The Diplomat at Rest


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Lots of cat screaming and lots of anxiety on the parts of the resident felines are dead giveaways to the presence of an intruder on our farm. Such was the case in the early spring of 2002. I knew we had a trouble maker out there, but I couldn't catch sight of him/her. We have had a feral tomcat in the past who showed up occasionally to cause trouble for a week then disappeared again, but we hadn't seen him in years. This new cat (NC), however, didn't seem inclined to leave. Over those first few weeks, I caught occasional fleeting glimpses of NC's black tuxedo coat dashing for cover. Unfortunately, as afraid as NC was of me, (s)he was more than brave enough to attack the resident cats when (s)he encountered them outside.

I couldn't allow that to continue. NC would not spend the rest of his/her days terrorizing our feline kids. I called around and borrowed a large live trap. Baiting and setting out a live trap always makes me nervous. Our farm is surrounded by federal forest, and it's just as likely I'd catch a skunk, porcupine, or other woodland inhabitant as this feral miscreant. But I didn't see any other option. NC clearly had no intention of EVER accepting my presence, so the likelihood of taming the beast outside was nil.

I waited until nearly dusk after all the resident animals had come in for the night, then baited the trap with tuna and set it in a sheltered spot where I'd spotted NC from the house earlier that day. The nights were still quite nippy that early in the spring, and I felt very uncomfortable about potentially trapping NC in a cold, metal trap for the night, so I checked it first thing the next day. Sure enough, on the morning of May 23, there was a terrified tuxedo cat staring at me through wild eyes, caught in that trap. I quietly carried the trap into the house, set it down, and went about creating a new living environment for a beast who would have gladly killed to be anywhere else.

When Weasel arrived as a stray the previous summer, I set him up in the master bedroom/bathroom. But Weasel was completely tame and pleased as punch to be rescued from the great out of doors. NC was a different animal altogether. This cat was feral with a capital F. I figured if I gave NC any freedom at all, I'd never be able to get my hands on him/her again, so I decided to keep the beast in the large master bathroom where the resident animals wouldn't have access. But even that didn't provide as much confinement as I figured I'd need to handle this wild child safely, so I maneuvered NC out of the trap and into a large wire dog crate into which I had already placed a piece of old carpeting, food, water, and a litterbox. That was tactical error #1 on my part. NC growled, spat, and shrunk against the end of the cage farthest from me ... a position (s)he maintained whenever I was in the room.

Because NC was so extremely traumatized by the capture and incarceration, I didn't want to give him/her any more reason to hate and fear me. I decided to put off spay/neuter and all other veterinary issues for the time being to give the newcomer time to get adjusted and relax into the new surroundings. Tactical error #2. There was no adjusting or relaxing. There was only continuing, and perhaps even escalating, fear and hatred. The confinement of the cage left NC feeling vulnerable, defensive, and combative. The intact hormones kept the cat's responses at a physical and psychological peak. And it took me far too long to figure that out.

Within a few days, it became painfully apparent that NC was NOT going to make any progress while in the cage. This animal was far too stressed to interact in any positive manner. I decided I had to take a chance and give NC run of the bathroom, hoping the extra room might help moderate the cat's mood. It didn't. Instead of hiding against the back of the cage, NC now hid behind the toilet ... and stayed there for the next couple of months.

It's amazing how many adventures you can have with a cat who never comes out from behind the toilet while you're in the room. At first, I didn't do any more than refresh NC's food and water and clean the litterbox. OK, I'll admit it; I was afraid of this cat. I had no desire to be torn to shreds, and that was all I was reading in this beast's eyes. I was so intimidated that I could barely even make myself look in NC's direction, but I was determined to do what I could to make peace both with the feral and with my own fear.

I started sitting on the floor in front of the toilet and just talked to NC, keeping things casual and as comfortable as our mutual angst and distrust would allow. I studied the beast and guessed by his massive head size that he must be a male, though I never could get a good look at the other end to confirm. After a while I tried to engage him in play with a feather wand, and after a while he obliged. Neither one of us was willing to engage at any less than a wand's distance apart, however.

It was Joe who made first physical contact with the feral. Unbeknownst to me, Joe went into the bathroom, sat down with NC, reached behind the toilet, and stroked the side of his face. When he came out of the bathroom and told me about the incident, I was stunned, amazed, impressed, horrified, jealous, humiliated, and a little angry all at once. I couldn't believe he had actually touched the savage beast and lived to tell the tale! I also couldn't believe it was Joe and not me. Joe, though a devout animal lover, has always been more a dog person than cat person. Perhaps it was exactly that which allowed him to touch the feral. Joe didn't realize just how potentially dangerous NC was. At least that was what I told myself to justify Joe's faith in NC when I had none.

Of course I couldn't allow myself to be outdone in such a manner, so before long I mustered every ounce of courage and stretched a hand to comfort the cat. I can't remember now exactly how NC responded to that first contact, but he must not have damaged me, because I continued to make brief, feeble attempts at establishing a more physical relationship with him.

Over the next month or two, Joe and I continued to try to draw NC from his hiding place to interact with us more comfortably, but little progress was made. The feral never did come out from behind the toilet, though for a while he did seem to be tolerating our physical advances a bit more willingly. Even so, he was a slapper. More often than not, he would meet our hands with his own ... with all claws outstretched. My right hand was constantly covered with bloody scratches, courtesy of NC. After one particularly nasty slap, my hand swelled up to twice its normal size. That was the only time any animal has ever sent me to the Emergency Room.

What little progress we had made with the feral disappeared as he went through a hormonal surge that prompted him to become increasingly aggressive with us again. He started attacking us whenever we tried to touch him. It was at that point that I realized waiting to have him neutered had been a BIG mistake. He still wasn't trusting and certainly wasn't liking us, so there wasn't anything to lose in putting him through the trauma of a vet visit. Several months after NC's arrival, Joe grabbed a broom, I donned my heavy winter parka and welding gloves, and we maneuvered the cat into a carrier for the trip to the vet.

At the vet's, the feral was anesthetized while still in the carrier. Once he was "out" and safe to handle, we were finally able to confirm his gender as male ... ALL male! He was neutered, given post-surgical antibiotics and a pain killer, vaccinated, fecal tested, weighed, treated with a topical insecticide (Revolution), had his ears cleaned and treated for ear mites, had his claws trimmed (THANK YOU!), and had a pillow's worth of hair brushed out of his coat. Poor guy felt like hell for a few days and was definitely disinclined to forgive us for putting him through all that, but he did recover quickly.

The vet informed me that his big, puffy cheeks and desire to consume vast quantities of water would both diminish along with his male hormones. He also mentioned a strong possibility that the cat would start to groom now that he could turn his attention to such mundane matters. When he was ruled by his hormones, he NEVER groomed (he was absolutely filthy). The vet guesstimated NC's age at 2-3 yrs, but I believed he was older than that. He was certainly as playful as any kitten, but he had the wisdom, anger, and mistrust of the ages in those eyes.

NC was still unwilling to allow us to touch him a week after his big vet trip. I kept hoping in another couple of weeks when the hormones subsided, he'd start coming around, but I wasn't holding my breath. He had plenty of reason to be suspicious of us now after the vet visit. Poor guy. I wished I could make him understand that everything we'd done was for his ultimate good. I think the heat was also making him crabby. It was midsummer now, and there was no window in the bathroom (or air conditioning in the house), so we set up a fan in the bathroom doorway to keep air circulating in there for him. I also gave him cold packs to lie on during the day (which he did). We kept the furnace fan on to circulate air through the vents, and the cat spent most of his time sleeping on top of the floor vent ... when we weren't in the bathroom, of course.

After several more weeks in the bathroom post-neuter, absolutely no progress was being made in repairing our very tentative relationshipwith the feral, and I was getting extremely discouraged. I had never felt so despised and defeated by an animal before. I was very close to giving up on him, and I blamed him for my disappointment and failure. I didn't know what I'd do if I did give up on him, and I REALLY didn't want to, but I had no idea how or if things could turm around.

One positive thing did happen, though. I hadn't bothered to even attempt to ask the cat his name during those first few months because he was so hateful I figured he wouldn't be able or willing to respond to my query. After he was neutered, I hoped his priorities would shift enough to allow for a little mental communication. After a couple weeks of my sitting quietly near him, asking his name, he finally deigned to share it with me - Bartholomew (Mew). At least now we could stop referring to him as "the feral", "the new cat (NC)", or "the tuxedo boy". Oh, and one more bit of progress - now that Mew was able to focus on other matters, he started keeping himself immaculately groomed and shiny.

A Feral in Angst

I finally decided we couldn't keep Mew in the bathroom indefinitely. I had reached the point where I was ready to relinquish the bedroom to him and let him live there permanently if need be, though that was far from an ideal solution. I couldn't just let him have run of the house knowing how aggressive he had been with the resident cats outside, and I couldn't get a harness and leash on him to make controlled introductions. At least in the bedroom he'd have some freedom and we'd have some chance of catching him again, should the need arise. I took the plunge and opened the door between the bathroom and master bedroom. It took Mew a day and a half to work up the courage to leave the bathroom, but once he did, the transformation in his attitude was almost immediate.

Having access to the bedroom gave Mew an instant sense of increased safety and self-confidence. It now became painfully obvious to me that his bathroom confinement had been stressing him badly for months. The bloody diarrhea present in his litterbox since his capture was indication enough of that. He knew he couldn't escape us in those small quarters. In the bedroom, however, Mew had all sorts of hidey holes and the underbed kingdom where he could feel more hidden and protected. As a result, he immediately began eating in my presence and staying out in the open while I cleaned his litterbox. I was amazed! If I moved around, though, he would run and hide under the bed until I left.

I relocated the baby gates that had been filling the bathroom doorway over to the doorway between the bedroom and living room when we increased his territory. Mew eventually mustered the courage to come up to the gate on his side and allow me to sit directly on the other side of the gate, sticking a wand through to play with him. As long as that gate barrier separated us, his nerves held, but when I entered the bedroom, he continued to slide back under the bed.

Bartholomew at play

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