EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Over three years ago after a heavy snowstorm, Danny and I take pity on a beautiful, long-haired calico staring at us through the back door with pathetic, entreating green eyes. We share our cat Lucretia's dry food with her. A day or two later she shows up again. Does she want to come in and battle for indoor accommodation with our very possessive cat? I open the door and she takes off for the barn. No way!
So now and again, when the weather is really cold and snowy, we put food out for Pretty Cat as we have dubbed this beauty. Other feral cats sneak or strut across the lawn, but this one hangs around as if she, at one time, were a family pet. So she becomes the outdoor cat while our Lucretia has the run of the house.
Then comes May. I notice even through the long hair that she is bulking up. With the change of seasons, she should be more active, losing weight and shedding some of that silky-looking fur. But she's a walking, calico balloon. She's pregnant. A few weeks later she is again looking sleek. Danny finds the kittens in a wooden box in the potting shed. I take a peek but see only a writhing mass of fur. The next day they are gone. We search the shed, the barn and eventually find out she moved them across the street to the neighbor's woodpile.
Then she is gone until the winter. Repeat — we feed her during the direst of weather. Come May and once again she's pregnant. She slinks up to the back door for her daily portion of dry food. Come June and it's obvious she's had the kittens. We find six fur balls wobbling about in the barn. Time to nab the kittens and Pretty Cat.
Once the kittens are playfully falling over one another and chasing their tails, they are easy to lure into a Hav-a-Heart trap. A lovely calico, two tuxedoed black and whites, a solid orange, and a pair of tabbys. A friend lends us a three-story cat cage and we fill it with kittens. The kittens are eventually all dispersed to friends and farms in want of mousers.
We are intent on catching the breeder! We set the trap. We watch from the window. Pretty Cat sniffs the food and cagily walks around the trap. She cautiously walks in and then just as cautiously backs out.
Everyone has suggestions and we try them all: Sardines, fresh fish, raw meat, meat or fish laced with catnip. We catch a skunk, a possum, a raccoon and a different feral cat that nearly ribboned Danny's arms as the terrified beast sprung out of the trap. It's a battle of wits, and we are losing.
Before even placing the kittens, the big feral male cat shows up! He, dubbed by this time, The Consort, sits with her by the barn and even shares her dinner. Lo and behold, Pretty Cat is again pregnant. I stop with the trap and feed the wary mother. Repeat: This time there are only five lovely kitties. Repeat: we catch the kittens and find homes for all.
Feral cat takeover
We are away twice this year and the trap is left empty. As soon as we are back again we try various ruses none of which she falls for. She is again pregnant! Believe those statistics you read about feral cats taking over the world. They are plenty good at controlling chipmunks, squirrels and other small mammals, but they are an absolute bane to birders. Grrr. Five more kittens! Three litters in a year. We are running out of friends wanting felines.
We must catch Pretty Cat! I start thinking about creating one of those tiger traps you see in movies where the cat steps onto a net and the net lifts up and closes about the creature. I wonder why there isn't a knock-out drop/shot/pill that would briefly stun the cat long enough to get it caged and into a TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) program.
Finally we borrow a white plastic trap, long and narrow like the Hav-a-Heart, but more like a solid box. I place a bowl of wet food just inside the entry to the wired-open trap. In Pretty Cat goes without a qualm. Each day I put the food a little farther in. Each day she scarfs down the food. But, Jumping Jehosocat, she is pregnant again. So for the next four weeks, I faithfully feed her placing the food at the back of the trap. AND make an appointment for neutering.
Finally this litter is about five weeks old and I spend a day or two trapping them. Easy peasy! Now the dining room is once again a giant cat cage. The appointment day arrives and Danny fills a bowl with food, places it at the back of the trap, unwires and sets the trap. CLANG! Pretty Cat is caught!
After the kind people at Animalkind in Hudson neuter Mom and give the kittens their shots, we bring them home. Groggy and suspicious we release Pretty Cat to the barn the next day. The Consort is waiting. She ignores him. I have not seen him since.
New Zealand has a problem with feral cats killing off indigenous species and has a country-wide program: Make this cat your last cat. I would add: Never feed a feral cat no matter how cold and snowy nor how entreating those green eyes are. Finally the end of the Catriarchy in my barn!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.