Do you love ghost stories? A couple weeks ago, Scott and I dozed in bed, the house deliciously quiet. We sipped at sleep, savoring the surreal moments between levels of consciousness. Our little street, already quiet by Chicago standards, had been muffled by a cottony-soft snowfall. The only sound in the house was the kids’ open-mouthed breathing, their rhythmic snores like timid waves crashing on the shores of a public (but minimally-polluted) beach. And then….
KA-THUMP! We were evicted from our drowsy bliss — What the hell was that? Doll-sized footsteps on the stairs, then a scratching noise, a little scramble, a bumpity-bump-bump and then… silence. The sounds weren’t smashy enough for a break-in, but way too loud to be the old house “settling.” Was it the ghost of Babushka, seeking revenge for the removal of her beloved orange-cream shag carpet?
NOPE! Just the Feral Cat Living in Our Walls.
You may be wondering why we have a feral cat in the wall. If not, please sit quietly and read this celebrity magazine while I explain it to the others. Remember last summer when we gleefully tore down the ancient ruins of the Babushka garage? For decades, this garage served as the central transfer point for the Rat Subway System running just inches beneath our feet, its concrete foundation chewed down to a pile of dirt and rat turds.
With the garage razed and the backyard freshly landscaped, our family dreamed of backyard BBQs, bonfires and other fire-based outdoor activities. But with their transportation infrastructure in ruins, the rats grew even more militant, blatantly ignoring the rat-human treaty requiring them to wait until sundown to scamper across our toes.
According to local experts,* it was scientifically impossible for our yard NOT to host a thriving rat civilization: the adjacent neighbor’s yard is a steaming buffet of dog poop, generously refreshed several times daily. Plus, we share an alley with a small grocery store and a Dunkin’ Donuts™, neither of whom practice good Dumpster Hygiene.
Traps and poison seemed positively otiose in the face of the rats’ unlimited food sources. We had to fight nature with nature — that is, BIGGER AND SCARIER NATURE.
Through some combination of local public television and neighborhood chatter** I learned about a program called “Cats at Work” Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), operated by a devoted network of volunteers whom we’ll cat the Cat Herders. The Herders visited our yard and explained the responsibilities of a Feral Cat Colony Caretaker. Within a couple of weeks we had our own Feral Cat Colony!
— What’s a Feral Cat Colony?
Feral cats are NOT stray or lost pets. Feral cats are born into the “wild” and are not accustomed to human contact; they are too fearful to be handled or adopted. Feral cats often live together in extended family groups, in shadowy places like abandoned buildings or garages, their lives a backdrop for your favorite Mad Max movie.
Our own kitties were discovered in an empty house a couple miles west of us, after the new owner bought it out of foreclosure. The Cat Herders trapped the cats, then spayed/neutered and vaccinated them. Remember that since these cats can’t be adopted, they needed a new Colony Home. And our back yard needed some predators.
The Cat Herders set up two large wire cages under our back porch, each containing a plastic storage tub lined with hay and insulation (for sleeping), plus food and water bowls and a litter box. In one cage, a large, grey, painfully timid kitty. In the second cage, “the twins,” a male and female pair of litter-mates.
Yeah, yeah. I know this looks like a scene from one of those super-sad Sarah McLaughlin ads.
For the first three weeks, our job was to feed the cats and clean their cages – at the same time each day – speaking to them in a soft and welcoming voice. We wanted them to think of our back yard as home, a safe space to eat, sleep and kill rats.
We promised each of our three children naming rights over one cat. However, when we finally opened the cage doors, the Big Grey Cat left and never came back, which isn’t uncommon in new Colonies. The twins slowly crept out to explore their new territory, and happily returned each night for dinner and some light eye contact. Our friend Caitlin gave us perfect names for the newest local celebrities: Will Feral and Mia Feral.
— Where do Mia and Will Feral Sleep?
OK, here’s the UpCycling™ project that I’m contractually obligated to show in every post: Scott dragged out the old European steamer trunk*** that Babushka left in our basement, transforming it into a luxurious Cat Condo. He built two “floors” out of scrap wood, and cut small holes for egress and exit, following all local zoning rules regulating Cat Coziness. Cat Condo features two decks with great views of the backyard, plus an electric heating pad with just a touch of cat vomit for charm.
We lined the inside with straw, the currency of coziness in the Cat Condo Community. The hinged lid provides easy access for cleaning. Cause maybe someday we’ll do that.
Master bedroom, plus den, leads to a romantic lanai.
The whole housing complex is discretely hidden behind a sheet of corrugated plastic, providing additional protection from the elements:
I’m not entirely certain what’s holding up our back porch.
— Do Will and Mia Feral Only Eat Rats? Gross.
I don’t know what percentage of Mia and Will’s diet is rats, and frankly, you should never ask a lady that question. In fact, the cats don’t actually HAVE to MURDER any rats, they just have to prowl around, looking (and smelling) tough. It’s the IDEA of cats – the mere suggestion of cats – that keeps the rats away. In fact, the rats left our yard before the cats were even released from their cages.
Every day at dusk, Mia and Will Feral stand on the back steps waiting for their daily can of wet food. So even if they’re not hunting, Mia and Will get a full daily serving of goat lips, pig udders, horse nostrils, earthworm testicles, porcupine ears, and amino acids.
Nothing says, “I hope you survive the winter” like heated food and water bowls.
Recently, the kids did see one of the Ferals running in the yard with a rat in her mouth, trailing blood across the fresh white snow. I’m thrilled that the children are are learning an important lesson about the prey-predator relationship, which should serve them well should they choose a career in Corporate America.
— So, What’s Up with the Feral Cat in Your Wall?
Right. One chilly day in early January, one of the cats (we’ll call her Mia Feral) slipped into the basement while I was putting my bike away. We didn’t know she was in there until Scott pushed against a plastic tub of Legos… and IT PUSHED BACK.
Feral cats are impossible to catch with your bare hands. We learned this the hard way after chasing her to the first floor, where she tore through our kitchen, broke the radio, scratched Scott’s arm and then tried to jump through a (closed) window. After that episode, we just left some food out for her in the basement and went to bed.
The next day we played CSI: Cat Scene Investigators in order to track Mia’s nocturnal wanderings. We sprinkled corn starch on the basement steps and around a food bowl in the front hall. The next morning we followed her tracks:
I’m not sure what this sleuthing proved, other than YES, she did sneak up the stairs at night, as evidenced by these faint white paw prints on the hall rug:
But where was she hiding all day?
A few days later, while sitting on the toilet of our first floor bathroom **** – which is just outside the basement stairs – I heard a scratching noise in the ceiling. Then I saw a furry tail poking out from under the paneling on the back of the basement stairs. I pulled my pants up, and peeked into that space where I saw the tail. Sure enough, by crawling up behind the stairs, Mia had discovered a tiny portal into the rafters between the first and second floor, where no human could possibly reach.
How do we catch a ninja cat who can magically slip into other dimensions?
Soon enough, we’ll call the Cat Herders, borrow a proper cat trap, and send Mia back outside with her brother. Until then, she’s our own friendly ghost; an elusive creature with so many secrets; a ghost that we still have to feed and clean up after.
But that’s life with Feral Cats. Even though we’ve never held or petted them, or even maintained more than five sweet seconds of eye contact, we love Mia and Will Feral. Like a celebrity crush, we love them from afar, catching little glimpses of them nibbling their dinner or slipping out from under the neighbor’s fence and scampering across our now blissfully rat-free yard.
* Scott was an exterminator for nearly two years and thinks he knows a lot about pests. Next time you see him, ask him to tell you that story about the roaches in the drop ceiling at Portillo’s. You’ll never look at drop ceilings or soda fountains (or Scott) the same way again.
** Public television and neighborhood chatter are my primary sources of information on most topics, followed by pizza flyers and middle-school love notes I find on the ground.
*** If you’re one of those Antiques Roadshow types and know that old wooden trunk is worth thousands of dollars at auction, please just keep it to yourself. Because now that trunk has some, ahem, “condition issues.”
**** I know I’m not the only one who experiences major discoveries while on the toilet.