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I am currently spending a week house sitting for my brother and sister-in-law while they are on vacation. I am doing this because they are rather wonderful people who are the feeders and caretakers of a clan of feral cats that were in the neighborhood when they moved into the house. We are all animal lovers and share the belief that stray cats are the result of a human problem and so we do what we can to help them, if only to prove that not all human beings are wretched and callously irresponsible. In the beginning my brother and his wife just fed the poor, starving animals that lived in horrible conditions in their neighborhood, but eventually their care giving evolved into building them shelters to keep the cats out of the elements and save them from freezing to death in the winter.
Then one fateful day, a remarkable thing happened. One of the female cats had 4 kittens. The runt of the litter was a tiny female who never got the chance to nurse because her more robust brothers tended to push her out of the way. She was small, weak, and couldn't keep up. Although none of the feral cats ever allowed my brother and his wife anywhere near them, they would gather outside and wait until one of them came out with their feeding for the day in the lean-to my brother built to keep their the cats and their food dry while they ate. My brother had brought them their food and he and his wife were standing on the back steps when the mother came up to them carrying the little runt kitten in her mouth and laid it at their feet. She looked at them for awhile and then walked back to her other kittens.
My brother picked up the tiny creature who appeared to be unconscious and barely breathing and told his wife that he feared that she was dying. This was not something she wanted to hear so she called a vet and they took the poor little thing to see if she could be saved. The vet told them that she was suffering from malnutrition, rickets, and dehydration and had a heart murmur and that if they had waited even an hour the kitten would have died. Thankfully, she lived, and became the love of my brother's life.
After that they were both determined to do something about the rate of birth and death of any more kittens. They found a vet in Freeport with the soul of a saint who gave them humane traps to use to capture the females, who she was willing to fix for free. It took them 6 months, but they managed to trap them all, have them fixed, and bring them home and release them. With the help of like-minded people, they found good, loving homes for all the kittens. After all the females had been taken care of they even managed to trap the big, old, beaten up feral male who was the father of most of the kittens. They had named him Hero, for reasons that escape me, but it sort of fit since he was obviously the dominant male and clan leader. Hero was of indeterminate age, but he had obviously seen better days. He was missing half an ear, had batches of hair he had lost in fights, limped in damp or cold weather, and had only one of his upper teeth left. In short, he was a typical tom. But there was something different about Hero – something unusual and rather marvelous. Hero cared for his children. He would greet them when their mothers brought them to eat, allow them to jump on his back and wrestle with him, and give them a good cleaning when they needed it. He would even let them curl up and sleep with him. My brother and his wife couldn't touch him or pet him, but they would often watch with wonder as he tended to his offspring.
When Hero came home the vet after his surgery, they were in store for even more surprises. While all the other carts wanted nothing more than to be released and remain feral, Hero decided that he wanted to be a house cat. He became lovey and cuddly and wanted to curl up on a chair and watch TV or sit next to my brother and his wife on the couch and be showered with attention and love. One night my brother awoke to find Hero with his head on the pillow next to his and his front leg around his neck and all he could do was ask the silly cat how he could have gone for two years never allowing him to come anywhere near him and now he wanted to be his best buddy. Take testosterone out of the picture and the big, tough tom cat turned into a cuddly, furry little pussycat. Amazing. Hero seemed to be thrilled to be done with being a feral tom cat and took right to morphing into a big, lazy, home bound bundle of love. He still goes outside and he still nurtures and looks after the last of his kittens, but he doesn't leave the yard and is always in at bed time.
Spending this week with Hero and the gang has been rather crazy and wonderful. Feral cats are very different from house cats and watching them interact with each other, their world, and myself has been fascinating. Studying the behavior of domestic cats in no way prepares you for differences that you will find watching these cats in action. They are a kind of family or pride and Hero, well, he is still King of the Jungle.
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