Yesterday, I was walking in the park and saw volunteers from Community Cat Coalition of Washington, trying to recruit people to help with their cause and volunteer.
The lady had a young cat, wrapped in a sheet around her arms like a mom would hold a little baby.
For those of us, cat lovers, seeing such scene makes us kind of emotional and happy to the see the cat being taken care of.
I want to share with you my experience and relationship with cats, especially wild / rural cats. It is a long post though so you can read the parts that sound of interest to you.
Do you know the saying: “Curiosity killed the cat” ? Well, I hope your curiosity will entice you to read the whole thing eventually! 🙂
What follows is a set of stories and experiences relating to cats from my childhood and early adulthood between the age of 9 and 19 years old.
First exposure to cats
I grew up in a rural area in Beirut, Lebanon. Our house was surrounded by trees and other houses. Wild cats were always around, however those cats were not friendly and would run away when a human approaches them. It was very hard for me as a kid to get to touch any of these cats, let alone come closer to them and pet them.
Those cats would come dig our garbage looking for food or the garbage of the neighborhood by ripping the plastic bags that were accumulated in one spot and readied for the garbage collector. Everyone hated those cats because of the mess they would leave.
I remember that the neighborhood used to have a fisherman who comes every week in order to sell the fish. He would drive around and shout out loud: “Fish, fish, who wants fish”. That particular fisherman’s voice was not only mesmerizing to us, the kids, but also to the neighborhood cats who would follow his car as he drives around slowly with his small pickup truck loaded with fish.
Fish used to be an expensive food and my mom would buy fish perhaps twice or thrice a month. When she does, the fisherman would then park his small truck, take the fish that my mom bought and start cleaning them by removing the fishes’ guts and sometimes breaking the hard shells of the fish by rubbing his knife on the fish skin. It was fun to watch the fisherman clean the fish while a bunch of cats hooked on the smell of the fish, wait patiently from a distance until they collect whatever remains when the fisherman finishes cleaning the fish and leaves. As a kid, I learned that cats love fish for some reason and I figured that I can always use fish as a bait to summon cats and look at them.
How cats mate
We always made fun of cats as kids especially around the period of February when they start to look for mates and want to reproduce. We would hear all night long, female cats howling or making noises of agony (perhaps join, how would I know? I was a kid) as the male cats were mating with them. As a kid, it appears to me that the male cat was not really considerate about how the female cat felt. He would challenge other male cats just to win the right to mate with one or more female cat.
I would observe female cats trying to seduce other male cats and then causing even more rivalry between the male cats. When the male cat wins, he claims the right to mate with the female cat. Most of the times, the female cat would resist. The male cat would catch the female cat by biting it on the back of its neck and start procreating with her.
As soon as the male cat finishes, the female cat runs away. The rivalry, fights and long mating nights would repeat for weeks during the February period. After a while, the female cats would show up pregnant. It would take them a few month to finally give birth to little kittens. The mom cats would carefully chose places to give birth following those criteria I observed:
- Safe place inaccessible to humans
- If not totally safe, they would chose hidden places so that it is not easy to wander and run into those places
- Safe place were the male cat cannot easily harm all the little kitten, especially when they are less than one week old
Giving birth to little kittens
The building were I used to live had three stories and just next to it, there was a house with a rooftop that is left unattended. It was not easily accessible to us. We would have to jump across and risk falling.
So as kids, we never dared to jump across and if we did it was hard to come back without using a long ladder and the help from our parents.
That rooftop was very special because one cat found it and started giving birth there. When the kitten were born we could immediately tell. Suddenly, hungry kitten will start calling their mom whenever she’s away trying to find food for herself in order to come back and breastfeed the kitten. Those little kitten are born blind and weak. It takes them about a week to start to see and walk properly. For this reason, it takes almost a week before we are able to see the little kitten come out from their shelter and start playing in the open on the rooftop. We (my sisters and I) would see the mom cat jump across from our building to the nearby building where her little kitten are safely waiting for the return of their mom. They would stop crying when the mom comes and breastfeed them. It is beautiful to see / hear how the mom makes affectionate noises to calm them down and express her love for them.
Cats growing up
After a while, those little kitten would start emerging out and away from the boxes where they were hidden and start playing on the rooftop while awaiting their mom.
Even after a week or two, the mom would still breastfeed them, however no longer behind boxes, instead she would just walk up to them wherever they happen to be playing on the rooftop (in plain sight), lay down and expose its breasts to signal to the kitten to start eating.
Many times, the mom does not want to feed them but just wants to sit and relax, however, some kitten (depending on their character) would just come and start sucking and breastfeeding. It is beautiful to see the mom cat not getting angry at this kitten or two as they eat again while their brothers / sisters are playing around and teasing the mom. From the way those kitten play and interacts, I would start to see the character of the cats and how they will grow up to be. It is a happy family.
Time to mingle with real life
After a period of playing and breastfeeding, the mom thinks that the kittens are now ready to face the real world and leave the rooftop.
This was the most beautiful period I used to observe. It carried deep meaning that only after I grew up that I understood. It is when little birds take their first leap out of the nest and start flying.
Because the kitten were raised on the rooftop, they have to muster enough courage and strength to jump from the rooftop across to our building then take the stairs down and start their life journey.
As a kid, I was worried because the little kitten would watch their mom jump across but they are still afraid to take the leap. I wondered how long will they feel stuck there before they are “liberated”. Because the kitten grew up with different characters and sexes, some of them had more courage than others and thus would jump across earlier and start their life journey.
One time, a single cat lingered and could not make the jump no matter what. It was up there by itself while its siblings already crossed. The mom would still visit to feed it. I used to make efforts to help those kitten that could never make the jump by grabbing a wooden plank from the construction yard nearby, extending the plank from our building to the rooftop and thus making a small bridge for the cat. Many times that would not be enough, I still had to entice the cat with food to walk and cross on the plank. I would put pieces of meat on the plank to lead the cat away from the rooftop. I made many rescue missions like that.
Playing the role of the mother
One time, I followed the voice of little kitten in distress and found were they are living. They were new born, still blind and waiting for their mom.
Apparently, the mom must have died somehow (hit by a car). I was so sad to see the little kitten crying and helpless. Because I spent lots of summer learning how other cats would raise their kitten by watching the neighboring rooftop, I knew what to expect.
I rushed back home and filled a baby bottle with milk and returned to feed them. There were 4 of them. It was a very fragile task. I knew if they fell sick or needed more than just being fed then they would die.
I would feed them and then later they would poop were they live (because they are blind and helpless). Apparently, the mom would carry the kitten so they shit somewhere different than were they sleep. I did not want to transport the kitten, instead, when they poop, I would clean and change the box where I used to shelter them.
Luckily enough, those kitten made it. They were raised by me. They are no longer wild cats. They love me and know me. I am in no means their mother because as soon as they started to walk, I would just come to give food and then go away.
I never wanted to “give them fish” per say, but I wanted them to “learn how to fish”. So after they are no longer blind, I would give them food, play with them but them leave them on their own playing next to our house but they are always free wherever they want to go. Of course, they would not go too far away. They would come in the morning for food and then disappear until the evening for another meal. They learned that whenever they cannot find food they can always come to our place and call for food.
Taming wild cats
Cats used to come and go. I never really had or wanted my own pet cat. On occasions, I would spot cats with beautiful colors and patterns, those cats I wanted to befriend and tame.
There was this one particular female cat with beautiful gray and white strips that I wanted to pet but it was always afraid. I had to devise a way to earn her trust just enough to let me touch her and then later pet her and finally be able to call her whenever I want during the day.
I was still 12 years old and was still learning how to interact with wild cats from experience. Taming cats was something I never did before. It was something I learned with perseverance and lots of patience.
I learned from older adults (my mom and other adults knew a secret mantra that would grab the attention of cats) that cats come when one does “pssss pssss pssss pssss pssss” sound.
I would start by calling all cats loudly like that until the cat I want to tame shows up. I would then throw food to them at a distance. At first, not just the cat of my interest shows, but many other cats. I started to target food throwing and favoring her more than other cats. After a while, she starts to come on her own and thus making it easier for me to tame it. I would start by throwing food to her far enough to its comfort zone. If I throw food any nearer to me she would not dare to come and eat the food.
When I throw the food I have to make sure that I sit still, quiet without making any sudden moves. Each week I would throw the food closer and closer from my body. She would also slowly start to expand her comfort zone and come closer. At one point, I could lay down food at arms length distance and she would carefully come and eat the food while keeping an eye on me to see if I would harm her. This was big progress and made me feel very happy. However, I still cannot pet her.
The step just before the final step for me was to put food on the ground and then make a fist and put it on the ground very close to the food. This way, if the cat wants to eat the food with her mouth then her head would be touching my arm and fist. I wanted to give her the first sense of human touch.
When I put the food so close to me and she did not develop enough trust, she would not eat with her mouth directly, instead, she keeps a safe distance and try to snatch the food with her hands first and many times scratching my fist in the process.
Patience, patience I keep reminding myself. At one point, she would not mind cramming its head against my fist as she eats the food next to my fist.
She gets the satisfaction of eating and I get the satisfaction of being touched by her head as she eats. I still cannot voluntarily touch her. I would not try. She would attack me still.
The final step is to put food in my hands now and have her take the food from my palms. This was a huge risk for me because she might bite me out of ignorance while taking the food from my hand. I made sure I put big chunks of food to minimize the risk of being bitten. After a week of daily feeding from my hand, I start to attempt to pet the cat while she’s eating from my hand or while she’s eating the food that is very close to my body.
It takes around a month of daily work to finally manage to befriend and tame her. After I tamed her, I gave her a name. I would call the name frequently while using the generic call for food shout: “psss psss come Mimi come Mimi psss psss psss” I would repeat this a lot until it learns that Mimi is its own name.
First generation of tamed cats
Mimi became my friend and would trust me and respond to my calls. Naturally, she would no longer give birth on the rooftop or hard to access places, instead she would just do it behind our house, somewhere were we can see her kitten and come close to them. She wanted to live close by and raise its kittens around us.
Because from early age the kitten see my family and I, they are not afraid. They are only wild cats in the sense that they go find food on their own if they want, play and go wherever they may please. However, they are not so friendly with strangers.
And the story goes on
Over the years, I witnessed Mimi’s children growing up and Mimi becoming a grandmother (if one can say so about cats). I would befriend her children and the female siblings would then mate and give birth again to other kitten.
Because those cats lived around the house and roamed in the neighborhood, many would either go to other neighborhood never to be seen again and some would suffer a tragic death by being hit by a car.
In my twenties, I moved away and no longer saw my close friend cats. Only on occasions, when I come to the old neighborhood, loyal friend cats would still respond to my voice and calls and come to see me even if I have no food to give them.
I had special connection with cats, they were my best friends. I never liked to own one as a pet and now I am in my mid-thirties, living in an apartment and I would never wish to own a pet cat only to have it imprisoned all its life in a room or two, while life passes by from the window.
My childhood taught me to be of service to cats, help them grow, interact with them but never imprison them.
I was happy to have had such a nice childhood with wild (I prefer to call them free) cats.
Cats in the world: I love you. I hope you are always free and in good health.