Saturday, December 03, 2005


One of my concerns about my return to Seattle next week has been (partly) put to rest.

On the walk home from my bus route, behind a strip mall, there is a colony of feral cats. Feral cats aren't wild; they are the domesticated species Felis cattus--they are merely homeless cats, who have lost the ability to socialize to humans, through lack of opportunity. Strictly speaking, a stray is not necessarily feral--three of my supposedly "feral" adoptions turned out to bond just fine, meaning that as kittens, they had somehow been exposed to human contact during a crucial developmental period. True ferals don't know how to respond to humans except in self-defense, and, more than anything, just hide if possible. Most ferals make sure they're never seen, if they can help it.

I first noticed two adolescents, one of which looks like Cat (although LL assures me that he can't be the father, due to his having misplaced his testicles on a visit to the veterinarian years ago). Amusingly, the other one looks like the other cat I was taking care of this summer, so it's like the old summer household in miniature. As the summer wore on into fall, I saw more and more cats on different occasions. I have counted ten different cats, although given how good ferals are at hiding, I certainly don't believe I've seen the whole colony.

Since the ferals are no longer kittens, it's pretty clear they've missed the optimal window for bonding to humans (they flee when I approach with food), although my Cleo demonstrates that despite the orthodoxy that if you don't acclimate them to humans by 6-8 weeks, they'll never bond, that's not an absolute, by any means. I got Cleo as an email kitty when I used to work at Microsoft. She was a feral kitten about the age of these adolescents when she was captured on the grounds, and the cat people network emailed around to find a home for her. She was totally avoidant when she arrived, but gradually developed enough trust over the years to let me and Mr. Raven pet her from time to time--strictly on her terms, of course. It took 12 years to get her this far, and she'll never be a snuggle-kitty, but it means that missing that window doesn't necesarily mean that you have to just write them off, either. It just takes a lot longer, though.

Not that I'm in a position to humanely trap these kids and take them home with me to try a similar program with them--we are fully-staffed, and in fact have instituted a hiring freeze--all six of the current felines have tenure, so they don't have to worry about being downsized, but neither are we accepting any more applications at the moment. I wish I could, but it's not realistic right now.

So that is what I was worried about--feral cats have a shorter life span than pets; they are at risk of disease, attacks from wild animals, dogs, humans, and other cats, being run over by cars, and other dangers. If I am to believe Darby Conley--and to my knowledge, he has never lied to me before--only 20% of cats born in the US find permanent homes. The rest don't have happy endings; their lives are Hobbesian in quality: nasty, brutish, and short.

I fed this colony on my way home from work, but knew that I was running the risk of making them dependent on me. After I returned home, and didn't feed them anymore, maybe they would be the worse off, for all I knew. Now I have learned that there are other people who feed them, and will continue to do so after I have left. Additionally, one of them is working with a local spay-and-release program, so maybe the cycle of kittens being born into the colony will be somewhat slowed. It's not the fairy-tale happy ending, but maybe it will turn out to be better than the status quo.

I hope so, anyway.


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