the cats of my alley

by caitlin meredith

From my office window I have a front row view of the backyard wildlife. Mostly, the scene is dominated by squirrels. The way they leap from limb to limb in the canopy of pecan trees makes me feel like I’m at preview night for the Mighty Flying Squirrel Circus. My fists clench as I hope for the successful completion of a particularly daredevil maneuver, sometimes wanting to rise for an ovation in awe of their acrobatics. My fists clench for other reasons too, though. As the tender fruit starts emerging from the branches of the fig tree in the center of the yard in early summer, too young and small for me to yet pick, I watch in horror as the squirrels razor their tiny teeth into one after the other of the bright green pearls. Those days I wish my backyard was a shotgun shooting range, not a circus tent.

Other than the squirrels, blue birds and bright red cardinals flash and flurry from the trees to the grass and I once even saw a possum rooting through my compost heap in the middle of the night. And then, of course, there are the cats.

A feral cat has a good life in my neighborhood. There are plenty of rotted out rafters and abandoned cars to nest in, birds to feast on and old Mexican ladies who throw scraps out onto their front porches. I provide a pretty good habitat myself: the crumbling 1939 garage in the back yard has ample crawlspace beneath the floor boards and every other day I empty the kitchen compost into the backyard pile. When my back door screen lets out its soft squeal announcing my exit and I head down the back steps, the circle of roughneck felines within a 50-yard radius of my house tightens. Not quite the lions of the Serengeti here by Ladybird Lake in Austin, but the focus and singularity of purpose recalls those expert savannah stalkers.

Up to recently my relationship with these cats, the regulars in my back yard at least, has been one of vague but ambivalent tolerance. On the one hand they don’t really bother me, but on the other I have a notion that you’re supposed to do something about feral animals on your property. Do what exactly, I wasn’t sure. I’ve never fed them – well, except for giving them all of my organic waste, which, upon reflection, probably seems a lot like I’m feeding them from their perspective. But I never put out food specially for them or pet them or even get eye contact. In the six years I’ve lived in my house I’ve only had one rat (not counting the ones living in the attic before I moved in) so I figured it was a pretty easy tradeoff – I tolerated their presence in the back yard, and, in return, I don’t have a rodent problem. So there you have it – our détente.

But then, last summer, our relationship changed.

In the weeded patch next to the garage, where my Congolese friend used to plant her African squash seeds, I saw two tiny kittens tentatively poking at the ground one day in early May. Then there was mama, a thin gray and black striped thing with a bushy tail swooping them back into the crawl space cavern. Uh oh, they’re multiplying, I thought. My confusion about what to do increased. They were vermin that I needed to get rid of! Before I knew it cats would be outnumbering the squirrels and the local TV station would accompany the health department on their raid of my cat-infested property! But also…kittens! Two tiny kittens – one gray, one black and white – discovering the world for the first time, right in front of my window. As the days went by I watched as they got braver, pushing farther away from their den, always with mama tautly perched by the side of the garage, never looking away. It was so damned hot this summer but there they were frolicking, flirting with the long blades of runaway grass, pouncing on insects and inspecting the sharp edges of the chicken-wire compost enclosure. But still, kittens turn into cats and I wasn’t excited about doubling my permanent population.

These were not the first kittens that had to be dealt with in my family history. One of the stories I grew up with was that one of my dad’s weekend chores on the farm as a young boy was to drown the kittens. The story goes that when the barn cat delivered the latest litter my grandmother would give him a bucket of water and a sack of kittens and tell him to get to work. (How recent is the advent of feline neutering surgery? How was this not a better option?) By now it’s hard to tell if this is myth or not – my mom and I have made such a big deal of it that my dad just laughs and shakes his head when we bring it up. Maybe it happened once or maybe it happened every Saturday, either way I’m sure my dad wasn’t the only farm kid drowning kittens to earn his allowance.

The arrival of the kittens both softened me more towards the feline presence in the back yard, as well as hardened me to the commitment of getting them fixed. Two kittens is one thing, a brood of them pooping and spraying hither nither in my one-day-will-be-beautifully-landscaped back yard was another. I Googled how old cats have to be to get the surgery. Three months. I tried to make a mental note.

More than three months passed and the kittens went from being the stars of my backyard show to merely walk-ons in cameo roles. Once they grew out of their kitteny cuteness they blended in with all the other back alley cats and, without their freshness, the urgency to get them fixed faded. Also, did I mention it was a really hot summer? Like 108 degrees for more than 60 days in a row. Much organized thinking was tossed out the window until it cooled down in October.

In November my family came for Thanksgiving. My dad and brother worked through a house “fix it” to-do list as, unfortunately for them, is the family tradition when we have our holidays in Austin. Several items on the list had them working in the backyard, including puppy-proofing the back fence for the impending puppy arrival. After one long day out there my dad said he had gotten some bites. “Some bites” turned out to be an interlocking network of red dots rivaling the night sky in Yellowstone. The next day my brother was asking for a turn with the Benadryl stick. Having a few prowling felines casing the back yard was one thing, a flea-infested puppy play den was another. The cats, it seemed, could no longer be ignored.

A couple weeks after my family left I finally got on the ball. After the discovery of the fleas I was thinking less about kitty birth control and more about kitty be gone. I wasn’t quite at the burlap sack and bucket point, but I imagined there was a vacant lot 40 – 50 miles from here in the Texas Hill Country that would be a really nice new home for them. Wouldn’t there be more wildlife there for them to feast on? Looking to Google to guide me through my decision tree, I stumbled upon an ecological debate with surprisingly vehement proponents on either side. Are American domesticated and feral cats decimating the songbird population or not? If I agreed with the pro-songbird movement I should euthanize the cats. If I disagreed, I should adopt them as my own and give them the loving homes they deserved. Adoption was out of the question – I’m allergic to cats.

Realizing I had nothing to add to, or take from, the songbird debate, I found another little tidbit that pointed me towards the next step. Some expert explained that feral cats are very territorial and that if you remove one crew, odds are another gang will quickly fill the new vacancy. At least I was used to The Backyard Three; I decided to commit.

The local Humane Society has a feral cat program, I was excited to discover. They’ll lend you the traps and if you snag the cats and bring them in bright and early the next day, they’ll do the surgery for free. Free! The ladies there were so nice – they showed me how the traps worked and gave me a can of sardines to woo. After the surgery they give the cats a flea dip that lasts for a month – a huge bonus. I also found out that distributing diatomaceous earth – a white powder made up of ground up fossils – in the back yard is a non-toxic method to destroy the fleas’ habitat. Apparently it grinds up their little legs. Must be like walking on a pumice-stone beach barefoot in the insect world. I bought a bag and threw it around in the wind. The rest of the plan was harder to implement.

The first problem was getting all three cats into their respective traps. The two “babies” (who were now 17 pounds each, I would learn) followed those sardines into the traps almost the minute I laid it all out. Mama, however, was much lighter and more clever. I watched in amazement from my office as she figured out how to dart in an out on her tippy tippy toes, avoiding the trigger. On the fourth try I managed to wedge the last sardine in the tin so far back that she couldn’t reach with her extended paw – snap! Finally got her. (As a sidenote, does anyone have an effective method for removing sardine oil from one’s hands? I swear it took a whole week to come off.)

Once caught, I realized there was a second problem. How the hell was I going to get them to the clinic the next day? I didn’t want these flea-ridden beasts in my car and, though it did occur to me to put them on the roof ala Mitt Romney, we had to go on the highway and I knew I’d never be able to strap them down tight enough.

I put a desperate call out onto the neighborhood Google group. Did anyone have a pickup truck and some free time the next morning at, oh, say, 6:15am? You won’t believe it, but someone replied. Deborah e-mailed right back and said just to send along the address and she’d be there. I know for a fact I’ve never done such a nice favor for a total stranger. The whole experience was worth it just to find out that there are Deborah’s in our world.

As promised, Deborah showed up in her red pick up truck at the crack of dawn and we loaded the cats into the bed of the truck and caravanned north to the clinic. When she dropped us off she gave me a big hug and said to call if I needed help. I love you, Deborah. Once inside I was given all the paperwork to fill out and had a few choices to make. Did I want to pay $5 a pop for them to get distemper vaccines? Well, that sounded like something they could give to the puppy, so yes. What about vaccines for feline leukemia for $7 a pop? Sorry guys, you’re on your own. There were several other choices too. It was confusing. You bring all of these animals to the vet and give your contact info so it starts to seem like they’re your pets. Until you hear the hissing and body thrashing in the traps and you realize they’re wild beasts and of course you’re not going to pay for their eye exams.

When I went back at 6:30 that evening to pick them up the mildish day had turned into a frigid, windy night. There was the first hard freeze warning of the year – the local NPR station reminded everyone to cover their plants to protect them from frost. The Humane Society nurse had similar instructions for the cats. Since they were “post-op” I was supposed to keep them indoors, under observation at around 85 degrees. All three of these requirements were a problem. What about “feral” did these people not understand? I wasn’t going to stack the cages in my bedroom for midnight pulse-checking – they had fleas and smelled like lion piss. She suggested keeping them in an insulated garage with a space heater. Sometime soon the Humane Society and the Fire Department need to sit down and have a talk. Accidentally setting my property on fire in order to keep three neutered alley cats snuggly for the night seemed like a pretty drastic flea-abatement approach. I told her I’d figure it out as I awkwardly staggered out into the parking lot with one dead weight cat in its metal trap at a time.

Once I got all three of those yowlers out there I had to wait until all the staff and other cat couriers had cleared out of the parking lot. I’d decided that from here on out the cats were in a game of survival of the fittest and I didn’t want any passers by to express their opinions about the humane-ness (or lack thereof) of putting the cats in the trunk. Have you ever seen the trunk of a 1991 Volvo 240? It’s huge, I assure you. Lots of oxygen. They said it took a few hours for the flea stuff to kill all of the fleas in their swarming coats so I wasn’t going to risk putting them in the “cabin.” Also, with all due respect to the ASPCA, these cats smelled worse than when I brought them in. So into the trunk they went. It’s only a 15-minute drive, I promise.

The drive only took 15 minutes, but other things took longer. By this point I was in a bit of a hurry. I had a date in about an hour and had to get the cats all situated and changed out of my winter cat wrangling get up (two layers of sweats on top and bottom.) Driving home I decided I’d put them on the workshop table in the garage. They were born in that structure, after all, I thought, and they’d probably feel comforted to be back there when they came to. The heat, or lack thereof, remained an issue. I will drape a towel over the cages! Two towels! Two towels and all of the t-shirts in the Goodwill box. There were only so many warmth-generating items I wanted to donate to this cause. Pulling up to the driveway I remembered that my mom had given me a wool Navajo rug that my grandparents had gotten on a reservation years ago. If all this other stuff was piled onto the cages I could use the rug as the last, heavy insulating layer.

I decided to get everything in place before bringing the cats into their recovery room. I found my headlamp and headed for the red storage shed where I saw the rolled up Navajo rug peaking out from the top corner shelf. It was so cold and I was so rushed and had already invested too much time into the entire endeavor. I was ready to cut corners. Instead of taking the one minute longer to find a chair or ladder, I swung myself up to the first shelf, hoping to reach the rug with an extended right arm, nudging it enough to free it and drop into my arms. As I swung I thought, Well, I hope somebody finds me soon when I break my neck. Less than a second into my first nudge I got the rug free all right. The rug, as well as the “College Memories” box released from the top shelf right onto my head. Or, to be more accurate, onto my headlamp, which was attached to my head. I can’t remember if I saw stars, though writing it now I like that imagery. There in the blackened storage shed in 28 degrees, a box knocked me in the face from a great height and I saw stars.

Feeling stupid but alive I assembled the feline sweat lodge in the garage with layer after layer of towels, t-shirts and the rug. The cats, retrieved from the trunk, seemed to be still alive, though I didn’t poke my finger into any of the cages to confirm.

At this point I had 15 minutes to get ready and leave for my date. Passing through the living room I glanced at the mirror, then glanced again with confusion. My face was covered in blood. The headlamp had cut across the bridge of my nose with the impact of the box and the gash had barely dried up. It had been so cold outside that I hadn’t felt it. Face wounds usually look worse than they are, but it took me a while to figure out if I’d need stitches. The funny thing was that my date was with a paramedic. I wondered if I should ask him to meet me at my house instead for a quick stitch up. I settled for a quick mop up and a flesh-colored bandaid, which fell right off.

The next morning, a Snoopy bandage on the bridge of my nose, I put work gloves on and pulled up the releases of the traps, watching the cats scooch out of those traps like they were on fire, darting ball- and ovary-less over the fence and into the back alley. I didn’t see The Backyard Three again for a few days but then they started to make it back into the peripheral view.

Now, a few months later, I still don’t feed them, but my feelings towards them have changed. Somehow through the process of trying to get rid of them, then settling for taking away their reproductive lives and worrying about their warmth, I’ve become attached. For one, every time I look in the mirror I see a scar slashed across my nose, reminding me of my 24-hour stint as their caretaker. But also, if I don’t see them for a few days I start to worry. Whereas before I just simply didn’t have cats, now I don’t have or not have cats. For some reason, only a double negative can convey the sentiment here – it’s somewhere in between.

And, for their part, despite all the trauma, they don’t seem to be holding a grudge. The gray one was sleeping on my back porch couch last night and the mama cat spent a good 20 minutes investigating my beet greens the other day. Here we are, back in peaceful co-existence. Until the next flea bite. Then we will re-visit the arrangement.