There’s a new sort of pet adoption that’s been happening in recent years, called the “rescue” of feral cats. It’s part of a wider strategy for trying to manage colonies of cats that hang out in cities. Previously, municipalities tried to eliminate the cats altogether, but once one colony was removed, another simply took over the territory. So some cities are trying a new approach: Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR. Volunteer groups trap and neuter adult cats, then return them to the colony. The population slowly decreases, and no other cats can move in. But a few kittens continue to be born, so the volunteers trap as many as possible, planning to adopt them out.
These aren’t the same sort of kittens as those born to already-domesticated cats, however. Starting out wild, these require special care and taming before they can become pets. So the TNR organizations see to their health and socialization, as volunteers shelter them in “foster” homes. They try to trap the kittens as young as possible, to make them easier to socialize. But even older cats can be tamed with a lot of time and care.
Once the organization checks a kitten for possible diseases (the incidence in colonies is generally no higher than for domestic cats), it treats what can be treated, and once the little cat is healthy, sends it to the fosterer. This will be a person with special qualities, the first and most important of which is patience. There are no “quick fixes” for taming these kittens. The volunteer must be patient enough to live with fear and hostility that might last for quite a while, perhaps for months but usually somewhat less than that.
They first isolate the kitten, in a small room like a bathroom. This provides some feeling of security for the cat, but also room for the fosterer to visit. He or she feeds the cat by hand, trying whenever possible to touch and pet it, even if that involves just a quick swipe. Touching is very important in the socializing, and it’s best if it starts right at the beginning. The volunteer must be ready to be scratched or even bitten occasionally, but if they can get the kitten accustomed to petting or even holding, it will be worth it.
After a degree of comfort is reached with that, and the kitten accepts the touch and doesn’t feel so nervous with the human visitor, then the volunteer might begin providing small toys to play with. Gradually, a toy (or food, always a big attraction) will be used to draw the kitten a few steps beyond its comfort zone, outside the door. Its boundaries will be widened slowly, as it meets other household members one by one, and gets used to stepping outside of its first shelter and into other rooms.
Some feral kittens will become so tame that they’re indistinguishable from regularly domesticated cats. Others may have been so negatively affected by their brief life on the streets that they never entirely overcome their wariness, and might always have to be treated gently. But with the patience and constant work of dedicated volunteers, most of these ferals can be tamed and live quite happily in a new, safe home.
Once the kitten feels fairly secure and can interact with other household members comfortably, the time has come for the volunteer’s second most important personal quality to take center stage: he or she must have the strength to let the kitten go to a new home, just when the little cat has finally become friendly and perhaps even loving.
This will always be hard to do. But the fosterer knows that the kitten is ready, and the organization adopts to people who are equally willing to give the cat the extra care and consideration it needs. And all the volunteers know that there will always be other feral kittens out there on the streets who need their help.
This is a very special kind of pet adoption, but may be the avenue for those with just the right temperament and dedication.