Two tiny kittens ran out in the street from between parked cars, but the driver of the car rolling down the street saw them in time and stopped, then moved on, slowly.
Then she parked her car and got out to look for the two. There was no way they’d survive the day if they kept running out in the street, and it looked as if one of them was injured. Carefully searching for them between and under parked cars she found them both and managed to catch them. Two tiny grayish fuzzballs, it was hard to tell if that was their color or if they were just covered in dust along with burrs and leaves and twigs in their fur. Perhaps they were friendly enough, or perhaps they were weak enough, that they didn’t act hostile, though they were by no means affectionate.
But they did need a lot of cleanup, possibly medical attention, and food and water. The best she could do was surrender them to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and hope they’d get the care they needed.
That was June 16, and the person in intake saw two frightened, dirty, underweight five-week-old kittens who needed to be socialized and gain weight before they could come back into the shelter to be neutered, then to find their forever homes. Neither of the kittens turned out to be injured, and a foster home was available, so they cleaned the dirt and debris from their fur, gave them a little food and water, and sent them off to be nurtured.
Two handsome black kittens with fluffy ruffs and tails came back at the end of August, healthy and ready for neutering. The kitten who had originally seemed to be injured was happy and friendly, went out on the adoption floor and quickly found a home.
The other kitten stayed in a cage in the back, too frightened to come out, or to be handled, or to do anything but cower in the back of his cage. He couldn’t go out on the adoption floor, and in the month of the year with the highest intake numbers, kittens found under everyone’s porch, dozens of cats surrendered every day, and a legal limit of what the shelter could hold, there was really no room for a kitten who couldn’t face the shelter’s onsite or offsite adoption areas. If a foster could not be found to take him in and give him a little more time and social skills, he would meet the same fate as three to four million other animals who die in shelters every year.
It’s hard to know why two kittens who were apparently siblings and who had come from the same area, enduring the same events and traumas, turn out so differently. But he had been timid from the beginning, and even with nine weeks of in-home fostering had not found a way to get past whatever fears he carried to accept living with humans.
I’m so glad I was available that day, at WPHS surrendering two other rescued cats to be fostered (in a story I will also write about soon), when the rescue group was shuffling cats who needed foster homes and ferals who needed a place to spend the night after spay/neuter surgery and before release back to their colony, to say I would be happy to give Smokie another chance at socialization rather than seeing a frightened kitten lose his life. My bathroom had been empty since we’d lost Kennedy at the beginning of August. I am always happy to take the senior, geriatric or hospice kitties because those are skills I have developed over years that others may not have, but am not at all opposed to kittens. It had been several years since I’d fostered a kitten, and even longer since I’d had one that needed significant socialization, but possibly I needed the change as much as he needed the chance.
I didn’t see the little guy until he arrived at my house, but I wasn’t concerned what he looked or acted like. He was delivered by another person in the rescue group who picked him up on her way home from work and brought him here on Wednesday, August 27.
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 experiences 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 given shots 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, switching back and forth every few hours. And while I’d never before used flower essences in socializing a kitten, though I have with adult cats, I began 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. It would all be very strange for a kitten who only saw my feet and heard a disembodied voice, not the way I usually like to start with frightened kittens, but it would do.
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 who and what 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 carrier door. In a series of brief explorations he emerged and began to look 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 well after midnight, even sleeping on the floor for a while, as he explored the tiny room and me. He ran behind the toilet 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 on his own, 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.
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, and his socialization to me was moving faster. By evening he no longer ran to hide when I came in but greeted me purring.
I kept the baby gate at the door so no one could easily run in or out as I entered and left, and I generally shut the door as soon as I came in. One time with paint on my hands and hands full of brushes and rinse jars I didn’t get the chance to close it 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. It persisted though it never slowed him down so I continued to wash my hands each time I went in or out.
So by the end of a week with me he’d made a huge improvement, but was still easily startled with loud noises or when I took a shower or even made a fast move, running behind the toilet as fast as possible. I’ve seen even really traumatized kittens and cats come this far and stop, socialized to me and my household, but not to other people or cats, or places or even other food. If Smokie never progressed and could never be adopted by anyone I would be glad to keep him, as I’d done with others like Moses and Sophie, but even with that I wouldn’t ever want a cat to live a life in fear unless that was the best they could do and were happy with it.
The right flower essences
The flower essences I was using weren’t the right ones for his condition though they had elements that could work, so I consulted and found two others that were more appropriate for his actions, one to treat his space and his belongings, and one to help him resolve the traumas he still held. I sprayed his things with the one, and dropped the other onto the palm of my hand and rubbed my hands together before I touched him gently rubbing it onto his fur, and his rapid changes in the following week, each day more trusting, more affectionate, running to the door and asking to be picked up for love even before breakfast, playing happily on his own, convinced me that was what had helped him along even farther. This continued to the point where, after two weeks, he could bravely meet other people, not even react to the hissing plastic bag with the noisy cans, ask to be picked up and hugged and kissed by everyone, and not only was he no longer frightened of the shower, but he hopped into the shower with me!
I kept everything in single events, in his room among his familiar things, careful not to put him in a situation where he might regress. He desperately wanted to meet the ninjas, and they to meet him, so then came the first evening of exploration outside his little room and though I’d wanted him to be able to explore on his own without running into a monster cat Giuseppe had been curious about him from the beginning and proved to be a gentle and nurturing mentor to the little wild man. He then had the opportunity to spend a little time with all of them repeatedly, and was just as playful, loving and fearless as any other average four-month-old kitten with absolutely no residual effect from his traumas.
And people? Apparently they are all for the purpose of giving Smokie love, and he is not at all shy in asking for it. Just a few of Smokie’s visitors from last week and this week.
The first lesson
On Sunday morning only two-and-one-half weeks after he’d come to me, a stiffly terrified kitten in the back of his carrier, I picked him up, a warm and soft and purring kitten relaxing in my hands, then cuddled him in my arms while he reached up to tap his nose against mine and touch my face. I’d been wavering in what I’d say that day, Pet Memorial Sunday, when I’d talk about we humans loving another animal again after losing a beloved pet, but looking at that little face with blinky eyes and paws in a tangle, I knew what I had to say. We needed to follow the example of these rescued animals who had often suffered horrible physical and emotional traumas, or lost a human they had loved and everything they’d ever known, and yet turned around and let go of it all, and loved another human family with no guilt or regrets.
The second lesson
I have always been convinced that, aside from spaying and neutering pets to prevent the births of unplanned and unwanted pets, fostering was one of the most important things anyone could do to help reduce the numbers of animals killed in shelters. I hope that by writing about Smokie’s experience it encourages those of you who do not currently foster to foster just one kitten or puppy or adult cat or dog. Fostering can help to socialize a frightened animal, heal it from illness and injury, and keep its bond with people so that it’s ready to meet people at adoption opportunities and move right in when adopted, and most important stay there because it hasn’t spent a portion of its life in a shelter.
Smokie’s next chapter, and another foster
So the next chapter of Smokie’s journey, just about three weeks after he’d first arrived, was the arrival of a new friend, a kitty who’d been through a foster home and gone to Petsmart and came back traumatized by noise and the whole experience. Her foster person had big dogs who frightened her, and Bella was getting more distant and sometimes couldn’t be handled or touched. It sounded as if she was about the same age as Smokie, and intuition told me to offer my space with Smokie since he could use a feline closer to his age. He walked into her carrier and greeted her, invited her to come out and play, and when she came out much later looking for a place to hide he quietly follower her around, just touching her now and then. I zipped him into her carrier so she could explore and find a safe spot while he finally napped. Before she came he cried for attention in there all by himself, digging at the door, but after one day he was relaxed and happy with his new friend, who is still a little shy but coming around with both him and me.
I’ll give you just one guess what color she is.
Read more stories in my weekly Rescue Stories series.
Can’t adopt? Foster! Can’t foster? Donate or volunteer.
There are so many ways you can help cats who need homes and care. You may not have room to adopt another cat, but can foster a cat or kitten for a few weeks. If not that, you can volunteer at a shelter or with a rescue, or donate. You do this because you love your cat, and by doing so you help all cats. No matter which of these actions you take, you help to save a life, and make life better for all cats.
- Adopt one of the cats I’ve posted here, or from any shelter or rescue near you, or from Petfinder, to open up a space for another cat to be rescued and fostered.
- Offer to foster cats or kittens for a shelter or rescue near you.
- Volunteer at a shelter or rescue.
- Find a group of volunteers who work with homeless cats and help them with their efforts.
- Donate to a shelter or rescue near you.
If you can foster kittens or adults cats to help prepare them for a forever home, please run to your nearest shelter and find a cat who needs you! Anyone can help with this effort at any level, even if all you do is donate to a shelter or rescue so they can help to pay for the food or medications needed for their foster, or the spay/neuter/veterinary care during a clinic.
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