Having spent six years volunteering for Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County, I know a thing or two about feral cats. At least I thought I did.
Jingles was trapped in Healdsburg and brought into the shelter last year. Upon arrival he hissed and growled and showed every tell-tail sign of being feral. Still, I knew from experience that cats who’ve been stray for a while will act feral but then turn around and become “tame” again. So I placed him in ISO just in case he was carrying something contagious then, once I knew he wasn’t sick, brought him into my clinic to see what I could do.
For those who’ve never been to our shelter or seen a feral in a shelter, what we do with a feral cat is put them in a cat carrier (with door), place the carrier in a regular cat cage, put food, water and a litter box in the cage, then carefully remove the carrier door so the feral can come out of the carrier for food, water and their box. Most ferals won’t come out of the carrier until you leave the room. Some will hide behind the carrier then scoot in when they feel threatened (the carrier is their safe spot). Some won’t go back into the carrier, which is a problem because in order to clean the cage (everyday) we need the feral in the carrier so we can put the door on, take the carrier our of the cage, clean the cage, put the carrier back in the cage, then take the door off. If we need to physically get the feral into the carrier… well, I’ve got scars to prove how difficult that can be.
Anyway, back to Jingles.
For the first two weeks I couldn’t get more than a foot away from Jingle’s cat cage without him going ballistic. He was exhibiting feral characteristics that’d make other ferals jealous. But I respected his space and learned how close I could get each time I approached. I wanted to get just close enough where he wouldn’t feel threatened, but a little closer every time so eventually I could touch him (if ever possible). And after two weeks I still couldn’t get closer than a foot.
Then, about midway into the third week I noticed that I could get a little closer. By the fourth week I could stand right next to his cage. He wasn’t real happy with that, but he didn’t growl or hiss. His body language, however, told me that that was close enough.
I was encouraged that we were making progress. But weeks went by where I tried opening the cage door and he went ballistic every time. With some cats you can only get so close and that’s it. No more inching closer. The line has been drawn. And for the next month that line was opening the cage door.
Still, everyday I’d try. Hoping.
We were now three months into our “relationship” and there was still no progress being made. I decided that I’d give him one more week. If I couldn’t get past opening the cage door we’d declare him feral, get him fixed at Forgotten Felines, and release him into our newly created HAS feral colony. (Unlike other shelters, it’s my goal to release ferals, not euthanize them.)
Well, a week went by and the day came. I walked into my clinic. He was in his carrier. I looked squarely at him and said “This is your last chance for a cozy life in a nice, comfy home. If I were you I’d take it.” He just stared back. But something was different. His usual “I’m going to tear you to pieces if you get any closer” look in his eyes had changed to a “I’m just really scared.” I slowly and carefully opened the cage door and…
Nothing. No growling. No hissing. No retreat. So I decided to give him another week.
And that went on for two more weeks. We played a little game where I’d open the cage, we’d stare at each other, I’d give him the “I’m friendly” cat eyes, he’d just stare back, then I’d close the cage. Then one morning I opened the cage door and he stuck his head out of the carrier, looked at me for a bit, and gave me the “I’m friendly” cat eyes back.
We traded eyes for a minute or two, then, with a little hesitation, he came forward and rubbed his face against my hand.
Do you ever have a moment when you forget to breath? Then realize you’re about to pass out? Well, that was my moment. But I didn’t want to scare him by taking a huge deep breath so I took rapid little breaths as quietly as I could. I swear if anyone would’ve seen this they’d have thought I was having a heart attack. Maybe I was.
For the next two months I worked with Jingles. Each day we made progress, inch by inch. I remember the first day that I could pet him without him retreating. I remember the first day that I could pick him up for a second or two. I remember the first day that I held him and he didn’t resist. I remember letting him out of his cage (permanently) to live with and play with the other “free-range” cats in my clinic. I remember him running up to me every morning I came to clinic trying to steal my attention away from the others.
But mostly, I remember the first day that I put him in our cat adoption room… and how happy/sad I felt: happy he had made so much progress and was such a wonderful cat now; sad because I knew that I’d miss him a lot when he was adopted.
And he was. Six months after he came into my clinic as a hissing, spitting feral, he left as one of the most lovable cats we’ve ever known. And to this day we still hear from his adopters just how wonderful he is, and that he’s the best cat the adopters have ever had.
Post Note: Like humans, animals get scared. It doesn’t mean they’re bad or angry or feral. It just means they’re scared. Giving them a safe, comfortable space in which to lose their inhibitions doesn’t always work. But it’s a really good start. So that’s where we start here at HAS. Every animal receives the appropriate time and attention to make sure that their true character shines through. If that character makes them adoptable, great. If not, we’ll exhaust all resources trying to modify that character and make them adoptable.