For a couple hours every week I volunteer at the local animal shelter, helping with a program called Barn Friends. These cats are all feral or nearly so. They have no human socialization. Most have been trapped and brought to the shelter where they are neutered, have any injuries treated and are given vaccinations. Then they all go in a community room set aside just for them.
When a cat first arrives in the room, it is terrified of everything. It hides in one of the many holes. Some are so poorly socialized with other cats they must be placed in solitary cages. These ones will attack other animals and humans. To feed and clean them, an inner plastic crate is kept in the cage. A pole is used to push the crate against the wall to contain the cat when the cage door is open. Most caged cats spend the majority of time hiding in the crate.
The cats may never fit into a house situation, but they do very well in barns. Volunteers like me go in the room and visit with the cats. We work to socialized them so they can one day be released to adopting farms with large, warm barns.
The adopters feed and care for them and the cats are socialized enough so they will allow humans to approach and catch them for vaccination or medication. This program helps to reduce the unhealthy, over-breeding feral cat population and gives farmers the pest control they want.
Cats can spend several months in the Barn Friends room before they are social enough to find a new home. I have been working with this program for a few months now and have already seen many good endings. Wild, frightened cats that cannot be touched and shrink into the holes to hide when a human enters the room become outgoing and leave for a barn. Last week six of the little friends I made left. This is success!
Some cats become so friendly they can be adopted to a regular home with a family, as a long-haired sweetie did just a couple weeks ago. When I first met her she preferred smacking people to loving them. Some cats can never be trusted with a family. They will purr one moment then turn and bite the next.
Volunteers need to be very careful around the feral cats or they can be injured. My lifetime of close association with cats and experience as a vet tech helps me understand feline psychology enough so I rarely get scratched or bitten.
Domesticating a wild cat takes patience, respect, great calmness of spirit, a knowledge of feline body and verbal language, inventiveness and a certain amount of courage. A cat becomes socialized when it trusts humans. Trust comes from predictability. The cats must learn what to expect from a human and the human must behave in a calm, non-confrontational way at all times.
The kitties are given names by the shelter that are written on Tyvek collars around their necks. I am not able to get close enough to read most collars so I have my own names for them. I have to guess at the sexes of many and still don’t know some.
The first step toward domestication for a feral cat is becoming accustomed to having a human in close proximity. Just being in the room and talking to them helps. For a new arrival, watching the other cats interact with humans helps. Many of the animals will attack any hand that comes near.
Because tolerating human touch is an important part of socializing, the cats are touched with sticks or back scratchers. At first this is hard for them. They shrink away or try to run. Some will attack and bite the stick. Once I am able to scratch the top of a cat’s head with the tip of the stick, the animal will slowly allow more contact.
The fastest way to win a cat’s trust is to get them to play. This helps them relax and understand the human is not a threat. Most cats can’t resist a piece of string being pulled or flicked nearby. So I got a wood dowel, drilled a hole in one end and tied a long string to it. I left a short bit of string at the tip of the stick.
The first instance of play for many cats is when they feel that bit of string tickling them and try to catch it in their teeth. Once they start to play, it is a quick path to friendship. The stick is long enough to reach the cats in the cages. Even the most wild and aggressive animal responds to gentle touch.
When a cat is comfortable enough to leave the shelter of their hiding hole and come out on the floor or to an open perch, the change from feral to social really begins. When a cat vocalizes and comes to greet me as I enter the room, I know that little furry friend will be leaving soon.
One of my special buddies is a very small, young black and white cat. She is not far from kittenhood. When we first met she screamed at me, hissed, spit and threatened with claws if I came within a couple feet of her hole. Within two weeks she was playing with the string. It took a month before I could touch her with the stick.
Now I can pat her back, scratch her all over and tickle her belly with the dowel. She comes down on the floor to play with the string and follows me when I play with other cats, trying to get at the string. She is still very skittish, frightens easily and runs for cover.
Lately she has been so absorbed in play that she doesn’t notice how close she comes to me. She will suddenly realize I’m only inches away and retreats in a hurry.
She always comes back. Soon she will let me touch her, I think. This week I tried, but she clawed me, nothing serious–just a warning. I call her Kitten. Such a cutie. Wish she could come to my farm, but she would not survive in our barn. Too many coyotes and foxes in the neighborhood.
It is very rewarding to see a wild cat change into a Barn Friend and know they will be able to find a warm, comfortable home. Working to socialize feral cats is very fulfilling. I hope to continue with this program for a long time.