Sundance: from feral kitten to adored pet

Sundance loved his new digs

On TNR Day, while I was busy signing in my 16 charges at the ASPCA Mobile Clinic in front of my house, I had left 2 traps set in my neighbor’s yard to try to trap the 5th & 6th kittens* I missed when I tried drop-trapping Tabby Mama’s litter the day before. By the time I checked, I had, in fact, trapped 3 cats! A kitten, hopefully one of the missing, was in one. The other trap had a kitten & an adult. Likely the kitten did not trip the trigger, and the adult cat followed it in. Was this the 6th kitten? Would an adult have followed a kitten that’s not hers? I’m guessing it’s the mama & that this kitten is not Tabby Mama’s. I threw covers over them to reduce their agitation.

To get from my neighbor’s yard to mine, without making the trek around the block, necessitates negotiating an overgrown patch of shrubbery on his side behind his garage, as well as climbing through the existing hole in my fence. Hauling the trap this way with the single kitten was manageable. But when I went back for the mama & baby, the mama went berserk in the cage, making the cage swing wildly as I tried to maneuver through brush & hole. I was sure she had trampled her kitten to death! Once in the garage, I peeked under the cover; the kitten looked terrified but ok, and the mama was hissing & spitting.

The mobile clinic had already booked all its spots, and in any case they had already closed the clinic door for the day. So the mama cat was going to be in my charge until I could arrange another spay date. I did not believe I had seen this mama cat before, though a lot of the mackerel tabbies look so similar that, especially when lighting & sighting conditions vary, one can never be sure. In any case, the mama exhibited extremely hostile behavior whenever anyone approached the cage w/ food or clean newspaper. While she clearly was taking care of the kitten, her banging around in the cage led me to be concerned for the kitten, so I separated them, placing the kitten’s cage next to her. Mama did not calm down, and now the kitten was inconsolable. (At least I could now be sure it was her kitten & not Tabby Mama’s 6th.) Relenting, I put them back together. I named the mama Medusa.

Medusa’s spay date 2 ½ weeks later necessitated their separation once more, and this time it was final, because after 3 days of recovery, I released her. The kitten, on the other hand, would now have a chance at a new life if he could be socialized. So, with the other kittens in custody, he would now stay with me til he got old enough to be neutered & get his shots. Medusa was also the last adult to go. So now I just had a garage full of 14 kittens….

At first, I visited the garage 3 times a day. The tiniest babies (separate story) had to be bottle fed, so they came first. Then the cages were usually serviced in some logical order: neediest kitties first. As Medusa’s kitten (having been the longest with Mama) was the healthiest, he was usually last, and the poor kitty would cry until I got to him. Given his lienage, I called him “wild thing” or “little outlaw” for a while, but then decided to call him Sundance.

We settled into a routine where I would briefly visit his cage in between feeding babies or cleaning cages, sometimes rolling bottle caps for him to bat around, sometimes just talking or singing (Wild thing, you make my heart sing!) to him to soothe him. When I eventually came to do his cage, I would try to get a little friendly, spending a few extra minutes, so gradually he allowed me to touch him.

As the tiny ones’ need for feeding frequency abated, and they could eat wet food, and as demands on my own scheduled increased (gotta make a living so I can feed all these critters), I cut garage time to twice a day. The kittens were growing at an alarming rate. I negotiated with the ASPCA for appointments, but it was clear they were outgrowing their cages. So, with the help of cages borrowed from friends, I created larger environments for most of the others. But several were still in traps, including Sundance. I started experimenting with 2 of the other kittens, letting them out during garage time into an old playpen that I lined with plastic with cardboard on top. Sundance was jealous and was vocal in letting me know, so when one of the 2 other kittens got sick, I let Sundance join the other one in the playpen. His joy was apparent, even though he let the other kitty beat him up all the time: she, Precious, was smaller but feisty and used her claws; Sundance, on the other hand, was a gentleman! If I did not have time to let them use the playpen, I heard about it!

Feral Kitten moves indoors

Sundance moves indoors with 11 other feral kittens.


As the were gradually all getting spayed and neutered (as I could get dates), they were also growing even bigger.  Plus I wanted a better environment for them, as they were all coming back flea free & with their shots.  So I prepared a small room in the basement with an airlock entry (to prevent escapees), and moved them there.  Friends helped me advertise for adopters, and one by one the kittens left.  The two that tugged at my heart the most, though, were Sundance and his playmate Precious, and it became apparent that I could not part with them, when I started telling adopters they were spoken for.


So Sundance, Precious, and a third kitten, Syracuse  (who steadfastly refused to come out to show himself to any adopters) all joined my household, where Pepper, my cat of many years, was taken aback at the newcomers.  Eventually, he and Sundance became buddies.


Sundance always carried himself regally, with his tail straight up with a little undulating curl at the end.  He seemed totally content with his new digs, thoroughly enjoyed his playmates, and was especially pleased that when he came to me for attention, he got all he wanted.  He turned into an affectionate lap cat who appreciated every little rub behind the ears.   The little wild thing that had cried so plaintively for weeks in the garage now rarely uttered a sound!


Recently, however, I noticed that he had gotten a lot more sedate.  In fact, I teased him that he was acting more like old man Pepper.  That did not seem odd to me.  I thought he was just growing up & calming down.  I was accustomed to having all the cats follow me from room to room as my tasks changed, but lately, Sundance was missing from time to time.  Then, last week, he started hiding in a closet a lot.   And on Thursday evening, he did not come running to the kitchen for the tuna treat I give them in the evening.  I even looked for him and waved it under his nose.  He looked sadly at me & turned away.  This was not good.


The next morning, when I did not see him out & about,  I found him in the bottom of the closet.  I reached for him to pull him out & give him a hug, and he cried out, so I stopped.  But this was now worrisome.  Was he in pain?  I called the vet, got an appointment around noon.  The news was shocking.  He had anemia so severe he would need a transfusion immediately.  I rushed him to the animal hospital, and the next 2 days were a blur of conversations with the doctors, 2 visits, and much searching on the web for answers about his condition.  The bottom line was:  his body was failing to produce both platelets and red blood cells. Sunday afternoon had seemed hopeful.  Sundance was alert enough to interact with me, and seemed to appreciate my holding, talking to, and rubbing his head for nearly an hour.  We tried a second transfusion.  The Doc told me his blood count was a little better, and we all hoped it would keep rising & hold.  I left them with an order not to resuscitate if he failed, and I got the call at 4:40 AM  Monday, that he had breathed his last.


Sundance was only about 1 ½ years old.  It is possible that he had some genetic defect.  It is hard to know what caused him to fail.  He seemed the healthiest of all the kittens in the garage, and I had recently also teased him because he was starting to get round.  There is a big hole in my household now, the other cats have been more subdued since he left, and sometimes they look at the door, or sniff some place that was his favorite spot.  Pepper goes to the apartment door and wails.  We are all sad.



* Tabby Mama & litter story to come.


Feral turned pet relaxes on couch

Sundance relaxes on the living room couch.




2 former ferals snuggle in their new home

Sundance (right) snuggles with Syracuse










3 former ferals enjoy their new home

Sundance (in foreground) with Syracuse and Precious

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Winter ’09-’10

The winter of ’09-’10, I worried constantly about all the cats. The water & food froze within an hour of putting it outside, and the cold was relentless.

Tiger catching a meal under a chair

I built my first shelter in November, as temperatures plummeted and I worried about Tabby Mama’s family. ………………Meantime the little shelter I had built initially went unused. Did I pick the wrong spot to place it? Did they have a better home? Finally one day, when the weather was really nasty, I was overjoyed to see Tabby Mama & her kittens emerging from the little shelter! ALL of them including Milky. It was their home for the rest of the winter.

Cuddles resting on the tiny front porch of the Little House.

Bootsy & Cuddles peek out of the Little House.

The first snow of the season was substantial…
…but here was Milky, leaping about, trying to catch the snowflakes!

Later on, after a big snowstorm left 18 inches, I created trenched trails by stomping along the cats’ main pathways. So deep were these trenches that often I could only see the top of a tail go by, except at certain more visible intersections.

One by one, the cats appeared, some wishing to eschew the paths tried going thru the snow, but quickly reversed back to the trenches when they sank into the fluff up to their ears. All day, they ventured out to see if in fact there was food, and they were not disappointed. Late in the day, I saw Tiger and Milky racing up & down the trenches chasing each other & occasionally rolling in the snow….

Bootsy, Cuddles, and Milky under the patio table - temporary feeding station.

Scruffy in the dogwood - a preferred route by some to avoid the snow

Milky was, in a way, the one who really brought home the fragility of life outside. Because after living and playing in my yard for nearly a year, he disappeared in March ‘10, and I have not seen him* since. He seemed to delight in his life out of doors. He could not have been more than 6 months old when I first saw him hanging out w/ Tabby Mama & her (then) 3 kitten brood. Maybe he was from an earlier litter. But clearly this was his first winter, and he totally enjoyed it!

These photos were taken withing weeks of my last sighting of Milky.

I am assuming he is a boy, as the young females are usually accepted in a colony, but young males, as they come of age, are chased from the colony by the existing dominant male(s).

Milky under the patio table.

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The Feral Community Reveals Itself

In October ’09, shortly after I had moved into the house, a small kitten appeared in my driveway, in front of the garage, sitting, but looking quite forlorn. It seemed ill, and I watched it for a while, hoping to see a mama come for it, or for it to take itself to a more sheltered place than the wide open cement slab. Nothing happened. Time passed. It lowered itself to the pavement. Flies buzzed around its head. I went outside, approaching it slowly, to guage its reaction. It was clearly very ill, appearing totally oblivious to my presence, and shivering badly. (Temperatures were probably in the 50’s)

Of course I could not leave it like that. I went to the basement, prepared a cardboard carton with an old towel, and took a plastic bag to cover my hands to pick it up. Perhaps a warm environment and sustenance that it did not have to compete for would put it on a track to recovery. The poor thing did not resist me at all, but found energy to meow loudly when I picked it up. I took it to a warm spot in the basement, put a small amount of food and water in the box, and hoped for the best.

Happening into the sunroom a short while later, I caught my breath at the sight in the yard: at least 3 cats on the roof of my garage, and 4 or 5 cats in the yard, were all motionless and focused on the very spot in the driveway where the kitten had been! How long they were there before I saw them, I don’t know, but after a few moments of my observation, they melted away.

The kitten never touched the water or food, and was dead by the next morning.

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Reluctant Cat Lady

Cats find some new furniture in the yard.

Hey, look at the new yard furniture! Trap? Where's a trap?

OK, so I was  going to go ahead with my TNR project:  Neighborhood Cats lined me up with trap rentals & even provided a drop trap.  They also assigned their monthly ASPCA feral clinic to my location & arranged for 16 spay/neuter spots on TNR day.  (Can you imagine trying to haul 16 feral cats in cages to some distant location???)  So now I had to plan the trapping.  Besides, what would the neighbors say?

Community outreach is an important component of TNR- it is necessary to educate people as to what is happening.  And in my case, I could not see doing adequate trapping without also trapping in the other yards adjacent to mine.  So it was clear that I would have to go out and meet my new neighbors.  (I had only been living in the house for 6 months at the time.)  I prepared a detailed explanatory letter, and went door-knocking, leaving the letter if there was no one home, and otherwise, introducing myself.

Going door to door introducing myself & my project to neighbors, I got varying responses:  “Gee, it’s about time somebody did something about this.” “I hate cats.”   “Can’t you just have them killed?” “What a good thing you’re doing.” “Leave the cats to nature!”   Also there were references to one “cat lady” who upset local homeowners by leaving food curbside and under cars, and to another “cat lady” who “has a lot of cats that she feeds” up the block.  It dawned on me that, with this project, I was going to be just another “cat lady” to them, and that the moniker is not a compliment.

I confess to having made disparaging remarks about   “cat ladies” in the past myself.  Where I used to live for 24 years, there was a homeowner who was widely known for “feeding the cats.”  Yet I never saw lots of cats, and no kittens at all (except for the very first year I was there, which is a story for another post).  So in retrospect, it must have been a managed colony.  But JQ Public only latches on to “feeding the cats,” which many seem to assume is a part of the problem, not part of the solution.  There was little awareness of TNR among the neighbors I spoke to.

The “cat lady” up the block turned out to be a married couple who were actively engaged in managing a spayed/neutered colony. Their years of experience and willingness to lend me traps and cages were a godsend for my project. Additionally, they just happened to have some KMR on hand when the underage kittens were found (more on this eventually).  My heroes!   Needless to say we became instant friends.

The “cat lady” that was feeding cats at curbs & under cars failed to respond to several notices I posted to get her attention & possible cooperation on the project.  I was hoping to rechannel her willingness to help the cats by providing her with a more acceptable (to the neighborhood) locale for her to bring her donated food (my yard): no such luck.

Overall, the support I got from the neighborhood was excellent:  at least 6 people gave me permission to trap in their yards; one neighbor with some prior experience found and caught 3 kittens for me;  one ran around & collected lots of newspaper (to line all those cages), and many phoned me with updates of cat activity around their homes, helping me track down other kittens.  Even people who did not like cats were happy to support a project that might control or diminish the population in the area.

So, Thank you,  Neighbors!!!    –from the newest “Cat Lady…..”

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What is Trap-Neuter-Return?

From Neighborhood Cats:
Communities throughout New York City now face a population crisis of homeless cats, many of them feral and too wild to be placed in homes. They reproduce rapidly and, as their numbers grow, so does the noise, odor and other problems.

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) involves trapping all the cats in a colony, getting them neutered, adopting out the kittens and friendly cats, then returning the wild adults to their territory and providing them with food and shelter. TNR eliminates or significantly reduces the noise from fighting, odor from spraying and more litters of kittens.

This progressive approach is fast becoming the preferred method of street cat population control throughout New York City and the nation. Numerous city agencies have endorsed TNR and its use grows every day. Free and low cost spay/neuter services and training is available.

For more info:

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Gardening helpers

Rush hour at the feeding station. Tabby Mama is the one with the dark coloring.

Approaching the second anniversary of the purchase of my house, I am recalling what an overgrown, weedy, disaster the back yard was.  First thing, I brought in a professional to remove the dead cherry tree and a few damaged bushes, and drastically prune back everything else.  Amazingly, a shapely pear tree emerged, as well as a yard that looked twice the original size.  He left me the chunks of cherry wood (I had thoughts about  restoring the house’s fireplace), which came in very handy, as you’ll see.

Septemper 2009 was  hours & hours of weeding (in between moving) -nearly everything was weeds save for violet ground cover, which had gotten very happy in some locations.  A brick border next to the patio emerged, the flagstone patio itself looked fairly usable, and even the grapevine next to the driveway (which I had butchered myself) actually looked like a grapevine again.  Around this time is when I became aware of the cats.  One always seemed to be running from the yard when I went out there, or sometimes 2.  And the yard smelled like a kitty litter box!

I started feeding them soon after that (read about Tiger, who started it all, below), and just before the winter, I built a small shelter out of styrofoam, which was quickly appropriated by Tabby Mama, Milky, and TM’s 3 kittens.  Once snow started falling, leaving the food under the patio table no longer sufficed, so I cobbled together 2 big sheets of styrofoam and chunks of cherry wood to create a feeding station next to the garage.  The cats adapted quickly to the new feeding arrangement.  When the snow was deep, I would stomp a path for the cats, which I now believed to number around 12 or so, and I would hardly be finished stomping when they started to appear to see if I brought food.

First signs of spring came at last.  Daffodils and tulips popped up in a few unexpected places.  And one morning, from my sun room, I could see a mama &  a bunch of kittens all scrunched up together on top of the feeding station!  Apparently AuntieMama had decided to park her brood of 5  there so she could guarantee them food!  It was interesting to watch the other adult cats defer to the mama & babies.

AuntyMama with Lefty, Sprite, and Spring

AuntyMama with Lefty, Sprite, and Spring

Well, hardly had spring arrived, and those gardening chores kicked in.   So I would be in the yard frequently, always trying to respect the comings & goings of the furry 4-paws.  Gradually, the cats became less fearful of me.  The kittens, in particular, did not seem as cautious around me as the adults.  In no time at all, I had little helpers.  Lefty (so named for the slight bit of extra white to the left side of his mouth) and Spring were the bravest, sometimes coming to within a foot or two of where I was, though usually hiding behind a planter or  under some foilage.  Kitty toys, borrowed from my indoor kitty, met with momentary playfuless, but their real interest was watching what I was doing.

It was clear that by the time I was ready to do TrapNeuterReturn, these kittens would be too old to socialize, so I just assumed that once they were all spayed or neutered, that they would continue to live in the yard.  Of course I had no understanding of the kitty politics that would interfere with that assumption (subject for  a future post).  However, to this day, Lefty and Spring continue to visit me when I garden.

Feeding Station
Lefty (r) with his sister Sprite

Lefty with his sister Sprite

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Some Cats with Names

Huxley's name was originally Hunchback, cause his back was injured when I first saw him. Later, when he recovered, that name no longer fit.

Big Mac

For some reason, I thought Big Mac was a boy, but she proved me wrong.


Bright Eyes

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Naming the Cats

AuntyMama with 3 of her 5 kittens: Spring, Sprite, and Lefty

Of course at first I had no intention of naming the cats.  That would, I rightly supposed, just take me on a path to feel more attached to the cats.  And certainly I had no intention to be the next “cat lady.”  But I needed to get an idea of how many cats there really were.

So I started to have breakfast in the sun room to watch cats.  Soon I could identify 5 of them; no, 7.  What! Twelve!  When I got to 20 I stopped counting, mainly cause so many looked similar that in the different day light/ twilight/ eve-artificial light I could not tell if I was counting some twice or not at all…  But it was clear there were a lot.   And there were kittens.  I had to do something before I was overrun…

Well, I didn’t want to catch & kill cats – I love animals & have a housecat that I adore, so I couldn’t be killing any cats.  What if, I thought, I could catch them, get them fixed & then let them just live out their lives?  I went on line for more info to figure out if this was possible, and, to my pleasant surprise, discovered that all the hard work had already been done for me:  Trap, Neuter, Return was an existing program in cities all over the nation, with some local groups ready to assist with knowledge, traps to borrow, and  access to an ASPCA feral cat clinic.  And they wanted names for the cats.

So began my efforts to identify & name the cats.  Some had distinctive markings, so got named for their markings (Bright Eyes: had 2 very bright white spots beneath her eyes; Midnight:  all black;   Tabby Mama: the only one with clear all-over classic tabby markings and she had kits).  But there were issues even with some of these (I thought there was only ONE all black cat until BOTH of them were in the yard at the same time), and a lot of the cats were tiger tabbies, some with white markings, that were hard to tell apart.  As you will see, I did, and still try to do, my best to differentiate the cats, but it’s tough!

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MilkyWay: a feral colony

Milky, Cuddles, and Bootsy

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Dedication to Milky

Milky, where have you gone?

This blog is dedicated to a stray black tuxedo kitten that I named Got Milk for the little dribble of white on the right of his chin. After being one of the cats that convinced me to get involved with TrapNeuterReturn, Milky, as I came to call this kitty, disappeared in March 2010. In spite of my ongoing involvement with the colony, I have not seen Milky since. This reminds me daily of the fragile existence of these feral animals, who often struggle against great odds to survive in communities and environments that are hostile to them. As a real estate professional for over 25 years, I have personally witnessed the frequent abandonment of pets when humans move on. These abandoned pets, if they survive, produce more animals that must learn to survive in the wild, creating a population that would not be there if not for the thoughtless cruelty of humans. So every day I think of Milky and what may have happened to a young cat fending for itself in the streets of Brooklyn.

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