This is Part 2 of “Rescue Story: Kittens in the Night“, where I’d successfully trapped only two of five kittens, been bitten badly enough to spend an overnight in the ER, and had two traumatized kittens in the spare cat room to try to teach that humans could be trusted.
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Initially, I called these two little bits Sugar, for the bigger guy with lots of white, and Spice, for the little guy with the rich ginger stripes. Though both hid completely when I was in the room, not even breathing if they could help it, I could tell they were only traumatized by their experiences, and who could blame them? Tossed out from the security of their mother into the wilds of the woods and a paved road with regular traffic, we humans wildly trying to grab them probably instinctively seemed to them less like humans than like prey animals, then a wild storm. These two had lost everything they had known in about two days, and what their world had been replaced with was not at all familiar and totally frightening in its own.
Then I kept them in a cage until their veterinary appointment a day or two later, and at least I didn’t have to pack them into a carrier and traumatize them further with a trip in a car to a waiting room with lots of other scary sounds and smells. I had met my current house call veterinarian by that time but for them just being handled was still a trauma. She pronounced them healthy but wormy, and wished me luck and patience in calming them down.
The socialization operation begins
They were too big for the cage I had, and I decided they needed to spread their little kitten paws in order to relax and feel at home. The room was small so they wouldn’t be frightened by a big open space. They may have been well socialized to people prior to meeting me though they were very frightened of me. They used the litterbox and ate and drank out of bowls, and occasionally I heard the jingle of a bizzy ball or the pitter pat of little kitten paws behind the door as they played. When I entered, they disappeared, huddled together in the farthest dark corner underneath my big work table in the corner of the room. I had seen worse.
Still, I could win a single kitten over even if it had been traumatized, relying on the need of especially young animals for some companionship and developing a deep bond of trust, one-on-one over time, but two of them were a team and I was outnumbered. This would be a delicate operation, and I still worked a day job with fairly long hours as well as freelancing in the evening, so time would be limited.
I had recently acquired my first computer which was downstairs but used it mostly for designing printed documents. At that time I used my studio primarily for designing and painting my portraits, and for designing signs to be painted outdoors, using my large work table in the corner. For reference, it’s the same table in the same spot today when you see photos of my studio, and has a shelf underneath for mat board and framing equipment and other supplies, leaving about six inches of space above the floor. It’s a great cat spot at any time.
Both my portrait and sign design operations were done with lots of pencil sketches on lots of sheets of tracing paper eventually all trimmed apart and taped together and combined into one composite sketch on tracing paper or newsprint, to be transferred to whatever surface the image would appear on. My signs were painted in professional sign-lettering paint, usually on wood though sometimes I painted directly on a window or a wall or even a truck. My portraits were done in whatever media was chosen, usually pastel as they are today, but at my easel downstairs by the big window.
So aside from a lot of rustling of paper, all this design was a quiet and rather passive activity, no loud noises or smells or anything that would spill or be in any way dangerous to kittens. It was so passive that I basically stood at my big work table in the same spot for hours on end, sketching and moving papers around and taping them together. I had no TV but always listened to music as I worked, and left the radio on classical music when I wasn’t in the room. The room had a casement window facing the trees, and the neighborhood was very quiet.
Getting to know me
Then as now, I am barefoot as often as possible, and though it may seem a little odd, these two kittens, as well as many others, got to know me through my feet. Most creatures, including humans, have scent glands in their feet. As I walked around the room I carried not only the scents from the rest of the house, including those from my other cats, but I also left my own scent all over the bare wood floor to which the kittens were constantly exposed and to which they grew accustomed as an everyday part of their environment.
And so as I stood there at my work table with the two hiding underneath, I listened to quiet music and sang and talked softly to them nearly all the time I was in there. All they could see of me from that angle was my bare feet, but they had gotten to know those feet…
Eventually I would hear rustling under the table, and finally one day the tickle of whiskers on my toes. It was all I could do not to either laugh because it tickled or praise them for being so brave—I wanted them to explore without interference until they felt confident the toes would not hurt them. I spoke softly to them each time, and as they gained confidence they came to the edge of the shelf and looked up at me, slipping back underneath, then bravely looking right at me.
Finally they came out to explore the room while I was there, and I was especially careful not to do anything at all that would startle them as they tentatively explored the room, which was now different with me in it.
It seemed like ages but just over a week had gone by since they’d moved in, yet aside from the veterinary visit I hadn’t touched them. But the magic sign came for me when, one day, Sugar curled up next to my left foot, and Spice curled up next to him, on my toes, and I could feel them purr. I simply stood still and talked to them until they decided to get up and stretch and eat, and then play.
In the following days I sat on the floor, less to work and more to get to know these kittens better. They were a little puzzled when I came in and sat down on the floor instead of standing at the table, and peered at me from underneath. I rolled a few ping pong balls across the floor, one after the other, and first Sugar threw aside his hesitation and ran out the chase the ball, then Spice, and we all began to be play buddies, each day playing a little longer. I stretched out my legs and let them run on me, and set my hands on the floor for exploration as well. Tentatively, running up for a sniff then running away, finally I lifted my hand and first touched Sugar’s nose, then later touched his head, then finally began to pet him in shorter, then longer strokes.
Spice took a little longer and preferred to sit on me, not terribly happy with being touched, but in time I could let him sniff my hand, then pet him briefly, and he was okay with that.
By the end of three weeks they greeted me at the door, ready for play, and Sugar had become quite the love bug though Spice was always hesitant. I felt as if I’d held my breath for the entire three weeks, but it was well worth it for socializing these two.
I’d been putting out notices to friends since I’d brought them in, using those old-fashioned methods again: taking photos of them for distribution by hand and by mail, talking to people at work, and using that new computer to design flyers that I took to Kinko’s to print out and hand out and mail to people. Imagine, no blogs, no real websites or e-mails among rescue friends to share these things!
By the time it seemed the two could learn to trust other people aside from me, one friend who also rescued cats told me of someone who had lost their ginger kitty and would would love to adopt the little one, Spice, but unfortunately not his buddy, Sugar. Though both my friend and I strongly urged adopting both for the kittens’ continued socialization and health, they had never had more than one cat. He was only about two months old and we had no pediatric spay and neuter then, though a veterinarian I knew would spay and neuter “a little early” as long as they were healthy enough Spice was still too young. I knew the friend who had referred the adopter had the same standards as me, and received the name of the adopter’s veterinarian and was assured they would neuter him on time and take very good care of him.
Little Spice, I felt, would always be tentative with new situations; his traumatic change had come at a crucial time in his social development. He was frightened to meet new people but soon relaxed though he was timid, and I felt like a traitor as I handed him over to his adopters though I knew they’d be a wonderful home. I checked in later and found they had named him “Timmy”, and even later that indeed they had had him neutered on time, and they absolutely adored him; he was still reserved, quiet and polite.
Sugar was quickly developing into quite the guy and his name no longer seemed appropriate so I named him Smudge for the big orange splotch on his muzzle. He loved me and was very affectionate but could be shy with others at first. Other kittens and cats needed rescue during that summer and the spare cat room was again in use, so Smudge was with me long enough to have the advantage of integrating with my household of nine cats and got along just fine, and through them learned the daily habits of humans.
He was nearly six months old and had been with me for the entire summer, just about to be neutered when another friend in cat rescue said she’d found a home for him, and this was a wonderful home as well. Off he went as I was socializing more kittens in the studio and a single older kitten in the bathroom…I received photos of Smudge through the years, always a good sign.
I look back on this rescue with the experience of 25 more years of both capturing abandoned cats and kittens and socializing them. If I had had traps, if I had the network of rescuers we have now, I could have staked out the spot and hopefully trapped them all. I can’t go back and fix that, but I did move forward and continue to learn more and more as times changed and we learned more about stray, abandoned and feral cats, and I’m glad I didn’t stop with what I knew, so that today I can catch all five of those kittens.
And I had so little actual knowledge about socialization then, I’m just glad I’m a quiet and gentle person with my accommodating studio that frightened, traumatized or feral kittens could feel safe and learn to trust the human, and then transfer that trust to others. And in these 25 years I’ve learned the most important information about feline behavior, assessment, handling, and providing the best environment for them to socialize to whatever point they are able to.
And there is still so much more to learn
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In 2013 we lost Smudge, the older kitten in this story. He had the chance to live 18 years with a wonderful person and several fur siblings. I’m so glad I took the time to rescue him and his fur brother Timmy; we can’t save them all, but we can give a better life to the ones we do save.
Read more of my stories from decades of rescuing and fostering cats, with a few from other rescuers mixed in: Rescue Stories.
Art and Gifts Featuring Cats You Know!
The sketch that I most associate with this story 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”.
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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Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Thursday: New Merchandise
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!