14 February 2010

Remembering a feral cat

We didn't find him.  He found us.

He appeared on our front doorstep on a late summer day in 2008, probably sensing that there were other cats inside our home.  He had that "can-you-spare-a-bite-of-food-for-someone-who's-had-a-rough-life" expression on his face, but he appeared to be quite vigorously healthy - a large-bodied, powerful male with sleek, well-groomed fur.  He was, however, clearly feral, and not a stray.

Some homeless cats are "strays" - house-raised but subsequently abandoned when their family moves to a location that doesn't accept pets or is foreclosed out of their home.  In such situations, families often dump their pets in the suburbs or near farms where they tell themselves the cat can "fend for itself" (typically not likely for a house-reared pet).  Our home sits on the edge of a city, with cornfields next to the cul-de-sac at the end of the street, so we encounter stray cats (as well as foxes, turkeys, possum, and a variety of other wildlife).  Strays may be shy, but typically respond to a "here, kitty, kitty" call and can typically be redomesticated.

Feral cats are born outside of a human enviroment and thus have more primitive survival instincts and poor "social skills" in terms of interacting with people.  Based either on instinct or on previous bad experience they will flee from people.  They are at risk for a variety of ailments, including feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia virus, and parasites.  We have taken several into our home, but it can be a real challenge if they are older than a small kitten.

We offered this fellow some food and fresh water, and he paid us regular visits through that autumn and subsequent winter, slogging through deep snow and then returning to some hidey-hole for shelter.   It was not until the spring of 2009 that we were able to successfully trap him to get him some veterinary care.  Lab tests at the vets showed that he was FIV+, precluding our adopting him, so we had him neutered and released him.

We thought he might not trust us enough to return, but after an interval he resumed his weekly visits.  Perhaps he had a round of sites to visit, or perhaps his refuge was so many miles away that he could only manage a return at that infrequent interval.

As last summer progressed, it was evident that his health was deteriorating.  The photo above, taken in late summer, shows him leaner and a bit less well-groomed.  By autumn he was clearly cachectic, and with another winter approaching, we decided another vet visit was necessary.  In October we trapped him again, and this time the vet found a large abdominal mass - a lymphoma - one of the expected sequelae of untreated FIV.  He had been anaesthetized for the exam that revealed the lymphoma, so we deemed it most humane to euthanize him while anesthetized.

We buried him in a sunny spot at the edge of the woods behind our home.  A cat that had been large and robust in his prime years now folded into a surprisingly small pillbug shape in the grave.  We put hyacinth bulbs around the body, then a layer of crocus bulbs near the surface, and finally sprinkled some catnip seed on the surface.  The large stone was placed, not as a memorial marker, but as a temporary and practical deterrent to predation by scavengers.

We've had a foot of snow on the ground for the last two months, but in a few weeks the melting will begin, and as the ground warms the new spring growth will be most welcome after a long, cold winter.  We don't "mourn" an expected death, but as the flowers emerge we will be pleasantly reminded of visits from a feral cat. 


  1. Thank you for taking care of him. What a lovely memorial.

  2. Nicely done Stan.

    My parents have provided a sort of animal sanctuary for the last 30 years at my home in NM. At any given time they might have 8-13 cats (of varying temperaments) that have all begun as ferals or strays.

    As you mentioned the older the animal; the less likely they will ever be able to become domesticated again. But my mother still makes sure they get fixed and fed for as long as the continue to return.

    It's hard to lose one, especially when you personally have to make the decision. Typicaly, nature makes the choice for us- with so many wild dogs,bears, Coyots, birds of prey, and probably lots of other predators I don't even know about (especially vile humans) we often just never see them again.

    Thanks for having a big heart. Many people don't.

  3. In 2009 my family was offering shelter to an old stray who we lovingly dubbed Scruffy. Her face was gray with age and she was almost completely deaf. She was far too sweet and personable to have been feral, but she was much too old to have been out on her own for long. Someone must have moved out and simply left her to wander the streets, and it was heartbreaking.

    She took residence on the cushion of the chair on our front porch, and we left food and water out back. She would cuddle with us when we'd be outside, and as summer turned to fall, we realized she wouldn't make it if we left her outside for another winter.

    We already had two indoor cats, so it was a tough decision whether we should try to bring her inside, but we couldn't watch her freeze.

    One week, however, she simply stopped returning, and none of the neighbors had seen her either. One of our neighbors was actually missing cats as well, and a coyote had been seen roaming the area. It was so heartbreaking that we had nearly saved her and taken her in just in time, but at least it was a quick way to go.

    It's sad when they aren't there anymore, but sometimes it's for the best.

  4. Bless you for your kindness and care both in life and death for this lovely creature.

  5. What a delightful and touching essay. Thank you.

  6. Really lovely. There was a connection.

  7. That was a beautiful story, thank you for sharing.

  8. That's beautiful. We had a stray move in on us. He looked really beat up, notches out of his ears, scruffy coat. A trip to the vet and some good food, and he looked great. We had called him Grandpa, as we thought he was odl, but he was actually only about two.

    He got along well with our other cats, but absolutely fell in love with our baby daughter. he slept in her crib, and as she grew, she'd stand up on him with those old heavy baby shoes or run over him with her walker. No problem. She could do no wrong as far as he was concerned.

    My husband got a new job, and we had to move a long distance, with no home in the offing. We couldn't take him, and did our level best to find him a really good home. Just before we left, the lady called to say he had left them. I've hoped ever since that he found a new family who loved him as much as we did.

  9. cats do so much damage killing native fauna round here that we trap and shoot them at every opportunity. They also grow quite large and have been known to attack humans.
    Le Loup.

  10. Thanks for this post, Stan! It was a good read and brought back memories of our interventions with stray cats and capturing feral cats to have them neutered and keep the neighborhood from having a herd of feral cats.

  11. i liked you before (and i don't even know you) based on what you posted.
    now i like you a million times more. and yes, that IS humanly possible.

    thank you for sharing this story

  12. Le Loup's point is valid, particularly in island communities or ecosystems where cats are not native, such as Australia where he lives. A NSW website -


    - describes problems not only from feral cats, but also from the well-known cane toads and rabbits, wilddogs/dingos, introduced ants and rats, feral pigs, feral horses, feral bees, feral deer, feral goats, and "plague minnows." I suppose one could also note the effects of nonnative Caucasoid bipeds in the region...

  13. Moving story, beautifully told. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Very touching story. Some years ago, I was lving in the countryside. A stray female cat used to have a litter every year or so in our garage (we were feeding her from time to time). At one point, we would simply discover a kitten (I assume the other kitten died, or she simply would only have one kitten at a time), so I simply removed the kitten, took care of him/her and turned them into house cats (sort of, they always were the independent kind!). Got them neutered, vaccined, and so on.
    Unfortunately, they weren't very lucky: one of them got hit by a car, the other one died from an occlusion... Anyhow, I remember them the same way you do: I did what I thought was best for them, and I assume they had quite a happy, yet short, life.

  15. I was adopted by a feral cat. (She is sleeping next to me on the couch as I write.) She walked in the open door and ate my dinner where it sat, briefly untended on the floor. I was twenty, and group renting an old house with so many holes in it I could not keep her out once she made the decision to stay. She was at least a year old. I recognized her from one of the roving cat gangs in the neighborhood. She courted me initially with little baggies of leftover spaghetti from the neighbor's trash.
    Nine years later we are still happily together. Her cat psychology remains different from any I have ever met. She doesn't treat me like "Mom", rather I am one of the gang. There is no purring or kneading or lap sitting, but she is attentive and communicative and bathes me frequently.

  16. OK, Stan, you owe me a keyboard; tears corrode. Thank God I have a cat of my own with whom to restore my soul after reading your beautiful story. You are a wonderful and amazing man!

    Chris of the Artist Survival Skills blog.

  17. The real credit goes to my wife, who is the catperson in the family.

  18. I am a third year veterinary school stundent in Mississippi and read your blog whenever I get a spare moment. It was so nice to read that you had captured, nuetered, and released the feral cat. Many people are skeptical of this new type of thinking when dealing with feral cat populations. I was too before I saw the results. I think we are finally trying to help by understanding the true nature of these animals. I would love to see a post on this blog about the program. I hope that more people will gain the understanding and respect for feral cats that you and your wife have. I am truly sorry for your loss.

  19. For those who are interested in this subject, here are two useful links about feral cats and trap-neuter-release programs -



  20. Russ, if someone wants to keep a ferral cat that is one thing, but I cannot agree with you in regard to releasing them into the wild. Cats still kill native fauna, fixed or not. The fact that they cannot breed is good, but they still kill for sport and for food, and there is little that can escape them.
    Even domesticated cats kill, even if their owners think they don't.
    Le Loup.

  21. Bless you for being so kind.


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