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The Whole Kitten Caboodle

Pandemics make for strange bedfellows

As we have all learned the hard way, a pandemic stresses the human mind. With so much out of our control, it’s easy to obsess about every little thing that is in our control. At least that’s my theory. It could be that I’m simply a freak and the rest of you are as laid-back as ever. But I know I’m not the same. And one reason why can be summed up in a single word: cats.

Let me explain. Almost exactly one year ago, as we began The Great Hibernation, my neighbor across the street called to let me know that one of the feral cats in our neighborhood had moved a litter of kittens to under her house. Well, that was pretty much all Miss Mary needed to say. After all, thanks to the pandemic, I could not go the many places I was used to going (think dancing, drinking, dancing, eating out, dancing and drinking, then dancing some more ) but I damn sure could walk across the road, lurk in Miss Mary’s yard, lie on my stomach in damp grass and obsessively spy on a litter of wild kittens. It sure as hell beat attending another zoom meeting. Soon, I got to see the kittens for myself, discovering one of each flavor: grey, an orange tabby, an all-black beauty and the runt: a sweet little calico.

Before long, I was bringing food over for both the kittens and mama, who I named Quarantina for obvious reasons. The kittens were about six weeks old by the time we discovered them and they were ready to tackle more than mother’s milk. It took them all of two days to learn to come tumbling out from underneath Miss Mary’s house whenever they heard my voice. They grew fat and healthy between me and their mama, while the local Food Lion down the road celebrated the fact that its revenues had doubled due to historic sales of half-and-half.

Now, I live in the country on three acres surrounded by forest on three sides with a mostly deserted dead-end road in front. A handful of neighbors live on the other side of the road, including the delightful Miss Mary. Within the woods around me lurk every kind of East Coast creature you could think of, short of alligators (for now). I’ve seen deer, rabbits, racoons, possums as big as Roombas, moles, woodchucks, foxes, wolves, coyotes and more snakes than I’d care to remember. In other words, plenty of creatures that would consider kittens to be a tasty snack. This, of course, only fed my obsession as I decided that I would both feed and protect the new kittens.

One day, about two weeks after I first met them, mama cat decided to bring all four kittens over to my side of the road for efficiency’s sake and install them beneath a camellia bush planted at the base of my front stoop. I thought it was very thoughtful of Quarantina to spare me the trip across the road each day. I learned they had taken up permanent residence at my house when I walked out my front steps one morning, coffee in hand, glanced at a built-in planter by my front door—and four little kitten heads popped up suddenly to stare at me from among the zinnias. Oh, my. It may be the single cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Thus began our love affair.

Over the past year, mostly just because I could, I mounted a campaign to try to domesticate these feral kittens. Mamma cat, I knew, was a non-starter. She’s made it plain she would just as soon take my face off as let me pet her. But the kittens were different. They, at least, let me get close enough to offer them food and water. However, I was mostly unsuccessful in my attempts to turn them into house cats. The gray one disappeared (I’m telling myself it’s because someone adopted it) and the orange tabby clearly conned several households into adopting him because every time he reappears at my house, he’s as twice as big as the time before. Two of the kittens decided to stay at my house, where the fish are jumpin’ and the livin’ is easy. I named the black one Bobo and the little calico Mellie, short for Melancholia because she has a tiny orange tear under each eye. They are the only two of the many feral cats clogging my woods that have ever let me touch them. Bobo deigns to let me scratch the base of his tail or behind his ears and will occasionally roll over and let me scratch his stomach. Mellie turned out to be more trusting and would let me pet her for as long as I wanted. She even, eventually, learned to sit in my lap outdoors and accept my endless adoration. But neither one of them would let me pick them up, much less bundle them up in a carrier and take them to the vet for neutering. They would have none of it. Every time I tried, I came away with battle scars.

I am sure you can guess what happened next. A little over two months ago, the calico, which was the only female in the litter, became remarkably affectionate toward me. In fact, it got so I could barely walk in my yard for fear of tripping over Mellie. She insisted on trotting right beside me wherever I went and, often, on meandering between my legs. Then she began showing up at my front door and mewing to be let in. My Great Pyrenees, Willow, was tolerant of her behavior and, in fact, acted intimidated by this creature from the wild. By mid-February, Mellie had taken to lounging on my sofa and staring down my 137-pound dog. A stalemate was reached just in time for me to notice that Mellie was growing fatter and fatter each day—something I think we can all relate to during this pandemic. But, in her case, there was a reason for it. Yes, she was pregnant. Of course she was pregnant. I had failed to get her into a carrier and to the vet in time. Trust me, it’s now on my To Do list.

Fortunately, this was not my first cat rodeo. Many decades ago, my cat Emma delivered her first kitten on my stomach as I slept. Not an experience you forget. She went on to have four more and all were happily adopted out. I had Emma fixed soon after and she lived for 17 more happy years. But I guess that, somewhere along the way, she passed on her tips to the cat population of the world. I say this because, two nights ago, I got up very early to let my Pyr outside so she could patrol the perimeter of the yard and protect it from all the evil songbirds who inhabit it. As I let the dog out, Mellie slipped in the back door, without so much as a hello, and made a beeline for my bedroom. She literally ran down the hall and, by the time I caught up with her, I could not find her anywhere. I could hear her purring though, it was as loud as a motorboat, and finally figured out that she had ensconced herself in one of my closets. I had made nests in the bottom of each closet the week before just for this eventuality and felt a keen stab of satisfaction at my foresight.

Feeling there was nothing else I could do, I went back to bed—only to be awakened a few hours later when I felt a small paw slap my cheek and opened my eyes to find Mellie a few inches away staring wide-eyed at me. Without further adieu, she gave a single loud mew and I heard a soft "plop." I looked down to see a newborn kitten right there in the middle of my queen-sized bed.

Here we go again, I thought. Mi casa es su casa. And my bed as well, apparently.

Mellie proved to be an excellent mother. She delivered all of her kittens promptly, chewed off the umbilical cords, even ate the placentas the way we eat burritos—hey, I have photos if you’re really interested. All I really had to do was clear out of my bed, watch, and stroke her reassuringly every once in a while. It was an unexpected, messy, and transformative experience. Yes, we have been deep in a pandemic and yes, as humans, our lives have been on hold in so many ways. But cats don’t know pandemics from petunias and their lives are clearly marching onward. I find this somehow reassuring.

Since this momentous occasion, my favorite activity is checking on Mellie and her brood. I would not call the new kittens adorable, exactly. In fact, they still look like rats dipped in cooking oil. But I am sure the tiny cat in them will emerge within the week. I am also sure that these kittens will most definitely be domesticated and adopted out, where they will get their shots and be neutered because, hey, I’ve done the math: I will have 300 cats in two years if I don’t deal with this now. Most of all, in two months, when all the kittens are weaned, Mellie will go in for her first veterinarian’s visit, where she will get her shots and have all future chances of motherhood nipped in the bud, so to speak. Better late than never. After that, she can sleep in my bed all she wants.

For the time being: I still don’t have my bedroom back. Mellie won’t let me move the kittens. Trust me, she completely freaks out when I try. I know when I am beat. Like a spouse in the doghouse, I’ve moved into my spare bedroom while Mellie lounges right smack dab in the middle of my queen bed on 600-thread sheets and a luxury comforter, purring away in contentment (as well she should). And that’s okay. Whatever she needs. I’ve been in her paws, and I only had one offspring. I know that she’ll move when she damn well wants to.

In the meantime, I find myself deeply grateful that the pandemic gave me the time, and put me in the right space, to coax my once-wild calico down the path from feral to sharing my home. If I added together all those minutes I devoted each morning to coaxing her closer and closer, I’d probably end up with a month or more. But, hey, what better use of my time could there have been? Besides, she came along just as I was writing a feral cat into one of my books, so perhaps the Universe sent her?

I’m not a cat lady, I swear. In fact, I was once famous for not liking cats. But that, it appears, is completely irrelevant because it looks like cats like me. I’m going to take my wins where I can get them. Here’s to my household’s newest additions—and to the proof they bring that, pandemic or not, the beat does indeed go on.

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