Imagine that you are six to eight inches tall, live in the wild, and have never seen humans, the inside of a house, or modern appliances such as vacuum cleaners or blow dryers. Now imagine that you are skilled in martial arts, possessing the ability to utilize the weaponry at your disposal. Suddenly you find yourself trapped in a barred enclosure you cant escape from and removed from the community you live in, the area you are familiar with, and the other members of your species you know and love. In fear, you strike out at everything that moves, drawing blood and cries from those who have captured you. Your fate hangs in the balance.
I have eight of these beings in my house. They are feral (wild) kittens, born into a colony of cats in the Seattle area. Their parents are wild descendants of discarded pets left to fend for themselves. The first six weeks of a kittens life are crucial for imprinting; a kitten that is not handled by a human during that time period will consider a human a threat and react accordingly. After six weeks, the ability to reclaim them as potential household pets begins a rapid downward spiral. These kittens were approximately eight weeks old. My job was to determine if they could become good household companions, and if not they would be spayed/neutered and released to the same location they had been taken from where their lives would probably be brief.
I had trepidation about so huge a responsibility, but these kittens came my way as a result of my plea to the universe that I really would like some kitten energy in my house, even though I could not adopt any more myself. At a fundraiser for animals that Cerne (my dog, pictured with me above) and I participated in, I found myself in conversation with a member of a local society that devotes its energy to feeding, spaying/neutering, and otherwise assisting the feral cats that populate this world.
They were desperate to find a foster person to take two of 16 kittens they had just trapped. These particular two had bitten and scratched both people that had handled them and were considered dangerous and possibly intractable. Having been bitten once before by a feral kitten (I was not informed that the kitten in question was not domesticated and picked it up casually, at which point it went from cute and fuzzy to a murderous buzz saw that bit my finger to the bone), I said okay with some trepidation, truly wondering if I knew what I was doing.
When they arrived, I peered into the carrier and saw two very frightened faces looking at me, and my heart went out to them. I did a slow blink (this is cat language that says "I am relaxed, and mean no harm"), and was able to remove them from the carrier with no gloves or fuss. In one days time you would have had a hard time distinguishing them from non-feral kittens as long as they were with me. The person who had brought them was amazed, and wondered what I had done to them. I wondered what I had done, too. What did I do differently than others?
Over the next few weeks, I had more opportunities to find out: first came four more from the same colony, and then another two, for a total of eight. It is tricky socializing that many; the more you have, the more they will bond with their cage mates, rather than with humans. Over a period of time, they acquired designations to tell them apart in conversation, #1 and #2 (first arrivals and in command of the rest of the lot), Mr. Brown (they are all tabby marked), Sassy, Stripey, Diamond, Owlet (his face looks just like a barn owl's), and finally, Little Miss Hiss. After four weeks in my household, they are gorgeous, loving, and I believe will make someone a good companion.
I have some grasp now of what I do differently, and am seriously thinking of teaching a seminar on "How to be a Better Friend to Your Cat." As a result of asking anyone I could find to come to my house so that the kittens could see people other than Rob and myself, I discovered to my amazement that most humans pay no attention to cues or feedback from the other being they are focusing their attention on.
In other words, there is no interaction, or effective communication. Humans apparently either make no attempt to empathize, or dont know how. As the kittens huddled in terror in the corner, people waved their arms, talked loudly, jangled keys, etc. The people seemed oblivious to the cues and made no adjustment to their behavior to compensate and reassure them. These were not unfeeling people, and many were confirmed cat lovers.
In contrast, I monitor very carefully the response of those with whom I am trying to build a bridge and, to the best of my ability, attempt to communicate at first in the language they understand best: their own. I discovered how successful I am at imitating a cat trill (a greeting call) by having two newly arrived kittens rush toward me only to realize that I was not Mom and how could I do that?
Conversely, a few days later I was in a pet store playing with two very friendly domesticated kittens. They were rubbing all over my hands lovingly, and purring. I came back a few minutes later and caught the eye of one of them, and trilled at him. He instantly freaked, arched his back, and fuzzed his tail; he saw me as a strange cat, not a human! It took five minutes of reassurance before he would approach me again.
It then dawned on me that what I had been doing was building a bridge between species, and in order to bring my feral kittens into the human world, first I had had to make contact as a cat. The domestic kitten freaked because he was used to relating to humans as humans already. "Human as cat" did not compute.
Gradually, over the intervening weeks, I have reassumed more human nature in my interactions with the kittens, until now they answer mostly to human speech rather than feline. You should see them run when I issue the call to supper! It is a stampede of little cat feet. I owe them a debt of gratitude; not only have they brought laughter and warmth to my household, but learning from them has been a joy. I will miss them.
Please spay and neuter your pets, and if the responsibility of care should become too great, take them to a no-kill shelter for adoption into another family.
Rose De Dan, Wild Kingdom Reiki, Reiki Master Teacher, and shamanic initiate in the Inkan Medicine tradition, specializes in natural healing for all species (humans not excluded) in Seattle. She also works as a graphic designer under the name Cat Dancing Design. You may contact her at (206) 860-8724 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or by visiting her Web site, <http://home.earthlink.net/~wildkingdomreiki/>.