One of the most frequent occurences for me at our adoption clinics is to see the look on faces of people or hear the surprise in their voice when I tell them that we ask for a $100 donation for each cat or kitten adopted. By way of a digression, I always make a point of saying that it’s a donation, sometimes even adding “This is an animal rescue, not a pet store.” I go on to explain that the cats have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and de-wormed, treated medically and fed and cared for by us; most people begin to see that $100 is dirt cheap.
To those who do not, here is the response I would rarely verbalize.
During kitten season, I often spend an hour each day walking the large townhouse complex where I live, essentially stalking stray and feral cats. I know a lot of them because a lot of them are cats I have trapped, altered, and returned outdoors since they could not be socialized. When I see a new cat, I observe its size, try to figure out the sex, and make a mental note of where it was I saw it. For all I know some of these cats are outdoor pets but I never assume that; any cat I see, I see as a potential parent to a future litter that will become my responsibility.
The cats I mentioned—those who could not be socialized—are part of a feral colony I maintain. Many people are against these colonies for reasons that are probably obvious, but a colony of cats who have been altered and are observed regularly do not constitute the nuisance some anticipate. Even if they did, they serve a valuable service in my particular situation—each night these cats gather where I feed them and every once in a while someone new shows up. It might be a lost or abandoned cat, might be another feral, but whatever they are and wherever they came, from they are now on my radar and I add them to the list of cats that require my services.
That’s part of it. But there is more—there’s the trapping. Whether it’s an adult feral or a kitten who might eventually be socialized, it is not always easy. I think the challenges of an adult feral are obvious— they do not trust people all that much and are highly suspicious of the trap I have set for them, however appealing the food inside might be.
Kittens are worse. My complex has a lot of trees and a lot of landscaping. This is not a community laid out in a grid, but a place with buildings at different angles, meandering paths here and there, and a great deal of planters with thick shrubbery that make good hiding places for a cat and her kittens. In every situation I have dealt with so far, I did not know where the kittens I was looking for were until they were at least a month old, often closer to two months, old enough that their mothers allow them to venture out on their own.
This being the case, it’s urgent that I trap them quickly. Most of the time, feral kittens older than two or three months cannot be socialized well enough to be adopted. The moment I see a litter I know how I will be spending the next few (or many) nights. Once it’s dark out, I revisit the place(s) I have seen the kittens, bait and set my trap, cover it with a towel, then try to look invisible. This is more difficult if the noise I have made (and the smell of the food) attracts some of my ferals—and it often does. I end up trying to shoo an already-fixed cat away from the trap without discouraging the kittens I am trying to get in it. I swear a great deal during this process (you don’t even want to know how much or how bad).
Sometimes I get lucky and have a litter trapped in a few nights, other times it has taken me weeks and I still did not get them all. Some died in the meantime, others simply refused to fall for my scheme. There is a lot of self-questioning when this happens: why didn’t I stay out an hour longer that one night; maybe I should have used fish rather than chicken; did I remember to wash the cage after the last cat was trapped, or did it still smell of that kitten’s fear and sweat?
Once they are in my possession, what comes next? They move in. My own cats are often not too thrilled with the situation so my bedroom (or what once was my bedroom) becomes the fostering room. I treat them for diarrhea, mange, ringworm and other assorted fun things, and try to socialize them. Just like every other aspect, sometimes it’s easy, you have them purring in your lap in a day or two; sometimes it’s hard, you submit to numerous scratches and bites before you eventually win them over, or maybe you never do.
Meanwhile, my back hurts from sleeping on an air mattress in the living room, my nerves and blood pressure have my doctor wagging her finger at me, and in one extreme case, a cat bite sent me to the ER with a case of cellulitis so bad that I required levels of antibiotics usually reserved for someone in the hospital.
What I am saying, in my usual long-winded way, is that this is often a very difficult job, and one for which not a single member of Purrfect Cat is paid. As I said when I began this, we are not a pet store and the people who adopt from us are not paying for the animal; they are making a donation towards the next litter we find or the next feral cat we will spay.
But given that many of the people who visit our adoption clinics do see it as a payment, I think it’s safe to say that the wear and tear on our bodies, our minds, and our homes, the vacations we have to plan around our fosters, the dinner with friends we miss because we are at the emergency vet with a sick kitten, the weekly loading the cats up in carriers to take to adoption clinics, that for your $100 you just bought yourself a pet worth more than any pedigreed cat seen in the pages of Cat Fancy magazine.
Suzanne, Amy, Meg and Jo, my fosters from last year; easily worth tens of thousands of dollars if you know what to take into account when calculating their value.