What I learned about cats: Feline visitors left me knowing more about feral, stray, pet cats … things everyone should know

Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural “FurEver,” a column about our furry friends, their owners and issues.

The small calico cat visited the acre where I live just south of Lubbock. She often stalked the birds at my feeder but ran when she saw me.

She was a streak of white, orange and smoke.

She was a streak of white, orange and smoke.

I saw her patrolling my neighbor’s property. Maybe she lived there and crossed the street to hunt.

Unlike other writers — Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, and Ernest Hemingway, I am not a cat person.

Both of those 20th-Century writers lived with dozens of cats. Mark Twain was known for renting kittens when he traveled. Hemingway’s kitty progeny with the six toes still roam Key West.

I admire cats — they are beautiful, graceful and intelligent — but I’m very allergic to them. My eyes tear, my nose stuffs and I wheeze. Anyway, at most my relationship with the calico kitty was mutually distant — we tolerated each other.

But she surprised me one late summer afternoon while gardening. She glared at me with her green eyes and meowed. Loudly. Summoned, I responded, asking what she wanted. I extended my hand, but she ran into the tall grass of our meadow.

Now the calico mommy cat arched her back and hissed just to let me know I wasn’t supposed to touch the babies.

The next day while I was refilling the bird feeder, she came up to me again. Same loud meow, same green glare. This time she ran to the edge of the grass and I followed her. Hiding in the cover of the tall grass were two calico kittens. Now the calico mommy cat arched her back and hissed just to let me know I wasn’t supposed to touch the babies.

She was so scrawny, not much more than a kitten herself. While I’m not an experienced kitty reader, it seemed she wanted something from me and I assumed it was food and water for her and her kittens. I’ve heard if you feed a cat, you are pretty much asking her to adopt you, but who could resist such a dedicated and determined parent? In the summer heat I worried she might not be able to produce milk for her kittens.

I brought out a bowl of water and a can of tuna. It wasn’t Fancy Feast, but I could hear her purring as she ate. We kept this up for several days with her becoming bolder — even meowing at the back patio door if I was later than she thought I should be with breakfast.

Everyone likes a story with a happy ending — me or someone like me cuddling the sweet kittens and giving them a home, but that’s not how this one ended. It was more mystery than romance.

I knew I couldn’t keep her, because of my allergies. So I posted her picture on the Next Door website and on Facebook. Most responses suggested what I came to believe — she was a feral cat.

After the dispatcher quit sniggering, she said if I didn’t want a pet … or three … I should quit feeding her and the kittens.

Because I live in the county, I called Lubbock County animal control. They have a free-roaming policy for cats, they told me. After the dispatcher quit sniggering, she said if I didn’t want a pet — or three — I should quit feeding her and the kittens.

My cat-lady friend in Albuquerque told me I should catch her and the kids and take them to the vet to be spayed. Uh, sure. She still wouldn’t let me get that close. My food was OK and she was desperate, but touching was still out of the question. Still maybe with some help, I could do that, so I started thinking about how to accomplish it.

But then she and the kittens were gone. Disappeared. After a few days of feeding the feline family and wondering how best to intervene, she vanished.

 

So I went to an expert, Megan Schroll, assistant director of Lubbock Animal Services, to find out what to do in case another family appears next summer.

Turns out my kitty mystery was a common story in and around Lubbock.

Cats have no leash law inside or outside the city limits.

Cats have no leash law inside or outside the city limits.

“That’s typically what happens,” she said of the calico kitty’s disappearance. “They usually move to a place where they feel is safer for their babies — usually high up or somewhere it’s dark.”

She also told me for the short amount of time I fed the kitties, I had become their owner. If the kitties had a chip and I could have got them to a vet to scan it, it could have turned out differently.

Megan explained city residents should report a stray or feral animal after seeing it within 24 hours to Animal Services, because after 72 hours it’s not considered a stray. After the third day, you’ve basically adopted it.

“It’s state law,” she says.

What’s important is to realize we’re all responsible. She recommended posting pictures on social media on lost-and-found sites. After searching for an owner, she asks those who find animals to try to find a home or a foster rescue group before taking any animal to the shelter, because shelter life is very stressful.

‘Most people don’t know the difference between stray and feral cats.’

“Most people don’t the difference between stray and feral cats,” she added.

Calico cat and her kittens were likely feral because they didn’t want to be touched. Stray cats have had owners and usually allow petting and often want to come inside.

“Feral cats don’t like human interaction. It stresses them out,” she said. “They don’t want anyone to mess with them.”

Megan knows feral cats. Where she worked outside of Houston before moving to Lubbock, cats were trapped and held at the shelter. “We had over 400 cats at one time. I would never want to go back to a leash law on cats.”

While numbers are higher in the spring, when cats usually breed, the population in Lubbock has become more stable. Although it’s impossible to know how many cats are free roaming and on their own, several measures seem to be helping.

Population control is the goal. Kitties are sterilized, ears are notched to mark them and then they are returned outside.

One successful measure is a barn cat program, where people with barns or warehouses adopt sterilized kitties and give them a job controlling pests.

Animal services also has a feral cat colony, where cats are spayed or neutered, fed once a day and then are free to roam.

Live and let live, she says.

“Cats are meant to be here. You can domesticate kittens if they’re eight weeks old or younger, but after that they just want to be left alone. They are basically wildlife,” she explained. “They want to live out their lives in nature and they can fend for themselves. They are definitely better survivors than humans.”