Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Monday, October 24, 2016

Essay: Winter Observations of a Feral Cat Community

Here in Duluth, I observed a feral cat community for some years. I wrote an essay about it fifteen years ago, and while it made the rounds, it became yesterday’s observation and research. All of that leads up to this year although there is more documentation in, I’m sure.  A happy note is that Animal Allies, a shelter here, has reported that they are finding homes for all of their cats. Here is the essay, a story that began about the time of Halloween.


Seven years after I began observing stray cats from the second floor of a Victorian house four blocks from Lake Superior, I read news about the songbird-cides in the region. During migrations, the trees outside my windows were often feathered and joyous. A woodsy thicket at the backyard lawn’s end, edged with lilac, snowberry bushes, and sumac, overran a slope that no one would want to mow. Below were elderly bird lovers –  two sisters and a daughter - that fed the aerial visitors and also the neighborhood itinerants, stray cats.

Birdfeeders tinseled the trees behind their gingerbread-shingled house and, on the aluminum roof of their shed, birdseed was continually spread. My second summer, I watched a stray mother cat shimmy to the shed roof where she taught her kittens such acrobatics. There they sat Cheshire-like, waiting for birds.

Near-catches discouraged the young hunters. They napped on the front door stoop of the old carriage house, waiting for the old ladies to set out dishes of cat food. Eventually, the elderly ladies adopted a female kitten, leaving a calico-Siamese male for me to lure inside during the sleet of November. His tuna trail ended at a radiator where he was received by my empty-nest female cat.

The strays were said to be the progeny of his mother, a calico that was abandoned when a renter moved. Although the disillusioned female aroused the pity of the elderly women, she preferred her roving and romance outside, despite Duluth winters. She could be seen during them with one of a new litter, initiating it to the snow. Once when I neared the dishes on the door stoop next door, I had to call her “the fastest claw in the north” and knew that her invisible claw could operate like a flying fork.

Previously I spent ten years in Minneapolis, a city that loved its cats so well that kittens were given homes hours after being advertised. On seeing another kitten stumble after its mother’s prints in the snow, I discovered that the elderly women, having grown up with barn cats, were adamant about giving handouts to the cats rather than turning them in.

I introduced myself to Animal Allies in 1995, the year that researchers informed Wisconsin residents about the 114 feral cats roaming each of many square miles in the rural areas of their state. The cats were estimated to be killing at least 7.8 million songbirds per year and upwards of 20 million.

On a June day when gardeners were hoeing, my female cat, Desiree, appeared at the steps with an unmangled songbird. I wondered if I should mount it on a plaque. All month, she and the stray newcomer, Lev, had huddled at my second-story windows making decoy chirps at the birds landing on branches a few yards away.

Instead of fooling the birds, they became diverted by a lost mouse. During a two-day cartoon miles-per-hour chase, I observed what researchers had documented. The cats left their food dishes, caught the mouse while it was running to the radiator, released it, and returned to their food. When Lev could finally try his rare mouse, he couldn’t keep it down. The instinct to hunt was independent of the instinct to eat.

At an internet pet board, I asked cat owners if their pets were killing songbirds.   About half of the respondents reported a prolific hunter, gifts at their door, and bird feathers under trees. One respondent noticed that “during the summer when West Nile virus was causing many birds to be sick, cats in the neighborhood were catching more birds.” In 1998, bird salmonella spread from one birdfeeder to another, killing songbirds in at least 14 midwestern states.

Desiree at eighteen
In the year 1999, my 18-year-old Desiree died of hyperactivity and old age. About a year after her wildflower funeral, the elderly ladies next door made an enigmatic appeal to me. New strays had appeared and they were reluctant to feed them. One November night, I looked down at their shed and saw the reason for their occult attitude. A parent and its kitten, both resembling my deceased cat, had climbed onto the shed. There are many bi-color white cats with black markings but not so many with a white part in their head fur.   Rather than ponder nine-life reincarnations, I let the elderly ladies off the hook.

I was on it and within a week, I had lured the kitten to my back porch steps for closer examination. Its resemblance to Desiree had already been established one day when I walked by the gingerbread-shingled house and saw the kitten watching me from the side of the house. After only a few nights of leaving cat food on the bottom back step, the kitten ventured to the dish while its parent hauntingly hung back. The following nights, the two, perched on the shed when I set out the food, hopped down to come over for café food. One night they ignored their gourmet food. Near the bird fountain that was now wreathed like an ice rink was a dark carcass on the snow.

In that year, 2000, songbirds in Duluth had diminished from 60 to 54 species. Crow numbers were up, however, from 524 to 747. A respondent to my internet question stated, “My cat hates crows. He is black and will sit in the shadow of a tree. He wiped them out.   He never eats them though.”

Watching the kitten at the carcass in the snow, I saw other strays slinking to the yard next door. When the night leapt down earlier in the late afternoon, they came behind the visiting kitten and in inverse pecking order. I had lured my stray kitten up to the top back steps where I could watch it eat. Adult cats were showing up behind it, callow to wild.   First the kitten’s parent, Sweet-Side-Part, warily waited at the bottom step for her kitten’s leftovers or for her consort, Brown Bounder. With cat-in-the-hat craftiness, Brown Bounder interrupted the kitten’s eat-and-run meals. After that, Calico Tail, a stray that I thought was dead, began to appear after sundown.

Since Calico Tail had become a nocturnal creature, I trained my stray to come before dusk. Disarmingly the kitten peeked around the corner of the house, the only stray that chanced the porch in the late afternoon light, and then its boundary where the food dish was eventually set, the hallway carpet. I turned off the hall lights, hoping the manmade turf might seem trustworthy and that the warmth inside would be lulling. But the kitten refused to venture beyond the divide between wild and domestic.

These strays did not seem desperate for food. The stray kitten growled fearlessly if Brown Bounder nosed the food dish, never receiving a scratch or an invitation to fight. The ferals must have been relying on songbirds for at least 20% of their diet, what the records said was typical for them. I remembered a Duluth man telling me when I was in Minneapolis about the rats that boys hunted near the Duluth harbor.

Carole Hyde, founder of the Stanford Cat Network, said of cats killing songbirds, “Blaming cats is simplistic.” One of my internet respondents elaborated, “It has been my personal observation that a kid with a pellet gun can do more damage in a few hours than a bunch of cats can do in a week.” My stray probably descended from barn cats that were first brought from Europe for killing rodents and when squirrels were rife in the trees. According to the journal of a French priest, Native Americans welcomed the new species into longhouses that were built on tiers because of night-scavenging mice.

I continued to meet my stray at the porch divide, sitting now on the carpet cross-legged. When the kitten had become accustomed to my presence, I could determine her gender and see another cat from her clan ascending the steps, Gray-All-Loafer.

What happened next in the murky early evening sent the adrenaline to my hair follicles if it was no surprise to the little stray. One bushy longhair and then another ambled from around the corner of the building, presenting themselves at the bottom of the steps in the way of skunk or raccoon, like shy bystanders. They were noticeably larger than the other cats, shaggy in their survival, one a light calico and the other a black and white bi-color. They had mask markings that made my startled mind think of raccoon-cat mixes. I was sure that no one in the neighborhood had ever seen these cats. And then, as a ripping finale, another unknown feline seemed to cartwheel from around the corner. Its black hair was ungroomed and it was not as docile as the bushy masked cats. Terror-on-End, I immediately called it, putting the cat dish on the steps and closing the door to the porch.

Image courtesy of voraorn at
Even though I dreaded what might come after them, I had to have a second look at these obscure creatures before I insisted on my stray coming in the daylight. The bushy cats were as big as small raccoons, an animal that I had often seen in the backyard. Their masks were singular because one was a cream-orange and the other was black and white. Luckily, I had inspired no panic in them. Having had enough of being astounded at the longevity of cats that I thought were dead and at the appearance of tough, nocturnal cats, doubting what I was seeing, I called around about borrowing a live trap for catching the little stray.

The elderly ladies believed the outdoor cat community was diminishing from attrition or disease - feline leukemia. Yet the cats I saw did not look thin in the January weather. I speculated that the little stray, staying away during a blizzard and then appearing again, already had a benefactor. And I speculated that the bushy cats that came in a couple were well-fed fat pets, Norwegian forest cats or Maine coon mixes.   Still, a pet owner would have to like their unruly bushy hair. A study done by Alley Cat Allies in the District of Columbia found that a feral cat community took ten years to die out.

I actually hoped that my stray would weaken in the worsening weather. Not having located a live trap, I attempted an inexpensive strategy. I rigged a rope from the back porch door handle to my hands and then walked to the inside second story steps. Sitting on the steps, I practiced pulling and found that with one yank, the porch door shut.

Some days later, the little stray was blissfully eating tuna, two paws at the hall carpet, when I destroyed her trust, swinging the porch door shut behind her. She catapulted to the inside hall wall, back to the porch, and then clawed her way up and down the sides of the porch windows. She was like a ping pong ball and I was clumsy in a turtleneck, gloves, and glasses. After she scaled the wood on the porch door, she fell down on the door handle. Within seconds, she was out again. This only reminded me of my first cat, Desiree, and how she climbed curtains before she escaped into winter, liking an hour in the snow.   She must have come from barn cats, I now surmised, wanting to examine the look-alike stray further.

While I brooded over this, another phantom killer was being accused of the songbird-cides. A Wisconsin study done during the 1990’s found that communication towers had become a dark Tolkien-like force, luring songbirds to their red airplane lights like moths. Over a period of 15 years, 100,000 songbirds flew into one Wisconsin TV tower and perished.

Returning to Animal Allies, I found that they had no quarrel with the Bird Conservatory about the treatment of feral cats.  They agreed about a kindly incarceration. It was better than what my feral had been enduring – days in a cage-like space under a porch or a rotten board where the heightening snow put a heavy lock at the exit.  

My hexed project wasn’t getting the cooperation of a new landlord and a dog-preferring tenant. The old landlord was so sympathetic to strays that he and his wife had taken a kitten home. By spring, Terror-on-End was hanging around in the daytime, definitely alarming a few people on the block.

One late afternoon, the little stray found her food inside a live trap, a cage that I hastily transported up into the hallway. I was a novice with this equipment, apparently not having secured the trap door, and as the cage rocked up the steps, the wild stray shot out of it and down the steps to the basement where she hid herself. Although I called the animal shelter for help on a weekend, the dog-preferring tenant, accompanied by his dog, slyly opened the basement door that lead to the outside. Strangely, some of the other ferals appeared and waited outside the basement door.

While securing another apartment, I found out that the little stray had a beautiful litter with either Gray-All-Loafer or Terror-on-End or both. The kittens romped in a cottage garden and the elderly ladies, more housebound than ever, thought them adorable. I made one last futile effort to lure the mother and/or her kitten(s) inside during the de-thicketing of the yard. A concrete driveway was planned to replace some of the lawn.

Fewer songbirds would visit that yard, lilac-less soon. Duluth’s decrease in songbirds was reflecting the continual urban development of southern states, especially the place where songbirds wintered, Florida.

Summer evenings, I used to sit on the back porch steps and observe gulls, pigeons, and cats. Swamp buttercups, tiger lilies, hawksweed, and cornflowers were the lawn where damselflies, skunk, raccoon, marsh hawks, and even a fox passed through. In the winter, a great northern owl sailed past my windows where below, a kitten left its paw prints in the snow.

Image courtesy of saphatthachat at
After ten years of watching stray cats, I agreed with research – that stray cats will not simply die out even though they are a result of human expansion. Now they are adjusting to northern Minnesotan winters, having found new ways of surviving. The belly of a parked car is a hearth for kittens. Cats shelter themselves under porches and behind the holes-in-the-walls of deteriorating buildings. Car owners who joke about gunning cats from under their engines have probably not estimated the number of nocturnal cats that warm up after the car owners have gone inside a heated building. If the neighborhood people didn’t believe me, they only had to put out food every night and wait until just after dark. Longhaired cats, compact muscular cats, cats acting within a community, cats larger than the ordinary – all of these were surviving sub-zero nights like the shy mammals that creep about the woods and multiply.

No comments:

Post a Comment