Feral cats. Most people consider them to be pests. Many supposed experts say an adult feral cannot be tamed.
Our first house was an older home. It had been sitting vacant for well over a year and was close to being condemned when we bought it. The lot was huge, especially for being in the city. During its vacancy the backyard had become completely over grown. There were thistles taller than I was growing there. There was a patch of black berry bushes that had completely taken over the back half of the lot. That wasn’t the only thing to have outgrown the yard. A small colony of feral cats had made the empty property their home.
Feral cats and humans do not tend to get along. Ferals will run at the sight of a human being and if cornered will attack. It is no wonder since usually the humans a feral will have come in contact with have been hostile. Most will chase them away; some humans will go so far as to try to kill them.
I wasn’t sure what to do with our colony of ferals. In the beginning, I didn’t do anything. That first summer I watched them from my kitchen window, of course if they saw me, they ran. If I tried to get close they’d hiss, raise the hair on their backs and “threaten” me. That first winter one of them died. I found one of the black and white spotted ferals dead on the sidewalk. Not long after that I noticed one of them was limping. It soon disappeared. But the deaths didn’t stop the seemingly endless amount of kittens from being born. I did research and while most of the information that I found was negative, to my surprised I found a non-profit group that sponsored a program called Trap, Neuter and Release. They would lend traps and participating vets would spay/neuter the cats for little to no cost. So we began the long process of “fixing” our ferals. The same organization had online instructions for building winter “shelters” for ferals. Kevin thought he could improve on their plans and we proceeded to give our ferals a better “home” in our shed. We put a cat door in our shed and along with our tools and the normal things you’d find in a shed, we placed several cat houses. I also began placing food and water near the houses. It wasn’t long before the colony, or the cat family that we named the Johnsons, found their new digs. The deaths stopped and as we trapped and neutered/spayed all of them, so did the kittens.
In time they figured out that I was the “food lady.” When they saw me coming they didn’t completely run away. They’d definitely bolt, but they stayed within viewing distance. They watched from across the yard as I filled their bowls. They waited until I was inside and they would cautiously return to fill their bellies. Over the months the distances they ran became less and less. Some of them were braver than others. In time some of them would even stay inside the shed- high on a shelf, hissing the whole time, but they stayed. They even began to learn my routine. They knew when it was feeding time and would actually wait by my back door- some of them further away than others. But some of them would follow on my heels as I walked across our yard to the shed with food in hand.
I was amazed at how close some of them were getting to me. Of course they hissed and spit, but a few of them actually started to rub on my legs as I poured the food. So I decided to take things to the next level. It was time to tame the Johnsons.
I began my courtship by presenting them with canned cat food. It was normally dry food that they ate. Once they got a taste of the canned food that was it- they were hooked:-) I kept feeding them their regular meals of dry food. I just added the canned food “treats” to their diet. So I changed the rules. They could only have the canned food if I was allowed to stay. The rules were simple. I didn’t actually do anything. I just put out the food stepped back to give them some space and sat down. The brave ones snatched bites here and there before running off. When I was ready to go back to my house, the canned food went with me. Over time, even the most nervous would eat the canned food. Then I started feeding them outside of the shed. Every few days I moved the feeding dishes with the canned food closer and closer to the house. By the end of that summer I could sit on the bottom step of my back porch with all of the Johnsons surrounding my feet, happily eating their canned food dessert. Then it was time to take it up a notch again- eating bits of canned food off of a fork that I was holding. Bit by bit they began to trust me more and more. Of course there was still the occasional hissing. Then came the big move- petting them. Of course in the beginning when I reached out my hand some would run but the more aggressive ones would attack it. It wasn’t long before I was covered in scratches. But I learned fast that as long as I wasn’t aggressive things calmed down much quicker. Our most aggressive Johnson was a cat named Sam. He bloodied me more than a few times. I remember one time he actually had his teeth locked onto me, he wasn’t pulling-no blood was shed. It was a test. I held still and spoke calmly. He let go. He ate the canned food from my hand that day. Soon Sam let me pet him- only while he was eating the canned food. He still hissed a lot. But in time the scratching stopped. During Sam’s taming process one of our more nervous Johnsons, a big black cat named Jack decided I wasn’t bad after all. Seemingly out of nowhere he started rubbing on me. He passed up Sam in his taming schedule. It wasn’t long before Jack let me pet him even without canned food. Another of our more skittish Johnsons suddenly got braver as well. Boyd took to crying at our backdoor. One day we opened the back door and Boyd waltzed on inside. He’s been inside ever since. In fact, he now sleeps on my face most of the night and especially likes having his armpits scratched. Of all of the Johnsons, Sam began the taming process first but was one of the last to be fully tamed. Sam just had a hard time fully trusting a human. Today Sam lets me kiss his forehead. Most of the other Johnsons have found homes with our family and friends. Several of them have found a home in our house. The Key? Feral cats have learned to be afraid of humans. Ferals will run or even attack a human if it feels threatened. Even aggressive ferals can be fully tamed. Trust is the answer. Trust is earned by the human, not the other way around. No matter how aggressive a feral responds to your presence you never respond with matched aggression. You always respond with patience, regulation and kindness- always. You’ll be bloodied in the process, but you’ll have lot’s of purrs and foreheads to kiss when it is over.
This post isn’t really about cats. The story about our feral cat colony, the Johnsons, is 100% true. But a lesson on taming cats isn’t what this post is about…. We adopted a boy with severe attachment disorder and chronic trauma disorder. He was extremely violent. His behaviors were incredibly disturbing. He hurt our family. One day I looked at him and thought of our feral cat, Sam. My son had done something very upsetting…something very wrong. That day I woke up to reality, to MY errors in behavior. I didn’t punish my son. I hugged him. Believe me, in the beginning I got bloodied and screamed at, as did other members of our family. But things did change and the real change in my son happened when *I* changed *my* behavior.
The Key? Children with attachment disorder and chronic trauma disorder have learned to be afraid of all people. These children will run or even attack a person if he/she feels threatened or afraid. Even aggressive children can be fully healed. Trust is the answer. Trust is earned by the parent, NOT the other way around. No matter how aggressive a child is, you never respond with matched aggression. You always respond with patience, regulation and kindness- always. The process will be painful, but you’ll have lot’s of hugs and cheeks to kiss when it is over.