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.

12 Septem­ber

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.

24 Septem­ber

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.

8 Oc­to­ber

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.

14 Oc­to­ber

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.

23 Oc­to­ber

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.

25 Oc­to­ber

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!

26 Oc­to­ber

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.

27 Oc­to­ber

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.

6 Novem­ber

Ne­bukat­neser purred for the first time – 57 days af­ter our meet­ing in the al­ley.

8 Novem­ber

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.

15 Novem­ber

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.

27 Novem­ber

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.


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.

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