Catching cats on a hot spring day

Published in the Tryon Daily Bulletin, April 27, 2018
I’d been feeding a stray cat for months when I contacted the Animal Defense League of Arizona to get on the waiting list to trap, neuter and release (TNR) my little wild cat. By the time my turn came along (there’s about a two-month wait here), she was showing up daily, right on time for dinner.
I called her Ratty Cat because when she first appeared she was in rough shape, her long black fur in tatters. Regular meals revealed a beautiful cat, and while she learned to tolerate me, she remained aloof, growling and hissing if I came too close, even with a treat in my hand. I once held my hand out to her carefully; she sniffed it and whacked it, leaving me with a scratch to remind me she’s feral.
I felt confident I could trap her on a Tuesday to get her to her spay appointment on Wednesday morning. Monday, she had kittens.
I called my contact at the Animal Defense League and asked, “Now what?” Even though it was April, the temperatures in Phoenix were already in the 90s, and it even hit 100 that week. I was told the newborns don’t usually make it when it’s over 90, so I went to work.
Paul helped me remove a board from our backyard fence where tiny voices cried out. Ratty Cat came flying out of her nest in the bushes behind the fence, leaving three black kittens behind. As instructed, I placed the kittens in the trap and waited to catch Ratty.
When she didn’t show up, we took a crash course (thank you, Google) in bottle-feeding, and continued to leave the trap in place. At four a.m., I caught the wrong cat, a beat-up black-and-white cat (rattier than Ratty at her worst), but had to release it with a hope to catch it again someday after my kitten crisis had passed.
By four p.m. the following day, I was starting to panic, imagining myself bottle-feeding around the clock for the next six weeks. When the trap door fell, I was never happier to see that mean little face. I put Ratty’s trap in our guest bathroom right away, carefully lifting the trap door just enough to put her kittens in with her.
The following morning I lined up outside the vet clinic with the other cat catchers. One woman had three traps; another man only had one because his other one had caught a raccoon. “I once caught a chicken,” the veteran cat catcher lady said. They were all impressed with my mother and three bonus kittens.
I left a travel crate with the clinic, and was relieved to find Ratty and her babies safely inside when I picked them up that afternoon.
Thanks to an internet full of people experienced in dealing with ferals and their kittens, I had Ratty’s new temporary home ready for her in my office, where our cat-chasing dogs can’t bother her. We set the travel crate with mother and babies inside a larger wire crate with a litter box, food and water. When changing Ratty’s food, water and litter, we turn into puppeteers, opening and closing the travel crate door with string and a yard stick so she can’t fulfill her promise to kill us.
It’s been ten days, and I still get growls, hisses and spits every time I freshen her crate, but there was one glorious morning I got a quiet purr before she was back to her usual threats that afternoon.
I know things could still go wrong as kitten lives are fragile, but so far, they seem fine. Now I’m looking down the road, hoping to find homes for the kittens (who will be spayed and neutered, of course) and to be able to grant Ratty’s wish and free her back to her world but with a kitten-less future. Then she and I can get back to our regular routine where I feed her and she lets me admire her beauty as long as I don’t get too close.
So, who needs a kitten?