Monday, November 19, 2012

955. Essay: The Feral Cat Colony on Darby Road: Part 1

By Kamran Nayeri, November 19, 2012
Our Place Is Where We Are Loved by Jan Yatsko

This essay is about cats, mostly feral or "strayed," that I came to know since I moved to my new home in Sebastopol, California, in August 2011.  It has been hard for me to write about them for reasons that will become obvious to the reader.  The essay will appear in three parts. This is part 1.  It is dedicated to all domesticated animals that live their lives at the mercy of the master who we often call "owner" as if these animals are mere commodities as we once sanctioned human slavery by buying and selling human beings (and in some parts of the world, still do).  I hope it will touch the reader's heart and mind as all other good writings in the literature on animal liberation have done for me.  As Henry David Thoreau noted wisely, enslavement of other animals also enslave us. Without animal liberation there can be no human emancipation.  

When I lived in Atenas, Costa Rica, I met wonderful individuals, mostly women, who operated FundaciĆ³n Ateniense de Ayuda a Animales Abandonados (Atenas Foundation for Helping Abandoned Animals) on volunteer basis.  They conduct ongoing public education including by setting up a stand at the Friday's farmers market (La Feria) and teaching school children. They also provide free  neutering and spaying of dogs and cats.  Until a good home is found for abandoned dogs and cats, these volunteers offer their own homes as temporary shelter for these often sick and mistreated animals.  This organization is registered in Costa Rica as a non-profit (Cedula Juridica #3-006-542026).

A friend, an artist and Atenas resident, Jan Yatsko used her talents to create the painting "Our Place is Where We Are Loved"  (see above) and donated it to the Atenas Foundation for Helping Abandoned Animals.  All of the proceeds from the sale of this painting will go towards food, medicine and veterinary care.  The painting features Canela (Cinnamon) an abandoned and sexually abused female dog with a big loving heart.  When the abandoned and orphaned kittens were placed near her, she started to produce milk and took care of  them until they were adopted.  Canela was also adopted and now the painting that captured her story is looking for a good home. 

The unframed painting 15" X 20" in an acrylic wash on professional grade watercolor paper.  Cost is $300 dollars + shipping within the US.  Interested people can contact Jan Yatsko for more details at Everyone is encourage to visit Jan's website at

Thank you.

Kamran Nayeri

*     *     *
The Feral Cat Colony on Darby Road

Mooshi goes to Sebastopol
At 4:30 on August 20 a year ago, I got up from my makeshift bed on the floor of my emptied out bedroom in Montclair, Oakland, put the laundry basket over Mooshi who was still sleep in her bed, pushed a flattened cardboard book box under her bed and used plenty of dock tape to secure the basket on it.  I then put Mooshi in the back of the Prius and drove an hour and half to Sebastopol, 70 miles northwest of Oakland, California.

The sun was rising when we arrived in our new home. I was certain that Mooshi would like her new house that sits on two acres of land in the countryside 3 miles from downtown Sebastopol, a town of about 8,000 people. But how quickly would she adjust?

I first met Mooshi in the parking lot of Ann Head Building complex, part of the University of California at Berkeley, in spring of 2003. Anna Head Building is located at the northeast corner of a large UCB parking lot (which is now turned into a student dormitory).  Mooshi’s stunning beauty—a calico coat with vivid colors of longish hair and beautiful large and intelligent green eyes that made her she look like some Norwegian Forest cat—made me fall in love at the first sight. It became apparent very soon that Mooshi was feral and lived under the building.  I soon began providing her with water and then food on regular basis every day of the year. A cautious cat, it took us a while to get to know each other but eventually we became best friends.  Every morning Mooshi was waiting for me to arrive at work and provide her breakfast. When she was not there calling her name was enough for her showing up. Most days Mooshi would be sitting on top of the forgotten balcony on the second floor just below my office’s window to watch the parking lot as people were heading home.
Mooshi in her home in Sebastopol, 2012

I learned from others that Mooshi was the sole survivor of a litter born across the street sometimes in late 1999 or early 2000. I have no idea how Mooshi’s mother and siblings perished. Perhaps luck was a factor but Mooshi’s intelligent and caution certainly helped her survive. For example, in dry winter days she spent the mornings sitting on top of the hood of newly parked cars to keep warm.  I could see her getting off a car that was parked for a while and jump on top of the hood of a car that recently arrived. She enjoyed watching people, cars and other animals from a safe distance. And she still does. She was also very agile and a great hunter. I called her Mooshi after seeing her one morning with the tail of a mouse briefly hanging from her mouth. In Farsi, “moosh” is the word for mouse.

By 2006, I was looking for another job and had to take Mooshi home. So, I spent months trying to catch her—after all this time I could not, and still cannot, pick her up and hold her in my arms.  She just does not like it. My coworkers, their spouses, people from UCB Animal Control office tried for months to help me catch Mooshi.  Nothing worked.  A woman from animal control with a kind heart for animals gave me a net with a very long handle to catch Mooshi. The idea was to place something tasty on top of the net and then pull it up to catch her.  It did not work.  The husband of a coworker who was suppose to be very good with animals tired to make Mooshi familiar with his scent by leaving his dirty shirts near her food and water dishes. After a few days, he tried to crawl over to Mooshi and grab her.  It did not work.  Finally, the Animal Control Office lent me a raccoon trap. For this to work I had to stop feeding Mooshi for as long as it takes for her to walk into the trap for her food.  It tool 10 days of not eating her food—something very hard for both of us. But on March 7, 2006 at about 3:30 p.m. Mooshi walked into the trap.  A coworker with a SUV drove us to the veterinary office.  They ran test for serious infections but fortunately found her to be healthy except for infected teeth. They extracted two infected fangs and some bad teeth and let me take her home. Poor Mooshi was very groggy when I took her to the bathroom that became her room for about a week and [laced her on the towels laid down on the floor of the bathtub.  After a week of regaining her strength and coming out of the initial shook of finding herself in an entirely new place she was well enough to move to the smaller bedroom of the house. I began spending more time with her although she was mostly hiding under the bed.  At night, she tried a few times to break through the glass of the window and jump out.  After about six months, I let Mooshi go out.  When she found a hole under my neighbor’s house she crawled in—looked like home to her. However, after a few hours she came out and I was able to get her back into the house.  After a few times, she was finally at home in the sense that she would go out and come back in on her own accord.

This experience made Mooshi to bond with me more than to where she lived. So, after just three days in her new house on Darby Road she was feeling at home. In fact, Mooshi was actually happier living on two acres of land well populated with gophers!  She spent the next six months gopher hunting. The fact the she never had any success did not matter—it was still a lot of fun and exercise.

Darby Road as a neighborhood
I settled in Sebastopol, California, after a five-year quest to live in Cuba and when that seemed impossible in Costa Rica.  There were different sets of reasons for each of these. But a common factor was the suffering of domesticated animals prevalent in those countries and elsewhere in Latin America (I have also seen it in Mexico and Venezuela). Once in Trinidad, Cuba, I found a blind dog dying of starvation/dehydration under the cocktail table I had sat by to enjoy live music.  In Atenas, Costa Rica, where I wished to settle down dogs that are lucky to belong to someone are tied to a post on a short metal chain 24 hours a day for almost all of their lives—they are used as burglary alarm.  In Ensenada, Mexico, it was not uncommon to find dogs with open wounds or dead by the side of the road, hit by a car.  I limit my observation to dog abuse as the Latin culture is a “dog culture!”

Sebastopol, a town of 8,000 people, seemed to offer some of the qualities of Vinales, Cuba, and, Atenas, Costa Rica. I found a house with an open-space architecture and two acres of land for an affordable price outside of town in a valley that is made up of homes with acreage and apple orchards and vineyards.

The house at the end of the Darby Road appealed to me because it is a quite place facing a meadow engulfed by dense growth of oak and other evergreens that surround a big creek; together they serve as a wildlife corridor.

Darby Road slopes down at about 15 degrees from Burnside—a road that snakes around the top of the hills—surrounded by rows of apple and oak trees, shrubs and weeds, including blackberry bushes.  A deep creek runs parallel to it on the left of the road as one drives down the hill, leading into the big creek.  About 1000 feet from the big creek, Darby Road turns left to become still narrower and much more private.  This part of the road is legally privately held, although people take their walks there or walk their dogs. There are only seven houses on this section of the road.  My house is the last just before a locked gate that makes Darby Road a cul-de-sac.  There are homes on either sides of Darby Road as its slopes down towards the big creek. Most are on private side road. There is a huge apple orchard belonging to a middle-age couple, the Valentios, who are small farmers. They operate machinery such as a giant tractor and a big truck. But manual labor—like preparing the trees, pruning, picking apples--and other more demanding work—are done by seasonal workers of Mexican heritage during the spring and fall seasons. Apples are sold for making juice.  There is also a small five-acre family owned pinot noir farm.  A non-descript building opposite of the small vineyard that is known as the “Apple Shack” is home to some half-a-dozen young male Mexian-American farm workers.

There is considerable number of wildlife such as coyotes, deer, wild turkeys, quarrels foxes, rabbits, gophers, moles, rats and mice, weasels, garden and gopher snakes, lizards, a couple of dozens of regional and migratory birds (quail families live under the blackberry bushes), many garden and house insects, and plenty of various grasses, shrubs, and trees that create a very lively surrounding.  My neighbors have cats and dogs, chicken and ducks, and goats. There is also a rescued horse and donkey.  Neighbors talk about “a bobcat” that lives in the woods surrounding the big creek that has taken their chickens. There is also rumor of mountain lions in the area. But coyotes come here and I once saw one walking briskly past the gate to the neighbor’s apple orchard towards the big creek.  Some nights, I wake up from their howl as they are just outside of my window.

The feral cat colony
One morning a few days after I arrived, I was driving to town when I noticed two small orange cats running towards my car from the right hand side of the road. This portion of Darby Road is surrounded by apple orchards with blackberry and other bushes on both sides of the creek to the one side and blackberry bushes that serve as a wall to hide a quite house on the other. It also serves as the location for loading and shipping apples in late summer and early autumn. Rusting disabled farm trucks and machinery, heaps of worn out tires and wasted wood made it clear that it was also a dumping ground.  The cats were coming from a location near a flat bed truck that was half sunken into the soil and partially covered by blackberry bushes. A rusting shell of an old truck stood 100 feet further some 20 feet away from the road.

I pulled the car to the shoulder and stopped. When I stepped out the cats came running to me robbing their faces and sides against me. I immediately noticed than one of the orange cats had a large open wound above her right eye.  They both looked very small, very thin.  I thought they were kittens. I quickly figured out that they are starving.  They wanted food.

I returned home and brought back several cans of cat food with me and a few dishes and a fork. It took them no time to swallow whatever I served. Meanwhile, I noticed that a black cat has also appeared, and in the distance, a calico cat.  The black cat came closer and let me pat him.  I had to get more food.

Thus began my relationship with the feral cat colony on Darby Road.  The first couple of weeks the cats devoured anything I gave them and licked dishes clean.  They were very much undernourished and both orange kitties appeared seriously sick.  The orange kitty with the wound over her right eye was by far the friendliest.  She actually wanted me to pat her as much as she wanted to eat her food. The other orange kitty sounded as if she suffered from an upper-respiratory infection.  She was also skittish but being so starved she allowed met to touch her while she was eating.  I was so busy with these two cats that the black cat and calico cat simply ate their food in a distance.

Orange Kitty Number Two
After the immediate problem of severe malnutrition was alleviated as the cats began to simply eat their food as opposed to swallow it as fast as they could, I decided to take the orange kitty with the open wound to a veterinarian.  I thought that a raccoon or a fox might have bitten the cat and the wound was not healing due to microbial infection.  The idea occurred to me as a raccoon and a fox did indeed appear at feeding times at the beginning.  Apparently, some kind-hearted neighbors threw food for the cats allowing other animals to eat them.  The raccoon and the fox must have learned that they can share in the cat food being left there never mind that it was served during the day and by the road where people drove by. I was hoping a regime of antibiotics might heal the cat’s wound and if the cat did not have a serious transmittable disease, I could take her home. So, I borrowed a trap from a neighbor, made an appointment (subject to being able to trap the cat) with the nearest veterinary practice-- Analy Veterinary Hospital—and on a Thursday morning placed a small amount of food on a plate deep inside the trap, set the trap, and waited for the orange kitty with the wound to show up. She usually came first. However, the second orange kitty that usually did not show up early and sometimes at all showed up and walked directly into the trap so I closed it manually. 

We registered the cat as the Orange Kitty Number One.  The cat was very docile. Dr. Baldwin was able to examine her without any difficulty.  The tests for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) were negative. She was given a slow-release antibiotic shot to treat her upper respiratory infection and release to me to take home.  I also learned that she was female and spayed, probably between 9 to 11 years old—an old age for a feral cat. Almost all her teeth and half her tongue were missing probably due to a blow to the head either by an accident (e.g. a car hit her) or by someone kicking her in the head.  I learned later that she was also almost deaf—whether she lost her hearing due to the trauma to her head or she got into an accident because she could not hear well will remain an unknown.  The notion that someone could have brutalized the cat is not so far fetched.  George, a male orange cat, apparently orange cats are often male, that spent his last two and half years of his life being taken care of by my housemate and I in Montclair, Oakland, carried a booby gun pellet in his body—an X-Ray taken just before he died showed it.  Apparently, a neighborhood kid target practiced using George. 

I took the orange kitty home.  I named her Sayda, a woman’s name in Gillaki languae.  I had prepared the larger bathroom and walking closet for her. 

The next day, I easily trapped the other orange cat. My neighbor who came to help feed the other cats was amazed at how trusting this sweet cat was. We signed her in as Orange Kitty Number Two.

Dr. Baldwin had no trouble examining her either. However, she almost immediately suggested that the wound that did not heal was probably advanced skin cancer.  To examine her further, she had to use anesthesia.  I left the cat with her and went to sit by the phone at home. A call came by mid-day.  Dr. Baldwin told me that the cat was bleeding under anesthesia probably because she had eaten rodents with rat poison.  Rat poison is a potent anticoagulant—it kills rodents by causing severe internal bleeding. She said she would do her best to save her.  A little later she called to say that bleeding had stopped but lab results have come in showing she is infected with FIV. She thought that explained the wound. Because the wound was not operable and the cat seemed to be in late stages of skin cancer and feline AIDS she recommended that I give her permission to end her life while she was under anesthesia.  Her suggestion was a rational choice—the cat probably would not have lived much longer and would die a painful death. She could also transmit the FIV to other cats. I fought back tears as I I give her “my consent” while thinking whom am I to put someone who I just recently met to death?

I left her a message for my neighbor who had helped me in the morning about this tragic outcome. When she came to comfort me I could not hold back my tears no more. I lost a friend that I had not yet quite known.  The little sweet cat had made a warm spot in my heart for the rest of my life. All the pains of my decision to put down Nuppy, one of my closest friends and perhaps my most important teacher, in 2008 returned to me.

My only consolation was that of the two sisters I was able to save one.

Sayda turned out to be a vocalizer.  She cried when she used the box, ate her food and she sometimes in the middle of the night.  That worried me.  At the same time, she ate with gusto, a good sign of her desire to live and get stronger.  She also began to enjoy some other comforts of living at home instead of under the blackberry bushes.  Within a few days, she began sleeping in her doughnut shaped bed.

About a week after Sayda came into the house a friend who I had not seen for about about two decades came for a weeklong visit from Iowa.  I had prepared the loft for my visitors. To make sure he could sleep well I spent a number of hours each night sleeping with Sayda in the walk-in closet. This seemed to comfort Sayda as she sometimes curled up in my armpit and fall sleep and sometimes slept just above my head on the carpet. She also learned to enjoy being brushed—and she does need it as her fur forms mats. Sayda’s acceptance of my companionship was fostered by the small size of the closet and the bathroom.  Each time I reached out to touch her initial reaction was to recoil. But once she was touched she relaxed and sometimes even purred softly.
Sayda in her walk-in closet on my bedding, October 2011
After my friend left, I began to leave the bathroom door open so Sayda can walk into the large living room full of light coming through large picture windows. Sayda did come to the door but would not cross into the living room. After a while, I brought her in my arms to the living room to sit by my on the sofa. This was fine as long as I sat by her.  As soon as I moved to do something elsewhere in the house Sadya ran back to the closet.  She did not feel safe in open spaces. 

Meanwhile, Mooshi was curious about this visitor (Moosh is curious and very intelligent).  Whenever she tried to stick her head inside Sayda’s turf she was hissed at and chased away by Sayda. As much as Sayda is docile towards humans she is aggressive towards other cats. Of course, she is bluffing with her small body and bone structure.  I still do not understand how small cats sometimes bully large ones; female cats bully male cats, etc.

After a few weeks living in the walk-in closet and the bathroom, Sayda discovered the loft.  The shape of the loft follows the A-frame structure of the house. The ceiling slopes on both sides. On has to be careful not to hit one’s head against the downward sloping ceiling when walking laterally. On each side where the ceiling become particularly low wooden moveable walls encase spaces that can be used as storage. The front and back of the loft face huge picture windows with beautiful view of the meadow and woodland on one side and the neighbor’s large garden on the other. 

One day, I could not find Sayda in her closet. As the bathroom door was always left open I figured she must have gone somewhere. Sometimes, she would go to my bedroom and hide behind or under the bed.  However, I could not find her anywhere on the main floor. So, I began looking in the loft.  I finally found her hiding in a dark corner of the attic. From that day she made the loft her turf.  At night she ventured downstairs to use her box, which was still in the master bathroom.  Once I realized Sayda is going to stay upstairs I took her box to the attic so she did not need to come downstairs to use it. 

Sayda spent the next couple of months hiding behind and under the bed or in dark corners of the attic.  I was no longer able to touch her or brush her. She would runs away.  So, she was putting up with me while in the closet. There was nowhere to hide there.

One night frustrated by Sayda’s behavior, I laid on my belly on the carpet facing her under the bed and talked to her for about 10 minutes.  I asked her why is she playing this game. Are I not the same person who held her, fed her, brushed her?  Why is she now acting as if I am a threat to her? I told her that she should accord herself more comfort. Why spent most her time day and night under the bed as opposed to elsewhere in the loft? I then went downstairs to go to sleep for the night.

I do not know what might account for it, but the next day I found Sayda sitting on the carpet by the bed and not under it.  She never went back to sleeping or hiding under the bed. 

A couple of month later I had a similar monologue with her this time telling her that I have lost my patience with her not ever coming downstairs.  There is sunshine there and she could be in the company of Mooshi and Sunny (I will tell her story in Part 2) and me.
Sayda on her Iranian rug cushion on the main floor of the house. spring of 2012

The next day, Sayda came downstairs and sat on an Iranian rug cushion a couple of feet away from my workstation.  Ever since Sayda comes downstairs every morning after her breakfast and remains there catching the sun light as late as the mid-day.  Sometimes she also comes down at night to sit with the rest of us as I watch a movie or relax on the sofa listening to jazz with Sunny on my chest or legs.

Sayda has also ventured outside a few times.  However, it is clear she feel very unsafe because she is almost deft and is constantly surprised by people and animals showing up in her field of vision blurred by cataract.   

For the first 8 months Sayda’s health seemed to vacillate between poor to somewhat better. Her appetite was not great and seemed to vacillate.  She had formed a large mat on her back that obviously bothered her.  She seemed unwell and showed obsessive/compulsive behavior by licking fur off behind both her back legs and by licking the carpet.  She also exhibited behavior as if she was constipated or had problem passing down her food.  One day all of the sudden she stopped eating. This went on for a few days. I got worried.

One morning when she was sunbathing downstairs, I put a laundry basket over her, slipped a flattened book box under her and taped the basket over it secure. I took her to the veterinary hospital.  Dr. Cloninger found no mass in Sayda’s intestines. But she did find her to suffer from a blood infection common to feral cats.  She gave her a strong shot of antibiotic and sent her home with a two-week regiment of antibiotic. I put the pills in treat-like pill pockets and Sayda eat them gladly. 

Within a few days she felt better except for the onset of diarrhea.  I gave her probiotics for cats.  After 10 days, I called Dr. Cloninger and she agreed to stop the antibiotics.  Sayda’s appetite and behavior improved, She actually put on a little weight—she is still very small.  She does not show obsessive/compulsive behavior and she is not sleeping as much—although she does sleep a lot.  I figure this may be normal for a deft cat.  Also, she has lived about 10 years as a feral cat—most feral cats die within a few years. She is an old lady with disabilities and trauma of a hard life that limit her abilities to enjoy the pleasures of everyday life. Sayda still has nightmares and wakes up crying loud. Only when I rush upstairs to talk to her does she calms down and perhaps fall sleep again.

All the same, Sayda is now part of our household.

To be continued: Part II: Lulu, Calico and Sunny

1 comment:

Fred Ball said...

It is good to know that there are people- perhaps too few in number -whom truly appreciate the value of an animal's right to a just life.