Thursday, August 1, 2013

1121. From the Readers: A Tale of Thirteen Cats

By Bijan and Elaine Nikrad, July 2010

Our Place Is Where We Are Loved by Jan Yatsko

This essay is about cats, mostly feral or "strayed."  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 talent 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. 

My gratitude to Bijan and Elaine Nikrad from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who provided this essay to Our Place in the World.  

Kamran Nayeri
*     *    *

When we decided to start feeding a few stray cats in our backyard, we had no idea where it would lead. To enjoy this story to the fullest, it will help to be introduced to the original cast of characters, thirteen cats:

Mountain Lion was a gentle giant, a golden tom cat who walked with authority among the rest of the pack.  The other cats would move aside when he approached the feeding dish.  But when he made a sound, it was the faintest of mews, barely audible.  He loved to be petted which made us suspect that he was not feral, but a runaway or castoff pet.  

Princess was named for her regal manner- always possessing a quiet grace.  She didn’t frolic with the rest of the bunch, but waited quietly until someone was setting on the step.  Then she would cautiously creep near and  position herself to be stroked.  

Goldie was the Special Cat from the get go.  At first, we’d say, “Did you see the little orange kitty?  Isn’t she cute? “ (To our surprise, Goldie turned out to be a he.)  This gradually turned in to “Is there something wrong with that cat?”  It wasn’t long until we figured out that Goldie truly was unique.  Alternately,  but with lots of love, referred to as the special needs kitty, Tardo, Garfield on drugs, the cat with an extra chromosone and others, we came to figure out that he must have a genetic irregularity.  The most noticeable trait was his eyes.  Goldie’s eyes protruded and had a thick outer coating of what must have been cornea.  The other give away was the adorable little pink tongue that most often hung out of his mouth giving him the appearance of a cat who had consumed a little too much medicine as Uncle Al would say.  Goldie’s mannerisms also suggested a difference from the rest of the feral herd.   His reaction time- not so fast.  It wasn’t too long until Goldie was a total hit!  Everybody who saw him loved Goldie.   They watched him, laughed at him, played with him, and wanted to be his protector.  

A pure black cat stayed by Goldie’s side much like a body guard.  This was an aggressive cat- playful, fast, first in line, and if she wasn’t first in line, she would bully her way to the front.  Clearly, Violet, as she was later named was the alpha member of the group.  She was also one of the more social cats who would come and sit near you and maybe allow you to touch or even pet her. 

A beautiful little Russian blue was a minor character - one of the first to be lost to the world of feral life.  A sibling of Goldie, she was an incredibly shy, but constant member of the troupe.

A grey tortoise shell kitty was another shy one.  She would later become a main character in our story and be given the name Tabitha.  

A rousing band of six white kitty siblings filled out the remainder of this feline pack.  These were beautiful long-haired fluffy cats with lighter translucent green eyes.  Three of them we named Sad Eyes because of the kind of haunting look created by the size and shape of their eyes.  Most of them were pretty hyper as kitties will be.  

The 13th cat is the unsung hero of this whole fiasco and perhaps an unwilling one as well, our house cat, Baby.  From the beginning, she made her opinion known: she wanted no part of this.  Occasionally, there was some curiosity, but more often than not just an icy non-participation.  Up until this point, she was the sole animal ruler of the roost - the one, the only pet - the undisputed recipient of any animal food, conversation, attention, and affection.  As the story unfolds, Baby had to put up with a lot of activity, commotion, and the hardest thing of all - sharing our attention.  Over the long run, Baby came to accept the situation, begrudgingly sharing her territory and our affection with the newcomers, but not without letting her real feelings be known.  

As our story begins, we had noticed for months stray cats hanging out in our back yard and ducking under the deck when we went in the back.  One Sunday, when we had the extended family over, the talk turned to cats as it often might.  There may be just a little feline sibling rivalry among my sisters.  My youngest sister, Lois, was the reigning champ.  The proud owner of four cats, Lois also gets kudos for once taking in a pregnant cat from the Humane Society and providing a home for the birthing, nursing, and care of the little ones until they were ready to be adopted.  She has provided a home for other strays, supports Feline Rescue, hand feeds recuperating birds at the Raptor Center and in general is a friend to all the animal kingdom.  My other sisters, Diane, Carole, and Wendy are all proud cat owners with years of kitty experience and commitment.

Kavon and Julia, my son and daughter-in-law were following in the family footsteps with one cat of their own and frequent window shopping trips to the Humane Society.  They were an integral part of this cat saga as our story unfolds.

So the mere mention of possible kitties under the deck was met with, “Let’s see them.”  After the holiday meal, we had a turkey carcass, so we put it on the back steps.  Within a few minutes, a small herd of kitties arrived.  After the oohing and aahing subsided, the conversation turned to what needed to be done to avoid hundreds and hundreds of future offspring.  That was when the capture, neuter, and release plan was born.  It was way too early for these little ones, so in the meantime we were all about enjoying  these adorable little guys. 

My husband Bijan, although he might say he didn’t want to, was all ready to feed them all every day. Bowls of Meow Mix were set out near the back step for the cats to eat, and eat they did.   Twelve hungry little cats several times a day, and a menagerie of raccoons and other creatures at night.  One time right after dark, I came in to the kitchen, looked out the glass door to the backyard, and saw what looked like a creature from Star Wars feeding at the dish.  Goldie was sitting on the step watching it.  My first reaction was to yell to Goldie, “Run for your life,” but I saw right away that this other animal was no danger.  We identified the new guy as an opossum, and saw him on occasion as he stopped by for an evening snack. 

During this time Kavon and Julia, Lois and Diane among others were dropping by to visit the little ones.  There’s really nothing quite as cute as a bunch of little kitties as they eat and nap and frolic and interact.  We’d try to tame them as much as we could, but all the white ones remained out of reach.   My daughter, Debbie came home from New York in July for a visit.  She had already endured hour upon hour of kitty stories over the phone.  Sitting on the back step with a cat toy on a stick, she was the first to lure Goldie and Violet to come and play.  In the next few weeks, we were gradually able to get closer and even pet a few of our strays.

Not everyone was overjoyed about the activity in our back yard.   Our neighbors, as a whole, seemed to go along with the plan, but we did notice that a few were bothered by the commotion, the extra fur, and the outdoor litter box needs of a herd of cats.  Who wouldn’t be? 

By early summer, we knew we needed to get our plan together.  With a team approach, we reached out to the resources we knew and looked for others.  Lois got in touch with Feline Rescue and other animal agencies we thought might give advice or support.  Feline Rescue suggested a small veterinary clinic in Robbinsdale as the place to take the cats for their operation. They also provided us with vouchers and asked for donations to help defray the cost.  With a total of 12 candidates, the procedure had to be done in shifts with no more than 4 cats at a time.  The plan was to try to trap them in late afternoon, take them early in the morning to the clinic, then pick them up the following day, giving them as long as possible for the anesthesia to wear off.  This may sound easy enough, but it took a lot of planning, maneuvering, and patience.  

Lois brought over some animal traps which we set out open for the strays to get used to.  As an enticement, we would put some treats inside.  Before long, many cats felt comfortable with the traps.  The day before the first appointment, we were able to catch four cats.  We tried to catch them as late in the day as possible to minimize their stress.  That evening at around 6:00, we loaded up the cats and off we went to the veterinary clinic to drop off our first group for their operation.  Knowing that we would not be able to keep them caged longer than overnight since their stress level was already extremely high, we picked them up as late as possible around 5:30 to give them the greatest amount of time for the anesthesia to wear off and the healing to begin.   The risk of infection for the males was not as great as the females, but we balanced the decision between safety and stress and chose to release them the following morning.  This seemed to work as they quickly ran off, but came back for food later in the day.  Four kitties down, and eight to go.  

During the next two rounds, we were able to capture, operate, and release six more kitties.  This was not without its challenges since the easiest ones to capture were sometimes captured again, and the most cautious never became part of the process.   Though determined to do our best, after the third stage of operations, we decided not to go on and to leave the rest to fate.  We were proud of our success in preventing ten feral cats from reproducing.  Surely Bob Barker would have been proud of us too.

As winter approached, the feeding dish was moved up to the deck.  This allowed us to clearly see the evening visitors.  The most frequent night time visitors were raccoons, some of them incredibly large, maybe weighing in at  30 or 40 pounds.  A few times, when we knew they were there, we’d turn on the outside deck light and get a really good look at them.  Our favorite memory of this was the time we turned on the light to see one huge adult raccoon and four adorable babies hanging out on our deck and feeding on Meow Mix.

I’m not sure how “kitty parades” first began, but probably like most things in small increments.  As the cats came to the deck for food, there were a few leaders who would come by the screen and let us talk to them, reach out and possibly touch them.  This led to “What would happen if we opened the screen door?” and sure enough gradually one or two brave cats would enter our dining room, sit near the safety of the open screen, and look at us.  Of course, this led to treats if they came in, and before we knew it, we’d have maybe 8 to 10 stray cats sitting around our dining room watching us, eating some treats, and generally amusing us with their feline antics.  At first both sides of this activity were a little leery - the cats making sure the screen door remained open, us making sure the cats didn’t stray from the dining room. It was fun to watch this pack in action - to see who stayed back (Tabitha and the Russian blue), who were the most adventurous, and what their next trick might be.  Kitty parades were usually pretty brief, maybe less than five minutes, but it was an enjoyable way to interact with our kitty colony.  During the winter months, the cats seemed to enjoy the warmth and the extra food.  Sometimes we’d even briefly microwave the treats for a little extra punch of heat. Over the course of the next two years, kitty parades became a source of amusement, an event to entertain family and friends, and a way to interact with our gypsy feline friends.

I think it was in February of the first winter that we started to notice that one of the cats seemed to be getting a little rounder, and gradually we came to the conclusion that Tabitha would be having a litter of babies before too long.  We weren’t completely surprised that another generation of cats was on the way, and I have to admit that we were all tickled a little at the prospect.

Around March when Tabitha was getting closer to delivery, I got a major tooth ache, went to the dentist, had it extracted, and developed a complication called a fissule - there was a hole from my sinus area into my mouth, and it made an odd whistling sound.  This required a small operation to sew a flap of skin over it.  We had been scheduled to fly to Texas to visit some friends, Sandy and Ken, at their time share.  We had just discussed and decided that we’d have to cancel, had called the airline and were given a refund because of the beginning of the Iraq war.  We went to bed, satisfied with our decision, but at about 12:30 at night, I heard a commotion, came out to the living room, and found Bijan writhing in pain. His lips were white, and he was kneeling on the floor with his head touching the carpet.   Even though he has had a history of some angina, he refused to let me call 911.  After too much discussion and negotiating, we finally left for the emergency room at about 2:00 a.m.  After giving him morphine for the pain, he was diagnosed with pancreatitis.  The cure seemed very unusual to us - Bijan simply couldn’t eat which rests the pancreas allowing it to heal.  In most cases this takes 3 to 7 days, but Bijan’s was so acute that it ended up taking 11 days.  During this time he was in extreme pain and on a morphine drip.  He also needed fluids and TPN (sustenance) intravenously.  The whole ordeal was scary, painful and stressful.  In the midst of this, I was trying to heal from oral surgery, keep up with my duties at work, support Bijan by being at the hospital, have another tooth extracted, and then deal with a dry socket.  What a fiasco!  

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Kavon and Julia were hatching a plan to capture Tabitha, in our house.  I’m not sure about the details on this, but I know Tabitha, and I’m sure that she did not end up in my basement, pregnant feral kitty that she was, without trying to escape.  One night when I came home from the hospital, Kavon said, “Guess what?”  I went down in the basement to check it out for myself.  It took me awhile to spot her as she was up by the ceiling beams hugging an outside window, her shining eyes the only giveaway to her location.  We put a litter box and some food in the laundry room, closed the door, and hoped for the best.  As the first few days went by, we were relieved to find out that she would use both.  Every time we’d enter the laundry room, we’d talk to her by name in the most reassuring voice we had. “Tabitha, here’s your food.”  “Tabitha, how are you doing?”  Our hope was that she would learn to trust us.   With all the upheaval surrounding Bijan’s illness, recovery, surgery, and recovery again, we probably didn’t give as much thought to the pregnant cat in our basement that we ordinarily would have.  But there was a constant curiosity about where exactly she was, and most of all when she would deliver.  

The night before, Bijan was to be released after his gall bladder surgery, I came home at about 10:00.  I went into the laundry room and listened.  I thought I heard some faint sounds.  Sure enough in the corner, beneath some shelves, protected by basement stored stuff, I could hear the faintest sounds of baby kitties.  Tabitha had scouted out the basement and found the most protected spot for her kitty delivery cave.  It was in the furthest back corner underneath shelves that were packed with the plethora of seldom used items that are put and then mostly forgotten in our storage room.

I decided to call Kavon and Julia to tell them the good news, and they were over in a flash.  We listened, tried to look with a flashlight, and guessed about how many and when.  We would constantly talk to Tabitha, hoping that she would see that we were on her side. Now we would need to wait.  

During that first week, we spent a lot of time down there, listening, watching for activity, hoping to catch some glimpse of newborn kitty.  As was often the case, Julia was the first to decide to take action.  She got low on the floor, reached in with her hand in the dark, and pulled out a baby kitty.  This took a certain amount of bravery since we weren’t sure that Tabitha wouldn’t scratch and bite to protect her little ones.  Oh, the moment of seeing that first little white bundle of joy- eyes closed, tiny and vulnerable.  It was definitely love at first sight.  Julia put her back and tried for another.  Through this process, we concluded there were four babies- three pure white and one little black and white kitty.  We were thrilled at the prospect of watching these little babes grow up.  

We intentionally interacted with the babies as much as possible after that first week.  First of all, we wanted them to be pets, so we were trying to get them accustomed to humans as soon as possible.  Secondly, we wanted to establish with Tabitha that she would need to share her babies. 

Several times a day, we’d take a few out, always leaving at least one as security for Tabitha, and watch them meander around like little drunken kitties.  We’d hold these little poofs of fur in our hands and pet and ooh and ahh- pure joy.  

The naming process for these little angels took some twists and turns.  Ideas were suggested, tried out, and rejected or accepted.  As they grew into definable personalities - Smudge, Booger, Fluffy, and Buster became their names.  Smudge was a sleek little white kitty with a very small patch of darkish grey on the top of her head.  You can probably imagine what Booger was named for.  She must have continuously sniffed around the dusty basement because she had a perpetual black gunk that stuck to her nostrils.   “You’re my little Fluffy one” was the commercial jingle which was the inspiration for the last little white kitty.  Buster was the only boy- black and white, big, fluffy, sweet, but playful. 

Along with the joy of the birth  and the kittyhood of these little darlings came the prospect of five more operations and the decision of who to keep in our home as well as what to do with the others.

We gave a lot of consideration to keeping Buster.  He was adorable, playful, and loving.  I had also been told that male cats are especially sweet and attached to their owners, and Buster was the only boy choice.  I felt a special connection to Fluffy with her little wolf-shaped face.  Smudge was definitely cute, but little Booger seemed to have that perfect combination of personality, sassiness, charm, and sweetness.  Alas, the nose issue, but there are always concessions to be made.  She needed a name change though, as the long term prospect of a pet named Booger wouldn’t do.  Julia told us that Bielka meant white fox in Russian, so we decided to use that. 

We had decided not to keep Tabitha for a number of reasons.   She was a first generation feral kitty, and we felt that she would never fully be happy as a house cat.  Secondly, we really only wanted to be a two kitty household, and we definitely wanted one of the babies as a pet.  So the plan was to neuter Tabitha and then release her to the outdoors, trusting that she would probably stay around our house, but not be an indoor pet. 

Securing Tabitha to take her to the vet for her operation was a big challenge.  In spite of the care, attention, and assistance we’d given, there was no touching Tabitha, let alone picking her up.  She would run and hide at the least hint that we wanted to put our hands on her.  We developed our strategy - isolate her from her babies for a day, give her no food, and then put a cat tranquilizer (provided by Debbie’s friend Sallie) into a tasty tuna treat.  We put the plan in to action with one little problem- Tabitha wouldn’t go near the treat let alone eat it.  As the afternoon before the appointment wore on with no success, we went to plan B:  Kavon and Julia would come over and catch her.   We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but there was no other choice.  They brought along an extra helper, our friend Jeff.  They told me to leave the basement as I probably didn’t want to see this event.  I took all four kitties upstairs and listened to the commotion.  After some time passed, I decided to go down and see what was going on.  I found Jeff dressed in a winter jacket with gloves and a football helmet protecting his face.  I left again and after some more racket, Tabitha was finally captured.  From our point of view, it was like a scene from the Keystone Cops.  From Tabitha’s point of view, I’m sure it was very traumatic.  For all of us, it was truly necessary. 

Our plan was to bring Tabitha home after her operation, keep her in a wire cage in the garage, and then release her into the backyard  in the following morning.  The first part of the plan seemed to be going well, but as we checked on her mid-evening in the garage, we found that she had escaped.  Knowing her abilities at hiding, we didn’t spend long looking for her thinking that when the garage door went up, she would run out.  The next morning, when Bijan left for work around 6:00 a.m., I heard a bit of a commotion, came down, and found Tabitha back in the house.  With tears in his eyes, Bijan explained to me that when he opened the door connecting the house to the garage, Tabitha and Bielka ran to each other and kissed and head bumped.  He said that he couldn’t let Tabitha go outside after seeing how much the two loved and missed each other.  So there you go, it was decided.  We would have three cats living in our house. 

Thanksgiving in Las Vegas had become the yearly winter getaway vacation for Bijan and me.  While we were there, we received a call from Kavon and Julia.  As they were taking care of our cats one night, they saw Mountain Lion on the deck,  let him in, and found that he had a huge wound in his chest.  They took him to the vet who gave him surgery on his wound, antibiotics and intensive care overnight.  He was brought back to our house for recuperation, and then was adopted by Kavon and Julia as their second house cat.

The number of outdoor cats slowly dwindled.  As the next year went by, the three remaining outside cats became, two, and then one of them showed up with a nasty looking wound that seemed infected.  We waited a few days and then decided to take her to the vet.  As Julia caught her, she received a little scratch.  When we told the vet the next day, he said that the cat would have to be put down and then brought to the University for rabies testing.  He also said that as serious as the infection was, the cat would probably not have survived anyway.  The final white outside cat was around for quite some time, then disappeared for two weeks.  He came back one evening looking not so good.  We let him in for what was the last mini-kitty parade.  He never came back again - marking the end of our feral cat family.  After two years of tending to both an outdoor and indoor herd, we were left with our three house cats - Baby, Tabitha, and Bielka.  

The final loss of our outdoor cats was somewhat of a relief, but there was also a bit of a sense of loss. This little microcosm of problem solving, the joys of  living, the way of the world, the cruelty of survival, life and death, and the bliss of babies and children was indeed a special time for us.  You never know where that next adventure might start- maybe when you put a turkey carcass on your back step. 


It’s been 7 years since we started feeding the strays, and out of the 17 cats (13 original and 4 babies), we believe there are 10 survivors including:

Princess Grace happily resides with my sister Diane.  She shares the house with Sammy, a black and white cat.  A happy, contented kitty, she’s famous for her whirling dervish routine when she hears the sound of a coffee grinder. 

Goldie continues to thrive at my sister Lois’ home with three other cats.  In spite of some issues with bleeding and an occasional limp, he is a happy much loved kitty.

Mountain Lion- This timid, gentle giant shares Kavon and Julia with Emma, their other house cat, and Bill, the bunny.  

Violet and Fluffy - We brought Fluffy as a baby to the Humane Society trusting that an adorable white little kitty would be adopted.  Lois took Violet to the Humane Society under a guaranteed adoption program.  We hope that they both have had a good life.

Smudge was adopted by a co-worker of Julia’s.  She caused such havoc in their house that she was returned and taken by our friend Jeff.  The same story at Jeff’s house resulted in her becoming an outdoor pet on a farm up north.

Buster was adopted by a friend at Bijan’s work.  It just took one picture and a few hours later, Buster had a home.

Tabitha and Bielka continue to thrive at our house, both of them loving pets with opposite personalities.  Tabitha is timid, obedient, and kind to Baby.  Bielka is adventurous, naughty, and demanding, but still adorable.

Baby’s still going strong at 19 years old.  We like to think that her two feline house mates have enriched her life, but secretly we are glad we can’t ask her directly.  

No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape can ever totally remove his fur from your couch.  ~Leo Dworken

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