When I was a kid, my mom was not big on pets but I kept bringing home stray cats, mice that I found in the woodpile, etc. I talked her into hamsters and chameleons as pets, but she would not allow cats or dogs. (I did have a puppy, briefly, but she gave him away when she realized the bulk of puppy care would fall to her and not me. Hey, I was 9 years old, what did she expect?!) At one point, my mother told me in exasperation that I could have a zoo when I grew up and had my own house. Now we laugh about that when she comes to visit, with cats winding around her ankles and a dog rolling over on his back for belly rubs.
I’ll be honest…I’m a cat person. We do have a dog, a black Cockapoo named Toby, and I love him with all my heart. If it weren’t for Dave, though, he would not be part of our household. It was Dave who took a then 5-year-old Paige to the county pound back in 2000 and told her they were going to look for a dog. It was Dave who picked Toby out, named him, declared him the Perfect Dog. It is now Dave who gives Toby his Neverending Haircuts, takes care of any problems in his nether regions (dingleberries, anyone?) and reassures me when Toby does Dog Things that worry and confound me. Dave is a Dog Person. I’m glad he’s a Dog Person, because our lives wouldn’t be the same without Toby. However, I don’t get dogs the same way I do cats.
When Dave and I met, back in 1998, I had one cat. His name was Bear, and he lived to the grand old age of 20 years. Dave and Bear got along famously and I think he was Dave’s first experience with a cat that was kept indoors and pampered, rather than an outdoor farm cat.
We adopted another male cat from a shelter the following year. He’s all white and his name is Sugar. We had originally intended to get a female cat, figuring Bear would accept a female quicker than a male. Sugar, however, won Dave’s heart by grabbing onto the hood of his sweatshirt jacket as he walked past the cage. We read the index card attached to the bars, and found out that Sugar had been rescued from the streets. He’d been in the shelter for 5 months and was only 7 months old, although he looked full grown. He’s partially deaf, and could only go to a home with a ‘hearing’ cat to help him along. We agreed it was a sign — after all, we were both partially deaf and we could really relate to a partially deaf cat!
We went along like this for quite a while…Bear and Sugar the cats, Toby the dog. We even adopted 3 guinea pigs from a guinea pig rescue organization here in Illinois. (For some reason, none of our cats think of the guinea pigs as prey…they completely ignore them.)
Bear’s health deteriorated in 2005 and we had to have him put to sleep that summer. It was heart-wrenching for all of us — the kids had Bear in their lives forever, and I’d had him with me since he was just a tiny kitten in 1985. Dave & Bear had forged a bond that was truly amazing — Bear would sit on Dave’s lap, and Dave’s lap only.
We waited a month, and at the end of August 2005 Dave took me to look at cats waiting to be adopted. We had promised the kids we’d get a kitten — we figured it would be easier for Sugar to accept a kitten, and the kids had never had the experience of raising a tiny kitten before. However, I immediately fell in love with a 4 year old long-haired black female cat. I couldn’t help but return to her cage again and again — the kittens were cute, but something about her just drew me in. Dave declared her my birthday gift and we brought her home. We named her Sabrina and she fit into our family immediately — she is by far the friendliest, most laid-back cat I’ve ever owned.
Later that year during winter, we noticed a stray cat in our neighborhood. We assumed it was a male. We first noticed it walking on top of the wooden privacy fence between our home and our next-door neighbor’s. As we watched this little cat do an amazing balancing act, I declared to the family that I wanted that cat…it was meant to be with us…after all, it was black and white, which was a combination of our current two cats (Sugar, all white, and Sabrina, all black). We made jokes about having only monochromatic animals, and everyone began to humor me when I made noises about wanting to bring this cat into our home. After all, we had no idea if it was truly a stray/feral cat or if it was somebody’s pet that was allowed outdoors.
As the weather warmed up in early 2006, this black and white cat started showing up by our patio door. We sometimes set a plate of cat food outside on the deck, and this cat figured out that a free meal was available. We began feeding it, called it ‘Max’ and would all gather around to watch as it polished off each plate of food.
In mid-May of that year, our lawn had grown to jungle proportions and Dave went under our deck to retrieve the lawn mower. The deck is enclosed, and as he opened the doors he was met with a surprise: there was ‘Max’ under the deck, along with two tiny kittens. We realized Max was a girl, and the reason we’d been seeing her on a daily basis was because she was living under our deck.
We spent about 2 weeks going under the deck to feed the cats, sitting on old crates quietly until the kittens would come out of hiding and begin eating. We brought down an old litter box, an old cat bed, blankets, food and water. We rarely saw Maxie (her new, more feminine name) but the kittens began to get used to our presence. Since they were eating solid food, we figured they were 5 or 6 weeks old. We named the grey and white kitten ‘Smokey’ and the black and white kitten ‘Boots’, for its white paws.
We found this all fairly amusing — we had promised the kids we’d still get a kitten, if the time was right and the right situation presented itself. We had to admit that having 2 kittens pretty much drop into our laps seemed very much like a sign!
On top of discovering the kittens, we also began to have a problem with tomcats coming into our yard. More than once we found them looking into the windows of our candle workshop, and they were always in and out of the yard. We would see them chasing Maxie through neighborhood yards. Eventually, one of them took to waiting on the deck, near the entrance under the stairs, that Maxie was using to get in and out (since she hadn’t mastered opening the deck doors with her paws!) which made us very nervous. We had no idea if they were going to try to harm the kittens.
One morning we went down to feed the cats and saw a large amount of grey fur outside the deck door. This fur looked exactly like Smokey’s fur, and we were certain that a tomcat had gotten in and killed one or both of the kittens. We had been planning to eventually trap the kittens and bring them indoors, and this pushed our plans into high gear. We ended up emptying everything out from under the deck, hoping and praying that what we found wouldn’t be heartbreaking.
We’d cleared the deck entirely and found no sign of any of the cats. At that point I was convinced Maxie had moved the kittens to another location. There was only one item remaining under the deck — a large platform ladder. Dave lifted it up and both kittens shot out!
We were able to coax both of them into cat carriers and then we moved them into a large crate in our garage. The next day we set the crate on the deck, using the kittens as ‘bait’ (how horrible that sounds!) to catch Maxie as well. This literally took hours as she circled the crate but refused to go inside. We had tied a string to the crate door (the kittens were in a sectioned off back part of the crate, which was huge – it was a crate for a large dog). We extended the string into our house through the deck door, closed the blinds and peeked out while we waited for Maxie to walk inside. We were beginning to think she would never fall for this, when she finally walked into the crate to sniff her kittens. Dave pulled the string, the door slammed shut, and Maxie went crazy…but we had her! All of the cats were okay, although Maxie had an obvious fight wound on her side.
We set up an area in the garage, using the crate as well as some shelving material, to give the feral cats a place to stay where they couldn’t run off but also couldn’t expose our current animals to any diseases or fleas.
We took all three girls to the vet a few days later. (This was easier said than done…we had to once again trap all of them into cat carriers for the ride to the vet, and this took about 45 minutes each time we had to do it.) We found out that both kittens were girls, so we renamed them: the grey/white kitten became Grace, and the black/white kitten was christened Alice. They were in remarkably good health, with no worms, fleas or ear mites. Maxie was spayed and her abscess was cleaned up and stitched closed. (It was huge; the vet said she would have died if we hadn’t intervened. Poor girl!!) She did have worms, which were treated and cleared up, but no fleas or ear mites. The kittens got all of their vaccinations and then got spayed, and we began very, very slowly working on socializing them.
In the beginning, Gracie was much more friendly — she would come up to us, let us pet her, pick her up, etc. She was completely fascinated by Toby and loved to walk up and sniff him. Alice was very timid and would run away if we approached her. However, at the vet’s office she was the calm one and Gracie was the hissing, spitting wildcat! Over the years, their roles reversed. Alice (or Ally-cat, as we often call her) is friendlier and will come up for long petting sessions. Gracie is still very nervous and will often shoot out of a room if we enter. Every now and then, we can get her to hang around long enough for us to pet her.
Maxie is my little sweet pea. She will come up to us, rub her head on us and let us pet her. As I mentioned before, we don’t pick her up. As soon as we move our hands to her sides, as if to lift her, she slinks down and runs off. She has come a long way, though! She used to swipe at us and hiss if we came near. Now she sits on our chests if we’re lying in bed, sits with us on the couch, and she even tolerates Toby, Sabrina and Sugar.
If it weren’t for the fact that we still can’t pick them up, you’d probably never know these cats used to be feral. It took about 2 years of patience, but it’s really been worth it.
We submitted their story to Borders for their Hopeful Tails book project, and it was accepted. You can see a short story and sweet photo of our girls on page 79 of the book. One funny note: in the abridged version of their story that was published, my name was changed from Wendi to Melissa in the middle of the paragraph. Everyone who sees the book wants to know who Melissa is!
Each of the girls has their little quirks:
Maxie loves to jump onto one of the kitchen stools when we’re cooking. She peeks her face over the corner of the kitchen island to watch and sniff the enticing aromas, but she always stays on the stool and never tries to jump up onto the counter.
Gracie is our Flying Wallenda. We often find her on the fireplace mantel or on top of our work oven in the workshop. She’s the one most likely to leap from surface to surface without hesitation. She’s also still absolutely in love with our dog, Toby!
Ally-Cat loves to come up for chin scratches and back rubs, and will flip over in a ninja roll when you start to pet her. We’ve never seen a cat do somersaults before!
The cats tend to hang out downstairs in the summer and in our bedroom during winter. It makes Dave a little bit nervous; he has to race Maxie into the bedroom and try to leap into bed before she gets there. Otherwise he has to try to slip under the covers without her thinking it’s a game – a couple of times we’ve had cats attacking our toes under the covers and boy, their teeth are sharp!
So that’s how we ended up with 5 cats. Here’s a photo of Dave with all the cats and Toby…I believe this is the only photo we have with all of them in one shot: