Our kitchen cats, the group who live in the back lane, are a complex bunch. The ones I can touch, have been enticed into cages, taken to the vet, and neutered. Maybe the others saw this and decided they’d opt out but the ferals who maintain a safe distance at all times are, regretfully, “intact”.
I say regretfully because of the kittens. The ferals have batches of them, and most die within a few days of birth. Life on the streets is tough, and kittens are fragile, so it’s inevitable.
Part of me says this is nature at work. Cats have four kittens or so in a litter, because nature is hard. It’s the best way to ensure one or two survive to grow up. That part of me says that what I’m seeing is a wonder of creation, the world turning, a natural cycle that has been that way for thousands of years.
The other part of me says that we should help to create a better, friendlier world. Also, the practical me pointed out that we need to control numbers, or we invite all kinds of trouble from hunger and illness to noise and nuisance.
So, when one of the ferals pitched up with two black kittens, and her friend brought back a small stripy, I was wondering what I could do to make the best of the situation.
This time, I was in a good position to influence events because we had lots of rain. As such, the girls set up their nursery on our back doorstep which is nicely covered. The two mums piled their kittens in a heap and shared nursing duties.
Although the ladies get along well, their personal styles are wildly different. The black mummy is completely wild, dashing out if I open the door and refusing to come anywhere near me. She abandons her kittens, that’s how scared she is. Stripy’s mum runs too but only after she makes a stand.
Scared cats might abandon their kittens, and even a temporary absence can invite predators like birds, rats and other creatures to attack, so for the first week, I left the babies well alone. I must admit, it took an effort of will. Kittens are super cute, and I was dying to touch them, but I womaned up and kept my eye on the big picture.
I waited till the kits had opened their eyes and could crawl, and then I limited myself to running a single finger over a little ear or tummy. The first few times, the mums hissed in outrage. But after a week or so, they realised I meant no harm, and they began to accept it.
I was encouraged that they didn’t remove their kittens, and everyone looked healthy and happy.
So, racking it up a notch, I put out a plate of tuna. It’s a treat from their usual cat biscuits, so when the mummy cats were diving in, I picked up a kitten. I just put it on my knee, stroked an ear, and put it back. The mums were startled, but after sniffing it over quickly, they were back into the tuna.
I knew I’d successfully redrawn the boundaries, and the next day, I did it again, this time with a plate of ordinary biscuits. The mums looked, and then they accepted it too.
Fast forward to this week. The kittens are now stumbling about, chasing the tree shrews, their tails, each other, and having epic battles with blades of grass and imaginary foes. They’re so incredibly cute!
When they are five months old, they need to go into a cage, off to the vet, and be secure enough to be handled to be spayed or neutered. This means we need to get closer. The thing is, at this age kittens are socialised by their mums, and there’s a danger that they pick up feral traits.
To help them socialise and accept prolonged human contact, I upped the stakes again. This morning was my first attempt. I made a big plate of tuna for the kitchen cats, and a little plate that I put on the kitchen counter. I put out the big plate, watched everyone dive in, and then I abducted Stripy, picking him up and then shutting the kitchen door.
The noise was incredible! Stripy shrieked, “Help! Help! I’m being attacked!” in kitten. But when I put him in front of the little plate, it was like he had an off-switch. His nose twitched, and then he was diving in, tiny whiskers twirling.
He sucked up his food, totally content, even though his family weren’t there. Afterwards, he was staring in my eyes, a little bit worried, but not panicking. I gave him a final ear rub, and put him back outside.
The second I put him down, his friends were all over him, sniffing and licking curiously. Stripy was squeaking in kitten again, and I swear he was saying, “I’m OK! It was just the tuna monster! She gave me lunch!”
The mums gave me evil looks, and I expect they’ll be a bit careful around me for 24 hours, but if I’m lucky, and careful, we should be at a point in three month’s time when we can make our trip to the vet. It will be a betrayal of the worst kind, but my intentions are good. Also, I plan on offering a boatload of tuna in compensation.
Kittens learn from cats
In the past, people wondered if cats inherited traits or if they learned them. One of the most significant tests of how much behaviour is passed by mummy cats to kittens was carried out in the 1920s by Professor Kuo Zing Yang, a Chinese psychologist working in China and the USA who wanted to know why some cats kill rats and others don’t.
Over several years, Kuo raised kittens in different circumstances. Some lived with their mums, some were reared in isolation. Some saw their mums kill rats and others lived with non-rat killers. Kuo was a thorough chap, so he tried the experiments with mice, different coloured rats and other variables.
At the end of it all, Kuo’s conclusion was this: “Our study has shown that kittens can be made to kill a rat, to love it, to hate it, to fear it or to play with it: It depends on the life history of the kitten.”
When Kuo did his work, it was new but today it’s accepted that cats are just like people in that they teach their kittens the facts of life – as they see them! This means that a feral mummy cat will teach her babies to be afraid of people, whereas a happy house cat will teach hers that people are safe.
A shy cat can be helped to overcome its shyness but with a feral cat, you’re dealing with a wild animal. That’s too deeply ingrained, usually, to overcome. However, if you have feral cats in an urban area, you can help them adapt, as long as work over the generations. Food for thought, isn’t it?