When Squeaky had her babies, she showed all the guile and skill needed for a feral cat to survive. We searched high and low but were unable to discover where she had hidden her kittens. We found the box where they were born, but she had moved them by then. In fact, we though they had been killed by a predator but no…
After five weeks she proudly produced her four offspring one by one. She brought them down from the loft and installed them in the garage. Then she gave a masterly lesson in teaching her babies survival skills. As soon as there was the slightest movement, she gave a vocal signal and all four rushed for cover – impenetrable cover.
During the following weeks I was amazed at the range of vocalisations that she used, different pitches, some more guttural like a growl, some high pitched. Some signals were for the kittens to take cover, others for them to come to her, and who knows what else, but the kittens definitely understood her vocabulary and responded without question.
She has been a model mother. She did not eat until they had eaten. She did not leave them unattended for more than a few minutes at first, and then only to attend to her own basic needs. At first the kittens moved in a very small area around her and gradually their field of action grew wider. If they began to stray too far when she thought it was too early, she called them to her immediately. As the weeks passed by, she gave them more and more leeway, and it was a joy to watch them play and observe the unbounded joy of discovering the world. Everything was a source of learning and fun: tall grass and bushes to play hide and seek in, butterflies and flies to chase, flowers to sniff, voles to catch. My sorrow was when they managed to catch a little bird. Their agility and proprioception were awe-inspiring.
Gradually, as they grew, she allowed them to wander further, but she positions herself in a strategic place where she can observe what is going on. Sometimes she gets frustrated when they do not heed her call immediately, but in the end they do obey.
The difficulty was that their introduction to society coincided with me breaking my shoulder so I was unable to do what needed to be done to socialise them early enough with humans and counteract their mother’s innate teaching that humans are a source of danger. I get the impression that she may have had a litter before and the kittens were taken away and that is why she guarded them so fiercely. This task is ongoing. One of the kittens, a little male, is anxious to interact and plays a lot with us. We have made a variety of toys which he runs after and, as he does so, I am using a feather attached to a stick to touch his body. He seems to like that, and in the last few days I have managed to progress to alternating touches with the feather and my hand. So long as he is playing, he accepts that, but then he may take fright and run off a little way. In fact, now, when he sees us, he approaches asking for play.
In order to help relieve their anxiety about contact with humans I first offered St. John’s Wort but they were not interested in it. Then I put down hemp macerated oil and someone is taking that. This morning I discovered that the little playful one is drinking the hemp. That is interesting because the question I ask is whether the fact that he is taking the hemp has helped him to be less fearful. I have also been adding Bach Rescue remedy to their drinking water as well as Bach mimulus for fear of physical things like humans.
The other major challenge has been that every summer a pair of swallows nest in the garage. This year they have raised two clutches of three and the second ones fledged yesterday. Today there is a congregation of swallows in the garage which looks like the first clutch have joined in and the extended family is now together.
That is a spectacle to see newly fledged chick doing acrobatics around the garage and later outside. It never ceases to amaze me that in a few short weeks these tiny birds will make a 6,000 km journey to South Africa or Namibia. This cohabitation has been fraught with difficulties, not least being how to keep the kittens from trying to catch the swallows. Today, we decided that it would be judicious to remove all boxes or other things that the kittens could stand on and have a jumping off platform, so the garage had been completely emptied in the area where the swallows have their nest. So far so good and fingers crossed…
Another thing which I thought was spectacular is how courageous the swallows are. When the first chicks were about to fledge the parents did deep dives on the cats, like Stukkas, warning them to get out of the way. Once the chicks had fledged, they stopped this behaviour and with the second clutch they did not do this so I suppose they thought that some kind of status quo had been reached and the cats were no longer such a great threat. Hopefully …
The other incompatibility is their varying needs sometimes at odds with one another. The kittens have shown me just how crepuscular cats are and for a time, as the world was so excitingly new, they wanted to be outdoors well into the dark hours. It would have been helpful to be able to shut them in earlier but the swallows were working flat out trying to feed their chicks and did not roost until daylight was almost gone, by which time the kittens had got a second wind and wanted to stay out longer. Now the kittens would like to be inside earlier but the swallows will be out catching insects as long as there is light.
All in all, a steep learning curve in feral cat behaviour. Now the big challenge is to catch Squeaky so she can be spayed, and in a short time the kittens will also have to be neutered when they are old enough.
Who said life was dull?!