On Becoming A Cat Person

From an early age I had a negative opinion of cats.  A big part of it could be that a couple of houses up the block from me lived what would be called one of those crazy cat ladies.  I believe she was also a hoarder before the term became popularized, as what little I ever saw of the inside of her home revealed stacks of newspapers, magazines, clothes, etc.  She probably had about a dozen cats congregating around her house, and she would leave food out for them.  When I would walk past her house on the way home from school, I often held my breath because of the overpowering stench of cat pee emanating from her property.  Around the same time, we got a pet dog, a miniature schnauzer, and so my early exposure to pets was a dog who always seemed happy to see me and eager to play with me.  

Over the years since my wife and I bought our house in 2000, we would periodically have mice roaming around, and my wife would occasionally float the idea of us getting a cat.  I was less than enthusiastic about it.  I loved dogs, and I didn't even want to get one of them, as working full time and raising two children was responsibility enough as far as I was concerned.

Fast forward to May of 2016, and my wife tells me that she thinks there might be some cats living underneath our backyard deck.  I hadn't seen any cats yet, so I was skeptical.  But then a day or two later, while I was getting ready for work one morning, I saw a mother cat and her four kittens playing on our deck.  I started taking photos and videos of them and posting them on Facebook and I would buy cans of cat food and put them out on the deck to feed them.


This is a photo I snapped of Cersei nursing her kittens.

One of my friends who saw my posts on Facebook suggested I capture and try to find homes for them and offered me his trap.  Finding myself taken in with how cute the kittens looked when they were playing with each other and becoming increasingly fascinated with them and not wanting them to come to any harm, I took him up on his offer.  Since I wasn't quite sure what to do with them when I captured them, I purchased a large dog cage as a temporary holding pen.

On June 5, 2016, I set up the trap with a can of cat food inside as bait.  Within a half hour I heard the sound of the trap springing shut and went outside to investigate.  I had caught my first kitten.  I carried the trap down to the basement where I had the dog cage and opened up one end and shook the kitten out into the cage and closed it.  The little critter growled at me with anger and hostility.  "What did I get myself into?" I thought to myself.  I decided I would hold off on trying to capture the rest, as I didn't want to cram them all together into the dog cage.  Over the next several days, we would visit and spend time with the kitten and give him to become accustomed to us.  By day four, the little cat had adapted enough that we felt we could take it out and let it roam around the house.  It's disposition had changed radically in such a short period of time that it was totally comfortable in our presence, as evidenced by this photo I took of our reflection in a mirror as he sat next to me on my bed.


I was worried that the mother cat might take the remaining three kittens with her and leave. At one point I did observe her walking across by backyard to the bushes with them behind her, as she appeared to be searching for their missing sibling.  But the next day they were back on the deck again, playing as if nothing had happened, while I continued to feed them.  The following weekend I tried my luck again and set up the trap.  This time I captured two more in quick succession and placed them in the dog cage.  Seeing how quickly the first kitten, who we named Snickers, adapted to us, we tried the same strategy with the next two.  We brought them to our kids rooms on the second floor of our house and they would hide under my son's bed, but setting out food and a litter box for them, I would notice that if we kept still, they would emerge to eat and do their business in the litter box.  Being used to taking dogs for walks where they would spend an eternity sniffing for a spot to pee and poop, I was greatly impressed that these kittens, who were roughly eight weeks old and newly caught after living outside, instinctively headed over to the litter box to carry out their bodily functions.  My respect for cats as pets rose instantly.

That left one last kitten and their mom to be captured.  I decided to name the mother Cersei after Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones.  Just like her namesake in the show, Cersei loved her children but had them all taken from her.  While the trap would work on the last kitten, I did not expect it to work on Cersei, so I developed a different tactic.  Since she and her last kitten kept coming to our deck to be fed, I decided to open our back door and put out a plate of food a few feet inside the house.  Each time she would warily come into the house to eat, and each time I would move the plate a little but further away from the door.  My plan was to eventually move the plate into the kitchen, and while Cersei was engaged in eating, I would quietly go out the front door and go around the house onto the deck and close the screen door.  

The day came about two weeks after I captured Snickers.  The back door was open and the plate of cat food was in the kitchen.  From my vantage point near the front door, I saw Cersei warily enter and then go into the kitchen, putting her out of my sight.  I went out the front and as stealthily as possible, I crept around to the back onto the deck and quickly closed the back screen door.  The trap worked.  But that ended up being the easy part.  Once Cersei realized what was happening, she started howling and trying to ram the screen door.  She then jumped up and clung to it, about five feet off the floor.  I went back into the house from the front, and if memory serves, I tried to use a broom to prod her off the screen door.  She jumped down onto the nearby dining room table, scattering and knocking over a bunch of items and then running into the living room and jumping up onto the bay window sill, letting out squirts of urine along the way.  I chased after her and then she jumped down to the floor and ran into the kitchen.  I went in and found her cowering under a small table in the corner of the room.  I grabbed the trap and the broom, and facing the open end of it towards her, I used the broom to try and prod her into it.  Surprisingly, it proved rather easy.  It seemed as if she just shut down and stopped trying to resist.  Once I had her secure, I brought her down to the dog cage.  Then later that day, I was able to catch the last kitten.  The first stage was completed.

Mayonnaise

Nutella

Wishbone

The four kittens were split into two, with Mayonnaise and Nutella staying in my son's room and Snickers and Wishbone staying in my daughter's room, with the doorways to both rooms facing each other.  They were very playful, and it was not uncommon to hear above me what sounded like a cattle stampede as the kittens would chase after each other across the floor.  I decided to keep Cersei penned up in the cage in the basement, as I was worried that if she could interact with the kittens it would prevent them from becoming accustomed to being around people.  Plus, I was worried her behavior would be too unpredictable. She was clearly upset and would often let out sad wailing noises that almost sounded like "Why me?"  Several times I was brave enough to try to pet her through the bars of the cage, well away from her head.  She would freeze up, not offering any resistance, but she was not happy about it either.

The next step was figuring out what to do with all of them.  We decided to keep Snickers, the first kitten we caught.  The friend who loaned me his trap had a sister-in-law who wanted to adopt one of the male kittens, so we gave her Wishbone, who I so named because he had this shape in the fur pattern on his back that reminded me of a wishbone.  My friend also graciously took Cersei to the Town of Oyster Bay animal shelter to get spayed.  I figured I would set her free once she had healed from the operation so that at least she wouldn't be able to get pregnant again and add more cats to the local population.  To my surprise, in asking my colleagues in my office if any of them were interested in adopting a kitten, a friend of one of my coworkers offered to take Cersei instead.  Meanwhile, as my wife, daughter and I had to drive upstate in early July to pick up my son from ice hockey summer camp in Lake Placid, another one of my coworkers offered to have Mayonnaise and Nutella over at her apartment to take care of them while we were gone.  Snickers would be boarded at a vet clinic along with the rabbit and guinea pigs we had at the time.

Since the man who would take Cersei was in Westchester County in upstate New York, we were also going to drop her off on the way up Lake Placid.  We had her in the dog cage while Mayonnaise and Nutella were in a smaller cage next to her in the back of the car.  The drive to my coworker's apartment in Brooklyn was the first time Cersei had seen any of her kittens since we captured her and it would also be the last.  After some interminable traffic delays in Brooklyn, we finally made it up to the man's house in Westchester to drop off Cersei.  To my pleasant surprise, after we returned from vacation, my coworker had become so taken in with Mayonnaise and Nutella that she told me she wanted to keep them.  So, in the space of a week, I had gone from five cats down to one.


Snickers very quickly became a beloved and cherished member of the family.  While cats have a reputation of being aloof, he can be quite friendly when he wants to be.  One habit he adopted was the practice of sitting upright as if he was a human.  I don't know if it is common for cats to do this, or if Snickers was consciously trying to model the way we sit.  He is very vocal and lets us know when he wants something, which usually means giving him his favorite snack, Greenie's Hairball Control treats.  He also has some quirky habits that make him annoyingly endearing, such as when he lays down on a jigsaw puzzle I am working on on the living room floor or chewing on my wife's plants.  I suspect he likes me the most of the four of us, owing to me being the only one who doesn't pick him up and hold him all the time.  I refrain from doing it because I notice he does not seem to like to be held and constrained like that.  He also seems to like hanging around me and if I am sitting in one place for a period of time he will nape on the floor close by.  It didn't take long for me to say that I captured Snickers, and then he captured my heart.  I also felt a sense of pride that I had removed five cats from the local outdoor population, who had they been left to their own devices, could have created countless more litters.  But that didn't mean there were no more cats in the neighborhood.

Gilbert

Not long after we captured Cersei and all of her litter, we spotted a very large cat walking across our deck sometimes at night.  I thought maybe it was the father looking for Cersei.  But it wasn't until the following year that this cat became a more frequent visitor.  It was clearly a different breed of cat from the tabby cat that Cersei, Snickers and his siblings were.  It was almost like a miniature lion and had a very regal bearing.  Apparently he was a Maine Coon Cat.  We called him Gilbert.  He became our outdoor cat.  He would show up, usually at night, to be fed.  While he would keep his distance from us, as he grew more accustomed to us, he would let us get closer to him, though he would never let us pet him.  Sometimes he would come on to our deck during the daytime as well.  After shutting Snickers in my bedroom, I would open our back door and Gilbert would come in and eat from Snickers food bowl and he would linger for a few minutes under the dining room table.  I never tried to capture him like I did with Cersei, as I was concerned that having two male cats in the house would turn my home into a warzone between two territorial males.  Gilbert became such a regular fixture that his absences were noted more than his appearances.  There would be a day or two here or a week or so there where we would not see him, but Gilbert would reliably return.  But in early 2019 his absences became more frequent.  After a longer than usual period of time where he was gone, Gilbert showed up on our deck one evening in May of 2019.  I took a photo of him, posted it on Facebook and captioned it "Gilbert always comes back."  We never saw him again after that night.

Oscar

Right around the time we started to see less of Gilbert, we noticed the bushes in the front of our house smelled strongly of cat pee.  And then we noticed a new cat who we would come to call Oscar.  He looked to be a coon cat like Gilbert, but with radically different coloring.  Maine Coon Cats are noted for having dog-like characteristics, and Oscar certainly fit the bill.  I gather he picked up that Oscar was the name we gave him, as sometimes I would go into the backyard and call out his name, and then he would come running quickly towards me from one or two yards away, and then rub up against my leg.  When I would open the back door to let him come him in out house, he did so not warily like other cats, but rather with an arrogant strut as if he owned the place.  Again, as with Gilbert, I had to keep Snickers shut away during such visits so as to avoid a fight between the two.  I wonder if Oscar drove Gilbert away, as it seemed rather coincidental that the arrival of one followed the disappearance of the other.

The winter of 2020 saw the arrival of two more regular cats, a tuxedo cat I called Bandit owing to the top half of her face being black like a robber's mask while the bottom half of the face was white, and Lilith, another coon cat who bore a stunning resemblance to Gilbert, with the only difference being the fur coloring.  

Lilith

While Bandit disappeared after a couple of weeks (only to resurface again for several weeks last month), Lilith remained a regular fixture for quite some time.  Like Gilbert, she would keep a wary distance, but did not run away when approached.  She also made the same noises as Gilbert, leading to be to wonder if he was either her father or if they were siblings.  I concluded she was a female based on the way Snickers reacts to cats that come to our back door.  When the cat is a male, Snickers becomes agitated and hostile, and he even bit me a couple of times when Gilbert was at the door.  But with Lilith his reaction was more subdued and the sounds he made were different.  I don't recall exactly when, but by late spring or early summer, Lilith stopped coming around.  My wife thought that she might have been pregnant and had babies someplace else.

And then there is Katrina.


In early 2018, we started to get another regular feline visitor.  It was a smaller tabby cat with a white chest who would run across our desk while nervously peering at us.  At first we thought it was a male and called it Milo.  But after capturing it the summer of that year, we discovered it was a female.  So we renamed her Katrina.  The top portion of her left ear was also clipped off, leading me to believe that someone had previously captured her and had her spayed.  We also noticed that Oscar's left ear was similarly clipped.  Maybe because she was older, Katrina never really became accustomed to being a house cat.  She spent most days hiding underneath the love seat in our living room, emerging only to eat and use the litter box.  I actually set her free after two attempts at housing her, the first time because she pooped behind the love seat.  But I didn't want to give up on her and for a third time I was able to entice her into the house and then shut the door behind her.  Katrina ended up living with us for about a year and a half.  She still spent a lot of time hiding from us, but sometimes she would nap out in the open on top of the love seat or even on my bed.  Every now and then I would be lying on my bed with the door open, and Katrina would walk in, sit near the entrance, and make noises at me.  Snickers would rough house with her a lot, but at times he could be affectionate towards her as well.  One time I was sitting on the sofa watching television and Snickers was napping at the other end.  Katrina jumped up onto the sofa and woke up Snickers, who proceeded to start licking her.

In February of 2019, when Gilbert was still a regular visitor, I opened the door and let her in.  Since I wasn't able to pick Katrina up to shut her in my bedroom, I had to take my chances with her.  She went up to Gilbert and they seemed to share some level of affection together.  She went out into the deck with him and then disappeared.  On the previous two times where I drove her out of the house, she was back on our deck within minutes.  This time, she did not come back.  That night was rather unseasonable warm for February, but several nights later it had gotten very cold.  I flipped on the deck lights to see if there was any feline activity and was stunned to see Katrina at the door looking up at me almost pleadingly, as if she realized she had made a big mistake.  I opened the door and put some food nearby to entice her, and after a while she came inside and I shut the door behind her.  She remained with us for almost the remainder of the year, but was able to escape out the back door around Christmas of 2019.  She was not to be seen for weeks, and then in late January my daughter said she would sometimes see her on our front stoop.  Then she began to visit our deck again in February.  She looked to us to feed her but did not seem keen on coming in the house.  However, I noticed that if Snickers was in the dining room, she would want to come in.  So, rather than shutting Snickers away, I let him stay.  I opened the back door and as before had a bowl of food to entice her.  Katrina warily came in after a number of false starts and started to eat, but she looked up at me as I started to close the door.  But this time, Snickers had conveniently placed his body between her and the door so that Katrina could not escape as I closed it.  Katrina was back in the house again, but not for long.  This past May, with the weather warm again, we would slide open the glass back door while keeping the screen door shut.  Snickers though, being the clever cat that he is, learned that he could use his paws to push open the screen door, which enabled Katrina to escape again.  She did not disappear though, returning to our door regularly to be fed, and retreating to hide under our deck if we got too close to her.  I have been able to entice her into our house to play with Snickers a number of times, but she seems wise to my tactics now and all of my further attempts to shut her in have failed.  Katrina seems perfectly content to be our outdoor cat, engaging with us on our own terms while spending her days napping on our deck and her nights sleeping underneath it.  With winter approaching, I may try to make further attempts to capture her again, but only time will tell if I succeed.  

Before the spring of 2016, cats were not a factor in my life.  I never contemplated owning one and barely took note of the cats in our neighborhood.  But ever since that morning when I observed Snickers, his mom and his siblings on our backyard deck, cats have become a permanent fixture in my life.  Barely a day goes by where we are not feeding or taking notice of daily visitors like Katrina and Oscar, or taking note of new cats who appear for a day or a few weeks and then are never seen again.    

On Becoming A Cat Person