Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Long Road Home

Rebecca and Susie during their long years in an alley
Susie as she is today -- a mystery slowly unfolding in her own time.
Seven years without a home.
Rebecca during the harsh days.
Beautiful Rebecca as she is today -- a picture of pure love.
Susie during the harsh days.
Two sisters forever bonded.
It's been a long road for sisters, Rebecca and Susie.

It was about seven years ago that I embarked on a project with neighbors to humanely deal with feral cats living in the alleys in back of our pre-war building on New York City's Upper East Side.

Two of my neighbors had been feeding the cats, but there had been no attempts to neuter or place any of the animals.

The results were kittens and half-grown feral cats, as well as a very feral mother and dad.

I warned that the situation would soon result in an out of control overpopulation of cats, neighbor complaints and Anima Control eventually being called to capture and kill the cats.

Young kittens were relatively easy to capture, socialize, vet and adopt out.

But, the feral mother whom I named, Mika and her feline lover, Robbie were another story.

I used a humane trap to eventually trap Mika and take her to my vet for spaying and shots.

As it was the middle of winter and I had never released a feral cat back to an outdoor environment, I attempted to "socialize" Mika in a large cage with the hope that with time, she might become used to human touch and adoptable.

Such hope was indeed naive.

Although I had previously socialized many stray, timid and under socialized cats during my years in cat and dog rescue, Mika represented a "challenge" the likes of which, I had never experienced.

The mere acts of feeding, watering and cleaning Mika's litter box and cage were met with lunging, hissing and swiping claws. So violent were Mika's attacks, I had to wear protective gloves that reached half-way up my arms. Any notions of trying to "pet" and otherwise "socialize" the wild cat from hell were quickly abandoned after only a few weeks.

Still, I was not one to easily give up.

I kept Mika's cage in my living room where she casually saw my other cats coming to me for affection and where she was constantly exposed to my presence, as well as soothing music and a comfortable environment.

None of it did any good.

It became all too clear with time that Mika wanted nothing to do with me, a human home or even any of my other animals. The dark gray tabby cat wanted only one thing -- and that was to return to her real "home" and family in the alley.

And so, I waited for the snow to melt and the frigid temperatures of winter to finally subside before faced with the only choice I could make, albeit reluctantly.

On a sunny morning in mid April, I managed to corner Mika in her cage and get her into a carrier. I met with one of my other cat-loving neighbors and together, we released Maria back to the alleys. As soon as opening the carrier, Mika bolted out, dashed off and never looked back. Though a part of me felt relieved that Mika was back where she wanted to be, another part felt a sense of dejection for having failed her. Still, the good part was that Mika would never again give birth to more kittens.

With the dilemma of Mika and her young kittens finally resolved, attention was then focused on her two female, half-gown, gray offspring (Rebecca and Susie) from an earlier litter who were then nearly old enough to start reproducing.
Within a week, both cats were humanely trapped and brought to my vet for spaying and shots.

But rather than trying to deal again with angry feral cats who wanted to take out my hands (or anything else their claws could reach), I elected to pay my vet extra money to board the cats long enough to give them time to heal from the spay and be healthy enough for release.

About a week later, I picked up the cats and together with my neighbor, Cheryl, released the two sisters back to the alleys -- and back to their feral mom and dad.

All went comparatively and surprisingly well for the next couple years.

Both Cheryl and another neighbor fed the cats every night (including sliced, deli turkey meant for humans) and all four cats had very well honed-in survival skills and thick coats to get them through the roughest winters or worst of summers. (I suspect that during hostile weather, they sought and found refuge in holes of buildings as the cats were almost never seen during the day time.) 

Unlike her two daughters, however, the always-wild Mika had a penchant for getting out of the alleys and sometimes wandering the streets at night. Apparently, on one of these ventures, Mika was assumed to be a "stray" and was humanely trapped by a local rescue group.

Though I didn't see them, signs were later posted in the neighborhood of a "found ,spayed cat" whose photo was that of Mika. Not having seen the signs myself, I had no way to call the number. But my neighbors who did see the signs felt it was "wonderful" that a rescue group saved her.

I could only chuckle and hope that the rescue group had better luck than I did with Mika. She was, by far the most feral and intractable cat I had ever dealt with.  

Fast forward a couple of more years.

Tragically my neighbor, Cheryl, fell victim to breast cancer a few years ago and died. And a short time later, the other neighbor feeding the cats moved.

Responsibility for feeding and looking after the cats then fell entirely on me.

I was surprised to note that over the years, the two spayed sisters had become quite friendly with humans and enjoyed being petted. A part of me regretted having released cats back to an alley, that, from all appearances seemed somewhat socialized and even "adoptable." 

But, already full in my own home of both, cats and two dogs, I did not view it as option at that time to take more cats in. (Besides, they were good for rodent control in the alleys.)

Nevertheless, I did take photos of Rebecca and Susie in the alley and posted them on the Internet seeking foster homes. 

Needless to say, there were no offers.

And so, matters continued on for another few years.

I watched as Rebecca, Susie and their still very feral dad, Robbie, plodded through snow drifts sometimes taller than they were. I watched them deal with heavy rain storms, blizzards, brutal cold and the searing heat of NYC summers. Through it all, they remained stoic, strong, fantastically devoted and bonded to each other and welcoming of me.

Then, last March, Rebecca suddenly and mysteriously vanished and was missing for almost two weeks!

I inquired of local stores and supers in the neighborhood, but none had seen her. I checked the cat lists of Animal Control everyday, as well as found cat sites. But nothing turned up.

I was racked with guilt as I had become attached to Rebecca over the years and then cursed myself for not having rescued and taken her in when I had the chance.

When all seemed lost, I then prayed to God and promised that if Rebecca somehow survived and turned up again, I would take her in.

Then, one morning as it was pouring rain, I gazed out my window and miraculously there she was!

But, the bad news was that Rebecca was in the adjoining alley which was separated by a tall iron fence and even worse, she looked extremely emaciated and weak. Moreover, there was a deep gash and indentation in her tail, as if she'd been caught in a door or trapped somewhere for two weeks. 

Not stopping to think about anything, I filled a dish with cat food and ran down to the alley. I prayed Rebecca was hungry and strong enough to climb the fence and come to me.

Fortunately, Rebecca responded and summoned just enough energy to slowly and painstakingly make her way to me.

Shocked at how weak and dehydrated she was, I immediately picked up Rebecca, held her close to me and ran upstairs to my apartment as fast as I could. She neither had the strength nor will to try and break away.

I brought Rebecca to my bathroom, where I quickly set up food, water, litter box and blanket.

But first, I had to dry her off as she was completely rain-soaked to the bone.
The dirt, caked mud and filth on the cat turned the fluffy white towel completely black within seconds. It was apparent that Rebecca must have been trapped in some very filthy basement for the two weeks as nothing in the alleys could have produced that much dirt and grime.

Because she was too weak to resist my attentions (and seemed to sense I was helping her), Rebecca completely melted in my arms and surprisingly enjoyed petting, stroking and even cleaning. Flipping the toilet seat down, over the next week, I picked Rebecca up constantly and petted her in my lap. She nuzzled into me like a human baby and purred like a kitten.

Finally clean and quickly recovered from her ordeal in about a week, Rebecca let me know she wanted out of the bathroom.

Though expecting some friction with my four other cats and senior Pomeranian dog, I was a little hesitant at first, but decided the time was right for Rebecca to branch out.

Because she is by nature, a very confident and positive cat (but not challenging or aggressive) Rebecca respected and adapted very quickly to my other animals and they to her. There was no friction or conflict at all.

Over the next few months, matters moved along swimmingly. Though I felt a little bad about separating Rebecca from her much devoted sister still in the alley, she did not appear to suffer any bouts of separation anxiety or show any desire to return to the alley.

Her sister, Susie on the other hand, did appear to be "lost" without her sister -- this despite her still having Robbie to hang out with. (While the two sisters were always very close, the same could not be said about their relationship with their very feral father who always appeared dominant and somewhat bullying to the two girls.) Susie could be heard many nights yowling loudly in the alley as if calling out for and trying to find her sister again. It was pitiful.

I thought about rescuing Susie, but then considered the impact that might have on her dad who would then be entirely alone. But, aside from that, I was experiencing other, more pressing problems.

This past August I suddenly lost my 20-year-old Pomeranian, Chance, to a very fast spreading and deadly Lymphoma. (I had previously lost my other dog, Tina, two years earlier at the age of 21).  

A horrible sense of grief and loss overtook me as my home was suddenly so empty without a dog. Walks to Central Park were especially tough without my long-time companion in his little doggie stroller.

For a while, I considered adopting another dog, but then something strange happened.

Rebecca began to act more and more "dog-like."

Rebecca was always there to greet me in the morning as soon as I got up. She followed me around the house and even greeted me every time I came home. Most of all, she demanded to be picked up, held and petted nearly all the time.

It was almost as if Chance's spirit had somehow meshed with Rebecca's. Suddenly, I didn't need a dog as I already had one (albeit in a cat's body).

Meanwhile (about two months ago), a couple of Yuppie neighbors began to complain to the landlord about the loud cat yowling in the alleys at night.
I received a call from the management of the building requesting (somewhat kindly) that I "do something" about the cats.

I explained that I could rescue the female cat, but had no way of capturing the very feral male who was "necessary for rodent control."  

That night, I took a carrier with me when feeding Susie and Robbie.

As Susie was used to me petting her and even picking her up on occasion, she was no trouble to pick up and place in the carrier. -- In fact, it was a breeze!

Unfortunately, that was where "easy" would quickly end with Susie.

Unlike her sister, Rebecca, who was hours away from death's door when rescued, Susie was strong and healthy.

Once brought into my home and first released into a large cage, Susie boldly resisted any and all attempt to touch, let alone pet her!

On the contrary, she suddenly acted more like her wild mother, Mika, than the friendly cat whom I had been feeding and petting for the past three years!  (Susie would even allow me to occasionally cut mats from her dense fur when in the alley.)  Now, I could not touch Susie without loud hisses and attempts to rake my hand with outstretched claws that meant business!

The cage experiment clearly failing, I released Susie from the cage after only a couple of days.

Was that a mistake?  Probably. But, Susie's loud yowls of anger and protest were enough to get me into further trouble with Yuppie neighbors.

The "good news" in all this was that Susie was ecstatic to see her sister, Rebecca again and wasted no time gushing up to her in happy reunion.

But, Rebecca had changed over the months and evolved into a "human oriented cat" rather than just a "cat cat."  Rebecca showed little interest in her sister and merely tolerated her -- though the two cats frequently eat together just like old times.

Susie has indeed made herself very comfortable here. She loves playing with toys, eating,  sleeping on cushy chairs or beds and constantly cozying up to her much beloved sister.

Susie just hates and wants no part of me -- just like her "crazy" mom once did.

I am not sure what the future holds for Susie or me for that matter.

I keep hoping that Susie's love and devotion for Rebecca will eventually result in her trusting of me again as it did when both cats were in the alley together. But so far that has not happened even when Susie sees Rebecca and my other cats follow me around and entwine themselves on my lap everyday.

Sometimes, Susie sits and stares particularly intently and smugly when Rebecca is on my lap. I can hear the wheels spinning in her head: 

"I can't believe my beloved sister sold herself out like that!  Does she not remember where she came from? That will never be me!  You can take me out of the alley, but you will NEVER take the alley out of me!"

How could two sisters who grew up together and experienced all the same things be so different?

It's not a question I can answer at this time. Suffice it to say, that the more you think you know (and can predict), the more you learn you know nothing at all and can predict even less.

But for the time being, the old dad still roams the alleys and shows up each night to eat, the wild geese still migrate through Central Park, the Christmas trees are currently lit on Park Avenue and two sisters have traveled the long, seven-year road to finally find home. -- PCA


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