Animals Taming a wild cat is not something to try with your bare hands. Here’s how to do it (or maybe not)
Earning the trust of a stray cat can be hard work. A feral cat, however, is a completely different story. Marian van Wyk shares her journey with Nebukatneser, a young feral from an alley in Sea Point.
On Saturday, 10 September 2016, with my hair wrapped in foil, I slipped into a dark alley in Sea Point, Cape Town. “A cat has been trapped at the back of the salon for three days now,” my hairdresser, Eugene Slabbert, had just said. “We started leaving food for it after it chewed through the tube of the coffee machine to get to the milk.”
Barely 3m long and pitch-dark, the alley was full of builders’ rubble and permanently enclosed. I used my cellphone as a torch to try to find the cat, but no luck. Then I saw him from behind; his tail gave him away! The tabby tried desperately to crawl deeper into the rubble. Nearby, dirty water was running from a downpipe.
Back in my salon chair, my mind went into overdrive. It was Saturday and the salon was closing just after lunch, so the cat wouldn’t be fed again before Tuesday. I realised there and then that I could not, and would not, leave the bewildered creature there. He was tiny – I guessed two months old. I would simply find him a home. In the meantime I sent my husband, Louis Botma, an SMS and asked him to buy cat food and cat litter.
I made my way back into the alley, this time with a box. The kitty was no easy catch, but eventually I had him in
the box. Growling like a lion, he put up a surprisingly strong fight, but I folded my arms across the box and walked home. And so began my emotional roller-coaster ride. Here is our story.
10 September 2016
The little grey tabby spent the first two nights on the cold marble tiles under my wardrobe, yowling horrendously between midnight and 05:00. He completely ignored his box bed with a blanket. Whenever I attempted to come close to him he recoiled, hissing, spitting and emitting a nasty smell – a deterrent similar to that of a skunk… I realised we needed to get to a vet, but it was after hours. I wrote a Facebook post, saying I needed to find a home for the kitten. I decided to call him Nebukatneser, a name I’d had on my mind since reading Aliens en Engele by Leon de Villiers, with the cat character Nebiekatneser, many years ago.
On Monday morning, after a traumatic catch involving several scratches and a nasty bite on my finger that required a tetanus shot, we set off for the vet. Nebukatneser fought like a furious tiger, trying to break out of the carrier. Dr Reena Cotton at Vetpoint in Sea Point explained that ferals are part of our ecosystem. In cities and industrial areas they help to control rats and other plagues.
Then, my first surprise: Nebukatneser was not two months old but around six months. He was a she, and in heat. Reena assured me that it is not cruel to sterilise a healthy feral cat to prevent their population from growing before releasing it back into its community.
We came to a compromise: should Nebukatneser test positive for feline leukaemia or feline Aids, she’d be euthanised. If healthy, she’d be sterilised. I still remember Reena’s words as she said goodbye: “The fact that she allowed you to catch her is a good sign. Give her two weeks – by then you’ll know whether you can domesticate her.”
The test results were good news, and that afternoon I fetched her after her sterilisation. Her left ear was clipped – a standard procedure with feral cats. In the event that she was released and ended up at a vet again, the vet would know she’d been sterilised.
Back at home began the game that nobody enjoyed: hide-and-seek. For days on end we did not see her at all, but at night she ate and went to the toilet – a surprisingly tidy affair – in the litter box. Every day I put my fingers in her food so she could get used to my smell.
Two weeks later, Nebukatneser was no more domesticated than on day one. By this time I’d done a lot of research and knew she couldn’t go to a household with children or other pets. And so I had to explain to my only Facebook friend who had offered to adopt her >
Back at home began the game that nobody enjoyed: hide-and-seek. For days on end we did not see her at all, but at night she ate and went to the toilet.
that Nebukatneser would never become domesticated with her three children under the age of six.
Louis and I, however, did not have the heart to take her back to the street. We decided she’d stay with us, even though we hardly saw her. She had set up home in a narrow space in our sleeper couch.
Out of the blue, at around 22:30 while we were watching TV, Nebukatneser was suddenly walking and bounding around in our lounge. Whenever we moved, she bolted. Over the next few days she emerged from the couch earlier every night. She’d make a dash for her litter box and eat a few bites before returning to her burrow in the couch, where she would stay until we went to bed.
Nebukatneser moved into my bookcase, where she hissed at me from behind my dictionaries whenever I dared to take a peek at her. She stayed there for weeks.
I started reading to Nebukatneser for about 40 minutes a day – a tip from my friend Eddie Lomas. Every day after work I’d sit on the floor with my legs pulled up (in an effort to look as small as possible) and read to her – anything, even the novel I was reading at the time.
I was working on my iMac when I realised that Nebukatneser was right behind me, playing with one of the “spiders” I’d made for her out of pipe cleaners. I took a chance and threw a second spider towards her, and to my surprise she ran after it. Story time was showing results!
Louis told me that Nebukatneser spied on me in the bathroom. Then she started to follow me around in the evenings, keeping close to the walls. During the day her hiding routine continued, but after sunset we played – as long as I kept a distance of 30cm.
Late one night I sat in bed, throwing “spiders” for Nebukatneser to catch. She’d whack them into a corner and come running back for another one. Then she snuggled into the crook of my knee and fell asleep. I resisted the temptation to stroke her, waiting for her to show me that she was ready for it.
Nebukatneser purred for the first time – 57 days after our meeting in the alley.
She rubbed against my legs for the first time. She would often snuggle up to me or sit on my desk while I worked, peeping at me from behind my large iMac screen. By now I had high hopes that she’d soon allow me to touch her.
Finally, a sign! Nebukatneser pushed her head into the crook of my arm. She was becoming more affectionate. I decided never ever to refuse her attention; she could always have as much attention as she wanted, even if I’d be late for an appointment. She remained skittish with Louis – he couldn’t touch her until late December.
Then she started to follow me around in the evenings, keeping close to the walls. During the day her hiding routine continued.
A night of drama. Nebukatneser was chasing insects on the balcony, one of her favourite pastimes. I went to bed around 21:00, unaware that Louis had closed the balcony door. He handn’t seen Nebukatneser among the plants. At midnight I was woken by the sound of banging against a window. I thought it was a bird, until I saw Nebukatneser’s silhouette through the blinds: She was walking along a ledge 8cm wide – seven storeys above the ground – desperately trying to find a way in. I rushed to the balcony, pretended I was calm, sank to the floor (making myself appear smaller, as in her feral days), and called her. She gave a few bewildered meows. The seconds dragged by while she turned herself towards me. When she landed on the balcony, I couldn’t help myself: I hugged her to my chest. For the very first time.
2 March 2017
Nebukatneser had her second vet appointment – this time for more inoculations and a routine check-up. I was tense; I had not forgotten the dramatic first visit. At Vetpoint I warned Dr Blessing Chiriseri: “She is, uhm… was, feral. Only my husband and I are allowed to touch her.” In his soft-spoken way, Blessing simply said: “Let’s see what happens.” Calm and without any drama, he lifted Nebukatneser out of her carrier.
TODAY, MY FERAL ALLEY CAT AND I
are inseparable. She comes when I call her. When I get home from work, she’s waiting at the front door, and then we run to the bed for a long stroking session. This daily ritual ends when Nebukatneser bites my elbow softly to show me she’s had enough.
It’s only in Louis’s and my company that she’s tame, however. The moment visitors arrive, she hides – although nowadays she’ll come out after a few minutes. I always make sure to stand between her and a stranger, and I ask guests to be quiet for a while and never to attempt to touch her, no matter how friendly she seems. >
PROGRESS At the top, Nebukatneser cowers under a wardrobe, and above she hides behind a bookcase. later, Months she relaxes under the duvet (this photo) and plays around on her scratchpole (opposite, above right).
Best friends… This bench, the handiwork of artist Roelie van Heerden, is where Nebukatneser likes to corner bugs in the evening.