I’ve always been drawn to nature programs. I grew up watching them as a child, feeding my love of animals with the need to know more about all kinds of species. I thought seriously about becoming a naturalist, following in the footsteps of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. I kept little notebooks where I jotted down observations of the species in my own backyard. I learned how to identify a wide variety of birds and mammals. Our squirrels became so tame, they would wait for me on the front step to come outside and feed them each morning. One of my fondest memories as a child was spending a snow day on friend’s family farm, and identifying a large number of different animals by their tracks in the snow.
The thing that ultimately kept me from heading off to Africa to study chimpanzees in the wild was the realization that as a zoologist in the field, it would be virtually impossible to take my dog or cat with me, and I couldn’t imagine leaving my pets behind.
As an adult, I found other ways to work with animals, but I still remain at heart an observer of nature–and a sucker for anything that shows up begging to be fed.
15 years ago, I trapped, spayed, and released an ugly female cat that kept having kittens under my porch. She was too wild to catch the first year, and her kittens scattered into the surrounding land too.
Once I caught her, I was able to catch the latest litter of kittens and find homes for them all. It took me another year and a half to catch the big male that was likely the father. Once I neutered both of them, they tamed down and hung about the property, greeting me when I’d arrive home in the evenings and following as I fed the livestock.
Over the years, other cats have showed up. Again and again, I went through the taming process. Some I could find homes for. Some were too feral even once neutered. The dad cat died last year from a combination of hyperthyroidism and kidney failure. The ugly mom cat is still with me, now creaky with age and deaf as a post. I built a catio for her because its no longer safe for her to roam at large.
It’s never been safe for them to roam, however.
One of the hardest things about making yourself responsible for a set of creatures that are largely wild animals is that sometimes there’s a limited amount you can do to protect them unless you are willing to make them indoor animals. We’re already over our indoor limit here, and the one house cat (from the second litter born under our porch) is a bully who prefers dogs to his native species.
A couple of winters ago, I lost my favorite feral cat to the road, and I vowed I wouldn’t get that attached ever again.
I’d spent months taming Ghost, and while I couldn’t pick him up, he was my little shadow around the farm. I was devastated when he died.
But then a new lot of young toms began drifting in, and the cycle of trapping, neutering, and releasing began again.
Black Jack was too nice a cat to let get hit by a car, and he was fighting with Harley, the other young tom who’d showed up about the same time, so I put him in the catio rotation with the ugly mom cat (okay, her name is Psycho Kitty because before she was spayed she would attack you). Harley seemed to be smart about the road, but I overfeed him so he’ll have no need to cross it looking for food.
Harley disappeared for months after I had him neutered, only to show up again when it got cold. I made a kitty shelter for him out of a Styrofoam cooler and and he sleeps in it every night. Like the others, he greets me when I come home from work, and follows me (and the dogs) all around the property.
But then Judge showed up. Talk about feral. Judge is so wild, I’m not entirely sure of his/her gender. I’ve never managed to get closer than 20 feet or so. She/he is so named because I’ll catch him or her staring through the bushes in silent judgement of me.
With the latest round of ice storms, both Harley and Judge had been showing up for meals twice a day like Swiss timepieces. But just before this last winter storm, Judge disappeared for a few days. He was gone so long, I was starting to think he was gone for good, but then he showed up right as the latest bout of weather was about to begin.
And he was injured.
I could tell from the way he held one eye closed there was something wrong but what could I do? It was too cold to set out a trap, and even if I could catch the cat, I’d only be able to put eye medication in if he was sedated. Operating on the “do what you can” model, I put antibiotics in his food and did a little fist pump when he ate them.
The following day as the storm rolled in, he appeared holding both eyes open, but dear Lord, his left eye was a mess. He must have been in a fight with a penetrating wound to the globe. And short of putting antibiotics in his food, there was nothing I could do about it. The problem is, antibiotics taken by mouth seldom affect infections in the eye because the eye is a closed system. Few medications can travel through the bloodstream and have an effect on them.
I still can’t trap the cat–he’d perish exposed in a live trap overnight in this weather. I still wouldn’t be able to medicate his eye directly if I could catch him. He’d have to go someplace where aggressive measures would have to be taken (like a third eyelid flap) and I doubt the eye is salvageable.
I managed to get a good look at the eye with a 300 mm telephoto lens, and believe me when I say if it makes me cringe to look at the photo, you don’t want to see it here. But here’s a pic of Judge eating.
So I keep putting antibiotics in his food. At some point when the weather warms, I plan to trap him anyway. He’ll probably have to have his eye removed–and that will also prove problematic if he isn’t tame enough for aftercare. All I can do is watch and worry and hope for the best.
Does this make me a crazy cat lady? Probably. But I don’t know any other way to be.