Monday, July 27, 2009

Mama Kitty

I once biked past a family of Canada geese crossing the intersection of Ashland and Elston. From my peripheral vision they looked like plastic bags blowing across the street, but then I saw their forms - first of two adults, then a brood of tiny yellow ducklings. They were at the crosswalk right in front of Horween Leather Co., and began to walk single file across Ashland towards Reliable Computer Source. I was mad with worry for them, Ashland and Elston is one of the busiest intersections that I navigate by bike. I was in the flow of traffic and had to keep moving, but I thought about them all the way downtown. On my way back home I kept an eye out for them, as if they’d be walking back and forth between Horween and Reliable all day like shooting gallery ducks at a state fair.

We get our fair share of wildlife in Chicago. Every spring our neighborhood is overrun with bunnies, and there was a possum who took up a short-term residence under our front porch. M once spotted a hawk swooping over his shoulder in hot pursuit of a pigeon who’d done the same only moments earlier, and one Thanksgiving we saw a hawk sitting in a tree - possibly the same one, dining on the remains of a pigeon. The red blood in its beak and claws showed starkly against the bare tree branches.

At our apartment on Glenwood there was a family of raccoons living on the porch of the top floor. I was out there reading one day and heard something above me. I assumed it was my neighbor, but as footsteps began to descend the stairs I realized there were two sets of footfalls - were both occupants of the apartment walking closely together? Perhaps they were carrying something heavy, a piece of furniture or a rolled up carpet. Halfway down the stairs I saw it, the raccoon halted on its descent and stared at me as if it had caught me trespassing. We both froze, and after a few moments it turned and walked back up the stairs. Later that summer I heard tiny grumbling barks coming from the third floor porch, and the same raccoon I’d seen earlier descended the stairs, followed by two mumbling babies. They made it all the way down the stairs, into the alley, and climbed over a fence to the neighboring building, setting off motion detecting floodlights.

When we lived across from Graceland Cemetery in a courtyard building, I was haunted by the nighttime sounds of a homeless cat. He was skinny, orange, and had a pointy head. I thought he might be part Siamese because his howls were so tortured, and one day I couldn’t take it anymore and put some food out for him. He was too skittish to eat where I could see him, so I placed the dish around the corner from our back door and listened to him crunch on the dry kibble, it sounded like someone walking across gravel. One night as I sat listening I popped my head out the back door to get a glimpse of him and saw a three foot long possum eating from the bowl.
“Shoo!” I said, and it skittered away, then turned its albino, ratlike face back around towards the food dish. “I said shoo” I repeated, and it scuttled down the back steps and into the alley.

When our upstairs neighbors’ eldest daughter was two and a half, she reported seeing dragon babies in the vegetable garden in our yard. Closer inspection revealed that a mother cat had given birth to three kittens, two orange and one black, and they were living in our yard behind the raised vegetable beds, between the garage and the compost bin. If I walked out to the garden and stayed quiet I’d see their tails weaving through the eggplant and tomato plants, and tiny eyes peeking out from behind the jalapenos. I recognized the mother cat, she was the tortie I’d seen wandering through our yard the previous year with a black kitten who was already half grown.

I called all the no-kill shelters in the area, but it was high season for stray kittens, and none of them had room. We took it upon ourselves to be their benefactors. We bought a cat toy that looked like a fishing pole with a feather on the end of it, and dangled it in front of their hiding spot. One of the orange kittens was curious enough to come out and play with it, and eventually the second orange kitten followed. The black kitten, the tiniest of the three, stayed close to its mother and watched. I got one of the orange kittens close enough to reach out and touch his head, it was no bigger than a golf ball, and he scampered away. Over the next few weeks I managed to pick him up once or twice, but he squirmed and scratched his way out of my grasp, his tiny claws leaving a trail of raised, puffy lines on my skin. I took pictures of them that I sent in an email to everyone I knew who might want a kitten, or who might know someone who wanted one.

And then one day they were gone. We put food out for them, but only the flies ate it. The next day they hadn’t returned, and we began to worry. It rained hard that week, and I looked for them in the yard and the alley, but didn’t see them. My heart sank. I had taken too long to rescue them and now they were gone. I figured I’d have time to draw them out of their feral shells, socialize them, and find homes for them. What made me think they would stick to my schedule? I tried not to think about it.

And then, just as suddenly, they returned, as if they’d been out of town on a family trip and had simply forgotten to tell us. M spotted the kittens chasing each other through the tall prairie grass that he’d planted near the fence. I saw the mother cat, and the black kitten, but there only one orange kitten. I hoped that maybe our efforts to socialize them had paid off, that perhaps the missing kitten had walked right up to a kindly stranger who’d taken him in, though I doubted it. In any case, we couldn’t let them stay outside any longer.

We bought a wire cage sized for a medium dog from a pet supply store, and set it up in the yard with a plate of food inside. We’d tried using a regular cat carrier, but they were wary of entering it, maybe because it was too dark and enclosed. I imagined that it would take several days before we trapped them, or that we’d get them one at a time, but all three walked right into the cage like guests invited to a party minutes after we left it in the yard. I tiptoed up to the cage and closed the door behind them. As soon as they heard it shut, the kittens climbed up the sides of the cage to the top looking for a way out, the mother cat remained strangely still. We stuck two brooms through the top of the cage and carried it like a royal litter onto our porch. We couldn’t bring them inside, we had two cats of our own and couldn’t risk exposure in case the feral cats were diseased, but we couldn’t leave them out on the porch for long either. We made arrangements to take them to the vet the next morning.

They had fleas and three kinds of worms, and the mother cat was slightly anemic, but other than that they were healthy. We had the mother cat spayed and got her left ear tipped, set her up in our guest room to recover, and kept the kittens in the dog cage on the porch. The orange kitten was easy to socialize, as soon as he saw me coming towards him he walked towards the front of the cage and started purring. The black kitten hissed and stayed in the back. We didn’t give them names because we didn’t want to become too attached to them, calling them simply “Orange Kitty”, “Black Kitty”, and “Mama Kitty.” This strategy failed miserably when we found a home for Orange Kitty, we’d only had him for a week but I was crushed. The sight of his tiny orange figure sitting in the windowsill of our neighbor’s kitchen was bittersweet; I was glad to have found a home for him, but I missed him and his purr, a tiny engine in his belly that rocked his whole body.

We let Black Kitty into the guest room with Mama Kitty, thinking that perhaps they would socialize better if they had each others company. Every day I’d spend time in the guest room, enticing the kitten out from his hiding spot with toys, and he soon came around. All I had to do was enter the room and sit on the bed and he’d come out of his hiding place and climb into my lap, purring. We found a home for him too, one of M’s colleagues had a round tabby named Fatty who was lonely, and she wanted to find a companion for him. She came to our house to meet Black Kitty and he came out of hiding for her, I was impressed. He didn’t hiss, and he didn’t try to hide when we put him in a cat carrier, or make noise in the car ride over to her apartment. Although Fatty was easily twenty times the size of Black Kitty they were just as shy, and within minutes of introducing them they had settled into a corner together. It was a perfect match, but my heart broke when we had to leave him there. He’d been in our house for three weeks.
“Next time I’m keeping him,” I said to M on the ride back, as if this were a dress rehearsal.

Only Mama Kitty remained, and we weren’t sure what to do with her. She hid so well from us that M frantically called me at work one morning, convinced that she’d escaped. She had wedged herself into a two inch space between the wall and a bookshelf. The only real evidence we had of her existence was that the food we left for her disappeared, and tiny hard turds appeared in her litter box. It was like a secular miracle of transubstantiation. We considered releasing her back into our yard once she’d completely healed from her stitches, but just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. I got in touch with a cat behavioralist at Tree House, who said we should encourage her to play with cat toys, and that if all she did was follow the toy's movement with her eyes, progress was being made. She said eventually Mama Kitty would trust us, but would attach only to us, and that if we gave her up to a shelter she would revert back to being feral immediately.

I got over my hidden resentment - we'd given up two perfectly playful kittens and were stuck with an invisible feral cat who refused to be tamed; it turned out I was kind of pissed off about it. I began spending time in the room with her, even sleeping in the guest bed so she would get used to my presence. I made the fishing pole toy dance around the floor, and Mama Kitty followed it with her eyes, but stayed safely between the wall and the headboard. One day she reached out a paw and touched the feather dangling off the end of the toy. It was the tiniest mark of progress, but I was thrilled. Gradually she started playing with the toy more enthusiastically, purring and rubbing her face against the corner of the bed between swipes at the feather. I’d only tried to touch her once, when she still lived outside. I'd approached her as she ate out of a bowl and lightly rested my hand on her back. She jumped, spat at me like she was cursing the day I was born, and retreated behind the compost bin. After several weeks in the guest room she developed a funny little dance that involved circling the entire room, allowing me to pet her as she passed by. She’d walk behind the bed, emerge from behind the headboard, brush past my right hand, continue walking behind me, brush pass my left hand, and then continue on until she was behind the bed again. She purred loudly as she did so, rubbing her face against the corners of the bed so hard that I thought she might hurt herself. Clearly she enjoyed the attention, but didn't know what to make of it.

Our cat Oblio was intensely interested in what was going on. He’d stand outside the closed guest room door and stick his nose under the door jamb, inhaling deeply. Mama Kitty watched his white paws dart in and out beneath the door, but kept her distance. Mignonne was a different story, if she so much as picked up Mama Kitty’s scent on my hands she’d hiss. We’d just adopted Oblio from Harmony House a few months earlier, and Mignonne hadn’t been very nice to him at first either.

We closed Oblio and Mignonne into the basement and opened the door of the guest room to let Mama Kitty explore. After a few minutes I went looking for her, and found her pressed tightly between the wall and the headboard in the guest room. I got her to come out by leaving a trail of dry food from the guest room to the living room. She swallowed it all, following the trail like a vacuum - one thing Mama Kitty never did was waste food. If I dropped a piece on the floor she stopped it from sliding past her like a cowboy in a Western halting a mug of beer. She expertly stopped it with her paw, and drew it to herself. Who knows how many rats she’d managed to kill this way. When she’d inhaled the last piece in the dry food trail she looked around, realized she was in new territory, and ran back to the safety of the guest room.

She began to let me pet her, but only on the back. I tried touching her head and she shot a front paw out at me. I snapped my arm back before she made contact, and then felt guilty that I’d reacted so preemptively. I tried again and she stuck her paw out, tapping me lightly on the hand, her claws retracted. I was amazed. I tried again, and she did the same thing. She was like a grandmother lightly touching a small hand that had reached into a bowl of candy too close to dinnertime. This was a far cry from the cat who’d spat at me in the yard.

She’s been with us for almost three years now, and Oblio has adored her from the start. He was half grown when we took Mama Kitty in, and she had just been separated from her kittens, so the two of them bonded quickly. Mignonne has learned to live with her, and is sometimes even sweet to her, licking the sides of Mama Kitty’s face or squashing herself down right next to her on the couch.

We tried to think of a proper name for her: Arrow, Lucy, Suziepants Palmer, Bananabread Jones, but none of them stuck. She’s come out of her shell more and more, even demanding attention from us, standing at our feet and mewling until we pet her.

I still stop in my tracks when I see a stray cat in our neighborhood, and M tells me “you can’t save all the kitties.” That’s true, I can’t. But we did manage to save one.


"Jeremy and Holly" said...

Mama Kitty's name is perfect...your name on the other hand is now officially Bananabread Jones!

Midtagessen said...

Home to me is a ginger colored cat.

allison said...

Jess, I love this story. I write this as my one of my own is angrily clawing me for typing and not petting with these hands.