Saturday, June 12, 2010

Outside of the House of the Barking Cat

Just over a year ago, Brian and I moved into a house. It's the first time we've lived in a stand-alone single-family house, and we love it. We love the extra room, we love the yard full of singing birds and tropical foliage, and we love the little responsibilities that come along with it, the fact that we have to/get to "take care of things" in a far more meaningful way than you can in an apartment.

But the house came with one fairly unwelcome problem: stray and feral cats. Our first night sleeping here, we were woken up at 4am by howling -- there, right at our door, was a small black cat. He was looking in the window and howling his head off. He was skinny, little more than fur and bones. I decided right then and there I would feed him. By the time I got outside with some food, his "wife and two kids" had shown up too: all of them skinny and starving.

We observed maybe a dozen cats over the next month, coming into our yard. The attraction was not the food we put out, but the female, who was nursing, pregnant, and in-heat all at once. We ignored the others and focused on the family: I trapped the two kittens by leaving out a cat carrier. They went into it for a nap, and I closed the door and brought them in. The mother and father we lured into the porch with tuna and the cries of their children. The plan? Get them all fixed, made healthy, and adopted out.

By morning, Daddycat was gone: he'd busted out. Mommacat and the kittens were still here, though, and so we began the long process of getting them fixed, curing them of their parasites (they had every type of intestinal parasite the doctors tested for -- a huge part of the reason they were starving), making sure they were FIV-free, getting them their vaccinations, and finding them a home. It took about 4 months and about $500, but we did it. We adopted Mommacat (she is now our Romana), and found a great home for the kittens with a friend.

Meanwhile, the circus of the ferals went on outdoors: there was Daddycat, Hissycat, Black-and-white-kitty, Cat-that-looks-like-momma, and some infrequent visitors. We borrowed a hav-a-heart trap and started catching them one by one: first Cat-that-looks-like-momma, then Hissycat, then a kitten that wandered into our yard (we call her "Kitten," though she's all grown up now), Black-and-white-kitty disappeared (dead? moved? who knows?), and a Hissycat clone showed up, whom we dubbed Missycat. We caught her and discovered she'd already been fixed by someone, at some point: each time this cost us $50 and a few hours of bother. (Including the time with Missycat: they had to open her up to discover she was already fixed, and we had to pay for that.)

In addition to the money and time, I developed what I call a "cat-related stress disorder." My empathy for these animals is almost as intense as the empathy I feel for my actual indoor pets, but they live outside and are not friendly to humans -- there is little I can do to help them or protect them. They show up limping and bleeding and all I can do is put out food and water. They are swarmed by fleas and mosquitos and all I can do is put out food and water. They get sick and lay panting in the sun, and all I can do is... what feels like next to nothing: I put out food and water. When I do have some control over them -- when I catch them, get them fixed, and then decide when and where to re-release -- I feel the weight of my actions on their lives. I feel terrible for how helpless they are, for the anguish they experience. I have a small supply of xanax I keep for emergencies: panic attacks, things like that. In the past year I have only taken three, but all three were to get me through a cat-related stress/panic episode.

I know I'm doing the right thing, but I've encountered some weird attitudes along the way, not least of which is the feeling that "cat abortion" is somehow morally wrong. Even the receptionist at the vet's said, once, that she was uncomfortable with cat abortions because she's "kinda religious." I want to know what religion this is that sanctifies cat/animal life in the womb. Really. Because pro-choice as I am, I was always under the impression that people objected to HUMAN abortions based on the idea that HUMAN life was sacred even in the womb. And I really hope everyone who's "uncomfortable" with animal abortion doesn't eat eggs. Sarcasm aside, some people in this world are seriously confused about what they believe, and why they believe it.

I know I'm doing the right thing, not just for the cats but for the neighborhood. By catching and fixing them, I make sure they don't make more kittens, but it's more than that. If we were to "dispose" of them somehow, more animals would move into this territory and try to spread. Their being here keeps other populations of cats at bay. By feeding them, we've brought back the local birds. When we moved into this house, there were almost no birds. No birdsong greeted us when we went outside, just the sound of cars from the nearest main street. Now, a year later, the air is thick with birdsong and the birds themselves are everywhere. The cats prefer kibble to killing birds, and so our actions are helping with that, too.

But try to explain that to neighbors, who view feeding cats as akin to feeding rats. Try to explain that we're not just feeding them, we're also fixing them -- that we're solving the problem instead of ignoring it. You won't get much of a reception. To our neighbors the cats are to be ignored and left to die. This really hit home when a starving cat appeared in my driveway and begged for food -- then begged to be let into the house. She was clearly a pet, not a feral, and left to the wild outside world, she was near-death. She was covered in mud, barely had the strength to walk, and when you touched her you only felt bones. We nursed her back to health, and she is now Gladys, a wonderful pet who sleeps on our pillows beside our heads at night. But I found out that for weeks before I found her, my neighbor knew of her, and was ignoring her. "That cat looks like she was hit by a car or something," she said to me, more than once, her tone of voice implying that there's no point being nice to a cat that's hurt anyway. For the record, Gladys was never hit by anything -- she was just starving. But even if she were hurt, how is that a reason NOT to help?

Yesterday was a big day in the history of the House of the Barking Cat (as our house is known). The ever-elusive super-clever Daddycat finally fell for our trap. We got him fixed and released him. I feel like we've really come full circle: the first cat we encountered was the last we got fixed. And now there are no unfixed females to attract unfixed males; there are no unfixed males that will go wandering, risking their lives, getting into fights; there are four full-time cat residents keeping the wider population of ferals and strays away, and our yard is a haven for birds who have nothing to fear from the four cats who lay in the sun waiting for bowls of Publix-brand cat food. Indoors we now have four instead of two: Romana (nee Mommacat) and Gladys (nee Starvingcat) are happy additions to the family (along with our long-beloved babies Eliot and Wally).

Since I started doing this, I've gotten a variety of reactions from people, but especially the reaction "I think it's great what you're doing, but I could never do it." I just want everyone to know you can do it, and that, from where I'm sitting, at the end of the long labor of love, it's more than a little worth it. I suffered the cat-related anxiety and spent probably somewhere around $800 over the course of a year. But what if I hadn't? Then there would still be dozens of cats howling and fucking and birthing and dying in my yard -- who knows how many new kittens born to short, painful, noisy, messy lives. How could I enjoy my home if it were like that? Now, it's peaceful and orderly in a way that it most certainly was not a year ago. I would have paid $800 for a home improvement that brought me this much peace -- say a fence or something -- so why not do it to control the animals outside and create that peace? Do it so I hear birds singing at night instead of cats fucking?

And the truth is, if everyone just caught and fixed the few cats in their own backyards, there would be no more feral cats, in very short order. Treat cats like rats, and they'll multiply like rats. Treat them like what they are, abandoned pets who need human husbandry to control their populations and lead decent lives, and you can change everyone's situation for the better.


Chandra said...

You are awesome and I love you for doing what you've done.

Amy Letter said...

Thanks, Chandra. :)

Heather said...

You know cats and I don't mix well allergy-wise (yes, cats are horribly allergic to me), but I do love what you've done. :)

Amy Letter said...

Thanks, Heather. One day we will find you a hypo-allergenic cat. :) Or ocelot!