Many of the cats at the Sanctuary have come into our care as ferals.
Some of them will remain feral in behaviour all their lives. Many of the cats in Pen 8 are examples of this – as you enter the pen, they take a horror-filled look at the intruder, and make a beeline for the closest cover. It is clear in their eyes that they want nothing to do with humans, and when, in areas like pen 4 that cover may be in a free-standing kennel or in the bushes, they present a significant challenge for the med staff who need to check on them.
In this pen, only OJ and Pebble are comfortable being touched (the links take you back to their early days, but a little searching by name will yield updates); both enjoy petting, but you can see the wariness in their body language. Pebble’s sister Sandy is almost identical but sends out a very clear “don’t touch me!” vibe.
These cats, together with many though not all) of the ones in Pen 3, and a good number of those from other open pens, were born wild, missed being socialized at the optimal time, and have it well ingrained that humans are The Enemy – we may be a source of tasty food, and of occasional touch, but we are not really to be trusted. We occasionally worry when an old feral suddenly becomes friendly and handleable; it’s often a sign of a kitty dementia, as the cat forgets that it should be scared, and it may be an indicator that it’s coming to the end of its life.
Common cat-handling wisdom has it that a kitten should be socialized by the age of 3-4 months, or it won’t socialize at all. In fact, those of us who have had semi-ferals in our homes know that they can become very handleable to their own people, though they may always be wary of strangers in their space. At the Sanctuary we have tried to keep some of the younger ferals together around the back deck of the Double-Wide, and the Kitty Comforters have worked with them as much as possible.
Gradually we see behaviours changing: hissy Luke is now allowing us to touch him; Bubbles is enjoying interactive play; shy Ruff is coming out of his hiding place; beautiful Scooter, who hovered just out of reach on the cage-tops, smacking at us when we coaxed her closer, is now coming down to an accessible shelf and enjoying being petted.
In pen 3 former feral Napoleon has decided that humans are worth cultivating – both regular volunteers and Kitty Comforters have charmed him to the point where he will approach, asking for petting. His buddies at the back of the pen are not ready for much contact yet, but Napoleon is happy with human company.
My own former-feral triumph has been with Skittles, formerly of Pen 6. That pen has now been vacated in preparation for another group of ferals coming in, and Skittles and his friends have the run of the back pens. Most of them are now based in Pen 2, where there are other semi-ferals, and lots of places to hide. But Skittles, who was always the bravest and most social of them, has decided that he likes to be around people. Chicken tidbits help – he’s always been a chick-oholic. But he recently decided that since I was a source of Good Things, he might try something new, and he hauled himself up on my lap.
This was not just cupboard love – he wanted petting and attention, not just feeding. It’s a little painful on the legs – he’s a big solid boy and doesn’t jump much, so lap-climbing is mountaineering! But it’s happened often enough now that we can really feel Skittles has earned the former-feral label. And he is now transferring that trust to other people.
All these cats may some day become very used to human touch, but they will always remain cats that we will hesitate to adopt out because of their background, and because new experiences will likely cause them to revert to the fear-filled wild creatures that originally came into our care.