Here is the story of a wild cat. One morning in February a few years ago, during that winter’s worst excesses, I took into the garden as usual a cauldron of hot food for my various wild birds. Dishing out the steaming porridge, fat, smooth peanut butter and bread mixture in as many places as possible so that all the birds had a fair chance of a meal, I glimpsed in the corner of my eye a quick movement, something bright against the snow, but when I spun round, all that I could see was just the flash of a marmalade tail disappearing under the impenetrable canopy of vine. This odd stretch of tangled vine looked more like a brown mesh at this time of year. At its furthest outpost, it trailed on the ground over a fallen tree-trunk, but at the front it resembled a gaping open mouth as its upper jaw rested over the washing line that had got stretched under the weight of the branches. The whole stretch of vine was some ten square yards and during the warm months it looked attractive, all green and covered with flowers. It was a haven for small birds, and a place of the utmost safety for any temporarily misplaced fledgling.
The sight of the tail instantly struck me as odd since I knew all the neighbouring cats well, and we had a long-standing understanding that if spotted, they wouldn’t argue but would jump over their respective fences without even a second glance back. To do anything else would have been in breach of our agreement. They knew that I defended the birds with the ferocity of a mad rottweiler, although they had all noted over the years that I didn’t use dirty tricks and fought a fair war. Sensing something unusual, I retreated quietly back to the house.
The weather that morning was quite atrocious, what with the freezing temperature and snow thickly covering the ground. From the warm comfort of my kitchen, standing by the window, I watched a small cat emerging from his hiding place. Sinking low at times, he crawled in the snow, searching under the trees for the frozen bits of yesterday’s food that the birds had dropped. His stomach was distended and it almost touched the ground, even when he straightened up. As he was pale apricot in colour, I just knew he had to be a male, and therefore it wasn’t pregnancy but worms that were giving him such an odd shape.
I didn’t waste any more time on observations since my life’s main policy has always been first things first. I grabbed my coat, a plate, a spoon and a large tin of cat food and dashed out. The same thing happened again; the cat dived under the vine with such agility that two things became obvious: firstly, he must be a wild cat, and secondly, he was young and uninjured, although bedraggled and starving. I left the food close to the vine enclosure and went back into the house. Within seconds, the cat had put his nose to the plate, and in no time at all the small mountain of food had disappeared. As it wouldn’t be possible to get him into the warmth of the house that day, I had no choice but to organise a makeshift den to give him vital protection against the foulest weather for decades. The weather forecast for that night predicted a further drop of temperature, and so there was no time to lose. A frantic rummage through my spare room wardrobe and chest yielded a thick double quilt, a wool cape, two old mink coats (jumble sale finds), two pillows , five woollen jumpers, some old curtains, four hot water bottles, and several folded sturdy cardboard boxes that were kept to accommodate any injured animals that were brought to me by people looking for help.
Some of the boxes had to be put into black refuse sacks to prevent their deterioration, others were arranged together to form a structure resembling an open shelf in a tallboy, with another one turned upside and place on top to form a roof. The bottom deep shelf had a layer of clothing, then a hot water bottle and finally on the top, a mink coat draped, fur side up, over a pillow. This was to be the cat’s main bed. The contraption, standing on a raised slab, faced into the vine, as much for privacy as warmth. I hung one mink coat directly over the tallboy-bed to create a warm if luxurious cold-proof backing to the bed. The quilt was folded over the two hot-water bottles that rested on the box. This arrangement provided heat from above as well as protection since the sides of the quilt formed bed curtains as well. I made sure that there was space left between the warm mink-padded roof and the top of the shelf to give the cat a second, higher bedding place. The woolly cape and the curtains on the outside were all hung in layers to create an impenetrable tent-structure above the bed.
To give the elusive wild cat an extra feeling of safety and cosiness, I placed all the tall boxes upright in bin liners and used them to build a wall (approximately five yards long) that together with the vine on one side side formed a dry corridor with an entrance at the end furthest from the bed. The old dresses, each on a hanger and protected by bin liners hung at both sides of the entrance, effectively blocking out cold snow and harsh light. The flat vine roof just above the bed was covered with a large plywood board, finally completing my new protege’s camp. It took the cat only an hour to complete an inspection of the new place and to take full possession of his mink- lined den. As he only emerged from it for a meal, I took it for granted that he approved of his new home. That night the weather took a turn for the worse and the next three weeks were devoted to saving the apricot cat from perishing. His meals included tins of the best cat food with vitamin supplements alternated with freshly cooked chicken, and once in a while lightly cooked diced liver. I had to serve the food at two hour intervals to prevent the poor chap from being eaten alive by the worms. I wanted to get him in the house first and then deal with any medical necessities such as deworming. In the meantime, I kept to a strict routine to establish a rapport with the shy creature.
Unexpectedly, the seemingly ordinary routine of changing the hot-water bottles four times a day proved to be something of a chore since it meant lifting, undoing and peeling the several layers of clothing every time in freezing conditions and literally balancing the bottles on my head since it was essential that both my hands were free. The last feed and water change had to be done at an hour or so past midnight to ensure that the cat was reasonably comfortable during the freezing hours of the night. In the total darkness and on the icy lumpy ground, my progress towards the camp was fraught with unseen obstacles and dangers as I was to find out.
On one occasion, I ventured out into darkness carrying hot-water bottles and food in both my hands, my only guiding light coming from the small torch that I held deftly between my teeth. I tripped on a stone kerb hidden by the snow, and in an instant I found myself catapulted forward at such Olympic speed that I would have ended up impaled on the back fence but for an old sturdy bush of lemon verbena that broke my fall. I was left with only a few cuts and bruises, but sadly the fragrant verbena bush was there no more. It is said that when one is in grave danger, one’s past life flashes before one’s eyes. Well, all I could see before mine were images of the startled faces of my neighbours who on looking up from their cornflakes the following morning would have been confronted by the frozen stare of my impaled head, with a still blazing torch between my blue lips. No doubt my spirit still hovering above the garden would be smiling, after all it wasn’t for nothing that I had always insisted on long-life batteries.
Three weeks on, and the weather relented a little. The apricot cat emerged from his den already looking much sleeker and smoother. What was quite touching to observe from behind the kitchen window was the cat’s obvious delight in his proprietary acquisition. He quite rightly felt that he was now the new master of the garden. Apart from spraying here and there, and even against the wind, he would stroll around his garden exploring the corners, caressing the lower branches of the bushes with his chin, and despite it being only February walking on high legs the way a colt does, with a real spring in his step. From time to time he would make little jolly jumps like an exuberant Morris dancer.
His obviously young age and vulnerability touched my heart. There was already some trust and appreciation on his part, and within a day or two he was playing happily close by, while I changed the hot-water bottles and at the same time talked to him in a soft, affectionate voice. When I returned indoors, I saw him once or twice pressing his little face against the door’s glass panel and peering curiously into the kitchen. But whenever I opened the door, he would run back to his den. All the same, as far as wild cats’ reputations go, this was definitely progress. I didn’t want to risk losing his trust by rushing things, and being infinitely patient seemed the only option.
Unfortunately, as the weather turned freezing again with snowstorms and the forecast of blizzards and more snow, I had to revise my resolution. I phoned around a few animal rescue organisations but apart from a sympathetic ear, no one offered any practical help. One spokesman even sternly told me that they routinely put wild cats down as no one would bother with a problem cat, when there were so many nice ones waiting for homes. One trust suggested that I deal with the cat myself as I obviously liked animals, and only when I called the local Cat Protection League did things start happening. A brisk-sounding lady promised to arrive the next day with a trap-cage and a large pen. True to her word, she arrived on time and not only with the equipment but also with a litter tray and a tin of pilchards. She then gave me a practical demonstration on using the contraption.
At this point, I mentioned to her that while I intended to do my very best to save the cat, the arrangement would have to be temporary until a good home could be found for him. I explained that I didn’t have the time nor even the space for another creature as I already had a hundred-strong flock of various wild birds and a hedgehog living in his own bedroom to look after, not to mention my husband and home to take care of, and more to the point, how would a wild cat restrain himself from killing my birds?
I could have saved myself the effort. Margaret, the lady from the League, looked at me with pity. “Who on earth would take on a feral cat?” she exclaimed, “although a cat is a cat, wild or not. When not sprayed, they do initially run amok, climb the walls, and spray everything in sight, and the stench is pure evil…”, her voice tailed off when she noticed thousands of books lining my study’s walls. “As it is, I could do with at least ten good homes a day but that’s just a dream”, she sighed wistfully, “and as to his interest in your birds, well, it’s in a cat’s nature to kill birds even when he is not hungry, don’t you know?” She also added that if pushed she would take him in, but the conditions would be nothing like the mink bed and fresh chicken. The homeless cats slept in tea-chests huddling together for warmth as there was no heating in their room, and they couldn’t roam free for obvious reasons. “But we can neuter him for you”, she said cheerfully, “and you’d better say goodbye to the birds now. It will be for the best.”
I wanted to tell her about my daily visitor in summer months, the song thrush. How she flies in through the open door, makes herself comfortable on the back of a tall chair and then calls me to the kitchen in soft but persistent cooing. Or should I have told her about my early morning meetings with a blackbird and his wife, and our cosy exchange of news? This wasn’t just an idle exercise either; in time of trouble – a youngster falling down, a cat prowling, more food needed etc – the blackbird would shout and bang on my window, expecting and of course receiving instant help. I could also mention my friendship with a gardening expert – the robin, the antics of blue tits, the gentle charm of a family of blackcaps, goldfinches and the starlings, and many others, all entertaining and fascinating to watch. Many of the birds knew the house and me so well that during the warm weather they would fly through the open kitchen door, up the staircase and out into the garden again through an open bedroom window. And now all this would have to stop. I could also have pointed out that many people are looking after cats but birds have hardly any protection at all, and some are not only rarely seen but on the verge of extinction. But it was obvious that in Margaret’ s mind, cats were far superior to any old birds and so in the end, I said nothing. Margaret finished her tea and off she went to feed a pony, the twenty-eight cats in her care, and her 90-year old father. I hadn’t the heart to voice my doubts.
The pen would have to be installed in my study since it was the only room with enough floor space. Inside the pen I constructed two large compartments, one for sleeping and one for eating and the litter tray. The bed looked the same as the garden one. I brought one mink coat from the garden to warm up, and it became the new bed-cover. The litter tray and the food dishes were placed on newspapers to ensure easy cleaning. On top of the pen I intended to spread a large warm blanket that would cover the sides and the back of the bed to give the some privacy. I put some chicken with vegetables into the oven, and soon the warmth and the wholesome smell of food permeated all the downstairs rooms. There was only one more thing left for me to do – I had to catch the cat and bring him home.
Nothing to it really, I mumbled to myself, as I lugged the awkwardly long, heavy trap-cage into the garden. I placed the food in a strategic place, set the door in the right position and went back in. Oh, the blessed innocence of the trusting apricot cat; within two minutes he was in and eating when the door sprang behind him. I raced back and talking softly to him, I carried the cage inside. The end of the cage fitted into the pen and the cat jumped onto his new bed, reassured no doubt by the familiar mink cover. A dish of fresh chicken and liver completed the transition, and relieved that he was safe at long last, I closed the pen door.
It wasn’t until night had fully set in that the cat became a real wild creature. As I attempted to sleep on the sofa in the study (to reassure him and to extend our bonding process one step further), he wailed ugly, strange cries and ran around the pen without a break, quite in tune, I thought, with the raging blizzard outside. On the second night I put in his food a sachet of deworming powder which would deal with all types of worms. Both our vet and kind Margaret from the Cats’ Protection League assured me that it would be a doddle, and that he wouldn’t even notice. Well, he did notice, he did mind, and so did his worms. They came out in one big tangled heap and his screams were probably heard half a mile down the road. I hovered by the pen all night, changing the litter tray, removing bodies and reassuring him that he wasn’t going to die just yet.
Twelve hours after the treatment and the cat was as good as new. To reward him for his pains, I let him out of the pen to lead a free and luxurious existence in the study. Pre-warned by Margaret, I fully expected the cat to start climbing everywhere, keep on spraying, and generally be a real nuisance, hopefully for a short time only. To save myself the bother, I decided it wouldn’t be sensible to give him indiscriminate access to the rest of the house. The wild cat didn’t let me down. He climbed all over my papers and the computer on my desk, sprayed thick, sticky gunge over the books, soaked the sofa and the window sill, upturned the plants by throwing them onto the floor, and in a final act of defiance, he hung upside-down from the curtains singing grimly like a Siamese cat who has been to a funeral.
But that was the wild cat at night. During the day he slept off the excesses of the previous night, right on top of the pen, tummy up, snuggled in the folds of the mink coat, which he would groom lovingly, cute and innocent, utterly enchanting to watch. There was also one truly magical moment when the cat let out of the pen, sat upright on top of the pen on the mink coat like an Egyptian cat-god, apricot-resplendent. He then stretched his thin neck up to its full length and solemnly, meticulously begin an inspection of the study. His quartz-coloured eyes and his head seemed to be pivoted in short, sharp turns by his neck, which moved round and round like clockwork. He took in the shelves upon shelves full of books. No matter where he looked, there were more books to be seen. He finally stopped and looked me fully in the face. There was only one possible question in his widely open eyes: “Tell me, you human creature, what on earth are those things for?” More adventures of the feral cat to come in the next few blogs.