You just never know what's going to turn up in your garden sometimes.
For instance, this last weekend I turned the compost bin, and chased a pair of rats out of it. I hope I upset their reproductive plans. But as I worked, I heard a rustling in the nearby brush pile, and heard a thin mewing sound.
In the back of the pile was a neat little cave-like nest, and in the nest I found a pair of tiny, almost brand-new kittens, with their eyes still closed and their ears buttoned down, each tiny enough to fit in one hand.
Well, what do you do? Leave them for the mama to take care of, and start a colony of feral cats? Take them in and take care of them and risk losing them due to inept bottle feeding?
We tried putting the babies back to see if the mama would come around, but she didn't, and one of the babies had dirtied itself. I took them in for the evening, and with some instruction from the nearby veterinary clinic, fed the babies kitten formula from a tiny bottle every couple of hours.
The next day I got on the phone until I could find someone who would talk to me. I'd seen the mother by the brush pile that morning, so I knew she was still around. As this was a Sunday, that wasn't easy, but I did get hold of the Humane Society, who said that it was good to take the kittens in so they'd grow up socialized. They also told me where I could get a live trap to see if I could catch the mama (having never had need for one, I didn't know where to get such a thing, but it turns out equipment rental places have them). Then I got a call back from the Friends of Felines rescue organization who said no, they need to be with the mother. Nothing like contradictory information when you've got little time to lose in figuring out what's best for fragile little ones. A woman from Friends of Felines came to our house and showed us where to set the trap up, and said we should put the kittens in the trap so that the mother would come for them.
We did so, though I didn't feel good about putting the babies out in the cold and the rain, even with a sheet of plastic over the trap and a warm rice sock (one sock, filled with rice, heated in the microwave) beside them for warmth. I came back and fed the critters a couple of hours later. No sign of mama yet. But a few hours after that, my son went and checked the trap. One baby was missing.
We searched all over for him, afraid that he'd somehow crawled out of the trap, but no sign of him. I was heartsick thinking that maybe the rats had taken him, but there was no sign of predation, and rats probably would have killed them on the spot. I hope that he didn't crawl out and get taken by a predator.
I'm thinking -- hoping -- maybe the little mama came and fetched him, and hadn't gotten to the other one yet. She might be wiley enough to get him without springing the trap. It may be that the trigger mechanism wasn't sensitive enough. She's not a very big kitty.
I'm also wondering if there are more kittens, and the mama kitty was in the middle of moving them because of my presence by the compost heap when I discovered the pair. Maybe it's just as well we didn't trap her, if she's got other kittens somewhere else.
We took apart the trap and took in the little black kitty, the loner who was left. My son took the night shift, bottle-feeding the little guy all night. I took the kitten to work with me the next day, and my students (I have one biology class this term ) went crazy over him. When he came out for a feeding, half my class crowded around with their camera phones snapping away.
When I got home that evening, Friends of Felines called again. They'd found a foster mama for the little guy. So off he went to get proper kitty care. But, we said, we're so attached to him now and feel responsible for him. We want to see him as he gets bigger, and take him back when he's old enough to leave his foster mom-cat.
His name now is Jack.
I distributed notices to the neighbors advising them that there's a nest of kittens somewhere in the neighborhood. We're hoping to get the whole family in foster care and get mama kitty spayed. Once the kittens are weaned and placed in good homes, she can come back here and be an outdoor cat. But first we have to find her, and that's not going to be easy. She'll be all the more secretive for having to move her nest once already.
Moral of the story: If I ever run across a feral cat nest again, the first thing I'll do is watch to see if she's moving the nest. Then if the litter seems intact, call the feline rescue and run and fetch a trap to get the whole family all at once.