It's funny how we seem to get "phases" of types of cats. The current phase seems to be feral mother cats with kittens who can be tamed up.
The first lot were Jessica & Millicent and their eight babies - although there were such a mixture of ages that we wondered if there were more than two mother cats involved! Jessica & Millicent were living in a factory and had to be caught using a trap. Luckily, the kittens weren't too bad and we were able to tame them up. The youngest three, George, Dennis and Fred are due to go to new homes this weekend, and we hope to find an outdoors home for Jessica & Millicent before too long. They will provide a great deterent for invading rodents!
Next we took in Tootsie - she was living in someone's garden, and when they realised that she was pregnant, they asked us to help. Again, she had to be trapped. A couple of weeks after she came to our centre she gave birth to four kittens, now three and a half weeks old.
Finally, we were told about Marnie, again a pregnant stray living in someone's garden. We sent a trap out but she had the kittens before we could catch her. Luckily we were able to trap her the next day and bring her and her five kittens to safety. The kittens are about 5 days old now.
In many ways catching the cats is the easy part. The difficulties start once they are with us. Of course the kittens need to stay with their mums for some time so that they can benefit from her milk and so that they can be cleaned and groomed and begin to learn catty-manners. But they also need to learn to trust humans and to be comfortable being stroked and picked up. With a tame cat it is easy to pick out the kittens to handle them, however, it is a different matter with the kittens of feral cats. The kittens need to be checked daily, to ensure that there is no infection in their eyes, and as they get older they need to be played with and cuddled to get them used to being handled by humans.
Easy peasy you might think! Just distract mum, grab them and then check them and play with them for a few minutes before returning them. Unfortunately it is not as easy as that! The mother cats don't realise what is happening the first few times but gradually as they begin to understand that their babies will be removed (they conveniently forget that they will come back later!) they become more aggressive and will spit, swipe and even stand over the kittens to hide them. This calls for gauntlets, thick clothes and a certain degree of nerve.
Even that isn't too bad until the kittens start to wander around their pen. Once they get to that stage our volunteer not only has to cope with a seriously irritated mum-cat, but has to dodge around the pen to try and catch the kittens and manage not to stand on the ones not yet caught!
We normally keep kittens with their mums until they are ten weeks old, putting them in a foster home for the duration of their stay with us so that they become used to living in a home and being handled. Then we have them neutered prior to finding new homes. With feral kittens we tend to separate them at about eight weeks and put them in a foster home for a month to get them used to living in a house with people, as of course we can't put them in a foster home earlier due to the feral nature of their mums.
As to the mum-cats, they are neutered and if possible returned to the site from where they came (Marnie will be going back to the garden where she came from, as the finders have agreed to feed her and provide shelter for her). Those we cannot return remain with us until we have found outdoor homes for them - in stables, farms, allotments or even safe factories or commerical units.
If you become aware of a feral cat living in your garden, please act responsibly like the finders of Tootsie and Marnie, and alert your local rescue. If you can have the cat back once it has been neutered, that would be great, and of course if you act responsibly the stray population in your garden will remain at one, whereas if you ignore the cat, you may soon find you are having to ignore far far more than one!