Saturday, November 04, 2006

Cries coming from beneath the floor

If, by the title, you were hoping for a good ghost story, sorry. This is a story of a feral kitten that has adopted our house's crawl space for his home. I call him Gremlin. Grem for short.

My husband and I like to feed stray cats, but it's the sort of hobby that can get out of hand. After we moved here last winter, we found ourselves the soup kitchen of choice for rather more cats than we meant to support. Besides that, we were drawing skunks. Having skunks on the back porch doesn't strike me as a great idea. Obviously, keeping the food dish full for whatever happened to swing by for a bite wasn't working. It was expensive, noisy, and sometimes smelly.

So I switched to only putting out a little food when I saw a cat outside, lurking. This worked better. This especially worked better for one cat, named Gizmo by the previous tenants. Gizmo learned quickly how to make her presence known by meowing. If meowing at one window didn't work, she tried another. She trained me rather better than I should have let myself get trained, to put food out when she begged for it.

Enter Gremlin. Grem first came by when he was barely big enough to be wandering around without a protective mama cat as escort; a funny mix of bravado and standoffishness packaged in fuzzy black and grey swirls, still figuring out how to use his legs in an orderly fashion. He saw Gizmo meowing and then me coming out and feeding her. Grem is a quick learner. At first he merely toddler-ran closer to the porch - while carefully keeping a safe distance - and added his earnest, loud voice to hers and shared in the bounty, wolfing down her leftovers. Then he figured out he could do it on his own, without her help, and have the food dish to himself. He also doesn't wear himself out going around the house like Gizmo: he concentrates his efforts at the windows nearest the feeding dish.

We haven't seen Gizmo lately. Sometime back, shortly pre-Gremlin, she went off to have kittens somewhere. For a while after that she'd show up now and then, ravenous, obviously nursing a litter. Just about the time I was keeping an eye out for a baby or two trailing clumsily in her wake, with or without her permission (you know how kittens are), she stopped coming. I'm hoping beyond hope that she's been taken in by a nice family, instead of meeting a crueler fate. She's not a very smart cat on balance, if we are honest about it. I have seen her walk morosely through a small herd of deer in the back yard because they happened to be along the path she was already on. She is not, in other words, great at coming up with a Plan B if Plan A falls apart. But she is a friendly cat that adores petting.

Gremlin, in contrast, will have nothing to do with petting, has set up camp, and spends much of the day underneath our house. When we walk about over his head, he cries. All hours of the day or night, he talks to us, sometimes from underneath one place, sometimes from underneath another. He is obviously lonely, but hasn't discovered the concept of being friends with a human. He'll make full eye contact with me when he's begging underneath one window or another - that, after all, is how this food dispenser business seems to work best, I'm sure. But as soon as I come into full view on the back porch, he dives underneath the house again.

It puts me in an odd position. He looks at me like I'm some sort of trigger-happy tribal god who must be appealed to but who might destroy any creature who gets too close. He is afraid of me. Sometimes when he's crying to me for food, he's shaking with fear. Sometimes when he's looking into my eyes, it's like he's asking why the universe is so horrid that an honest, innocent kitten must go through such an ordeal day after day.

Well, piffle. We got off to a bad start and it bothers me that he's latched onto this view of the world. Living under a house and mainly coming out to beg for food is no fit life for a cat. I don't want to encourage it. He does play a bit now and then in our semi-wild back yard (if he doesn't know someone's watching), and he hunts some (if he doesn't know someone's watching), but he's really spending too much time cringing, feeling sorry for himself, hiding, wearing out his nerves.

Enough is enough.

Yesterday morning when I fed him, I sat down on the stoop. The food dish was in its usual spot, halfway between me and where he comes out of his hidey-hole at one side of the porch. He wasn't happy to have me there. He cried. Yelled. Fidgeted. Stared at me wide-eyed and wary. Kept going back toward his hole. Finally he managed to make it to the food dish, but flinched or bolted at every movement or sound from me, each leaf falling from the apple tree behind him. I stayed put, and kept talking to him. Finally he settled in to eat: quickly, nervously but, when all is said and done, bravely eating under the watchful gaze of his monstrous feeder (that would be me). The way he eats, he must close his eyes for part of each bite. For a while, he tried eating without opening his eyes between chomps. I might have laughed if it hadn't been so very sad.

After a while I got cold, and also started feeling sorry for him, having to put up with that much unaccustomed stress. So I stood up and came in. He ran for his den, of course, but came out later, after I'd come inside and closed the door behind me.

Yesterday afternoon, he appealed to his monstrous feeder again, so I put some food out and sat down on the stoop again. He held back, crying in fear and frustration at the top of his lungs. When that didn't move me, he inched forward, belly low and muscles tight. After several false starts he managed to grab a bite and run back, grab a bite and run back. After a while he almost settled in to eat, but just then a couple of women and two toddlers started doing yard work in the back yard next door. Grem couldn't see them from the food dish, so he moved out on the porch to peek around the corner at the strange noises. He settled in where he could watch both them and me. He had to turn his head one way to see them, and the opposite way to see me. After whipping his head back and forth several times, he settled in to watch -- them. Granted, having his back to me meant he was poised to run away from me - but after a while he seemed to not worry much about me being behind him.

Last night I gave him a break, and just put out a little food before going to bed.

This morning when I stepped out back he ran toward the porch but stopped near cover, and tried yelling at me for a while. Yell, duck, stick head out to see if the dreadful food god is still there. Repeat. Repeat. Then he tried going in circles. None of these actions magically making me disappear, he walked nervously to the feed dish and ate. He tried the 'if I close my eyes and don't see her maybe she'll go away' routine for a while, but then switched to eating a few bites, staring wildly at the monster, and then to eating a few bites before staring appraisingly at the maybe-monster. We ended with him looking more puzzled than terror-stricken.

Well, no, we ended with me standing up to come back inside and him exploding in a mad dash to get under the porch. But before that, if I didn't move he didn't run. Already he's decided I can talk at him all I want to, as long as I don't move much.

This afternoon when I fed him I leaned against the doorframe, looming instead of sitting. He called foul a few times, but went to the dish and ate with me standing there. He wasn't happy, but he didn't run off.

It's a start. Sort of. Maybe.

He might have run wild too long to be tamed completely, but we'll see.

June 30, 2008 update: Since Gremlin is now caring for her second batch of kittens, the "he" in the above post should be read as "she." Grem is almost too friendly some of the time, but is too hyper to be confused with a lap cat. All in all, things turned out reasonably well, regarding Gremlin. We never did see Gizmo again, or her kittens.


Anna said...

Tales of the "tell-tale cat heart!"

I hope you find Gizmo and the kittens!

Kathryn Judson said...

Thanks, Anna.