As you might expect, returning to academic life has resulted in some quite serious blog posts recently. Here’s a little light relief, and a change from your usual social justice/yoga/paganism/knitting output. Phil and I have been together for very nearly 15 years now, which is almost enough time to raise a child. Instead of doing that, it turns out we’ve mostly raised kittens. This is a story of how 19 cats pass through your life in 15 years without becoming a crazy cat person with a litter tray in every room. After all, the internet is always better with a few more cat photos. It’s the story of our family, in a lot of very important ways.
I nearly always had multiple cats in my life growing up, and I’ve had cats with previous partners: a rather excessive four kitties I left behind with Kathryn, and a slightly nutty tortoiseshell called Mimi left behind on a farm in France. When I met Phil, he had no cats of his own, but one had already adopted him: a mysterious black kitty he called Bastet, who would wander in and make the place her own. He reckons I did pretty much the same thing a few months later. Before I go any further, it’s worth pointing out that we’re animists. For us, cats (and lots of other-than-human beings) are people too. They have intelligence, agency, language, habits and hang ups. I’ve worked with human beings with a smaller vocabulary than some cats. They’re not like us, and their minds work in very different ways. But just because a cat thinks a laptop is a fancy heater and ‘going out to work’ is a completely alien concept they’ll never understand, that doesn’t mean they’re less alive than us.
After we were married, and living in London, we brought home the kitten I’d always dreamed of: a lilac tortoiseshell pedigree Burmese we named Bibi – Macoys Jocasta Bisoux, to give her full title. She made us her family, in the way cats can when you treat them as the people they are. She slept in our bed, talked to us endlessly, got annoyed if we went out for too long and came to house parties with us. She was a fantastic judge of human character who insisted on meeting everyone who came into our flat. She was also, to this day, the most athletic, intelligent and beautiful cat I’ve ever met. She could jump to your shoulder and land without using any claws, and would play ‘fetch’, but only with white toy mice. She was more important to us than our flatmate, and I think that didn’t help when after a few years living together it all fell apart with spectacular rows. Bibi, Phil and I moved hastily into a rented farm worker’s cottage in Wantage, and tragedy was waiting. Just three weeks in, before she’d even been let out on her own, she opened a downstairs window, wandered onto the road looking for us and was hit by a car. We rushed her to the vet, but she never woke up. She was 15 months old, and to this day it still hurts us to think of it.
We scattered her ashes from the top of West Kennet longbarrow, and it was a long time before we could even think of bringing another cat into our lives. In the meantime, we were taken under the furry paw of William from next door. He was a proper farm cat, who swallowed voles whole, sat under bird’s nests just to wind them up, and once brought us a live rabbit in through the kitchen window. We watched him get old and a little confused, but when he died, he’d had a long and happy life decimating the local wildlife.
After we moved here, to Calne, I had the Most Cunning Idea. We still didn’t feel ready to risk a cat of our own, but we could foster them! When cats come into rescue centres, someone needs to assess them, make sure they have the medical attention they need, and socialise them. This is essentially mental health recovery for animals – no matter what the circumstances leading to them being in need of a home, they are scared, confused, even violent. The smaller, local rescue centres in particular use a network of foster homes. Our job usually went like this:
- get a call about a cat in need and accept the case
- pick up the cat from the home, vet or other location
- take them home and give them space and quiet handling for 24 hours
- get a vet to check them over and handle any medical care needs (this can mean a quick flea treatment and a bath, or months of pills and bandages)
- socialise them to human company as much as possible
- give them a temporary name if they don’t have one (this is a fun bit)
- liaise with the rescue centre about what the right home for them might look like
- assess potential adopters after they’ve been vetted by the centre
- wave the cat off to their happy new home
It’s a lot of work, and you have to understand cat psychology and be comfortable giving them medication. It’s easier than you might think giving them up: it’s so rewarding to see their journey from scared kitty scavenging on the streets to a loving home. You don’t pay for vet bills, and the centre will even help with any other costs if you need it. You can go away on holiday without worrying about catteries – a centre will never force you to accept a case. And you get to save more than the furry lives in your lap: every cat that passes through a centre is spayed if it hasn’t been already. That means fewer unwanted kittens and less disease through feral over-crowding. We always joked we were in the cat prevention business. We highly recommend it, and the only reason we stopped is…well, I’ll come to that! First, the kitties!
Our first case was an easy one. Mocha was very scared but very sweet. He hid in the wardrobe for a week, only coming out at night. We eventually reached him by sitting by the wardrobe patiently holding bits of chicken for hours. This was a tactic we would return to! Just when he got used to humans again, Mocha went to live with a lovely couple round the corner, but they found they were allergic to him. Our contacts at the centre told us he found a new home, where he apparently immediately became the boss of the human, feline and canine household.
Tilly was young and rather more hyperactive. She was into everything: plants, cupboards, sinks, printer cartridges…Our local plumber came and did some work for us, and in the end, he would run the tap in the sink so she would watch that and stay out of the pipes under the floorboards. Our policy has always been to keep foster cases in, but give them free run of the house as much as possible, encouraging them to sleep on our bed, for example. This intensifies their contact with humans, increasing the socialisation, but if the cat ends up being with you a while, it can be a bit of a trial.
Tilly was also homed successfully, but not all successes end the way you think. Gracie was an emergency placement for a long-term stray getting old and sick. She was filthy – unable to clean herself properly. Most of her fur had to be shaved off, and her eyes permanently wept, because her lashes were ingrowing. After who knows how long on the streets, she spent three weeks with us just sleeping, cuddling and eating. She just seemed exhausted, but happy to be with us. The centre took her to the vets to operate on the eyelashes, which was a condition she’d probably always suffered with. When they opened her, they found a massive tumour that was days or weeks away from killing her, and the decision was taken not to awaken her. We were glad we’d been able to provide a little end of life comfort at least.
Next, Ram (4 months old) and Sita (12 months old) came to stay: mother and son. They’d had a loving home, but more and more cats need rehoming when people’s circumstances change, through loss of a home or a job or a relationship. It’s not up to us to judge the humans involved, although the centre did tell us of a legendary case when a man wanted to give his cat up because its fur didn’t match the new living room carpet. Ram and Sita were far too cute and healthy to be with us long. We decided to home them separately, because Sita was getting very grumpy with playing mum for so long. We last saw Ram roaming a large country home with his own fish pond, surrounded by a devoted new family. They called him ‘His Nibs’. Sita went to another family home here in Calne.
Phil and I had a difference of opinion over Ozy (short for Ozymandias). I thought he was a happy bundle of claws and teeth. Phil agreed, but thought this was wonderful. Ozy’s prior owner was terminally ill, and Ozy’s own veterinary test results weren’t good. He tested first as positive for feline leukaemia. This turned out to be a false positive, but in the meantime, he spent six months with us. He had a favourite sheepy toy that came with him, and went to his eventual home: where he fell for a lovely little girl and her two mums. Apparently, he never lays a claw on her.
Within hours, Jean called with another case, and I fell in love with Lila. She was a year old, with an unwanted litter of kittens behind her. After checking she wasn’t pregnant again, the vet spayed her, and she came home to recover with us. She was one of the most intense cats ever, and used to wake us up by staring at us at 4am. Phil found her a bit wearing, and she was also happily rehomed.
Our next case was a big one. There were long conversations with Jean at the centre repeating ‘Are you sure?’, but just once, we wanted to take on a full litter. Thus we found ourselves with a completely feral, untameable mother and four seven-week old kittens who’d never been handled. They had to be treated for fleas and ticks, fed and learn to use a litter tray. Luckily that last bit is easy, even with feral kittens. The kittens were amazing. The ring leader, who we called (Ginger) Snap, led the way in getting to know us. I still remember the first morning that he fearlessly bounced down the stairs to find breakfast.
He was closest to the shyest kitten: little black Harriet (Potter). She would hiss at you whilst taking chicken from your fingers. She and Snap were homed together in the end – and became Sid and Nancy. It suits them.
The middle two kittens were JD (John Dorian Grey) and Tabitha the tabby. JD would wrestle with Snap all over the house, and Tabitha would hide under her mum’s belly. They were also homed as a pair. The mother cat, Gypsy, turned out to be completely impossible to tame. Even the centre’s feral expert (another Jean) couldn’t get through to her. This isn’t the end of the road for strays however. Gypsy was sedated in a cage, spayed, and homed as a ‘farm cat’, where she’ll be fed in return for keeping down the rodents and keeping away other feral cats, and she won’t need to be too near people. Over the years, she might come to trust people again. It’s still worth treating these cats. A single, unspayed feral female on a farm can easily become a hundred within a couple of years, and that’s when they become a real problem.
We did an exchange with Jean-the-feral-expert, because her garden pens were full, and so, coming up to Christmas, Milo came home with us. His former home really hadn’t wanted to give him up. I think a divorce was involved. But we were going away for Christmas week itself, and I was telling a colleague all about how he’d have to go back into the pens for Christmas, and, well, by the time we got home from our trip, Milo had a home. I don’t see Amanda, who adopted him, as much these days, but they’re happy together, with her new husband making up the family. I do know that when she played my yoga nidra relaxation recordings, Milo would hunt around the house looking for me, which is strangely comforting to hear.
Then a call came in to pick up from the vets as usual, and our lives changed again. I took home this skinny, filthy young female cat, put her on a blanket on my lap, and we looked into each other’s eyes for about two hours. She was so grateful to be safe. She was covered in skin lesions, especially around her mouth, so we knew she’d have to be with us for a while. We called her Poppy, but I knew her name was really George.
You see, there’s a silly cultural meme that I know best from the Tiny Toons cartoons, where a character hugs a slightly terrified furry creature, saying ‘I will love you and hold you and keep you and call you George!’ Phil and I had always joked that one day a foster cat would come along and we’d know they were ‘George’ – that they were meant to stay. He thought it might be Ozy, and I thought it might be Lila, but we both know now it was always going to be Poppy George. She’s pretty, but not the prettiest cat ever, and she’s pretty clumsy as cats go, and she’s neurotic and may be on medication forever, and she’s developed this habit of swiping half-heartedly at people she doesn’t know. But we’re a family. She’s been curled up next to me whilst I type this, and she’s now talking with Phil in the kitchen. She sleeps in our bed, talks to us endlessly, gets annoyed if we go out for too long and even came to camp with us this summer. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Our fostering adventure lasted a couple of years. Although we’re still on the centre’s placement list, it’s not easy having other cats here with Poppy, as she’s so nervous of them.
I’m going to end with three honourable mentions for the cats who passed through really quickly: Honey, who arrived, made a successful escape attempt from our house, was found, got taken to the vets, checked for a microchip and returned to her owner all within 36 hours. Apparently she escapes on adventures all the time. Do microchip your pets – it makes a real difference. Over half of the cats on this list have no prior history. We don’t even know how old Poppy is. And two different ‘Bob’s came to stay for a night or two and wind Poppy up mercilessly until other placements could be found. That makes 19. Also, it goes without saying: support your local rescue centre. When times are tough, they’re not just tough on the humans in the family.