamaCat went off to have her babies, we don’t know where her nest was, though we had an idea that it was across the creek. We wondered if she would ever be able to bring her babies to us, as getting from one side to the other in any season but winter entails a longer walk, and the need to cross the bridge along highway 117.
MamaCat showed up, finally - and to our great surprise - with FOUR new kittens in tow, by this time already 10 or 12 weeks old. They took up residence in the wood shed for a week or so, and we fed them and kept them safe as best we could. They were surprisingly receptive to this, probably because their mother was obviously comfortable with us. After this brief visit, they all disappeared again for another four or five days. Was Mama taking them on a tour of the neighbourhood?
One day one of the kittens returned on its own, the sole long-haired one. (also dubbed "Fuzzy", he remains with us to this day.) MamaCat returned with two of the other babies the next day, but the fourth never reappeared. We think that one was the female of the litter. The others were all male, and two of those were polydactyls, including our own sweet Fuzzy boy.
MamaCat vanished again, before we could catch her to take her for her spay. She came back, pregnant again! We didn’t want to have her spayed at this point and abort those kittens, so we thought we would wait her out again, until she brought them to us, knowing that we would be able to adopt out any babies that she had. She had them some time in the summer, and kept coming back for food, but she was not happy at all of the extra cats that were hanging around the feeding and warming stations. She became very snuggly with us, more than ever before. She wanted to be picked up and held and cuddled. This went on for many weeks, as she continued to come for food, and leave every day to go nurse her babies. We believe she had at least four, given the number of nipples that were wet and/or full of milk every day.
One day, she stopped coming. It was extremely odd, given the frequency with which she had been visiting, and the degree of affection and attachment she had been demonstrating toward us, after all these years of being sketchy and standoffish!
Two weeks went by, until one day a kitten appeared under our porch. At first I couldn’t figure out where the sound of mewing was coming from (the underside of the porch is closed off to keep out animals and drafts, but somehow this little baby had managed to find its way under.) It was a the work of only a few minutes to entice this kitten out from under the porch with food, and get it into a trap. Little Scruffy was, well, scruffy. He was tired, bedraggled, dirty, and hungry. His belly was distended and hard and sore, and he was having serious bowel issues. We had NO idea where he had come from, or how he knew to come to us for help. But MamaCat had still not returned, and we theorized that this kitten was one of her most recent litter… and that it had followed her scent trail back to us. And if that was true, then it means something terrible had happened.
MamaCat has still not returned. We fear the worst. We wish we could have just gotten hold of her and gotten her in to be spayed. If she ever turns up again, we will be sure to have a very stern word with her for disappearing, and then take her immediately to the vet. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200! But still…we have little hope at this point. It has been months since we have seen her. We want to be hopeful, but this is only one of the unfortunate stories that happen for feral and stray cats.
We have regrets, of course. Tears have been shed. We debated often between us whether to catch and TNR MamaCat. Kyal was against it, believing that to do so would break the fragile trust that had developed between this scared little cat and her chosen humans. I had been advocating taking the risk of turning her against us in order to save her from the reproductive cycle and all that it entails. And with the hope that she would actually appreciate it in the end. Our dithering may have cost this sweet cat her life. But rest assured that if she turns up again, we will grab her and take care of the matter once and for all. Hopefully we will get the chance.