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MAX - The Kitten Who Got a Second Chance

by Patricia Fry

It was late spring when I stepped outside to tend my garden just in time to see a neighborhood cat dash over the gate into the woodshed. It was the shy black kitten I'd watched grow into an aloof adolescent. Although, I'd enjoyed her company in the yard many times as she peered down at me from her perch on the back fence, I'd never been able to touch her.

This day would be no different except that today, she was not alone. Three perfect kittens followed her along the top ledge of the woodshed fence. When they saw me, the whole family lunged for cover into the crevices of the woodpile where unbeknownst to me at the time, they planned to set up housekeeping. I'd been chosen custodian for the newest generation of neighborhood feral kitties. Now what?

I would tame them, that's what! The kittens appeared to be about four-weeks old. If I spent a lot of time nearby talking to them, they would surely come around. For days, I perched myself on a bench outside the woodshed gate and watched the kittens play chase and hide-and-seek games through the pile of wood. But when I spoke, moved or came too close, they'd disappear.

Braveheart, the smallest and most timid, was the image of her mother with sleek, black fur. Bella, the most curious wore a long black and white coat. Max was adorably stocky with a lovely soft brown and white coat.

Ten days later, I realized that my loving overtures were not changing the kitten's feral ways. In order to save them, we had to capture them.

We borrowed a cage, donned leather gloves and moved the wood piece by piece until we uncovered the three kittens huddled under a pallet. One by one, we placed the three frightened kittens into the cage and took them inside.

After leaving them alone for a couple of hours, I made regular visits. I talked softly to them and touch their fur through the wire cage. They were terrified, but not aggressive. They were interested in their food and water, but didn't understand the reason for the sandbox I'd provided.

The next morning, using caution, I picked each kitten up and moved them to a bathroom where they had more room. The kittens didn't bite, scratch or even hiss, but it was clear that they were very frightened and that they did not enjoy my touch.

The kittens now had access to a carpeted cat tree with a circular bed on top, two sandboxes, kitten toys, kitten kibbles and water. I closed the toilet lid, moved all toxic cleaners and tied the mini blind cord safely out of reach. My plan was to visit the kittens often throughout the day every day until they were comfortable with the human touch. Then I would find them good homes.

The first time I went into the bathroom to spend time with the kittens, I couldn't find them. I feared the worst—that they'd torn through the window screen and escaped. But I finally found them huddled deep inside an overturned wastebasket. This was to be their secure haven for the next seven days.

Since I work at home, I was able to keep a close vigil over the kittens. I visited them often—partly out of obligation to them and partly because I couldn't stay away. I loved spending time with them and did so many times every day.

After about a week, when I'd go into the bathroom, I'd find them sleeping, not in the plastic wastebasket, but in the little bed on top of the cat tree. Yet, while the kittens had calmed down, they were still not returning our affection. They allowed us to touch and hold them, but they didn't respond until one Friday afternoon.

During a routine visit to the bathroom, I found the three kittens curled up together in their bed. I began petting them when all of a sudden, Max rolled over onto his back, looked up at me and started to purr. I was so touched that I began to cry. This was the first time I'd heard any of the kittens purr.

To give the kittens more space and more opportunities for socialization, we'd bring them into the living room at night. I'd also bring out things that were familiar to them like their cat tree.

The kittens had a grand time playing in the larger area and we loved watching them. This also gave the resident cats (Katy, Dinah and Winfield) the opportunity to become acquainted with the kittens under our supervision. The kittens kept a wary eye on us, though and were quick to dart for cover, should we move toward them. This made it difficult to recapture them and return them to their safe haven. Our goal was to make their life as trauma-free as possible, but we weren't always successful.

When the kittens were about 7 weeks old, I took them to see the veterinarian. He was surprised at how healthy they were, given their precarious beginnings. They got their first shots and a clean bill of health.

About the same time, I spoke with animal behaviorist, Anders Hallgren. I told him that, although I'd been working with the kittens for three weeks and they were more gentle, they were still not responding to us. He said, "You've got to separate the kittens. They're bonding with each other and as long as they have each other, they may not bond with you."

I tried to figure out a way to separate the kittens and work with them myself. My first step was to bring Max out and try letting him have the run of the house. On that eventful day, I held Max for a while—he was beginning to enjoy petting now. I fed him a couple of small pieces of chicken by hand and then, when he wanted down, I let him go.

He played, explored, peed in a basket of firewood and tried to get to know the resident cats. After thirty minutes or so, Max looked around the room, spotted me and came trotting over to where I was sitting. I reached down, lifted him onto my lap where he lay contentedly for a while before rushing off to pursue more adventure. By then, I knew that I could not give up on Max. Whether he was bonding with me or not, I had certainly bonded with him. That night he slept next to me on my bed and has every night since.

In the meantime, my veterinarian told me about a couple of people who were looking for kittens and had homes that he felt were suited to these special needs kittens. Within a day and a half, both kittens had just the sort of homes I'd imagined for them.

Max is a dear 18-month-old indoor cat now. He's sweet, affectionate, funny, eager to please and clever. He responds when he hears his name almost every time. He gets along with humans and animals alike. Except for his ability to dive for cover at top speed when hearing thunder, the garbage truck, the vacuum cleaner or a sneeze, and the joy he derives from the blanket tents and box caves we build for him to play in, one would never guess that he had such humble beginnings.

I ask myself if I'd go to the trouble again to rescue feral kittens. My answer comes easy when I look down at Max resting contentedly, relaxed and trusting in my lap. Yes! I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

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