It started with an orange flash in the grass.
This wasn’t my first experience with a tiny, orange flash. Shortly after my family moved to our current home, we had a little orange visitor – a tabby kitten with white spats and a white “powdered sugar” nose. I was four years old. I was in love. My mom told me, “If we feed him, he will stay.” And he did. I named him Slim, and he was mine. We grew up together. He was the perfect playmate for a kid with no siblings around or many other kids my age. We loved to “dance” in the backyard – me leaping, running, twirling and Slim leaping along with me. He was an excellent mouser and well-loved by the neighborhood. He spent his days outside and his evenings inside the house. He was a sweet, friendly cat with a lot of street smarts. Slim was a kindred spirit and my childhood soulcat (aka – cat soulmate). He passed away when I was in high school due to an accident at the vet’s office. I was devastated. My – now big – orange flash was gone. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. But about a decade later, a new orange flash entered my life.
It was a kitten. Orange. Small. Scared and obviously hungry. My mom put a small bowl of cat food next to our fence. The kitten would scurry to the bowl and then run away. We wondered where this kitten came from, if there were others, and where it was living. It became clear that the kitten had made himself a home under our neighbor’s shed and that he was alone. It also became clear that this kitten was feral.
“Here, kitty kitty!” had no positive effect. Instead, the kitten would run, afraid of human contact, too scared to eat. We would leave a bowl of food out for him, wait, and watch. We did our best to make sure the kitten was eating regular meals, but there were obstacles. The first being another neighbor’s cat. This cat, a full-grown male, viewed this little kitten as a threat to his territory and chased the kitten and – when he could – fought with him. My mom begged our neighbor to keep their cat inside. She didn’t want the kitten getting hurt or missing any meals. Sometimes the neighbor obliged, but sometimes the cat insisted on being outside much to my family’s disdain.
The kitten first came to our neighborhood in the summer, but summer turned to fall, and fall turned to winter. He was growing. We kept putting small bowls of food outside for the kitten. We offered him water in a heated bowl to prevent the water from freezing. We offered him heated outdoor cat houses. Even so, he still chose the shed as his home. I remember seeing him pad along through the snow to the bowl to eat before running back underneath his shed. My family worried about him, but – because he was feral – we could not touch him. We could not catch him. We could not save him. And – even if we could somehow save him – what then? He was wild.
But we still had to try. We couldn’t just take him to a rescue. My mom decided that our best option was to TNR this kitten. TNR stands for Trap, Neuter, and Return. Luckily, an organization in our area offers low-cost spay/neuter to promote TNR in our community. By neutering the kitten, we would prevent future kittens in the area. In addition, neutering this kitten would both calm him and prevent other cats in the area from viewing him as a threat. His ear would be notched to signify that he had been neutered. We would then release him back into the neighborhood – his home. This plan had one major hurdle – we had to catch the kitten.
We used a spring-loaded trap. This trap would cause no harm to the kitten, only temporarily holding him in a cage. My mom put food inside the trap, encouraging the kitten to go inside for his meal – and he did. And he was terrified. My mom did her best to calm him down, took him to the clinic, and – after his neutering and ear notching – took him home to recover in our garage.
I asked her how it all went at the clinic. She said she had to give him a name. I asked what she meant. She said that the workers at the clinic told her they needed a name for the kitten before his procedure. My mom said, “I panicked! I just told them, ‘um…Oliver!’” I said, “Oh, like the kitten in Oliver and Company?” Mom said, “No, I was thinking Oliver Twist. Since he’s an orphan.” I said that was basically the same thing. And that’s how Oliver got his name – a split-second decision at the clinic. The orphan now had a name.
Mom asked me I wanted to go see him. Of course I wanted to see him! This kitten – now a teenage cat – who I had been watching over for months was finally where I could see him up close. We quietly went into the garage, and Mom carefully pulled back the blanket covering Oliver’s trap. Oliver went berserk, screaming and growling at the top of his lungs, banging his face into the side of the cage, and swinging his paws – and claws. I was stunned. I’ve only felt genuinely scared of a cat at one point in my life, and this was that moment. Oliver was wild and understandably scared. I backed away, Mom covered up his cage once again, and we went back in the house.
I had been wondering if TNR was really the best choice for Oliver. Why couldn’t I save him? This interaction helped me to understand that sometimes in order to “save” an animal, you have to respect who they are. Oliver was feral. He had never known human contact other than the tiny interactions with my family over several months. There was no way he would just automatically adjust to living in a house, let alone living with people. At this point in his life, TNR was his best opportunity for safety and survival.
Following a short recovery period, my mom released Oliver back into the neighborhood. He ran as far away as fast as he could. I wondered if I would ever see him again. Luckily for me, his absence didn’t last long. He knew our home was a safe place for food and water. I think he also knew that we cared about him. Not only did Oliver keep coming back, he also started the slow process of moving in…
So, the orphan kitten – the orange flash in the grass – was trapped, neutered, returned, and got a name of his own. In the next blog post, I’ll share with you how Oliver got a home.
PS – Rescue Spotlight!
For this blog post, I wanted to feature Alley Cat Allies. This nonprofit organization works “to transform and develop communities to protect and improve the lives of cats.” Alley Cat Allies is an international organization with three main goals: “Reforming Public Policies About Cats,” “Saving the Lives of Cats in Shelters,” and “Changing Attitudes Toward Cats.” They advocate for feral cats – just like Oliver – who have made homes for themselves in the great outdoors and who may not be successful in a rescue setting or indoor home. Their “Feral Friends Network” consists of individuals in communities across the nation (maybe even in your community!) who can provide information and resources for how to best help community cats. In addition, this network can relay connections with low-cost spay/neuter facilities which is a keystone in the TNR process. As the Covid-19 crisis carries on, Alley Cat Allies has been continuing their work to educate community members about feral cats and help community cats around the world.
For more information about Alley Cat Allies or to donate to their efforts, click this link - https://www.alleycat.org/
You can follow Alley Cat Allies on Instagram at @alleycatallies