Sometimes, even though you’ve done your best to rescue kittens from a bad situation, you don’t succeed, and you never forget the ones you couldn’t catch. In this case I did manage to catch two out of five, and also have my left hand deeply punctured at the knuckle by a kitten who had no intention of being stuffed into a carrier. Every time I look at the scar on my hand I remember him, and all those kittens and that night, and I’m glad I had the chance to rescue at least the two.
The favorite dumping spot
One late evening in summer in 1995 I was driving home on a stretch of two-lane back road adjacent to a residential neighborhood near me. Suddenly in the shadows I saw what appeared to be leaves blowing around on the road and I slowed in automatic response.
The leaves slowed and regrouped and turned into a group of various-sized kittens before running to one side of the road and up a slight hill among the underbrush, one or two peeking back out at me. Tiny eyes reflected the fading daylight.
Oh, no, how am I going to catch them all? I thought.
At least there wasn’t much traffic right then, though this two-lane road had recently been groomed as an access to a highway on-ramp and did get busy during rush hour, that was long past for the day, and hours in the future the next morning. I was on a downhill slope with nowhere to pull over, so I simply pulled to one side, put on my flashers and shut off my car.
I saw a box on the side of the road a little ahead, and knew immediately that someone had dumped kittens here. As I walked to the box I saw a bag of dry kitten food on its side next to the box and ripped open—a Good Samaritan trying to do what they could, or the person who had dumped them thinking they were giving them a nutritious head start? Looking into the box I saw one orange kitten, older, maybe ten or 12 weeks, but it was not moving. Stories began to form, but there was no need to piece this together when there were kittens to be caught.
Looking back at the kittens who were running across the road again I saw two distinct sizes, two very stripey orange ones the size of the one in the box and some tiny fuzzballs maybe five weeks old, orange, black, white, perhaps three of them. One of the larger orange ones seemed to be the leader. All were very apparently terrified and had no idea what they were doing. Had one been hit and someone stopped to put it in the box? Or had it died in the hands of the people who had dumped them all? It didn’t look as if it had been hit by a car. Was it possibly ill with a fatal disease of some sort and they’d been dumped in lieu of medical care? Enough, just catch kittens.
As I watched I could see it was apparently two different litters, too close in age to have come from the same mother, of whom there was no trace. Was someone just doing some housecleaning and decided to get rid of the extra kittens in the garage? Had someone offered a neighbor, “Hey, I’m going to dump off these kittens, how about if I take care of yours too?” Or had one poor mother cat had two litters back to back?
Stop it now, don’t get angry, it will only waste time and energy. If I couldn’t catch them, how could I at least get these kittens away from the road which had only a paved curb giving immediately to steep brush-covered hills on either side? And how could I trap them in those circumstances? I wondered why some idiot had chosen this spot and remembered that until recently it had been an unkempt back road with little traffic and kittens had been dumped there pretty regularly. They could at least have chosen a new back road.
Trying to make friends
I attempted to ingratiate myself, which I knew would be nearly impossible under the circumstances. I’d loaned my trap to someone else and there was no way I could get that or another that night, and I didn’t even want to go and get cans of cat food or tuna to lure them and fill their scared little bellies. Night was coming, and so was a summer storm, so I took my best chances.
Their fear would remain a barrier until I could simply be near them for a while and accustom them to my scent and sound and presence. I had, and have, chased many kittens, a totally useless endeavor because they are running for their lives, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got with no opportunity to sit quietly in the woods until they find they trust you. This may work with single cats, but the fear barrier often grows with groups of cats and kittens who are traumatized as they tend to sense fear in each other, magnifying it, though catching the trust of one cat, however minimal, could start to break it down.
Hoping no cars came by, I walked toward them until they had scampered into the brush on the side of the road, sat down on the curb and began talking softly to them. If they’d had experiences with humans which had been in any way positive, keeping still and talking softly will sometimes remind them that humans can be good and they may start to relax, sit still, even do cat things like bathe. If they’ve had little or no experience with humans, or if their experiences were traumatic, they will have no parts of you and will either move away or will act hostile and threatening.
In this group, the younger kittens had hissed and acted hostile, sadly funny in such tiny fuzzballs, but the two older kittens had simply looked startled but were not running away or acting defensive. They gathered in a group well out of my reach and in safe cover under the brush, but they were settling and the tiny kittens had stopped their hostility. Of the two larger kittens one was solid orange with very clear stripes, and the other looked quite orange until he turned to face me directly and was mostly white. The smaller kittens were a tiny solid orange stripe, a tiny tuxedo and a tiny tortoiseshell, still fuzzy, still somewhat blue-eyed, and perhaps not even six weeks old.
In time I may have won them over somewhat, but it was evening and night would soon fall. I knew from experience that I likely had one chance at catching them tonight; if I caught only one I would never catch another. It was probably their first night away from their mother and in totally unfamiliar circumstances, and after a night in the woods they might be too wild to even find, and though a trap with food might work I knew there were plenty of raccoons and opossums in these woods who would probably get to it before any kittens had a chance. Unfortunately they would probably keep coming out to the road because it was clear and the brush was so dense and the hill so steep. I decided to run home and get a few carriers and food and enlist my neighbor and her children, having them help me corral them.
The children, especially, were a great help because they could sneak way up the hill above the kittens and slowly sort of herd them toward we two adults waiting with blankets and carriers; I told the kids not to yell or run and scare them but they intuitively understood the kittens’ fear. The family were great for weekend camping expeditions and the kids were really wise to the woods and to animals. But the kittens would reach the curb where we might have been able to reach for them without having our eyes poked out or we might have been able to toss the blanket over them, then turn left or right and head back up the hill. There was no way to build a corral around them with the brush the way it was, and nowhere to set even a carrier with food in it that it wouldn’t have slid down the hill.
Not much luck
In the end, before nightfall we only caught two orange boys, one older and one younger. They had tried to run across the street as a group and I reached with both hands for tails or legs or torsos or even loose skin, managing to get a hind leg on one of the older boys with my right hand and the tiny orange kitten by the torso, scooping him up in my left. I dropped the little guy into the upended carrier I had waiting, and let the door fall into place but didn’t lock it. I would have to act fast, but he was probably small enough that he couldn’t jump the height of the carrier and knock the door open, though I’ve seen more amazing and desperate things than that.
I scruffed the older boy with my right hand and was trying to ease open the door drop him into the upended carrier but he shrieked and flung his legs out and knocked the door shut again. I flung it back open, got him most of the way in by the scruff and was letting go, blocking the opening with my left hand when he tried to leap straight back out. I put my left hand over the opening and that’s when he dug his teeth into the knuckle at the base of my first finger, and while I could feel his bottom teeth puncture the soft skin on my palm it was his teeth sliding between the bones of my knuckle and nearly getting lodged in there that made me gasp and scream and nearly pass out, causing him to really flail around and the tiny kitten too. I actually had to grasp his head and get the fingers of my right hand into his mouth pry his teeth loose from my knuckle, pull him away, drop him into the carrier and slam the door.
When you are focused on something so intently as catching cats, you tend to stay focused even in the face of extreme pain. I’m sure other rescuers who’ve fallen out of trees and rolled down hillsides and nearly been hit by cars will tell you that the rescue was topmost in their minds and only later did they realize the danger or the injury. I closed the latch on the door and then the pain in my left hand was as if it had exploded. But the two cats were locked in the carrier, and that was that.
“That really freaked out the rest of them,” my neighbor told me. I had told her about our one chance of catching these kittens, so we knew there wasn’t much of a chance they’d come anywhere near us after that.
We watched them scrambling around in the underbrush in the gathering darkness. I knew that the whole experience of chasing them, trying to corral them into fabric barriers and the kitten shrieking as he bit me had completely destroyed any trust the rest may have ever had in me. The other surviving older orange kitten was probably thinking I had killed his brother and put him in the plastic box and the two little ones were clearly following him. The two in the carrier were wailing and scratching to get out and we’d just have to take them home so they’d quit upsetting the others, and so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.
The kids carried the bag of cat food to the top of the hill in the hopes that would lure the kittens away from the road. I decided to go home and they would stay for a while longer to see if they calmed down and if they could catch any others.
Arriving home, I settled the two in their carrier into the recently vacated spare cat room and first cleaned the puncture wound on my hand, completely bandaging it in preparation for litter duty. I had no dog cage at that time though the room didn’t hold as much stuff as it later did, so I placed a litterbox and food and water in there and let them go, preparing to go back to the roadside.
I had been hearing thunder, hearing it grow closer. My neighbor returned and she and the kids told me the kittens had seemed to settle down a little while the humans sat on the curb and talked to them, blocking their possible passage onto the road in the dark. But they decided to come home with the growing storm, bringing the dead kitten in the box to bury in their back yard.
And storm it did, lights out, ground-shaking thunder, blinding lightning, all I could think of was those kittens, especially the tiny tortie hissing at me, the tuxedo so frightened he fell as he ran, and the older orange one apparently trying to care for them. I knew it was unlikely the little ones would survive the exposure of such a drenching; the woods were fairly new and not dense enough to provide protection. Worse, they would feel the need to get out of the dripping woods to a clear space, and that would be the road.
The two in the room must have thought the world was ending. They stayed well hidden when I was in there to sit in the dark until the lights came back on with ice on my hand. I could hear them shuffling under the furniture like mice, and later saw flashes of white and orange and even glowing eyes.
I went to work the next day, stopped in that spot on the way home but found no trace of them, saw only a soggy bag of food up in the woods. I parked the car a distance away and sat still on the curb near the spot but didn’t even hear anything in the woods but birds, nor did I see anything that looked like a cat. I ended up spending that evening in the emergency room getting IV antibiotics because I waited so long to get my injury treated. I wasn’t sure what to tell them when they asked if the cat was mine; luckily I said I’d rescued them and intended to adopt them—otherwise they’d have probably taken them to observe for rabies. I returned and scouted all through the woods on both sides of the road and never saw a trace of the other kittens again, but I will never forget those round little faces that should have been full of curiosity and mock kitten aggression but were instead masks of fear as they disappeared into the darkness behind the orange boy.
It was a long road to trust with Sugar and Spice, as I called them at first, but that’s a story for another day. Like all dumped cats and kittens, I wonder where they came from, and at the heartlessness of people who could actually drop them off in the dirt and drive away. But enough time spent on that, wondering what their motives are doesn’t necessarily make change or help cats and just makes me angry. Out of the five, I’m glad I at least had the chance to save these two and find homes where they could be loved and cherished.
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I originally published this story in April 2012 on The Creative Cat; in the meantime I’ve found more notes, information and vet records as well as photos to fill out this story and to write another about their socialization.
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The sketch at the top of this post is titled “Big Game Hunter”, drawn in ink from a photograph in 1993. It’s one of the designs in the series of note cards called “Kitties Being Kitties”.
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Read Part Two: Getting to Know You and find out what happened to these two kittens.
Read more of my stories from decades of rescuing and fostering cats, with a few from other rescuers mixed in: Rescue Stories.
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