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Why Kittens Wreck Your Life

New Scientist magazine reports that “female alley cats call the shots at mealtime” and that large tom cats defer to little kittens at the food dish:

Roberto Bonanni of the University of Parma in Italy and colleagues found that feral cats in a courtyard in Rome also had a pecking order, determined by displays of aggressive or submissive behaviour. When near the food dish, however, females became dominant – the first time this has been documented in mammals. And although the adults treated kittens as low-ranking, the kittens were allowed to eat first (Animal Behaviour, vol 74, p 1369).

This is consistent with what we have observed here at the sanctuary and gives me an opportunity to tell you my theory of why kittens wreck your life.

But — wait — isn’t the Eastern Shore Sanctuary a sanctuary for chickens and ducks? That’s true enough, but cats… accumulate. Whatever kind of sanctuary you think you’re running in a rural region, you end up running a cat sanctuary too. People knock on the door with starving kittens or just dump unwanted cats in your driveway. Feral cats recognize a good food source when they find one. Pretty soon, you’re schooling yourself to remember your new Golden Rule: “If you’re in a store that sells cat food, buy some.”

Little Ochos Locos (AKA Loca) is the newest feline addition to our extended family. She showed up a couple of months ago in the hand (yes, hand, not hands) of an abashed man who found her in the reeds by the river but then couldn’t convince any of his relatives to take her in. Only about five weeks old, she must have somehow survived the drowning of her litter. Not surprisingly, given that history, she proved to be remarkably strong and resiliant, eating solid food and using the cat box right away. (She’s also pretty cute, with one blue eye framed by black fur and one green eye framed by brown fur.)

I braced myself for disaster, given the well-known proclivity of kittens for ruination. By “wreck your life,” I don’t mean just climbing the drapes and keeping you up all night biting your ankles. I mean the solemn obligation of every kitten to tear up, irreparably soil, otherwise destroy or make magically disappear some item of vital importance to your life, preferably one with high monetary or sentimental value.

But it hasn’t happened. At least not yet. And the drapes climbing and ankle biting haven’t happened either, even though this is an extremely clever, energetic, and playful kitten.

Why? Because other cats, specifically adult male cats, have stepped in to provide the nurturing, socialization, and play that would normally be provided to every kitten by her mother and siblings if cats were allowed to develop naturally. Kittens wreck your life, I’ve discovered, because they’re bored. Even the most doting human companion bearing toys and kisses cannot provide the all-day-every-day socialization and stimulation that I have watched this kitten receive from a gang of caring cats. I have watched her wear out, one after the other, three adult cats before returning to the first for cuddling and mutual grooming.

Let me tell you about those cats. First up: Lucky 13.

Loca & Lucky
Loca & Lucky back when both of her eyes were still blue

When little Loca arrived, she was too tiny and fragile to be let loose in a house where dogs gallop up and down the hallway. But I feared she would be lonely in the library. So, I decided to see if one of the more trustworthy cats might like to spend time with her when I couldn’t be with her. Lucky agreed readily.

Lucky himself had been a surprise arrival only a year before. He was brought to the door by two developmentally disabled youth who said that they had found a “starving kitten” under their grandmother’s porch and been directed by their grandmother to leave him in a field. They decided to try that house with all the cats and chickens instead. He was indeed starving and also had an untreated viral infection that left him with permanent damage to one eye.

Lucky plays rough and is also a fiend about food, the cellular memory of hunger impelling him to push everybody else aside. But he was immediately gentle and deferential with little Loca, greeting her with grooming licks at every meeting and stepping back from the food dish whenever she indicated that she wanted to eat. His tenderness toward her provoked me to tears more than once.

But Lucky likes to prowl around, so he couldn’t be expected to spend all of his time locked up in the library with Loca. Enter Cat.

loca & cat
Loca & Cat

Yes, that’s his name, just Cat. He came to us as a barn cat in flight from an unsafe domestic situation. When I would bring him his food — or, rather, bring the cat I believed to be a female cat her food — I would say, “Here I am with your food, cat” because I didn’t know “her” well enough to come up with a name yet. Before we knew it, “she” was answering to “Cat” and that was that.

Cat turned out to be a gangly, muscular livewire with bad allergies but a good ability to get along well with animals of all species. He often tried to provoke roosters and ducks into playing chase with him and always seemed so disappointed when they just stood there gaping at him as he did his little side-step. Eventually, he opted to be a mostly indoor cat, going out for fresh air and exercise every afternoon but otherwise staying in the house. He, too, didn’t mind spending time in the library with Loca. He’s not as affectionate with her as Lucky but makes up for it with his seemingly endless energy for play. When she wants to wrestle or run up and down the hallway in the middle of the night, Cat is right there for her.

When Loca wants nurturing, she turns to Ty-Juan. If Cat and Lucky 13 are her surrogate brothers, the giant cat called Ty-Juan is her surrogate father. When she curls up with him, Loca purrs so loudly that her vibrations fill the room and you glance around to see what large machine might be making that noice.

Loca & Ty-Juan
Loca & Ty-Juan

Ty-Juan was more than half-starved himself when he moved in; his body had already begun to digest itself when former students led me to him on the first day of school in 2005. Then, he was so frail that I was afraid to lift him for fear of accidentally breaking his bones. He spent more than a month in the library before he was well enough to mingle with the other animals. The next year, he kept Lucky company during his brief stay in the library and became his regular partner in sleep and play during his kittenhood. (Which, come to think of it, may explain why Lucky didn’t wreck my life either.)

I guess that’s why I’m so moved to see Lucky 13 — not previously known for his gentleness! — behaving so tenderly with Loca. It’s as if he’s passing along the care that Ty-Juan shared with him. When her time comes, I’m sure Loca will find a way to pay it forward. Already, she’s the most gregarious cat I’ve ever seen. When meeting a new animal — dog, cat, whatever — her instinct is not to hide or hiss but to touch noses and give a little lick. She’s pretty friendly with people too. She likes to groom my eyebrows and is very careful with bare skin, retracting her claws at the first sign of any discomfort.

loca & arlo
She gets along with everybody!

Another reason I’m glad about the New Scientist report on that study of feral cats in Rome is that it gives me an excuse to tell you about one of my favorite organizations and one of my favorite people: The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary and Deborah D’Alessandro.

Located at Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome (the temple where cat-phobic Julius Caesar was assassinated) was founded when archaeologists gave the keys to its underground caves to two Roman women who were caring for the colonies of feral cats who had moved in among the ruins. Volunteers like American ex-pat Deborah D’Alessandro care for the cats, raise funds, and use the unique visibility of these peculiarly located felines to advocate for cats within Italy and internationally.

While many “dog and cat people” are neither veg*n nor supportive of animal rights, Deborah is both. She also gets the other connections. (I first met her at an anti-war march.) Like all shelter and sanctuary staff, she also knows the particular stresses of animal rescue. I believe she’s working on a book about sanctuaries, including farmed animal sanctuaries, for publication in Italy.

So, when in Rome… vist the cat sanctuary. It’s right near a metro station and anybody can tell you which stop. (If I’m not mistaken, there’s also a beautiful statue of an elephant in the vicinity, so take a walk around after you visit with the cats.) While some of the cats are truly feral, others are former strays who are eager for attention and affection. Let them climb all over you as you take in the ruins. And, if you happen to see Deborah there, tell her pattrice says “yo.”

4 comments to Why Kittens Wreck Your Life

  • Angie Pohlman

    Thank you for a great discussion on cats! Cats have always found their way to my doorstep. I had four cats living with me (a low number for me) a little over a year ago; Che – I call him my first born, the first cat that I cared for after moving out of my parents house, Gani – a friend found her as a kitten in his grandma’s yard, my boss at the time took me there to get her and found that she was very skinny and had a thick coating of mites and fleas (pattrice, I think you may have met both of them when you came here?), the other two are Gassy, a cat that came to my family’s home when I was 14, my father was moving and decided he didn’t want this old kitty any more, and Juri, who literally appeared on my doorstep about 2 1/2 years ago, skinny as a rail and amazingly lovable. Last summer, Che began to quickly lose weight, the vet said that he had a cyst on his kidney and had less than a month to live. He was 5. Che died at home about a week later. It was horrible, I hadn’t experienced grief like that since my mom died about 1 1/2 years before. A few months later, Gassy began to lose weight and stopped eating. I took her to the vet on a friday, she was still undergoing testing when she died on Saturday night. She was 12, so the vet said it was probably old age. Then it was just Juri, Gani and I, we moved into a single apartment, where they became good friends. It had been about a year since Juri had been to the vet, so I took him to get a check up, and the vet noticed his heart beat was funny. She said it is something we will have to watch. About four days later, I fed them breakfast, and turned around to put my shoes on, and turned back to say goodbye for the day, and Juri was on the ground panting. He died within a few minutes, the vet guessed it was a heart attack. Needless to say, it has been a rough couple of years. Gani and I moved in with a friend who lives with 6 cats and 2 dogs. Gani has had trouble getting used to the new situation, I think she was still grieving when we moved. She stays in my bedroom. For me, I love being in a house full of cats again, I don’t know what I would do without cats. Sorry! Rambled. Thanks for the story!

  • Oh, Angie, I am so sorry for your many recent losses but so glad to hear about the loving care you gave to Che, Gassy, and Juri. I hope that you and Gani are taking good care of each other in your shared grief. I do remember cats from when I came to speak at your school. Didn’t one of them crash on the bed with me?

  • Angie Pohlman

    Thank you, pattrice, it has really been hard (as I am sure you know) dealing with other humans while grieving for an animal. I am sure some one crashed with you, do you remember their color (if he was black, it was Che, if she was a greyish calico, Gani).

  • Kimberlee

    Thank you for posting this. I found it moving myself, as I read it with my cat in my lap.

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