Wednesday, October 15, 2014

1591. Essay: The Feral Cat Colony on Darby Road, Part 2: Lulu, Calico, Smokey and Sunny

By Kamran Nayeri, October 14, 2014

When I discovered the feral cat colony on Darby Road in late August 2011, it was because two small orange cats ran towards my car due to their state of starvation.  I related their stories in Part 1. They turned out to be sisters about 9-11 years old. The first one I trapped and took to the veterinarian hospital was treatable and I brought her home and named her Sayda (more on her in Part 3). Her sister was not as lucky. She suffered from advanced Feline Immune-deficiency Virus  (FIV) infection and terminal skin cancer and had to be euthanized.  I also noted two other cats that lived in the colony: “ As I was feeding the two starving orange cats …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.”

These two cats seemed healthy and I began taking care of them at the site and still do three years later.  The black cat who tuned out to be an approximately 5 year old male at that time I called Lulu.  The calico cat who according to some locals is a matriarch who before begging spayed gave birth to many kittens who apparently did not survive, I called unimaginatively Calico.  I was not able to trap and take Calico to the veterinarian hospital because she is extremely skittish. So, I know little about her conditions but she has done well the past three years.  

Lulu is a beautiful black cat with a touch of white in his chest who must have been someone’s lap cat and then dumped on Darby Road. He absolutely loves human interaction and will easily bond to any friendly person.  He is long, skinny with yellow/green eyes.  Of all my cats here, Lulu and Sunny (read about her below) probably rank as the ones showing most affection.  Everyday, I spend a fair amount of time brushing, holding, hugging, and kissing Lulu on the sliver of land owned by a neighbor before he eats, during his eating (he takes a break for love and then eats some more) and after he is done eating.  He likes to be brushed, to be picked up and put on my lap as I squat on the ground (no chairs there) and being held in my arms as I stand up and walk around.  
Lulu eating food inside the trap I set up for him

I trapped Lulu after a couple weeks of training. To trap him, I carried the trap with me in the back of the car and placed it where I fed Lulu at each meal. At first, I placed his bowl of food near the opening of the trap and over time it more and more inside. One morning when Lulu was inside the trap eating his breakfast which as deliberately small I simply closed the trap door on him, covered the trap in a blanket so he feels less stressed (cats prefer enclosed spaces when in stress) and took him to Analy Veterinarian Hospital.  Dr. Baldwin examined Lulu who was well-behaved, found him to be in generally good health on physical exam and I took him home waiting for the lab results.  

I had prepared the master bathroom with a carpeted walk-in closet for Lulu (Sayda had recently moved from this same space to the loft).  Lulu hated his new space.  No cat likes an unknown territory with strange smells and sounds. Displaying his anxiety, Lulu did not use his bedding and preferred to sleep on the drain in the bathtub. He hissed at me when I offered to brush him. He did not eat well. 

We had a typical spell of hot October weather. So, on Lulu’s second day I opened the window above the sink a crack to let some fresh air inside. 

The next morning, I found that Lulu was gone. He had pressed the window to the left, pushed the screen off and took off.  When I went to feed Calico her breakfast, I found Lulu waiting for me at his usual spot. He greeted me as if nothing had happened: sweet and wanting to be brushed. 

The next day, the antibody test for FIV came back positive. This sank my heart. Could this sweet and otherwise healthy five year old cat be sentenced to an early and terrible death? But the false-positive rate for the antibody test is 25%.  I asked for an ELISA test that actually looks for the FIV virus.  That test came in negative.  The only way that both test were correct is for Lulu to have been infected within the past few months—the virus can still hide but the antibody can be present due to the body’s defense system. 

Dr. Baldwin recommended that I take him back for another test in 3 to 6 months.  I have not done that for three reasons. First, it is very stressful for most cats to be forced to go anywhere, especially where they get pocked around. Cats do not understand what the veterinarian may be able to do for them—that it is for their own good.  Second, there is little more I could do for Lulu even if he turns out to be FIV positive. Third, being a no aggressive cat chances that he would bite and infect another cat is indeed very small. He poses no real danger to Calico or other cats in the area. 

Three years later, Lulu is doing well. I worry a bit about him not gaining weight eating a lot of food. But that can be because of his high metabolism rate.  In recent months, there is a slight discharge from his eyes.  I am not sure why but I like to treat him for that as soon as possible. I think I can give him eye-drops if need be.  I am thinking about taking Lulu for another check. 

I have given Lulu a dose of Frontline each month during the flea season from February/March to November/December.  Lulu tolerated it for a while but more recently he seems more adverse to it. So, the past few month I have given him Comfortis, a new anti-flea medication that comes in edible pill.

Lulu is one happy cat, one of the happier ones I know. He and I love each others company twice a day. He is always waiting for my car to appear and greets me on the passenger door side.  I pick him up, giving him a couple of kisses and then serve his meal.  Before I leave, I often repeat the same ritual.  Once I close the passenger door Lulu knows that it is time to say good bye until the next meal. 

Our bonds has grown so much that I feel he will acclimate to the house if I take him in again.  But I live in an open architecture house (only the bedroom and bathrooms are partitioned) and with three cats in the house there has been no room for a fourth one.  Also, Calico would have become alone and lonely.  Lulu and Calico are not buddies but keep each others company and together watch out for predators and protect their turf. 

The local lure has it that Calico is an older matriarch who gave birth a number of times before she was spayed. No one know where her kittens went. I have seen no sign of them in the neighborhood. Presumably they have all died or taken away by someone.  Calico is really Calimanco or Clouded Tiger type of cat by fur color.  That is, her basic color is black covered by spots and strips of orange and dark orange.  Calico is very protective of herself.  Even Lulu does not get too close to her or there will be a paw fight.  She spends a lot of time in her “den” and comes out for sunshine or fresh air or to hunt gophers and watch birds only when it is quiet in her neighborhood. She likes to go across the way to the property where a Costco butcher lives. A gentle giant of a man with a big truck and a huge boat that I have seen him tow to the sea only once in three years.  His yard is overgrown with blackberries and other volunteers, a perfect place for cats and wildlife (but a disgrace by human standards that prefer manicured gardens).  
Calico eating on top of the flatbed truck that was her home

Given Calico’s disposition, I never tried to trap her and take her to the veterinarian hospital.  I argued to myself that even if they find aliments I cannot treat a cat like her.  Thankfully, she has been keeping steady. There are periods of a day or two and rarely longer when she does not show much appetite or does not even show up to eat. I know she is not feeling well. May be a stomach virus.  But she bounces back each time and resume her routine.  Calico is not a big eater but she has more heft to her than Lulu. Although I could not give Calico Frontline for flea treatment, I gave her deworming medication when I I dewormed Lulu too. Cats can get parasites from rodents they eat or from fleas that feed on them. Early on, I noticed a twice or so worms coming out of Lulu’s behind.  The deworming pill can be placed on top of their dried food and the cat easily eat them. My current plan is to keep Lulu at his current location as long as Calico who I assume is older is alive.  

When I arrive here, the cat colony lived under a flat bed of a truck that had sunken into the earth by the creek’s western side.  There was just enough space for a cat to crawl under and there was more space when they moved inside of it. It created something like a metal ceiling cave that protected them from predators and from the elements. About 50 feet south under an old live oak tree is diameter concrete drain pipe two get in diameter that has sunken into the ground at a 45 degree angle. Earth movement has made that into an artificial cave where Sayda and Orange Kitty Number 2 lived.  Later, Calico used to sleep there at times.  

One day, two years ago as I was driving by I saw a man with heavy machinery picking up various metal relics from the cat colony location pilling them on the back of his huge flatbed truck to haul away. Apparently, China’s industrialization has created a market for scrap metal inn the U.S. So, the owners of the apple orchard and the woman who owns the land where the cats live had agreed to let this man haul away these relics at no cost to them. It was a win-win situation for all of them.  Not so for the cats. Lulu and Calico were confused and distressed for a week or two after they lost their hiding places they knew as “home.”  Thankfully, my cat condos for them remained in place—they were not totally homeless. 

However, the three cat condos that I had made for them using two Rubbermaid plastic containers one inside the other for each were now exposed. The design is simple: get two large size Rubbermaid containers so one fits inside the other with some room all around it for insulation.  Then cut a door way for the cats in both container so that they align when the smaller container is placed inside the larger one on top of insulation but leaving enough space for insulation above and under the smaller container.  Then place a doorway—we made it from scrap wood—to create a short tunnel for the cat to get in and out. We then placed insulation between the two containers add some strew as bedding inside the smaller container for the cats to sleep on and be warm. Close the top for the small container. Place Insulation on top of it and then close the top of the larger container. The cat condo is ready for use!  I then placed enough other materials around them with a “court yard” for all three condos  to make it impossible for predators to get into the labyrinth.  I covered everything with a large tarp so no rain water could get in the area surrounding the cat condos. These were made in the fall of 2011 before it got too cold or wet.  When they removed the flatbed truck these cat condos were exposed.  Another neighbor responded kindly helped me by making a great feeding station. It looks like a small house with two windows and a sliding metal roof. The cats can get on the feeding platform from the two windows in the front or from the open back. They can also access their condos from under it. This way the cat condos were protected from the predators and in stormy and rainy days cats could still eat somewhere dry and safe. 

The cats loved their new home. But it took weeks for them to get back to normal, including eating like they did before.

A little after I established a feeding routine for Lulu and Calico occasionally another cat showed up for food.  He was a small grey-blue male cat that was not neutered who had small ears, very short fur, fast moving and pushy.  He stayed away from me but he was not shy like Calico was.  He tended to rush toward either Lulu or Calico while eating and push them away to eat from their bowl even when he had his own bowl of the same food. 
Smokey in an early photo when he first showed up for food

When I inquired from neighbors about this cat, Jennie, an one older woman who lived in a smaller of two houses in a vineyard, exclaimed: “Oh, this is Smokey!”  She said Smokey has been around for many years (the years added up to 11-13) and that her late husband used to feed him from time to time in the garage. Jennie still gives Smokey a saucer of milk from time to time.  Obviously, they liked Smokey but never adopted him.  

Smokey was a very intelligent cat. He used his front paws to move food around in his bowl to better eat it.  Also, he did seem to have a friendship with Lulu—the two greeted each other with what appeared to be a kiss— although from time to time he had half-playful paw fights with him and with Calico.  Increasingly, Smokey showed up more regularly so I had another cat condo made for him as the nights were getting fairly cold. 

In the next couple of months Smokey and I became close enough so he would do somersault for me to draw my attention to pat and brush him. I bought a brush for Smokey too and he gradually learned to like being brushed while eating from his bowl. 

However, by December I began noticing lumps on Smokey’s face and infection in is eyes.  Also, he needed to be neutered.  After a gradual period of acclimating him to the trap, I trapped him on Martin Luther Kings Day which was Monday, January 17, 2012.  

It became a messy affair when the door to the trap failed and Sokey got out inside my Prius as I was driving him to Analy Veterinarian Hospital.  When we got there the staff had to sedate and catch him before they could take him to the examination room. 

It turned out that poor Smokey had advanced FIV disease. The lumps in his face and his eye infections were the symptoms. He was a potential threat to other cats due to his aggressive behavior.  A bite from him meant other cats could become FIV infected—a death sentence.  Cats usually die within 5 years of getting infected of opportunistic infections.  The veterinarian recommended and I had to oblige to euthanize Smokey.   

Smokey could have been a wonderful companion to Jennie and her husband had they adopted him in his youth, neutered him and taken care of him. He was probably infected in his middle age in male cat fights which would have been avoided had he been neutered.  He was highly intelligent and displayed affection towards me. He was friends with Lulu who showed signs of wondering what happened to Smokey.  It took Lulu some time to forget Smokey.  

Meanwhile, I had to take my car to a professional cleaner as Smokey had urinated in in his state of fear.  He had every right to fear his situation.  There lies the quandary of humans who take up the task of managing other animals.  To love a cat and to put his to sleep because he could be a danger to other cats cause me once again to question domestication. We have been playing god with other species much more in line with the literal interpretation of the Genesis s than what Darwinian evolutionary theory entails.

It was about Christmas 2011 that one morning I saw a very small orange cat running under the blackberry bushes when I stopped to pick up my New York Times from the mail box.  Because I live in the country, mail boxes of an entire group of homes are placed in one location, typically walking distance from each home. 
Sunny in her early months in the house where she spent time behind the books

The next time I saw the orange kitty, I called her and she stopped just under the first row of blackberry bushes.  I opened a can of cat food and put in a bowl near her.  She quickly walked to the bowl and started eating.  In no time, she ate all that I had for her. I gave her the rest of the can and it was gone in no time. Meanwhile, I realized she does not mind me getting closer serving more food.  I began gently rubbing her back while she was eating. She ate three big cans of food before she was satisfied.  Then she walked under the bushes and disappeared. 

The next day, she was there waiting for me. I had a new cat to feed on Darby Road. The difference was that this little cat was reality starving consuming 3-4 big cans of food each day she was totally friendly. I could pick her up and she would purr.  After a few days, I decided to take her home. I picked her up and began walking towards home. Half way to my home, she became nervous and wanted to jumped down. Her body stiffened and her claws sank into my chest. I realized I cannot take her home simply by carrying her in my arms. 

The next day, I brought a cardboard box and tried to place her inside it to take her home. She wiggled out of it after I carried her some distance. 

I decided to trap her and it was done on the first try.  

I took her to the Analy Veterinarian Hospital. She was found to be healthy, about two years old with a hernia due to a poor spaying operation. Dr. Baldwin thought it was not a serious condition.

I decided to call her Sunny after the name Steve and Renee, two of my neighbors who are very kind to cats and take care of a colony of their own on Darby Road had given to the Orange Kitty Number Two.  Sunny did look like she could be the offspring of either of the two orange kitty sisters.

Sunny spent the firs night in the master bathroom.  I remember she defected in the bed I gave her and slept inside her box!  The second night she was out in the living room siting on my lap as I watched a movie.  The transition was amazing.  

After that Sunny was free to roam around the house except she did not feel safe yet and spent a lot of time hiding behind my book on the bookshelf. A photo of her sitting on the bookshelf graces my Facebook page. 

Sunny began getting stronger and more comfortable in the house and put on some weight. In the next six months she almost grew to twice her previous size and now she even has love handles that are not good! 

Sunny’s demeanor helped her stay out of trouble. She is happy to be the bottom of pack cat and would lay on her back on the ground when caused by Mooshi who wanted to show her she is the boss.  That explained why she was so deprived of food. She was outcompeted by other cats and went hungry for a long time.  Also, it explains why she was not bitten by infected cats—she did not contest any one. Still, as I learned later, Sunny turned out to be a great mouser. She is patient, fast and had formidable claws.  She patiently sits by a gopher or vole hole for hours to let her prey to come close by.  She would then pounce! I have seen her eating numerous rodents but unfortunately a few birds as well. 

At home, Sunny is at the bottom of cat hierarchy. Sayda was on the top—even Mooshi stayed out of her turf.  But while Sayda eventually made peace with Mooshi she got still irritated by Sunny for reasons not clear to me.  Mooshi also did not like Sunny at the beginning. It took  a year before she accepted her in the bedroom and for a short time on the bed with me. After Mooshi was lost after a visit to Analy Veterinarian Hospital in March 2012 and found, Sunny never again tried to sleep on the bed with us. Instead, she made a bed on a chair in the bedroom her turf—small but higher up and safe from Mooshi’s possible attacks!  With Mooshi getting older and weaker she tolerates Sunny more.  In the past year or so I spend quality time with both of them with Mooshi sitting next to me on a pillow on the sofa and Sunny sitting on my lap as I watch a movie.  I pat them both cats and they seem to have a good time. The past month or two, Sunny can even get up and step off the sofa right by Mooshi without getting her to react.

For the first six months of her life in the house Sunny spent all day under blackberry bushes on the other side of Darby Road opposite of the school.  Every night I had to go and lure her back to the house.  At first, it was difficult because I had to catch her and bring her back somewhat against her will.  But, of course, there was a part of her that wanted to be caught and brought home. The fact that Oliver, the neighbor’s dog barked whenever he was present and I was passing by with Sunny in my arms tucked against my chest did not help.  But eventually we got over this.  Sunny began to come back to the house herself.  For another year, each time someone came to the house for visit she ran outside.  She felt more comfortable outside than inside in case of “danger.”  Recently, she has acclimated to the house enough that when they replaced the roof last week she spent most of the day under the bed not outside.  I had to take her out in my arm to get some fresh air!  

Friday nights is the night when I devote time to relax myself.  I spent some time laying on the sofa listing to jazz sometimes with Sunny laying on my belly or legs facing away from me.  I often feel a deep sense of gratitude for finding such wonderful companion behind the blackberry bushes.

Related post:

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

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