Sitting quietly in the shadows, drop-trap string in hand, I scan the partially lit lawn for any sign of movement. In the cool night, bats fly around me catching bugs. I’ve been here an hour waiting for the kittens and their illusive daddy to appear, the last three from the colony I have been trapping for 23 days.
Suddenly two small forms scamper out from under a building. I watch as they stop in the circle of light on the grass. One kitten raises his head and meows beseechingly for his missing colony. My heart breaks for him, as the only answer he receives is silence.
From the corner of my eye I see daddy strolling into the compound. He trills to the kittens as he saunters down the driveway just a dozen yards from me. Hidden in the shadows they are oblivious to my presence. I watch the kittens run, tails up in friendly greeting, to the big longhaired orange tomcat. They touch noses and little chirps pass between them.
I am grateful to witness such a private moment but am desperate to finish this assignment. "Go! Go to the yummy food in the traps," I urge silently. "Aren’t you hungry?"
On most nights, coyotes yip in the darkness heralding a kill while mean feral pigs roam the long aisles of grape vines. The lawns are alive with fleas, and owls search for prey from above at night, replacing the hawks of the day. This is not a safe place for kittens!
On my reconnaissance visit to the site, the number of kittens romping in the yard and lounging on the wraparound porch overwhelmed me. A seven-foot tall cactus was full of kittens poking their heads out to peer at me from the safety of the thorns. "Fifteen kittens and three mommas," reported the Hispanic woman who had finally called asking for help. There were surely more than that!
Five kittens frolicked just outside their den beneath the porch. Mom hovered close by ready to protect. Six in the litter, but one had been missing for a couple of days.
A beautiful white flame point sprawling on the porch leaned into my scratches and purred. Her paws made biscuits in the air as she gazed up at me with the bluest of eyes. A firm rounding belly … probably pregnant. Four orange and white kittens played nearby; one rubbed against my ankles.
My plan was to remove all the friendly cats and kittens from the property and adopt them out after spay/neuter surgery and vaccinations. The kittens under the porch were young enough to socialize, although probably not their mom, and the ones on the porch were definitely on the list. There was another flame point, sister to the pregnant one. I would pull her as well.
With the granddaughter translating, I was informed they wanted to keep the "white" cats and kittens. Light-colored cats are beacons at night for predators; also their pink pigment makes them susceptible to skin cancer. I relayed this information to the woman and hoped she would understand. I had no intention of leaving them behind!
I returned the next evening with equipment to catch the smallest kittens before momma moved the litter. I was able to scruff two and trap the mom; I needed her as she was still nursing. The other kittens ran under the porch to hide. They were old enough to survive the night in their den, so I left.
The next morning I called three hungry kittens out of hiding using "catspeak," learned during my years of fostering feral moms and their litters. As I meowed softly and trilled, the kittens came forward slowly licking their lips. One by one I was able to pick them up. I now had five.
Searching with a flashlight under the porch for the missing sixth kitten, I saw a lifeless little body lying in the dirt. Using a rake, I retrieved it.
I was angry with the woman for letting the situation get so out of hand. Now she was witnessing the needless death of a kitten that should never have been born in the first place. I was glad to see her wiping her eyes as I lifted the cold, stiff body up and put it in a nearby bucket for burial. Feel my pain, lady!
Death is a part of TNR. Each one that touches me takes a bit more of my heart. After seven years of working in the trenches, compassion fatigue has set in, marked by perpetual bitchiness and a propensity to break into tears. I was physically and emotionally tired, trying to hold it together but overwhelmed by what I was facing — and it was only day two!
Back home I flea-bathed the kittens. It was a nasty job, rinse water running red from the copious amount of flea "dirt" full of dried blood. I had to get as many fleas off as I could before taking them to the foster.
Bathing done, I loaded the family into carriers for a trip to the vet to have momma tested for FeLV (feline leukemia) and FIV (feline HIV).
Another heartbreak. The smallest kitten, a beautiful tortie, was fading rapidly as I waited for momma’s test results. The fleas had sucked this poor baby so dry that her gums and tongue were white. She was lethargic as she lay in my lap while I picked off dozens of fleas that had survived the shampoo. The floor at my feet was littered with their bodies, crushed between my fingernails. I made the painful decision to put her down rather than let the suffering continue. The vet tech commented, "Even her blood wasn’t red!" as she handed me a box with the lifeless body in it. We both wiped tears from our eyes as I turned away and carried it to the car. Flea anemia had claimed its second victim.
I returned to the vineyard with the dead kitten for burial with her littermate and to pick up the flame point for her spay the next day. I did not tell the woman that I thought the cat was pregnant because she was Catholic; I was afraid she would not let me take her.
While administering flea meds, I noticed some scabby stuff on her ear tips and skin cancer crossed my mind. Through broken English, the woman told me it was from fighting, but I had sincere doubts about that. The cat was spayed the following day and was indeed pregnant. I named her Snow.
By the sixth day, I had removed 13 cats and kittens, two of which were dead, and both flame points sported suspicious ear tips. I dubbed the second one Lily. Besides trapping, I was fostering her, Snow, and the four orange and white kittens, an obviously bonded family.
When Lily went in for her spay, the vet confirmed my suspicions regarding the ears. I was told to bring Snow back in. The vet would amputate their ear tips to arrest the spread of the skin cancer.
For the next week no surgery appointments were available. During this down time the woman and I continued feeding at the trapping site to keep the cats coming around. A recount showed 16 more cats and kittens still out there!
Finally a “spay day” for 10 was scheduled and trapping began in earnest. Over the course of two long days and nights, I filled my quota. As I trapped, the animals were placed in a barn for holding until spay day.
Some tried frantically to get out of their cages, bloodying their noses against the wire. The kittens cried and it was difficult to walk away with their meows ringing in my ears. They were fed and watered, and soiled papers were changed, but they were still confined.
After surgery the cats needed to be held until the last of the colony was trapped. The granddaughter showed me a building on the property, a single large room with exposed rafters and unfinished walls. Perfect! It was large enough that holding a dozen cats in it for possibly a week would not be a problem.
Having observed their friends and family disappear one after another, the last ones in a colony are always the most difficult to catch. I trapped two more on surgery day, but it took another five before I caught the next one. Now, as I sat in the darkness, it was day 23 and there were only the two kittens and their daddy left.
The kitten that cried so plaintively for the colony braved the trap that night. The remaining kitten disappeared, and trap-shy daddy wandered off.
Three-and-a-half weeks on the job, 29 cats trapped, and I was done, physically and emotionally. My body ached from all the heavy lifting. Two kittens were dead from fleas, 14 more aborted, one had disappeared … probably supper for a hungry coyote, and two had ear amputations. I turned in my resignation. Burned out, I even stopped writing my bi-weekly newspaper cat column.
I say I’m done, but I know that I would never turn away an animal in need …
All photos taken by the author.
Have you ever gotten burned out doing TNR? Tell us your experience in the comments.
Learn how to live a better life with your cat on Catster:
Read more about feral cats and TNR:
About the author: Marci Kladnik, her four rescue cats, and one Scottish Terrier live in a small town with no stoplights or mail delivery. A retired graphic designer and technical writer, she designed and wrote for two publishers and two medical device manufacturers. She was also on the masthead of the monthly National Model Railroad Association Bulletin. For seven years Marci wrote an award-winning bi-weekly cat column for three newspapers; she is currently a contributing writer for Catster.com, an award-winning photographer, and president of the Cat Writers’ Association. Involved in TNR and feral rescue, she sat on the Board of Directors of Catalyst for Cats from 2007 to 2013. Her columns appear on www.catalystforcats.org.