Can a person ever have too many cats? That is the question.
About a year after moving into my home on Church Street in Rockport, Texas, the family next door moved out (was it something I said?). What would become the infamous “pink house on Church Street,” it was first put up for sale by owner. Then eventually, the “for sale” signs just disappeared, and the house sat empty for the next 9 to 10 years and slowly deteriorated. Someone from the family came and mowed the yard about once a month for a while, then they stopped doing that altogether, probably when they realized the City was slow to exact any consequences for neglecting the property. Weeds got waist-high, shutters started to fall off, paint peeled, mold started to grow up the walls, and the porches and deck started to rot. A small tree grew up in the middle of the back deck.
Then the animals moved in: raccoons, possums, rats, and feral cats. There were a couple of feral mother cats who had multiple litters of kittens underneath this house, and the neighborhood was getting overrun with wild cats. Making matters worse, we didn’t get the months-long, hard freezes in Texas like they do up north, so fleas were with us year round. Virtually all of these wild animals carry fleas, and I now had a huge infestation problem on my hands.
After a few years of tolerating this next door to me, I started a vigorous letter-writing campaign, complete with photos, to the City of Rockport, demanding that they do something about this property. Eventually the City took over mowing the yard (not often enough for me) and ended up putting several liens on the property. But they were not going to do anything about the cat situation.
I noticed a lady stopping by each day in front of this pink house, feeding these feral cats. I went out and talked to her one day, and saw what she was feeding them: not cat food, but table scraps! Leftover Kentucky Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, leftover desserts, etc. I couldn’t believe it. She said her name was Ida, and that she lived a few blocks over. I quickly saw the problem this whole situation was causing: not only was this a horrible thing to be feeding any animal, but the minute she left, the sea gulls showed up and practically attacked the mama cats and her kittens to get at the food. If you have never lived by the coast, you might not know that sea gulls are as bad as pigeons. They have gotten used to tourists feeding them junk food such as chips and Cheetos and crackers and bread, and they swarm like flies until it is gone. This food is the worst thing possible for them, but they eat whatever is thrown at them. So they were already waiting for this lady each day, and I had to put a stop to it.
It’s also an irresponsible thing to do—to stop and feed random animals in someone else’s neighborhood with no thought about the ramifications of what you are doing. To have no plans to spay or neuter these colonies just perpetuates the cycle of rampant, unchecked reproduction that someone else has to live with, but not you. It made me angry. Ida was the second person I had caught feeding these cats, thinking they were doing the humane thing by making sure they weren’t starving…but when they weren’t willing to be part of the whole solution, it really didn’t solve anything.
I gently told her one day, “Listen, Ida. You don’t need to make a special trip here anymore. I live right here next door. I have my own cats, so I have cat food. I’ll come over here twice a day and feed these kitties and make sure they have water. I promise. Let me do this, I love cats.” Once I convinced her to let me take over, I went to work.
I had read a little on the Internet about “TNR” programs but had never been involved in one before. TNR stands for “trap and release,” which means to trap a stray or feral cat, spay or neuter them, keep them in a clean and sheltered area until they have healed from their surgery, and then release them back into the colony. It recognizes the value of cats in the larger community because of the pest control that they provide (mice and rat control), so allows them to live wild if they cannot be adopted. They are also entered into a managed care program where they receive annual shots and checkups. The youngest kittens can often be adopted if they are captured when they are around 8 to 10 weeks old—young enough to still be domesticated. I didn’t take time to find out whether the Rockport Humane Society or other local shelters had a program like this operating or not. I just knew I had to act quickly to try to get this situation under control or my home was going to be overrun. You see, I had no actual neighbors. My part of town, which was just a few blocks from downtown, was zoned as mixed business/residential. My house was sandwiched between two vacant houses on my side of the street. Across the street was a church and a daycare, and behind me was a dental office—all people who went home at 6:00 pm. There really was no one else. If I didn’t step up, no one else would.
I bought a Hav-A-Hart trap from our local feed store that traps small animals without injuring them. Then I started feeding the cats twice a day, first in the area where they were used to being fed (in front of the pink house), so they got accustomed to me and my voice. I would pick up the dishes as soon as they were done so that the sea gulls would have no reason to keep coming back. Then I gradually moved the mealtimes toward my house and carport, further eliminating the sea gulls from the equation. I also wanted to get the mama cat and kittens as comfortable with me, my smells, my cats, and my dogs, as possible. Of course for the first few weeks, they were terrified of me and skittered off like frightened mice every time they saw me coming. If mom ran, they ran. They would only come out to eat the food after I left the area—or at least got far enough away that I wasn’t perceived as a threat anymore. But eventually, they accepted that I was the one bringing the food and I wasn’t going to hurt them. I always talked softly to them while they ate so they got used to my voice. With time, I was able to feed them on my back porch, with me sitting down on a lawn chair a few feet away. That felt like quite an accomplishment!
I found a nonprofit organization on the outskirts of Corpus Christi, Texas, called People Assisting Animal Control (PAAC) that provided low-cost spay and neuter services for any animal. For “community” cats, which is what these cats qualified as (those that were to be released back into the colony), they would spay or neuter the cat, give a rabies vaccination, and clip the ear (an “ear tip,” which marks them as being altered should they ever be picked up by Animal Control), all for the amazingly low price of $25! As I write this in 2021, this remains their price today. Anyone who has ever paid for veterinarian services in a big city can attest to what an incredible bargain this is. And it was a God-send for me, as I was about to embark upon a quite expensive venture. If you wanted to have your regular domesticated cat spayed or neutered there, and get their annual shots at the same time, it was still much cheaper than a normal vet, something like $65, which included the microchipping as well.
It was time to set up the trap for the first time. I chose an evening mealtime, so all the kitties had gathered at my back porch. I put a bowl of food way in the back of the trap and set the regular food and water bowls nearby. The first litter had a mix of black and white kittens (mama was black and white), a gorgeous Siamese with blue eyes, and a gray tabby. There were two kittens in particular that I was enamored with: that Siamese, which was so beautiful I’d been watching it through my binoculars, and one of the black and whites, which had a very pretty face and a pretty spotted pattern on it. (Ida had named this cat Wilma, so that’s what I called her too.) Well as all the kittens dived toward the food dishes, there was Wilma, right by my feet, right within reach….by some kind of crazy impulse, I reached down and scooped her up, tossed her into the trap, and tripped the trap door shut! And the amazing thing was, she let me do it! She just calmly turned around to the food bowl inside the trap and started eating. No wild-animal freak-out that she was inside a trap; no reaction whatsoever.
Whew! Well, that was easy. I quickly whisked her into the house and into my spare bathroom where I was going to house the jailbirds until I brought them to the clinic. The next morning I had an appointment to take her to PAAC to get her spayed, and had to be there at 7:00 a.m. I had a bed made up for her, a litter box, food and water, and she spent the night in my bathroom. The next day’s appointment was uneventful and Wilma adapted quickly to the home environment while she healed from her surgery. She clearly had an “adoptable” temperament.
I think this first one went so easily that it gave me a false sense of the task ahead of me. A few weeks later when I set up the trap again, this time the Siamese (Siam) walked into it. The experience couldn’t have been more different. She completely freaked out when the trap door slammed shut (of course, it scares the crap out of them) and she started howling and shrieking and circling inside the trap like a…well, like a wild animal. She was furious and wouldn’t calm down. I was half afraid to even pick up the trap and bring it into the house. Finally I set the trap down in the bathroom, opened the door, and left the room, allowing her to leave it when she was ready.
About an hour later I peeked back in there and she was calmly lying on the cat bed, so that was progress. I was able to get her into the carrier the next morning for the appointment without incident, but the whole healing process for the next 7 days did not go well. She was pissed off at being confined in that room and hissed at me every time I came near or tried to pet her. I was SO disappointed, as I had such high hopes for this beautiful cat. I really wanted to adopt this one myself, but I could see that her personality was just not amenable to it. At the end of the 7-day healing period, I gladly released her to my back yard and set her free. Once she was free, she decided she liked me after all and started following me all around while I was gardening, like some kind of stalker. One day she wandered into my open front door and laid down in the middle of the living room rug, as if claiming her space. When I didn’t object, we became official BFFs.
For the next year or so, this process played itself out, over and over again. Foxy: she hated me from the get-go, and somehow escaped my bathroom the morning of the appointment. I had to chase her all through the house and she bloodied me from head to toe with her claws and sharp little kitty teeth. I finally put on oven mitts to protect myself and ended up cornering her in my kitchen, and had to pick her up by her tail to get her into the carrier. I was determined we were not going to miss that appointment. Wow, was she mad. After releasing Foxy into the neighborhood a week or so later, I found that she and Siam were a strongly bonded pair, always together. If Siam wasn’t going anywhere, neither was she. They both decided they really liked this twice-a-day feeding thing and it was a great reason to stick around. Foxy eventually made her peace with me, and she now falls to sleep on my chest every night.
Grayson, a male gray tabby, was the wildest, most hysterical of the ferals I trapped. After capturing him and safely shutting him inside my tiny 4- by 8-ft bathroom, where there was no other furniture besides an installed toilet and sink, I let him calm down for a while by himself. An hour or so later, I peeked inside the room to check on him, and couldn’t see him anywhere. I went fully inside the room and closed the door. Where the heck was he? I literally couldn’t find him anywhere! There was no possible place he could have gone; I was baffled. All of a sudden, I see him: he’s “hiding”—he managed to somehow wrap himself around the exposed piping underneath the pedestal sink! In fact he had done such a good job that now he was stuck and couldn’t get himself out; I had to remove some of the PVC wrapping underneath there to free him up. Man, that was one determined cat. After I got him free, I stuffed the open areas around the piping as tightly as I could with towels and wash cloths so he couldn’t hurt himself again. But it just got worse: overnight, he decided he was going to claw his way out through the window in that room. In the morning I found that the wood muntins separating the four glass “lights” or panels in the window were in shreds on the floor! I was beside myself—I had recently restored and repainted all the wood around that window, and now it was ruined. Luckily, this kitten only needed neutering and that healing process was much quicker, so I was able to release him back outside within a day or two after his surgery. My stress level couldn’t take much more of that one.
Fred and Leila: from litter #2 came these two beauties, and I knew I was sunk. Two long-haired kittens, Fred was black and white and Leila was tortoise shell, both gorgeous and both joined at the hip. I knew that if they could be adopted out they needed to stay together because they were so strongly bonded. Fred was larger, male and more confident; Leila was female, extremely shy and very dependent on Fred. She would actually hide behind him! They slept curled up together, groomed each other, and played together. But try as I might, I could not place them anywhere; Rockport households seemed overrun with cats, the shelters were full, and all the cat-lovers I knew in Houston were at capacity as well. So they ended up staying with me. It was fine with me; I had room in my heart for these two. Fred became a wonderful companion, but Leila, even after 3 years of living in my house, would not let me near her. It still amazes me how cats from the same litter can have such drastically different personalities, and even when raised from the time they were kittens in the same household, can turn out so differently.
Two surprising things I discovered: my Chihuahua Rhoda absolutely LOVED the little kittens and couldn’t wait to go into the bathroom to visit them (see video below). She was very sweet and gentle with them. Of course, she was already used to cats because we had cats in our household. Also, as Fred got older and the third litter of kittens came in, I discovered that neutered male cats can behave very lovingly toward kittens who have lost their mother. Please see the second video to watch Fred “mother” the little kitten Maya. (Fred and Maya have the same mama cat, but are a litter apart.)
When I learned that the Houston Humane Society would take entire litters at once without being spayed or neutered, that relieved me of a big expense and a lot of time. However, they had to be perfectly healthy. Another litter, one of almost entirely black kittens, had a lot of eye infections that I had to get cleared up before I could make the 3-hour drive to Houston. So, lots of daily applications of eye goop for about a week before we could all pile in the car for a road trip.
Over 18 months about a dozen kittens got delivered to the Houston Humane Society and the Austin Humane Society, as the local Rockport and Corpus Christi shelters were always full. All in all, I spayed, neutered, released, or surrendered to humane societies approximately 20 cats and kittens to alleviate the feral cat problem in my neighborhood.
Postscript: About 2 years before I moved from Rockport in 2018, the pink house next to me was finally sold to a local house flipper who completed gutted it and renovated it. He rented it out for a year, then sold it to someone who decided to open a B&B there. But for 8 of the 10 years I lived next to that house, it was a constant eyesore not only for me, but right in the middle of Rockport’s historic district.