It seems like a lifetime ago, but actually it wasn’t. This blog tells the tale of how Jack, my husband, and I came to share our lives with a feral cat.
One evening during the renovation process of our tumbledown hunting estate in France, we were sitting outside on an old section of broken-down wall. Chatting away exhaustedly about the latest disasters that had befallen us that day, we were interrupted by a strange sound coming from the bushes. We both stared at the leaves, but couldn’t see a thing. Then suddenly we heard what we thought was a meow. We peered again, but nothing. Although it had definitely sounded like a cat, with no neighbours for miles around, we just assumed we were imagining things. But we couldn’t be sure.
As a precaution, and much to our dogs’ disgust, we left some of their food out in a dish in case our hunch was correct. I rushed out the next day and was excited to find that there wasn’t a scrap left. Jack quite sensibly told me it had very likely been eaten by a fox, or other wild animal, and not to fuss. He was probably right, but I still had a hunch that we had a cat somewhere. Each evening we banished the dogs to a safe distance and began a very pleasant nightly beer-drinking-on-a-boulder vigil. Our patience eventually paid off.
About a week had passed before we spotted her, a small face peeking timidly through the undergrowth. No wonder we hadn’t seen her before, her tortoiseshell markings blended perfectly with the foliage. Sitting absolutely still, we watched and talked to her, hoping that she’d have the confidence to venture out. This took a while, but when she finally emerged we were treated to the sight of a lovely, petite cat who was obviously stuffed full of kittens.
Over the following days her confidence grew and we were eventually allowed to stroke her whiskers and the sides of her face and body, but never her ears – these were her radars, always pricked and alert for the sounds of danger. Amazingly though, she was incredibly mild-mannered and trusting, and even let me brush her. This was evidently a blissful new experience which caused her to purr like an outboard motor. With no collar, or other explanation for her appearance, we concluded that she must be a feral cat who lived in our woods. If she was going to stay around I decided that she needed a name. So, severely lacking in inspiration, we ended up calling the poor animal Pusskins.
A couple of weeks later her evening routine changed and she became even more furtive than usual. Showing a massively distended belly, she began roaming restlessly around the barns, mewing gently. We assumed that she was ready to give birth and needed somewhere safe and dry to have her kittens. Then quite suddenly she disappeared completely. I was distraught and hunted high and low, fearful that she might be in distress, but there was no sign of her anywhere.
At this stage I had all but given up hope but as I passed the tractor shed one day I was distracted by a scuffling sound coming from behind one of the old crates. I stared into the gloom and gazing dreamily back at me was our little feral cat surrounded by several balls of fur. Pusskins had given birth! At that stage I had no idea how many there were, but I could certainly see tabbies, a ginger, and a cream coloured kitten. I couldn’t believe my eyes, they were absolutely gorgeous. I rushed excitedly back to the house to break the news to Jack, who hunted around and confirmed that we had six new arrivals to our home.
Now we had a difficult decision to make. One of the projects we started was to raise pheasants and partridges to repopulate our woods. At the time we had around 300 chicks in brooder sheds next door. Our worry was that with many hungry mouths to feed, our new mum would be very likely to use these fledglings to teach her youngsters some early hunting skills. This would be perfectly natural behaviour, an easy meal, but definitely unwelcome. Unsure of what we should do we asked our vet for advice. He explained that there was a serious feral cat problem in the area. Interbreeding and disease were rife amongst the feline colonies, and we should do everything we could to prevent them contributing to the already burgeoning population. The writing was on the wall – have the litter put down, or take them in. Our conclusion was an easy one; we took mum and her kittens in.
It was a great idea in theory but not so simple in practice. First things first we had to catch the kittens. This was very tricky because they were extremely adept at skittering around and under machinery and squishing themselves into the tiniest spaces imaginable. After much clambering and falling over boxes and oily bits of machine, and much cussing from Jack, we finally we managed it. We took them to the house and made a new nest out of an old puppy bed in a dog cage.
Our next worry was how we would feed them. Luckily this was where Pusskins came into her own. Her terror of entering a human building was overcome by the instinctive need to feed her young, so mealtimes quickly became a team activity. Much to the disgust of our dogs once again, she would pluck up courage, creep stealthily into the house, and pop into the cage to nurse her hungry mob. We’d close the cage door to give her complete privacy, and she’d lie there until the job was done. She would then become restive until we re-opened the door which allowed her to speed back to the freedom of her outdoor domain. She repeated this twice a day, but it wasn’t enough.
As we all know kittens need several feeds a day so, under instruction from our vet, we supplemented her efforts by bottle feeding. This, by the way, is not an easy task because kittens are very wriggly little suckers!
Four weeks later we trapped our little Pusskins after a feeding session, and took her to the vet to be sterilised. Knowing that she would be ready to mate again it was the least we could do to help maintain her health. It must have been a terrifying ordeal for her, but she coped fantastically well and never growled or fought once. Meanwhile we continued to bottle feed the kittens and gradually introduced them to solid food.
Pusskins made a perfect recovery from her surgery and, once again, instinctively seemed to know that her job was done. She took very little interest in her kittens after six weeks and only rarely came into the house again. So there we were – six fluffy beauties who ate, played and generally caused havoc. Well nearly. There was one which was different from the others. Although it was very big, it was always much more reserved and very nervous of us humans. I was instantly drawn to this fragile creature.
Much as I would have loved to, there was no doubt about it, we couldn’t keep all the kittens. But having been brought up with lots of cats I was desperate to keep at least one. Jack had become unusually besotted by them and agreed, so we decided to invite animal-loving friends of ours to come round to give homes to the others. This was a great arrangement, although I would later realise how hard it was to see our kits being examined by prospective new families. I was under strict instructions to let them choose whichever kitten they wanted, which was agony because I always knew which one I wanted to keep.
Prior to the first visit the main challenge we had was to establish what sex they were. Most of our friends had said that they wanted to have females, so we unceremoniously turned each kitten bottom-up to try and work out their gender. Fairly sure of our findings, we then named them because it was easier for identification purposes when we were picking each out for feeding sessions. Unfortunately for the little critters, I’d been reading a Roman history thriller at the time so they mostly got saddled with names as awful as Pusskins.
We wanted to do everything properly for the kittens, so arranged for them to be picked up by their new families after their first vaccination. Our trip to the vet to have this done also involved a confirmation of each animal’s gender. As it turned out we weren’t world-class experts in the cat-sexing department, so some rapid re-naming had to be done. Caesar became Cleo, Maximus became Maxine, but Ginger remained Ginger in spite of the fact that she was a girl. Then there were three boys. Hercule, so named because he was incredibly nosy, Tigger who was on springs and completely hyperactive, and finally the huge, but terribly timid, Brutus.
Our first groups of friends came to examine and coo at the kittens. After much playing and cuddling the girls were selected, but the boys were left. I was terrified that Brutus would be next, but I needn’t have worried. Hercule was big and bold and Tigger was the litter comic so whilst they stole the show, Brutus hung back, resisting all attempts at being handled. Everyone decided that he was the true feral, and would never make a house pet so left him to hide in a corner. How wrong they were.
By the time they were 10 weeks old all the kittens had gone apart from Brutus. Pusskins had reverted to her ghost-like appearances and now refused to eat our continued offerings. But I was happy because we still had Brutus.
A richly-coloured tabby, to my eyes he was an extraordinarily beautiful boy, filled with feline grace and poise. As the months passed he gained more confidence in himself and us and purred like mad when stroked and cuddled.
However, whilst he was loving and tactile with my husband and I, his expression would turn to one of pure terror if someone else came into the house. He was the same with machines, the very sound of which would cause him to run for cover underneath our bed.
Today, five years later, Brutus is exactly the same. He has grown into a fine, big cat who is the most gentle animal we have ever had the privilege to share our lives with. His exquisite face and gentle, sensitive, temperament closely resemble that of his mum, as does his natural nervousness. But with us he plays and wrestles and snuggles, and does all those things his siblings did – but only with us.
We absolutely adore our big wild cat. He works with me at my computer, watches me while I cook and stalks leaves in the garden pretending that he’s a big brave boy. He’s the boss of our dogs, our home and he has my heart. We’ll always be thankful for the day that his mum came into our lives and allowed us to take care of her family.