On August 27, 2014 the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society (now Humane Animal Rescue) sent out a request to the Homeless Cat Management Team for anyone who could foster a 14-week-old kitten who was so frightened he couldn’t be examined, was held for assessment and considered unadoptable because of his behavior. The fate of kittens and cats like this one, considered unadoptable, at the end of August when the shelter receives as many as 100 animals each day and has been at capacity for months, is usually euthanasia. But WPHS had decided to work with rescues for all their animals and give them another option for life.
This kitten had until the end of the day for someone to speak up for him and give him a chance to socialize to humans, or if not, eventually find a place for him in a sanctuary or managed feral colony. At least that way, he would get to live. I had recently lost Kennedy and, happy with just my five wonderful black cats, was helping with transporting rescued cats wherever they needed to go, and holding feral cats overnight in my bathroom and releasing them to their colonies. I had no idea what the kitten looked or acted like, but trusted the person we worked with at WPHS that fostering was appropriate for him, and my inner voice said to take him in. Another rescuer who worked near the shelter brought him to me that evening.
The kitten was Basil. The day he arrived his name was “Smokie” and the photo above is what he looked like that first day, and for the next day as well. He’d been picked up and surrendered by an individual as a stray with his brother at five weeks, gone into a foster home for the intervening nine weeks, and come back to be neutered, get his shots and be placed for adoption. His brother had no such issues, had been vetted and was up for adoption already. No one could determine his fear or trauma, but even after I settled him in the bathroom he was frozen in place on that blanket in the back of his carrier until the next day.
Quite a bit of pheromone wipes and flower essences in the quiet of the bathroom, birds chirping and leaves rustling outside the open window, finally got him to eat inside his tiny carrier but only alone and with the carrier door closed, then open, then in a larger carrier, then finally he emerged a few days later after seeing the ninjas outside the bathroom door.
And he’s a kitten! And another black kitty! So we’ll see if eventually the Five can teach him how to be a cat. I call him Smokie Robinson, and I’ve been singing Smokey’s greatest hits to him since he’s been here—and it hasn’t scared him away yet.
Last week I transported a few cats from the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society who were spay/neutered through the TNR program, and released them. Coincidentally, this little guy had come in from a foster home where he’d gone to gain weight and be socialized and come back to be neutered and adopted. He was neutered, but he wasn’t socialized enough to be adopted and we know what that means for a cat in the middle of summer when shelters are overflowing with cats and kittens. Our rescue group will help take these types of cats and kittens who still need a little help if there is foster space, so I was asked to see if I could socialize the little guy any more. He came to me last Wednesday evening, August 27.
His intake paperwork says he was picked up at about five weeks old with a brother, and that he was covered with burrs and debris in his fur. He was underweight for his age, and because he needed to gain weight and wasn’t old enough for neutering yet they found a foster home to care for him to get him to that point. Typically at two months and two pounds cats are spayed or neutered and put up for adoption, but he was about 14 weeks. I guess they gave him more time to socialize and possibly the foster home had taken another cat or kitten or a litter of kittens.
So little Smokie was stranded. My bathroom was open for business and though there were two other cats I’d nearly fostered (here is their story) at this point in the year so many were in need. I am always happy to take the senior, geriatric or hospice kitties but am not at all opposed to kittens—I haven’t had a foster kitten since 2009 with little Fromage. I didn’t see the little guy until he arrived at my house, but I wasn’t concerned what he looked or acted like, a life is a life. I couldn’t see a little kitty lose his because he needed a little more time to settle down. He was delivered by another person in the rescue group who picked him up on her way home from work and brought him here.
Initially, he was very frightened and plastered himself into the back of his carrier. I call those “airplane ears”, and combined with the round frightened eyes with totally dilated pupils he was one frightened, traumatized kitty, not one who would attack necessarily but one you don’t handle unless you have to—in my experience handling a cat in that state of mind will leave a permanent negative impression of being handled by humans that will be hard to dispel.
This was fine, I understood. He had just come from a foster home to the shelter and been examined and neutered, and then he was still hanging around the busy shelter in a carrier—that could be bewildering to a human too. I set his carrier in the bath tub at first because it was less chaotic in there than if I’d set it on the floor outside the tub. Not that my bathroom is a noisy happening place, but he needed time to adjust. The carrier was tiny so leaving the carrier door open I set fresh canned food and water just outside the opened carrier door and left to do more work, closing the bathroom door. But through the evening and to the next morning nothing was touched, and though I sometimes heard a soft little “mew” I heard and saw nothing else.
Thursday morning he had eaten nothing and I set out new food, mixed water into it, put the dish in his carrier and closed the door and left. He did eat then and I realized he would need a larger carrier for a few days since it would be a while before he emerged. Dr. Michelle came over to help me move him to a larger carrier which we wiped down with pheromone wipes. I used a small foil roasting pan in the carrier as a litterbox for a few hours, then removed that and placed his food and water in there, adding flower essences to his food and water.
The problem with my bathroom is that it is very small. With the carrier there I had only a small space to walk and could barely fit myself on the floor to get down on his level. I could keep his carrier in the tub but had to move it when I showered and I didn’t want to keep moving his carrier around since he was having such a difficult time adjusting.
Thursday evening I moved the carrier outside of the tub facing the bathroom door and left the bathroom door open for a few hours while I worked in the studio and all the cats followed me in there and milled around on the landing to let him sense the activities of the house. The baby gate was in place, and although that didn’t stop my cats from getting in there, they accept it as a barrier temporarily and it works for a short while to orient the cat in the bathroom to whom he’s dealing with. Later that night when I opened his carrier door to feed him he mewed to me and walked forward, looking up at me then moving back in. I could reach in to pet him lightly as he ate.
Friday evening he ate his food and I petted him, and when I left the bathroom door open again for a brief time to let him sense the activities of the house and he mewed for attention.
Then he came to the door of his carrier and looked around. I closed the bathroom door and opened his cage door. In a series of brief explorations he emerged and began to poke around.
He fully emerged and seemed to have no interest in the carrier, but still looked at me and ran behind the toilet when I moved. I called off all other plans, put his carrier in the tub and stayed with him in there until after midnight, even sleeping on the floor for a while, as he explored the tiny room and me. Below is pretty much what I saw of him each time I came in the room until Monday afternoon when he finally relaxed enough to greet me. Up to that time I had to reintroduce myself to him each time I came into the room.
To explain a bit about how small my bathroom is, when I sit on the floor with my back to the tub and stretch out my legs, I can touch the opposite wall and door with my toes. When I bend my arms and hold out my elbows I touch the toilet and cabinet with barely extending my elbows. Smokie could not ignore me and had to explore me along with the rest. I could not touch him and he ran behind the toilet when I moved too much or there was any noise at all, but he would play with toys and walked on me when necessary, and he was very talkative.
Through the day Saturday I let him explore and I managed to touch him, scratching him on the back of the neck by night time, and for a day that was the only place I could touch him, even if he saw my hand coming. I was quickly trained to say his name softly and then carefully reach down and scratch the back of his neck, and only then did he recognize I was the same human whose toes he’d been trying to tackle a little earlier, and I was rewarded with a vibrant purr and a long kitty stretch and a mew as he came out into the room.
Saturday night we had a huge storm and I closed and covered the window and tried to get him to go into his carrier so I could cover it but poor kitty ran around the little room every time there was thunder and lightning, and even heavy rain. Through the day Sunday, though he ran and hid each time I came in as if I was Godzilla and he had to be coaxed out and reacquainted he was eating well and using the big litter box and we had a purring and petting session each time I went in.
He didn’t play too much when I wasn’t in the room, so I made sure to stop in and play for a bit through the day.
I moved the world’s oldest homemade cat scratcher in there for him, one I’d made from a 4×4 nailed upright to a piece of plywood in…1987. I had initially covered this with carpet remnants with the carpet facing out, then when it became worn out after I moved here I used another remnant and covered the bottom so it matched the floor on the landing, and added a strip of carpet to the top, jute side out, wrapping heavy sisal rope to a portion of the rest of the pole, leaving some wood exposed. Over the years I’d added a toy to the top like a cat teaser or a feather toy, but mostly they’ve just liked to sit on the top and make fringe from the edges of the carpet. It has been well-loved.
He also likes the turbo scratcher and I have one with a ball that flickers when it moves that I got for the Four when they were first emerging from their room, but I have to move it into the tub when I come in because there is no place for me to walk. By Monday the only time he hid was when I showered, otherwise he only slightly hesitated greeting me when I came in.
I could pet him with both hands but I could not pick him up, yet he loved his back scratches and butt scratches and purred happily when I was in there.
By evening he no longer ran to hide when I came in but greeted me purring.
I keep the baby gate at the door so no one can easily run in or out as I enter and leave, and I generally shut the door as soon as I come in. With paint on my hands and hands full of brushes and rinse jars I didn’t get the chance to right away, and seeing the Five milling about on the landing he hurried to the gate. “Ninjas! You have ninjas here!” He was fascinated and wanted to meet them right away. I heard a distant hiss from one of the Five who were studying him from my bedroom across the landing.
Not yet, not until after he’d passed his quarantine time, even though he had a clean bill of health from WPHS. He had developed a little sneeze on Sunday that I thought might have been from running frantically during the storm and trying to stuff his face and self into tiny spots. As it has persisted he will see a veterinarian and I have continued to wash my hands each time I go in or out.
I can’t get over how tiny he is after so many adult cats, and how handsome!
He does have a small white spot on his chest and some white lower on his belly, and fuzzy gray underfur that is likely why he was called Smokie. Often kittens with medium to long hair develop more fuzz first, which is their under fur and it’s often several shades lighter than their adult color, then later grow in their first longer guard hairs and appear to darken. You can still see some of Smokie’s gray on his chest and belly.
And here are his super deluxe ear hairs, so long!
Cats are always so concerned about why you are cleaning their stuff from the litter box. They put it there! They want it there! Smokie runs over when I scoop his box to inspect.
Smokie even had to check inside the trash can after I’d cleaned his box.
And even at this young age, he knows the camera is his friend. Really—I set it down on the floor so it wouldn’t be swinging around from my neck when I leaned over and he was on it right away, rubbing his face all over it and hugging it, then finally playing with the neck strap.
I still can’t pick him up, though he loves to be petted all over and is very affectionate with me, and he’s almost gotten on my lap a few times.So next he will continue to get accustomed to me and my stupid singing of some of Smokey Robinson’s greatest hits because I grew up singing with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and his hits performed by others too are some of my all-time favorites, “I Second That Emotion”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”, “Cruisin’ “, “My Girl”, “My Guy” and a lot of others.
So far Smokie seems to like Motown and we are getting along just fine. Soon he’ll meet the Five, and he’ll also meet other humans and we’ll see how far he can go in learning to trust again.
The pheromones and flower essences and quiet atmosphere were joined by me spending time in the room with him, sleeping part of the night on the floor, or just sitting on the floor until he found the courage to come over and smell the big monster, and then touch me, then interacting with toys, then touching with toys, and finally with my hand, soaked in all the same pheromones and essences that had helped him so far. By the time Bella joined us three weeks later he was still shy but curious and welcoming. When we unzipped her carrier she just didn’t move. time passed, and she had no intention of coming out. Smokie ducked inside and settled down, they had a silent conversation for about a minute, then he got up and left the carrier, and soon Bella came out. The two were fast friends and began wrestling that night, and went through the same socialization together, and are still closely bonded.
Though I can still see echoes of that frightened kitten in those big round eyes of his, he’s come a long way since then, slowly, step by step, until in time he’d come farther than I ever thought he would. I can’t tell you what a joy it was through the first year to watch his gentle and loving personality unfold and to see him today as a handsome adult cat, trusting and eager for affection, mingling naturally with all the other cats in the house, confident with visitors and even being handled for an exam and nail trimming. Those echoes in his eyes tell me that whatever trauma he suffered in those early weeks is still there to be reawakened in some rare circumstances and to always handle him gently, more gently than others, both physically and emotionally. But if that’s all it takes to keep him happily racing up and down the cat tree, watching birds and chipmunks at the windows and doors, chasing ping pong balls with crazy abandon up and down the steps, picking friendly wrestling matches with Bella and the ninjas, and rolling over on his back on my desk while I work—and lately doing his part in socializing other frightened kittens—it’s an easy thing to remember.
He’s still doing his part in this.
And playing the big ninja for a former feral girlcat as she began exploring the house.
He and Bella together had an interested adopter who unfortunately had health disasters with her two cats that were both traumatic and expensive. Others were interested in Basil and in both Basil and Bella and began to stop by to meet them. Then Basil was diagnosed with asthma in November 2015 and though it’s turned out to be mild the concern about cost and keeping Basil in a quiet and calm home made adoption difficult. On December 25, 2015 I decided to give the three of us a present, and formally adopted the two.
Not everyone has the time to socialize kittens like Basil. There are so many in need and they really have to keep moving through the system into new homes as other kittens and cats need foster homes. I have one room for fostering and it’s ideal for cats like Basil, and my wonderful family of Mimi, Giuseppe, Mr. Sunshine, Jelly Bean and Mewsette are all wonderful teachers. Now and then Basil’s traumatic past makes him anxious, even with the comforting baths and purrs of his fur family, and in the past this has developed to where he experienced breathing difficulty, though it never developed into an asthma attack. Recently I used a calming collar on him for a month. It made a huge difference keeping him his relaxed and silly self.
And if anyone might wonder if it’s worthwhile to foster kittens and cats for a rescue or shelter, and to give a frightened, combative kitten a chance to socialize to life with humans, Basil would tell you otherwise. He found me in my studio, and is on my lap right now, happily kneading and purring, his amber eyes blinking slowly as he relaxes and looks at me and the other ninjas around us. He belongs here, and he feels safe.
And he loves his fur sister Bella as if she was his real sister. They each spend time on their own activities, but I always find them together at some point in the day. Last night I found them peacefully sleeping back to back on the cabinet in the dark kitchen. A few days ago they were napping in the late afternoon sun, as they often do.
You can read about Basil from the very beginning and see lots of photos of him as he grew up to be the beautiful cat he is today in the archives Basil and Smokie. He has been adopted along with Bella, and someday he’ll go to his forever home, when the elderly kitty at that house stabilizes. In the meantime, I’m glad I’ve had the chance to see him grow even through the summer as he’s become taller and longer, his face and fur have matured and he truly looks like the adult he’ll be. Also, the currently little ninjas have some stories to hear from him.
. . . . . . .
The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society now Humane Animal Rescue is not a “no-kill” shelter but an open door shelter, charged by their mission to take any animal brought to their doors, yet through innovative programs, public outreach and lot of compassion they have saved most of the animals who’ve come to them, usually around 14,000 animals of all species each year.
Shelters rely on volunteer help from the general public to fulfill their mission and help the animals in their care, from working with animals to any professional services you can offer. You can easily support your local shelters and the animals they care for by fostering. Offer your services as a foster, and if they don’t have a program, suggest and help to develop one. The WPHS began working with the Homeless Cat Management Team to help rescue feral cats and with Pittsburgh C.A.T. after members of the organizations persistently offered fostering services. We foster cats and kittens who need to be socialized or who don’t do well in a shelter setting, who need a term of medications for upper respiratory infections, or whose life might be in danger when the shelter filled to capacity at any time. In the same way we’ve also been working with the Beaver County Humane Society, a very small shelter in a more rural area that’s just beginning its fostering program.
Reach out and ask, and keep after it. You can only help to save lives, as well as support those people who are already charged with sheltering these animals who were surrendered from homes and the streets.
And you might get a Basil in the deal too. That makes it all worth it.
Read more Rescue Stories on The Creative Cat.
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Basil must have thought the yellow basket was a gift for him because he owned it from the day it came into the house, which was the day I was running errands and saw it…atop someone’s trash pile. I sprayed it down and rinsed it in the basement and let it air dry, then brought it up to the magic basket spot, and Basil was immediately IN THE BASKET, looking totally cute, big, long, white whisker and all. Read more, and purchase.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.
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Weekly schedule of features:
Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters Tuesday: Rescue Stories Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork Thursday: New Merchandise Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!