Monday, April 26, 2010

On Larval Cats and Worthwhile Feral Lives

As I noted in their introductory pages, Coraline, Brodie, and Shadow all started out as feral. Matt's parents live locally to us, and there's a smallish but fairly persistent feral cat colony in their neighborhood, various members of which I started noticing some time ago, whenever we visited.

Anyway, Rosie (shown below, under a bench in Matt's parents' back yard) is another colony kitty. It is difficult to keep track of all the lineages amongst these cats, but I am pretty sure her mother was a grandchild of Coal (the trap-wise "matriarch" of the colony for the past several years, and the mother of my three youngsters), making her some sort of nth-cousin to Cora, Brodie, and Shadow.

Rosie's mother only ever had two litters that I know of before she died -- one consisted of two kittens (Toby, who Matt's parents adopted, and another I called Logan, who was fostered and adopted out by a neighbor), and the other consisted of three: Gryffindor, Sage, and Rosie. Gryff is a mischievous and playful tom who still cavorts around outside -- he's definitely high up there on the Neuter Waiting List. Sage was (past-tense, unfortunately -- she was hit and killed by a car out front when she was just under a year old) a sweet, stubborn, exceedingly inquisitive girl.

(Picture above shows Rosie, a brown tabby cat with blackish stripes and some greyish "ticked" fur crouched under a bench. It is night and her eyes are reflecting a lot! She has a somewhat rounded face, and appears wary and perhaps slightly defensive.)

Rosie, though? Rosie is something of a shy cat. She is much less bold than her littermates, who would actually come into the house sometimes to go after a dangly toy. Gryff actually got his name in part from being so brave that he would sometimes dart into the house, steal a toy, and run off with it! And Sage was nearly as bold as Gryff when it came to toys (she seemed like she was competing with her brother sometimes), and even let me pet her (with purring!) a few times. But Rosie was always the one hanging in the background, looking on with cautious interest, but not usually venturing forward.

Nevertheless, she is fairly used to Matt's parents and to me and Matt (seeing as we've been over there to do laundry a lot in the past year, due to not having washer plumbing yet in the new house). She doesn't immediately bolt if she sees humans (at least certain humans) -- and two weeks ago today (April 12, 2010), she chose to deliver her kittens right outside Matt's parents' back door.

It was unseasonably (for this part of California) cold and rainstormy that day, so as soon as Matt's mom saw what was going on, she made a nest (out of a cardboard box and a towel) and brought the kittens inside. Soon afterward, drawn by the cries of her babies, Rosie herself came right inside!

Now, the whole family is camping out in Matt's parents' larger bathroom -- and once the babies are old enough to not need near-constant feeding, Rosie can be spayed (and the kittens can be spayed or neutered safely as early as eight weeks, though some vets prefer to wait until they weigh four pounds.)

Now, for a bit of a tangent: I am a strong supporter of Trap-Neuter-Return (which you can read much more about on the Alley Cat Allies site -- one of my favorite cat-related resources). TNR (in conjunction with "trap-neuter-adopt" for young kittens and tame stray cats who have taken up with feral colonies) is clearly far more humane than the "round up and kill" method common to some areas, and also generally results in the cats going on to live much longer, healthier lives than they would have otherwise.

It is absolutely not true that feral cats by definition live a "miserable" existence -- I've seen and known enough of them to observe that so long as the humans in their midst accept their coexistence and aren't jerks or sadists, the cats are generally quite happy and content. I have watched many of them playing chase games, scrambling up trees, leaping after skittering leaves blown about by the wind, basking in sunbeams, and just generally seeming to enjoy their felinity. And yes there are risks outdoors, such as automobiles driven by careless humans (like the ones who killed Sage), but I do not think for a moment that the presence of these risks mean that the very existence of feral cats calls out for human pity.

In other words, there are good things humans can do for cats like Rosie -- getting her spayed, vaccinated against rabies, etc. -- but to suggest that her life is a tragedy just because she isn't a "pet" is ridiculous. Right now she is working hard (and doing a great job of) caring for her four beautiful children. Once she's done with that, she will get her trip to the vet and then she will be free to re-join her colony outdoors.

(Picture above shows Rosie, a brown tabby cat, lying on her side with her belly exposed. Four kittens -- about twelve days old when this photo was taken -- snuggle in a pile in front of her: a little marble/classic tabby is nursing, a dark grey tabby nestles near Rosie's arm, and a solid black kitty is curled up on top of a light grey tabby sibling.)

The kittens, as they're going to be spending their formative weeks indoors (Rosie has been free to come in and out, but mostly she stays in taking care of her babies), will not be feral -- feralness is a function of where and how kittens are raised, mostly, and how much early contact they have with humans*.

What this means, of course, is that we (meaning me, Matt, and his parents) are scouting around already, trying to find good homes for the kittens once they are old enough (11 weeks or thereabouts**) to leave Mom.

Matt's parents already have three "official" cats (Toby, Harmony, and semi-feral Suzie) so they can't really afford to take on four more, and I've set my own household feline limit at four (any more and we would likely have serious territory issues) so I can't take even one kitten home myself.***

So...I am really hoping we will find people who can maybe take two kittens at once (or someone ambitious enough to take on all four, even!), as littermates have a higher chance of getting along once they grow up than un-related cats (and they are absolutely delightful to see growing up together!).

But if someone can only take one kitten that is fine too, so long as they are committed to providing that kitten with a lifetime home (there are an unfortunate number of cats abandoned every year because some humans don't want them once they outgrow the "cute kitten" phase -- which I frankly can't even begin to wrap my brain around, seeing as cats are adults for most of their lives, and adult cats all seem to sort of "deepen" with age, in a manner that just makes me feel utterly privileged to be in their presence), and so long as they are generally respectful of cats.

In the meantime, though, I am definitely going to be enjoying watching the little kittens grow and develop. I have never actually seen kittens so young in person before -- seriously, that is where my post title came from, as they really do seem like cat larvae (in a cute way!) during the "eyes closed, ears folded" stage. So you can definitely expect more pictures, here and on my Flickr photostream!

For now, though, I leave you with one more image, this time of one particular kitten:

S/he (we don't know what sex any of the babies are yet) is all curled up against Rosie's belly, surrounded by siblings. Eyes are closed, and just the tiniest tip of tongue is poking out of his/her mouth!

* Of course there are some cats just born with very strong temperamental predilections toward either extreme human-wariness (meaning no matter how they're raised, they'll likely act feral) or its opposite (meaning they'll be very bold about approaching humans even if their first encounter is as older kitten or even adult ages).

** Cora and Brodie were younger than this -- closer to 7 weeks -- when I trapped and adopted them, and it would have been better if they'd been able to stay with Mom longer. However, seeing as their mother in particular was/is very feral, it would have likely been much, much harder to catch them the older they got. Shadow, meanwhile, got to stay with Mom for an extra 3 weeks while we worked out how to trap him -- he was very elusive -- so it ended up working out that no kitten was without at least one family member prior to the age of ten weeks.

*** I love cats and want to help care for as many as possible, but I know that caring for cats does not entail presuming every single kitty I encounter needs to live with me. That kind of attitude -- the "I must SAVE them all by KEEPING them all" thing -- is where "animal hoarding" comes in, and frankly that sort of mentality strikes me as both misguided and selfish, not compassionate.

One must be aware of the "cat-carrying capacity" of one's home (I figured mine to be four, and I'm sticking to that, based on the size of the house, number of rooms, and the fact that some of my resident Feline-Americans are way territorial), of one's own own available cat-care resources, and the personalities of the cat(s) involved when one is looking to adopt. And sometimes the best thing you can do is say "no, I can't take this cat, but I will certainly help look for someone else who can!" And participate in TNR efforts, however you are able. Yes, I'm opinionated about this. :P

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