Leila Garcia contacted iCatCare for some advice a year ago about a deaf feral cat she was caring for called Spirit. One year on she got back in touch, here is her story.
Tell us a little bit about your role as caretaker to cats in your area.
I have been feeding and caring for a small colony on the mountain I live on for many years. It’s a hard living for these cats with many predators. It keeps the colony small. Whole litters don’t make it. The cats are very wild without any or much human contact. They hunt as well as eat from my bowl of cat food I put out. I found Kittywhiskers (KW) on my porch as a 6 week old kitten in a blizzard in December of 2018 who became my pet and Spirit is a deaf one who I took indoors due to my concerns about his disability. The remaining loose feral cats are all girls. All have been Trapped-Neutered-Vaccinated-Returned (TNVR). It was Spirit that prompted me to contact iCatCare.
What were your concerns about Spirit?
He is all white and completely deaf, the vet said he was about 2 years old. When I discovered this, I worried about him, of course. My worries were founded when he showed up one day with a bite wound on his side. I trapped him and got him TNV but I never Returned him. The reason is obvious, it was my concern about his well-being as a completely deaf feral in a wooded mountain environment with every predator imaginable in the Shenandoah Valley. There is not a good survival rate around here for feral cats. They have to be in 100% condition to make it. The young, old, or somehow impaired don’t last long.
My question to iCatCare was really about quality of life indoors for a previously feral cat. Originally I felt like I had made a mistake keeping him indoors and considered releasing him. I felt his quality of life was poor indoors. He hid all day and sat at the window and howled very loudly and horribly at night. I thought he was unhappy. I had kept him indoors for about 2 1/2 months at this point. A few times I considered releasing him knowing that his lifespan would probably not be long. Then I thought I had some amazing breakthroughs with him. I had not only been able to pet him and get him to eat out of my hand but he also purred. Should I let him outdoors? I was afraid if I did, I would never catch him again. His instinct is still to run from me. I was worried I would have to keep him indoors the rest of his life for his safety. Is this a good quality of life for a previously feral cat? How do I enrich his life? So, I sent the email and waited for a response.
What happened next?
To be honest what I expected was a simple standard response but what I got back was a comprehensive list of further questions to consider regarding Spirit’s quality of life and how I might judge it. I wasn’t told what to do but I was given lots of things to think about and information that would be helpful, for either the choice that I might make about keeping him indoors or letting him roam freely. I was given the option of further discussion and asked to observe discreetly how Spirit spent his day; was I right in thinking he was becoming happy or was he just adapting to a situation that was less than perfect for him? I sent videos to iCatCare and we had further email exchanges. We talked about outside safe shelters for Spirit and various ways that I could monitor his wellbeing.
Not once was I told that what I was doing was wrong or cruel, I felt valued and that the person understood I wanted to do the right thing. Over the next few days I started to ask myself some difficult questions: Does Spirit want to go outside? Yes! Is he completely miserable? I think he was at first, but now is starting to adapt. Since he is young, maybe I can give him a certain amount of time, like 6 months and then make a decision?
I felt some guilt and was definitely questioning if I was doing the right thing. At night he got moving and I could hear him jumping around and probably being more his wild self. He still looked out the window and howled every night. It bothered me, waking me up, so I started wearing ear plugs.
What did you decide to do?
After much soul-searching I let Spirit outside. I felt he would be happier outside and fairly well-equipped at caring for himself although I did feel bad that he might live his life in fear. I guess he was probably used to it and the indoor life was probably incredibly strange and lifeless to him, and scary too.
Spirit kept close to the house, when I put food out and peeked outside, I saw him out there eating.
This was a year ago, what’s the latest news on Spirit?
A while after I’d let him out, he started staring up at the door on rainy cold days like he remembered that it was warm and dry and had soft beds in the house. Gradually he started to come indoors and became very friendly with KW, following him around like a puppy. He is now a calm, relaxed and happy cat indoors, still with the freedom to go outdoors if he chooses.
Part of me didn’t want to let him out at all because everything I have read says don’t let a deaf cat outside, but he seems to know what he is doing, always staying close to the porch so he can dive under the deck and into the fenced back yard if needed. When I gave him free will I gained his trust, and he CHOSE to be indoors with us. He has freedom and a loving person and safe home when he wants, with no pressure to be anyone but himself. The best of both worlds. And he chooses to be inside now most of the time, unless the weather is good. For us, things worked out beautifully. It did not come fast or easy either and people shouldn’t get the idea that this was simple or happened without problems or difficulty.
I also want to spread the word about giving cats, especially formerly feral/unowned cats, freedom of choice and to not hold them prisoner. I guess the saying, “If you love something set it free. If it comes back its yours. If it doesn’t, it never was,” is true!
It would be easy to read Spirit’s story and have it reinforce a belief that all feral cats need a home where people will love them. They can be ‘tamed’ or brought round and they will live long and happy lives. This story is not about that – it supports the idea that every cat is an individual and that the cat’s needs and choices should take precedence over our desires. Spirit may well have come from a genetic background, inherited from his parents, of tolerance or even sociability – Leila wonders whether he may even have been a pet as a kitten.
The most appropriate solution for feral cats is a Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) programme where the cats are returned to the place where they were trapped but can no longer add to the ever increasing population, just as Leila had been doing for the rest of the colony. The significance for me of Leila’s story is her desire to do what she felt was right for Spirit and not what felt good for her. She gave him choice. For me, she is a person who truly cares about cats!
For more information about working with unowned cats and programmes like TNR, visit the Unowned Cats section of our website.