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Rescue Story: Sputnik and Thistle, August 2005

Sputnik and Thistle on the flagstones.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the neighbor’s yard, just over the fence, in the woodpile. Not a squirrel or a chipmunk, it looked gray and white, not the color of one of the wild residents except a bird? A bird could be gray or white, like a nuthatch, and it could be in the woodpile. That’s probably what it was.

But I knew it wasn’t a bird because something kept dinging my subconscious because it was seeing something I needed to pay attention to and wouldn’t let it go. I finally had the chance while I was washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window across the yard to see two tiny kitten faces pop out of the woodpile like little cartoon characters. Aha, that was why I kept after it—my subconscious saw kittens, but my conscious mind hadn’t seen them yet. It was only a matter of time.

And I had the feeling I knew where they’d come from and who their mother was.

The house where Mimi came from had several females who regularly had kittens, until I got my hands on them, including a pretty, friendly, petite medium-hair gray and white kitty who had two litters of two kittens each year. I could never capture her in between litters, partly because, though she went back to the house often enough, she began to have her kittens outdoors in other neighbors’ yards. She was a very nice cat who visited me regularly and often brought her kittens to me, leaving them on the deck so I could foster them until a good time of year to surrender them to the shelter. Her humans would give them to me too, but sometimes mom cats are way smarter than their humans.

Luna and Sputnik enjoy an evening on the side steps to the deck.

Somehow most of them managed to get enough socialization before they got to me, but a few escaped socialization and roamed the neighborhood, starting me on TNR. These two looked to be about six weeks old but I had no idea where they’d been before now. I certainly couldn’t tell from a distance if they were socialized or not. Then a neighbor a little farther up the street came to talk to me about the cat he’d been feeding because he thought she’d had kittens under his deck and didn’t know where she’d gone, and that answered that question.

Normally the cats would have kittens in the house and I’d never see them, just the mothers. Sometimes I would see older kittens when they brought them outdoors—I had to collect Mimi’s 2006 litter from under a neighbor’s porch. I knew if Luna wasn’t taking the kittens to the house then they likely weren’t getting socialization.

In August 2005 I had eight cats in my house. Stanley, 23, and Moses, 18, needed daily care in their old age and liked their daily thermonuclear treatment on the deck or in the garden. Sophie, Cookie, Namir and Kelly were teenagers and pretty much self-cleaning, and I had just taken in Peaches and Cream at 15, who weren’t nearly integrated yet, living in my studio, and also needed some old age care. I could not take these kittens into the house with or without their mom.

Carefully approaching the woodpile, I saw them peek out, then completely disappear. I talked, I sat silently, I got some cat food, all to no avail. I had no traps, but their mom trusted me. I put a dish of food under my deck during the day, took it in that night, put it out the next day, and in the afternoon Luna was on my deck indicating that she’d like more food, please. I gave it to her. The next morning the kittens were stashed under the deck. I was careful to feed just under the edge of the deck and to take the food inside at night. I have always had plenty of raccoons and groundhogs, who will also eat cat food any time they can get it, and there was no reason to lure them right to the kittens and their mom.

Look down next to the recycling bin. He was always so curious about me!

Because I needed to socialize the kittens outdoors, I wanted to be careful not to frighten them away from me. I never wanted them to feel threatened, or even their friendly mom to lose her trust in me and move them. But I never gave the kittens a day, sometimes only hours, between visits to peek over the deck rail to look underneath, walk down either set of steps to look under the deck, step out of the basement door to say hello.

Of course, I could hardly contain myself that there were kittens, totally cute for one thing, and totally to be worried about for another, so I ran out to check on them randomly, certain something would have happened to them.

They were both primarily gray. One had short hair and white mittens and boots and a white blaze and chin and chest and when their mom washed them I could see he was a boy. The other was much fluffier with only white mittens and socks, and she appeared to be a girl, though it was hard to tell for sure at a distance. I named the boy “Sputnik”, the name of a Russian spaceship for sure, an adventurer, but they named it that because the Russian word translates to “fellow traveler” or “traveling companion”. I named the girl “Thistle” for the upright longish fur on her head that looked like the down of a thistle. Sputnik was very curious about me even though he was cautious, and I could tell he’d socialize easily once I got my hands on him. Thistle not so much. She was very timid and moved behind her brother when I got close, then retreated further under the deck when she felt uncomfortable. I loved that beautiful fuzzy little Thistle, but I fell hard for Sputnik.

Under the rocker, look for the white blaze.

Unfortunately, the digital camera I had then was outliving its abilities, and it was only 2MP with no zoom on the lens at all, and my DSLR was two years away, so my photos are not that good. I know that somewhere I have photos on film that may be better than these, but last year when I drafted this story I ransacked my photo bins to find these dates to no avail, and decided to wait to hold off on publishing and continue looking. I’m sure I’ll find them tomorrow because I’ve published this story today, and if I do I will update.

Mom cats move their kittens as they develop to meet their physical, intellectual and social needs. Luna had installed them under my sizeable 10’ x 14’ deck that ranged from three feet to six feet off the ground with shelves and wheelbarrows and clay pots and all sorts of exciting stuff, carefully stored so no animal would hurt itself when it ventured under, including myself. So they had plenty of play space, explore areas, climbing, scratching, it was an ideal kitten playground, far better and safer than the woodpile. But she had told them that when she was away to never, ever step one foot out from under that deck, and as long as she was away they did not. They would sit in the opening where I didn’t have latticework and look out, but wouldn’t even put their noses over the line. The one exception was when they napped on the wire shelf by the basement door in the morning because it was so cozy and warm when the sun shone on our brick patio.

Curled up on the bottom shelf.

After about a week I could walk up to about two feet away from them and talk to them. I had my favorite frightened kitten play toy, a Cat Dancer, which is a twist of brown paper at the end of a stiff coil of wire, and with a tiny movement of my hand the paper would bounce around like a moth in flight. Kittens would forget all about the human looming over them and go after that thing until they realized they’d almost touched me. Eventually I would sit down and move it around and they would run in a semi-circle in front of me, and leap in the air. I managed to touch Sputnik more than once, but Thistle was still skillfully keeping a distance.

Look on the bottom shelf by the red thing, both are there!

I was able to pet their mom and give her treats with the kittens watching and that made a difference to them too. Luna would go off and do mom cat things, then come back and clean them up and let them nurse. She liked to nurse them on the flagstone path along the side of the deck, in the shade in the August heat, and often they would sit there together in the open, or the kittens would play and Luna would watch.

Thistle nursing from Luna, Sputnik relaxes.

About 10 days after they’d showed up I found the kittens very spooked and upset one morning, running to hide behind one thing after another under the deck. I had no idea what had happened but I immediately regretted not taking them in and installing them in the bathroom. I walked a semi-circle around the deck looking for clues, things overturned or plants smashed down. Luna was always gone first thing, she was an early-morning hunter, but I was worried nonetheless.

When I was about to go back up the steps to the deck, a groundhog came running from underneath, likely the former juvenile who had occupied the space the previous summer, possibly coming back to start setting up a den for the winter. I discouraged this because of its massive excavation of piles of soil along my foundation which were the beginnings of my water issues along that wall. A groundhog is a peaceful animal unless it’s cornered, and two kittens are not going to provoke it to attack them, so I knew it was probably just the groundhog’s presence that spooked them, probably barging in like he owned the place, which he had the previous year.

Luna came back and comforted the kittens, but they were in no mood for play later. I gave them the day off. Luna must have explained how these things work with other animals because Sputnik was in a great mood the next day. Thistle was quiet, not playing as much as usual, but all else was normal as I continued my campaign to win their trust. She returned to our play game, but seemed still fearful and hesitant.

Luna, Sputnik and Thistle, a stray and her kittens.

Luna nursed them one afternoon on the flagstones, stayed with them for a bit, then ate and left. Sputnik and Thistle stayed on the flagstones, which surprised me because they usually went under the deck when their mother ate and stayed there, but perhaps their dynamics had changed I the two weeks they’d been there. Sputnik had his paw stretched so he could touch his sister’s paw. How close they were, as sibling kittens should be.

Thistle is just lying on the flagstones.

When I checked again Sputnik was back under the deck, but Thistle was still lying on the path, and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. I knew something was wrong. I stood on the deck and just observed her for a bit, saw her breathing regularly but not shifting at all, and then I got a tiny whiff of the smell of an infected wound. I started to move toward the steps to make a move to grab her if I had to, stopped to pick up a small towel from my rags on the deck, then as softly as I could, barefoot as usual, I tiptoed down the steps and onto the path. I moved to a position behind her and held the towel so I could drop and grab if I had to, but I didn’t. Thistle awoke and looked at me when I picked her up, struggled but not very well, then stopped when I wrapped the towel around her. She was glassy eyed and obviously had a fever. I held her against my chest and carefully went into the basement for the smallest carrier, added some soft towels and placed her in there. When I unwrapped the towel I could see she had some sort of wound on her chest that had probably abscessed and it smelled sickening—abscesses are one of the only smells that will really make my stomach turn. I knew Thistle was also in some amount of pain from it too.

A friend is a veterinary technician and also rescues cats and dogs and worked at one of the shelters, so I called her for some emergency assistance. She came to get Thistle and determined she could run her to that veterinarian and get treatment started.

Because of the unknown status of the groundhog, and the need to socialize Sputnik that much faster, I decided to set up my old crate on the deck. I didn’t want to risk bringing infectious diseases into the house when I had so many elderly cats. When Luna came back, obviously looking for Thistle, I decided I’d also put her in the crate and have her spayed. I lured her in there easily with food. Sputnik had probably been up on the deck when I wasn’t looking, and he might go up there following his mother’s scent, but not right away, and I didn’t want him out there alone, no sister and mom in a crate. I sat on the side steps to the deck where they had nursed, and he came out looking for them. I managed to talk him into letting me pet him and he slowly came up the steps close enough for me to pick him up. I held onto him long enough to not be scratched and to get him into the crate—that old one had a door higher up on the side that I could open and reach in with him that he wouldn’t be able to run back out before I closed the door.

Moon and Sputnik in the crate,

My friend let me know the next morning Thistle was already feeling better, and she might as well pick up Sputnik too. The only time she had was the next day while I was out at a meeting with a customer, so I said my goodbyes before I left, and he was surprisingly amenable to being held and petted. I guess all that play really worked. Thistle healed quickly and both were spayed and neutered at the shelter and were adopted right away.

My next-door neighbor’s daughter came over to visit Luna several times and decided she wanted to adopt her. Eh, Luna technically belonged to our neighbor, I wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do. I talked to the neighbor a few times, asking leading questions and waiting to hear questions about Luna’s whereabouts. The only thing she did say was that she had had Luna in the house for several days, but she got back outside, and that was impossible because she had been in the crate on my deck.

I decided Luna could be spayed and “fostered”, in part because I didn’t want her living in the crate outside on my deck, but mostly because it was in that time that Namir had his first incidence of congestive heart failure and a big visit to the emergency clinic and observing him, medicating him and keeping him calm was my priority right then.

We used the certificate program from that same shelter and had her spayed and vetted. Luna was FIV+ but was in good health. At that time the prevailing opinion was that FIV+ cats could not mingle with FIV- cats and should not be permitted outdoors at all, a good reason for her not to rejoin the household. So a nice kitty went onto a wonderful home. I’ve lost track of her adopter, but I’m so glad she was willing to adopt her. Now we know far more about FIV, but then it was still sometimes a death sentence.

That was a somewhat different rescue than the usual, and an interesting summer—Peaches and Cream arrived at the end of June, Luna and kittens at the end of July, Namir was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at the end of August. In the background my mother was in and out of the hospital also for CHF or pneumonia, as was my brother with his seizures. My head spins to think about all the running I did, but all I remember was loving meeting Peaches and Cream, excitement over the kittens, and worry but lots of love for Namir. I’m just glad it all worked out.


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