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I Was Raised by a Gang of Feral Cats

The methods in this interspecies tribe could be harsh, but the messages were pragmatic and clear.

 |  Mar 28th 2013  |   2 Contributions


When I was 4, my family moved from residential Berkeley, CA, to the tiny town of Occidental, about 100 miles to the north. I dimly remember registering the differences between city and country, the main one being that I couldn't walk to Janie's house.

But I remember clearly that we brought two cats with us, Bigfoot and Harmony. Bigfoot was an enormous multi-toed silver tom beloved by everyone except whoever had taken all those pieces out of his ears and face. Harmony was an unusually intelligent feral cat my father had tamed using bacon and infinite patience.

So we moved to the country -- boy, did we. No house stood on the land we had bought, but my parents soon located a single-wide mobile home. The four of us -- my parents, my baby brother, and myself -- would live in the "trailer" for the next nine years. Because of the magical fairy tale redwood forest surrounding our "tin can," as my father called it during thunderstorms, I hardly noticed our house was small, because I was rarely indoors. Besides, I wasn't alone outdoors.

Illustration by Nigel Sussman

Our pack of feral cats quickly grew to double digits. At the time, in the mid-1970s, people tried to let nature "do its thing" whenever possible, whether those people were radicals deciding what to with their hair, or nouveau country people pondering invasive, not-strictly-necessary pet surgery. I respect this attitude enormously, but I can reassure you that all involved are now spay/neuter fans, and everlastingly grateful that the songbirds have bounced back like champions.

The winner in all this was 7-year-old me. For a child half-feral herself, a gang of weird cat-friends is heaven. Animals are harsh teachers, especially when you hang out with them unsupervised, but they're also very practical about what they don't want. If a cat scratches you -- and I remember being scratched a lot -- you quickly realize the cat is right and you are wrong and you should have been more respectful, period. I felt like part of a fantastic interspecies tribe, and maybe I was. Best of all, every spring, we got kittens.

Sometimes it was like an Easter egg hunt; we'd see the no-longer-pregnant mama kitty come to the food bowl and wolf down cat chow. Then we'd look around and find the kittens, usually in some safe spot not far away. We'd bring them inside and try to reason with the mother, who would exasperatedly carry them back outside. I can still see the little bodies in their mother's mouth, swinging by the nape, curled in the fetal position, eyes still glued shut.

Illustration by Nigel Sussman

My mother explained what was happening, and it made sense. I admired those strong, determined kitty moms. My brother and I were proud to be grocery-store kitten-box kids. I don't think they let people do that anymore, which is probably for the best.

Sometimes, though, the mama cats were wrong. The mother, if only a scant year old, especially distrustful of humans, or a loner even among cats, might not show up at the food bowl for days. She might not choose a safe place for her babies. Worse, she might leave them and not go back. One such cat left a litter in the narrow space between the trailer floor and the outermost layer of pink insulation underneath.

I'm sure my parents would have spared my brother and me the knowledge of what had happened, but there was no way to hide the smell. My poor dad had to clean up, and although he was usually Mr. Tough Guy, he came back inside that day rattled and sorrowful. He said mean, mean things about the mother cat and never forgave her. Everyone understood this to be justice, even the cat.

She might have been aided in this understanding by the one-and-only leader of the pack: Harmony. Maintaining a tight pecking order was one of Harmony's hobbies, and if a cat didn't like it, then he could try to out-hunt, out-yowl, out-fight, or outsmart our gorgeous Calico, and he would lose. Few even tried. I like to think Harmony and her lieutenants always put kitten-abandoners last in line for the food bowl, but I don't know what it's like on the inside; politics are complicated.

Illustration by Nigel Sussman

Once we had to have her broken leg set and a cast put on. Perhaps you can imagine how fun it was to take this particular cat to the veterinarian's office. Once back home, though, Harmony was unfazed and did not slow down. Several times I watched, agog, as she hit another cat over the head using the cast like a baseball bat. It was the sound, really, that astonished us, a hollow conk. She did it only when some slinking punk tried to cut in line for food, though; I don't want anyone to think Harmony was unjust.

Living in a new place always means learning a lot, fast. Even the Internet can't prevent that steep curve. We have a new crop of nouveau country people now, mostly young, idealistic folks with small children. I salute them, and I hope that whatever their mistakes, their kids -- and animals -- are the winners.

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