Hello, Kitties (and Goodbye)

August 10, 2015



unexpected guests

What is it about kittens that melts the heart and brings a smile to one’s face? Yes, they’re fluffy and they’re cute, but I think it’s something else beyond that, something more elemental. I believe it has to do with their innocence and vulnerability, some deep emotional pull that draws us to them.

This story is about four particular kittens who had taken up residence on our deck early this spring. They are actually a continuation of a long line of neighborhood cats (I dislike the term “feral” — it sounds somehow threatening) who have inhabited our lives over many years.

The previous set of four kittens that we watched grow up had dwindled to two over the past few years, one almost Siamese-looking male we called Whitey and a grey tuxedo originally known as Grey Guy but later changed to Gigi when it was discovered that the guy was really a girl. They were the best of buddies and basically lived in and about our yard, sometimes leaving gifts of dead mice at our basement door in appreciation of our hospitality. They would lounge on the lawn in the shade on hot summer days, sun themselves on their favorite spot — the top of our grill — in the spring, and dine on the leftovers or cat food we would leave them under the deck. They survived through hurricanes and snowstorms, their reappearance in the aftermath a reassuring sign of a return to normalcy. Though I understand people’s trepidation about harboring such creatures, they did no real harm and their simple presence brought us great pleasure (and kept the chipmunk population down for good measure).



In early spring, I thought Gigi looked pregnant, but we never saw any resultant kittens. Then Whitey got very ill (I speculate he ate something poisonous). He had difficulty getting around and spent most of his time just lying quietly. Gigi seemed to be trying to comfort him, nuzzling him gently and staying by his side. A few days later, Whitey went off, as cats seem to do, to die by himself. We were both inexplicably sorrowful about his demise.

It was shortly thereafter that late one evening, much to our surprise, Gigi carried up four little kitties to our deck. At first I thought this would be a temporary situation, but they stayed, so I put a box with a towel inside under the eave for shelter, and it became home. They were as cute as can be, and Gigi took really good care of them. She seemingly instructed them to hide either under the grill or a wooden planter when she went out to forage. Upon her return, she would meow, and they would scurry out and jump all over her. Soon, they would be nestled under the deck table to nurse and then nap.

As the days passed, they started exploring the topography of our deck, sniffing about and climbing on the chairs and whimsy tables and on the various plants. They chased each other and wrestled playfully. It amazed us that so much time could be spent watching them. Two of them looked very much alike, light gray with white bellies. One of them was a darker grey with an all-grey face and little black nose. My wife called him Lambetta because he looked like our good friend Maggie’s cat Lambeau (named after the Green Bay stadium, for Maggie loves the Packers as much as she loves cats). The runt of the litter was the most timid of the group, the first to scamper off at the slightest sound or movement. We thusly named it Scaredy Cat. For some reason, the other two remained nameless, perhaps prophetically.

a kitty playground

a kitty playground

After they had been there more than a month, we departed for a long-planned trip to France. Our neighbor promised to put out food and keep an eye on them, but I fretted over their well-being while we were gone. My brother-in-law stopped by to water the plants and reported that he didn’t see them, so we assumed that they had moved on. As soon as we got home, I checked the deck, and lo and behold, there they were. I must admit, I could barely conceal my happiness.

The kittens had started the weaning process. Gigi would go under the deck to eat, and the little guys would follow behind to play. She let them enjoy themselves, but her ulterior motive seemed to be to have them discover the food for themselves. When they did, they dug in enthusiastically. One day Gigi brought up a mouse she had caught and Lambetta took possession of it, staring down her siblings who tried to get a bite for themselves. She consumed it in its entirety in short order by herself with not a hair left behind. Another occasion saw a chipmunk get the same treatment.

After consultation with cat behavior websites online, we learned that pooping would soon follow, so we fashioned a litter box for them out of an unused shallow flower-pot. Initially it functioned more as a sandbox for playtime, but eventually its purpose was served.

Worried about the future (five cats would be too much, we thought), we contacted a newly formed local organization that trapped and neutered cats and then returned the adults while socializing the kittens and adopting them out. We scheduled them to come on a Monday, but for some reason on Friday night, Gigi moved the now very mobile kittens off the deck to a wooded area behind us. My concerns over that decision were well-founded because that night I heard the sounds of animals fighting, and I knew the raccoons that lived back there had discovered them.

In the morning when Gigi came to eat, there were only three kittens with her, and Gigi had a gash on her neck. Saturday evening the racoons got another one. We were both extremely upset about this turn of events; we had come to know these little guys well, and it was as though we had lost our own pets. Gigi brought the two remaining kittens back up to the deck, but that night my wife got up when she heard a commotion below. She looked out the window to see a raccoon with Lambetta in its mouth. She yelled and slammed the window screen, and the racoon dropped the terrified kitten and ran.

The next morning the cat organization people came and set a trap. A short while after they left, I heard the bang of the trap door, and I looked out to see Lambetta inside, frantic with fear. Gigi, looking extremely upset, paced around the trap trying to find a way to rescue her baby. Unsuccessful, she hopelessly sat by the trap for an hour until the cat folks came to pick it up.

The next day I saw Gigi by the front of my car, but no Scaredy Cat. I had a gut feeling, so I opened the hood, and there was Scaredy sprawled out on the air filter, frightened silly at my intrusion. He took off like a shot, Gigi in hot pursuit, to the wooded area behind us, right into the dreaded raccoon territory. The rest of the day we watched Gigi searching for Scaredy, crying a heart-wrenching meow all the while.

The morning came, and Gigi showed up under the deck appearing despondent. She ate but kept looking around as though wondering where her babies were. Another trap was set that morning, and the next bang of the door signaled Gigi’s capture. She was taken to be neutered. Her return wouldn’t be until Saturday.

We looked for poor little Scaredy Cat, but he was nowhere to be found. As each day passed, the prospects of his survival on his own grew dimmer. On Saturday the cat lady arrived to release Gigi. When the cage door opened, Gigi sprinted to the area where Scaredy Cat had last been seen. She reappeared later that night to eat, but she was alone.

The next evening I put out food for Gigi and went upstairs to help prepare our own dinner. My wife went downstairs to check on things and a moment later urgently called for me to come. She pointed under the deck, and there I saw Scaredy Cat alongside his mom, contentedly munching away. I could barely contain myself so great was my joy.

I can only surmise that Scaredy Cat’s lone outstanding characteristic allowed him to survive by himself all those days. This kitty knew how to hide. But I now faced a decision and was torn about what to do. Should I call the Trap and Neuter people to take Scaredy away? Or should I let things be so the tender reunion of a mother and her last remaining offspring could stand.

Gigi had lost her best friend and three of her kittens, but she seemed revitalized with the return of Scaredy Cat. Now there were two cats, the same number as before. Scaredy was past the optimal age of socialization and seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a house cat. The posts from the caretaker at the kitty foster home reported a very difficult period of adjustment for Lambetta. We decided to let things be.

mom and her mini-me

mom and her mini-me

Gigi and Scaredy are inseparable now as they go about their daily routine. Scaredy is still timid but is getting more used to our presence. A simple joy exudes from this little cat as it stalks bugs or swats at hanging vines or plays tag with Gigi.

It makes me ponder a world in which humans so dictate the kind of existence certain animals have. I suppose there is no way around that. In the end it is up to us to act responsibly and remember that we are just one of many creatures in the world, powerful though we may be. To share our space with them is surely not asking too much. I do understand that there are far more important issues in life and that the world will little note the absence or presence of one more small kitten. But I will. I will.




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