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The Accidental Cat Lady

How I learned to embrace the feline mystique

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

by Betsy McFarland

I was a cat advocate long before I became a cat lover. Though I found the descriptions of kitty antics by feline-crazed colleagues at The HSUS amusing, I was partial to dogs and frankly didn’t know what all the fuss was about. But a pivotal shift occurred two years ago, when I came face to face with a fuzzy, wide-eyed kitten perched on my backyard woodpile.

During my childhood, cats were a bit of a mystery to me. I had dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, and a rabbit, but my parents weren’t keen on cats. A few times, I tried to befriend neighbors’ kitties by applying my dog-centric ways, but my attempted tummy rubs were met with angry swats or indignant glares.

When I started volunteering for my local animal shelter after college, my first assignment was to clean the cages housing an assortment of feral and otherwise fractious kitties. The staff didn’t warn me, however, that these weren’t your average lap cats. When I unlatched a door to remove a litter pan, I was greeted with hisses or, worse, a blur of fur flying past my shoulder. Since the busy staff didn’t have enough time to train me and other newcomers in the ways of fearful, half-wild shelter inhabitants, I decided to devote my limited hours to managing another species altogether. Soon I was running the shelter’s first volunteer program and learning all I could about shelter operations.

After I joined The HSUS in 1998, I learned much more about the threats to cats’ well-being—everything from declawing and infectious diseases to overpopulation and animal hoarding. In time, I could speak about these issues passionately, but at heart I remained a dog devotee.

I never planned to keep him. For starters, my two cranky old dogs weren’t interested in sharing their home with other critters—no matter how cute. As I drove to the pet supply store for some “temporary” provisions, I was already making a mental list of friends who needed a kitten.

Life was good. I loved the new job where I advocated for better treatment of pets every day of the week. My husband Mike and I bought a house in rural Maryland to share with our two wonderful mutts. I didn’t feel anything was missing.

But before the boxes were unpacked in my new digs, I started seeing cats along the edge of the woods. Quite a few of them. When my neighbor explained that they belonged to a colony he was caring for—and that he had already trapped and neutered them—I was relieved. I already had plenty to keep me busy and was grateful that my involvement with these animals would be limited to watching them bask on the downed trees and helping with feedings.

Three years later, in the summer of 2008, a mama cat and kitten showed up on the scene and changed my best-laid plans. To keep the colony healthy and stable, I knew I had to act quickly. According to everything I’d learned about managing feral cat populations, I would need to prevent the new arrival from breeding through an organized sterilization and vaccination effort known as trap-neuter-return. TNR helps keep colonies stable while gradually reducing the numbers of these homeless animals through attrition.

In preparation for trapping the cats, I began feeding them at the base of the woodpile. One evening I was refreshing their water and had a feeling I was being watched. I looked up and saw a little fluffball staring down at me curiously from atop the stacked firewood, with mama nowhere in sight. Surprised by his lack of fear, I picked up a stick and offered it to him. He batted it tentatively before starting to play. That’s when my instincts overcame both common sense and the tenets of TNR (use a trap, not your bare hands!): I plucked him off the top log as he gave a surprised little “mew!” Fortunately, he wasn’t a fighter, and I survived without a bite or scratch.

I never planned to keep him. For starters, my two cranky old dogs weren’t interested in sharing their home with other critters—no matter how cute. As I drove to the pet supply store for some “temporary” provisions, I was already making a mental list of friends who needed a kitten.

My plan to house him in the basement until an adopter appeared lasted just a weekend. He quickly moved upstairs to our spare bedroom, where I slept to keep him company while he adjusted (he was a baby, after all!). For the first time in my life, I learned what it was like to wake up to a kitten pouncing on my face or attacking my feet under the covers.

My husband, Mike, was no fool. Within a few short days, it was obvious I’d fallen hard and the kitten wasn’t going anywhere. We started playing the name game and Mike, a computer geek, won: The kitten would be named after Cisco Systems.

Cisco was playful and endlessly curious. I spent hours watching him, marveling at the fearless personality that inhabited his tiny body. Even my dogs seemed to recognize a will stronger than their own and, after a gradual introduction, treated him with grudging respect.

I quickly trapped Cisco’s mom—who was about as tame as your average mountain lion—and took her to a feral cat spay/neuter clinic an hour’s drive away. It wasn’t long before she had a name—Carly—and a companion from the local managed colony. Homer, a big orange tabby who’d already claimed my back porch, took a shine to Carly and invited her into his cozy domain: a double-insulated cat condo, constructed by my dad and me and complete with a window, perch, and heating mats.

Though Homer has shown such territorial tendencies that even my dogs are afraid of him, he is a walking kitty contradiction who represents to me one of the many gray areas of cat protection. At his worst, he’s a gentle but distant feral who wouldn’t mind chomping your hand off if you tried to touch him. At his best, he’s a bullying but irresistible domesticated cat who clearly revels in his porch life. Outside his comfort zone—in a shelter, for instance—the stress of an unfamiliar and captive environment would more than likely make him appear insanely wild and impossibly unadoptable. At least on my porch he is safe, sterilized, and providing companionship for Carly.

With a much larger brood to look after now—many skittish ferals, a few pampered lap cats, and one kitty who walks the fine line between both worlds—I had cats on my mind constantly and talked about them with anyone willing to listen. Soon I was even helping my coworkers trap ferals in other locations during our off-hours.

In time, my passion for cat rescue had a predictable result: Felines now outnumber canines in my house, after I kept two kittens from a litter I fostered. And even though Cisco dishes out his affections conditionally, I worship him anyway. He opened a door to a world that I’d only known about secondhand, and he’s made me a better animal advocate in turn.

Today, I only have to look at my three felines snuggled up together on Mike’s lap, or peek outside at my ferals lounging contentedly in a patch of sun, to remember that one animal can truly change your life, and vice-versa. As I write this in late spring, I see Carly sleeping on what’s left of the winter woodpile, perched at the highest point like the queen of the universe, her dainty little paws dangling over the front. Now that I’ve been endeared to her species, I have the urge to go scoop her up in my arms and squeeze her tight. Too bad she won’t let me near her. But at least I know that, through the collective efforts of my neighbors and me, she is contented and safe—too wild for an indoor life, but more than happy to hunker down with Homer, just beyond the reach of the dog lover she helped convert into a certified (and, as my resigned husband might say, sometimes certifiable) cat lady.

Check out the blueprints for Betsy's custom-designed feral cat condo»

View the instructions for building a simple shelter»

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