We stood in the old barn in a state of shock. Cats. More cats. And yet more cats and kittens, everywhere. The farmer had assured us he had two white cats. We counted eight while standing there in the middle of this huge colony. At the rear of the barn was a wall of giant, circular, hay bales. Climbing down this vertical wall of hay was a black and white cat. As he descended we could see heads sticking out of gaps in the bales. There was adults and yet more kittens hiding in there. This wasn’t a colony but a megacity of cats and kittens.
It was the first TNR for Community Cats Network in West Cork. We possessed the grand total of one, spring operated, trap, and a collection of kitten and Queen cages in which to hold captured cats. This job was going to require considerably more equipment than we possessed. It was the sheer number of cats and kittens that shocked us. Every evening when milking was over the farmer carried two pails of milk down from the milking shed and poured the warm,frothy liquid, into a pair of giant tins. Then he threw a couple of handfuls of cat kibble into a few bowls that lay scattered around the floor of the barn. The cats erupted from everywhere, anxious to get a share of the meager nourishment before their companions ate it all. The adults, unencumbered by young, were the first to reach the bowls. The nursing mothers who had made nests for themselves and their young in the hay were the next to reach the food. Finally, the younger kittens arrived, fighting amongst the melee of older cats to snatch a morsel for themselves.
It was the white mother that attracted my attention as she descended the wall of hay bales. In her mouth, swinging from side to side, was a tiny, white kitten, maybe six or seven days old. The mother was obviously frantic to reach the food before it was gone and quickly clambered down the bales and ran across the barn with the kitten still dangling from her mouth. As she approached the food she spotted us standing there and hesitated. She dropped her kitten into a nearby pile of hay and approached the food on the side away from us. When the food was gone and it only took a few minutes for every last drop of milk, every morsel of kibble, to vanish, the mass of felines disappeared back into the shadows of the barn. Only one or two hopefuls still nosed around the empty bowls and dishes seeking an overlooked scrap of food. And there, atop the pile of hay, was the little white kitten. We went over to investigate.
It was obvious that the little one was is some serious trouble. The white fur around its eyes was yellow with discharge from cat flu. It appeared undernourished and weak as it lay there on the hay, mewling and crying for its mother who was nowhere to be seen. We had to make a decision and make it fast. There were many kittens in this colony. There were also many cats, a considerable number of which appeared to need some serious veterinary assistance. CCN was a new organization, so new that we hadn’t existed the previous week. We had, to put it euphemistically, limited resources. And that’s a nice way of saying ‘broke’. What to do?
We went for the kittens first; running around the barn, chasing the little furry bodies into piles of hay and then dragging the hissing, spitting, bundles of fury, back out, and placing them into our ragtag collection of cages. Within the space of a few minutes we had 10-11 little ones rounded up and on their way off the farm. In the car with us, wrapped up in a Puffa Jacket for warmth, was the little white kitten. Upon our arrival home we dispersed the kittens into our various cat houses where they immediately made themselves at home. The piled up bowls of cat food were a considerable help in settling the little guys down. The white kitten, however, was an entirely different problem. We quickly established the fact that she was a female and we called her ‘Murray’. But Murray was too young for solid food and needed to be bottle fed. This in itself presented further problems. Bottle fed kittens are difficult to feed. Murray needed to be stimulated in order to urinate and defecate following each feed. She had to fed every three hours. Her weight needed to be recorded to ensure she was gaining weight. Her cat flu presented us with a quandary because she was too young for heavy medication. Any medication would only be a symptomatic treatment anyway as cat flu is viral. In short, we urgently needed a foster mother.
Help came from the most unlikely quarter. In the middle of the farm TNR, Maggie began another one in the back garden of a house in Macroom. Thus the beautiful but psychotic ‘Lily’ and her babies came into our lives. Maggie had just trapped Lily when ‘Little Miss Psycho’ decided that now was a good time to give birth. Lily promptly delivered 9 babies in the cage and had to be rushed straight to our specialist, ‘Mother and Baby’ compound, a large, plushly furnished house, enclosed within a huge cage that came complete with an outdoor, feline activity centre. Four of Lily’s brood died the first night. A litter of nine kittens was too much for her. But it was a silver linings moment for Murray whom we tentatively introduced to Lily. For a few, horror frozen, seconds, we watched as Murray nuzzled and grizzled her way along Lily’s flank, seeking a teet. Then Lily raised her head and pushed Murray into position. Murray latched on and began to suckle. Lily shot us a malevolent look and settled back down to feed her, now, six kittens.
That first summer,the summer CCN began,was notable for two things. The absolutely lousy weather and kittens. We had seventeen fosterers….and Lily. Lily was the most loving cat, or so her carer assured us. She was a pet. A doll. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. We would stand outside the Mother and Baby cage watching this paragon of love and gentleness hanging upside down from the cage roof, hissing ,snarling, and spitting at us and we would draw lots as to who would bring the food in to her. Lily hated us with a passion, but she was a superb mother to all her kittens, including the little orphan, Murray.
Lily’s own five kittens were named after ‘Soul’ singers from the 1960’s. Thus we had Ike (Turner), Muddy (Waters), etc. And Murray. When Lily’s brood had been weaned, we neutered Lily and returned her to her carer. Lily spat, hissed, snarled, bit the bars of her cage, and tried to swipe us on her way home. We carried Lily’s cage into her carer’s house on the end of a forty foot pole and deposited ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ on the kitchen floor. We then retreated to a safe position behind the dresser. Lily’s carer opened the cage and this sweet, doting, loving creature, emerged, and twined herself around her carer’s legs. We emerged from our safe zone to examine this miraculous transformation and were met with hissing, spitting, snarling, etc.
We began to rehome the ‘Soul’ family. Otis went. Martha went. Poor Muddy was killed on the road. And Ike and Murray went to live in Cork city with Sarah. CCN moved on. More TNR’s were conducted. We moved along through various farms in West Cork and began to experience cases of cruelty and neglect. There were many cats and kittens to deal with. Each TNR made different demands on us. The workload grew exponentially as CCN became more professional in its approach. The human cost of dealing with sick and dying cats, indifferent or unpleasant humans, began to take its toll on us. The optimism and idealism of the early days began to be replaced with a certain weariness. Trapping cats was just the beginning. Then came the transportation. The feeding. The aftercare. The systems of care. Getting bedding for the ferals. Providing safe and hygienic bedding. Getting cat food. Kitty litter. Fundrasing. Keeping accurate records. Providing flea and worm treatments. Chasing people for payment. Getting ripped off by members of the public who equated ‘Animal Charity’ with ‘Idiots’. Dealing with vets. Trying to provide the most humane and efficient system for dealing with feral cats. 16-18 hour days became the norm while we operated in all weather conditions. Riding the ferry home from Cape Clear in a force 10 gale while trying to keep our caged ferals dry and safe. Fighting between ourselves as we attempted to formulate a code of ethics, and policies and procedures, that placed the welfare of ferals first.
In the midst of all this we would occasionally see posts on Facebook from Sarah. She had renamed Murray as Tina and now was Mom to Ike and Tina, as well as her family of neutered ferals. Sarah kept us updated as to the progress of her cats. When they were sick. When Ike was tormenting Tina. When the two cats were stretched out luxuriously on chairs in front of the fire. The FB posts were little vignettes of cared for, cats lives. Ike and Tina were living the good life. Sarah is a compassionate and responsible cat carer. It is inconceivable for Sarah to be anything else but kind and caring.
We TNR’d a farm down in west cork once upon a time. It was a little hill farm tucked away up a Boreen, away from public gaze. What we immediately noticed upon our arrival was a little, Ginger and White, Kitten, crouched by his mother’s side ,both eyes eaten out by untreated cat flu. The little kitten was slowly starving to death as he was both blind and unable to smell his food due to the build-up of muscus in his nasal passages. He was the first of ten such kittens we collected that night. We brought the kittens home and placed them in two hospital cages. We placed food bowls in front of each kitten and then positioned each kitten in front of the bowls. The kittens could neither see nor smell the food. The little creatures ravished the food and when they finished eating, they began to purr and groom one another. The following morning we took the ten kittens into the vet and held each one as the vet euthanized them.
So you see, Sarah. Those little posts about Ike and Tina are soul food for us. They reassure us that there are humans who care enough to reach out to change lives and make the world a better place. That there are human beings who prove that mankind is not all doomed by indifference and selfishness. We will leave you with the old Jewish proverb:
‘Save a life and you save the world entire’
Click the link to view the kittens.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvkvdXnS4Cc (Ike is scratching one)