When I was just starting out in my new career, money was beyond TIGHT (my first week doing it, I made the Princely sum of eleven bucks). I needed a roof over my head and I couldn’t afford one.
So…I did what a lot of people do. I went on Craigslist and went “shopping.” for a new home.
Found an ad that had been posted by a tiny, struggling animal sanctuary in Georgetown, SC that specialized in feral cats.
They needed a “Cat Wrangler.” The job was this:
You live 24/7 at the Sanctuary. Staff brings you a hissing, screaming demon cat and puts it in your little room with you, then locks the door. The rule was: The door doesn’t unlock again until either the cat stops screaming or you start.
Best. Job. EVER.
In practice, I had “class sizes” that ranged from five to nine. The goal was to socialize them so that a few could eventually be adopted out.
I lived and worked there for ten months, total. Three of my charges eventually did get adopted, and another two adoptions were in the works when I left.
Living with feral cats is a real adventure. They’re nocturnal, so they’re on the prowl while you’re sleeping, which means that your feet are targets - if you move them or roll over in your sleep, expect to wake up bloody as a feral beast latches on to your toes with everything they have.
My biggest “secret” in terms of socializing these guys was feeding time.
When mealtime rolled around, I’d open the cans of food, sit on the floor with the bowls arranged all around me - everybody had their own bowl, so there was (in theory) no need to fight. Obviously, that didn’t always work out as planned because some bowls were more “popular” than others, which led to some jockeying for position.
Needless to say, putting oneself in the middle of the show was an invitation to be attacked, and that happened frequently.
One of the first lessons learned was to never put a bowl behind me, such that I couldn’t see it. That led to an immediate, guaranteed attack if I so much as twitched.
With the bowls arrayed before me though, the beasts came to the food, and…I would pet them as they ate.
Obviously, the first several goes at this turned into bloody affairs. These cats were vicious and brutal, and they didn’t take kindly to human contact at all, much less when they were trying to eat.
I persisted though, and over time (with my hands looking like raw hamburger), they began to come around, and would tolerate being petted as they enjoyed their meal.
Over a period of perhaps two weeks, the message got through. This was a nice human. He had “yummy goodness” for us, and we can have as much as we want, for the low price of allowing “that hand” to touch us.
Then it got interesting.
Some of the braver cats (and the ones with sweeter dispositions) would begin coming up to me between mealtimes. At first, they were pensive and uncertain, sitting just out of arm’s reach, but watching me closely, sitting on the edge of my writing desk.
I’d stop writing and place my hand on the table closer to them.
Some would run, only to come back later. Others would sit there, watching “that hand” like a hawk, and eventually it would move closer.
This process took (depending on the cat) 2–5 days, but in the end, the result was a scratch behind the ears or under the chin.
Once in a great while (perhaps 10% of the time), such visits were also rewarded with “snackages” (these, btw, are the terms I used with the cats, speaking them aloud - so when I said “snackages” every feline under my care instantly perked up, knowing what that meant - little chewy treats doled out in ones and twos, separate from mealtime. Snackages were VERY popular!
This led to the next “phase” of our socialization training. Cats hopping up on the writing desk and sitting ON the keyboard, an indication that it was time to stop tapping those silly keys and pet some kitty.
At that point, I knew they were almost ready for adoption, but there was one more bridge to cross.
I needed to see the belly. And…I needed to be able to TOUCH the belly without getting scratched or bitten.
(see? I did eventually come back around to belly!)
The secret was this:
Cat hops up and sits on the keyboard, initiating a petting session by insisting on one.
How i belly rub my cat and not get bitten
Start with ear rubs, back scratching or chin scratches, depending on each cat’s preferences.
Eventually, this led to the cat rolling over and exposing belly.
I’d continue giving them their preferred form of petting with one hand, while introducing my second hand, which would also start petting their flanks, creeping closer to the belly.
Over the course of a few days, I’d wind up gently stroking the belly, but always while simultaneously giving them their preferred form of petting so that an association grew between the two.
The exact time varies from cat to cat, but I never had an instance (with feral cats, no less) where in the end, I couldn’t reach down and rub some kitty belly without fear of being attacked for it. In fact, for a few of the felines, it became their new favorite form of petting.
When I finally left the sanctuary after ten months, I brought three of the ferals I had been working with, with me to my new home.
Jack (One-Eyed Jack), missing an eye and half deaf
Ghost (stone deaf)
and Patches (about 80%) blind.
These three were well on the way to being socialized by the time I was ready to depart, but because of their “issues”, I didn’t figure that anyone would want them, so…I took them. They are my family, and yep - I can reach down and rub that belly any time I wanna.
It takes patience and practice. It takes understanding and mutual trust, but you can teach each other new things like that, and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for each other.
From this, there have been a number of interesting things that have developed away from the Sanctuary. I’ll keep it brief since this answer is already getting quite long, but here are some of the more recent developments, here on the mountaintop:
#1 BP Meds Trouble - I have heart trouble, and my doctor upped my BP med dose. The first several days were an adjustment period and I was light-headed and woozy.
One day, after a long stint at the keyboard, I got up too quickly and felt incredibly dizzy. Tried to take a step and just…collapsed on the floor. My three vicious feral cats mewed miserably and surrounded me, with Patches (the Alpha, despite being blind) sitting on my chest and licking my face as the other two took up flanking positions on either side and curled up next to me to provide warmth. (Everyone got “snackages” that day for their selflessness and heroism).
#2 - Cat “Language” - Ghost was the most communicative of the three, and the most adept at teaching the dumb human catspeak. She was a very patient teacher, right up until her death (she got out and was eaten by a coyote, who, btw, was hunted and eaten in return).
Ghost would sit at the corner of the writing desk and give me a slow blink to get my attention, then run into the kitchen. If I didn’t follow immediately, she’d come back and repeat.
When I did follow, I would find her sitting on the table. She would stare at me until I met her gaze (/message begins).
Then look at the cabinet where the bowls were.
Then look at the fridge where the milk was.
Then look back at me and meet my gaze (/message ends)
The expectation was obvious (cats point with their eyes), and I was always so charmed that I couldn’t resist giving her exactly what she was clearly asking for (one time though, as a test, I pulled out orange juice - she furrowed her brow in disgust and immediately repeated the ritual above).
#3 - My cats play a game…with actual rules. I’m sure they call it something else, but I call it “Smack My Butt”
One cat is “it.” The “it-cat” stands on a box (or the sofa, or whatever). The others circle around, looking for an opportunity to attack.
Hits to the head, shoulders, or flanks don’t count, but if the “it-cat” is struck on the butt, he/she is out, and the butt-smacker is now “it,” and the game continues with the butt-smacker taking the high ground.
They’re very egalitarian about it, too. Since Patches is mostly blind, she gets credit for near hits.
I’m 100% certain that there are nuances and rules to the game that my dumb human brain cannot comprehend, and I’m not exactly sure how scoring works, but I do love to watch them play it.
Adding one more: These three were an exceptional hunting team, with each compensating for the other’s weaknesses. The mountaintop is teeming wich mice, moles and voles, and many of these try to make their way into the pantry, which puts my food supply at risk (very important because this is an isolated area, and especially during the winter months, there’s no guarantee of easy access to town - two roads off of the mountain, and when it snows…)
So the feral beasts ensure that the pantry remains safe and vermin-free.
When Ghost died, I adopted another cat, Bella (aka “Bug”) who had been abandoned in a local warehouse. She has no physical disabilities, but was abandoned very young and doesn’t “get” cat vocalizations, so when I’m petting her, she’ll growl and purr simultaneously, since she’s not really sure which one’s appropriate. All are outstanding little hunters!
Final note: One side benefit of living and working at the sanctuary was that I learned a lot about “field medicine.” On more than one occasion, I had to perform emergency surgery on myself, sometimes using little more than a lighter, a bottle of iodine, and a jeweler’s screwdriver as a makeshift scalpel. Once, I resorted to dental floss for stitches. Not pretty, but it worked!
EDIT #2 - In the comments, I had someone take issue with the fact that I hunted and killed the coyote that ate little Ghost. I’d like to incorporate that into this piece, and the reasoning behind it.
First, yes. It’s absolutely true that when Ghost was killed, my next door neighbor and I went hunting. We tracked the coyote, killed him, and then, Mike helped me dress him and he wound up occupying space in my meat freezer.
Coyotes don’t really taste all that good, but I ate him. The ferals had some too. We had a formal “Farewell Dinner” in Ghost’s honor.
I do not regard that action as revenge, however (tho I was not at all sorry that the coyote got a taste of his own medicine). It was pragmatic.
I realize that this might seem strange (or even entirely foreign or barbaric) to people who don’t live in remote, wild areas - hell, a few years ago it was foreign to me…I lived in Myrtle Beach, and a bit later, in Georgetown, SC (another little seaside town). This kind of thing was utterly unheard of there - but life is different here. It’s more visceral.
The ‘Holler’ I live in is home to a grand total of eleven people. Appalachia is a poor region, and here, livestock (mostly cows and chickens) is essential to survival. A coyote puts that survival at risk.
Ghost’s death was the first, but it would not have been the last, and the next kill may well have been an animal that one of the families here relies heavily on for their survival.
True, I volunteered for the hunt because I had a personal stake in it, but the hunt itself was necessary. We couldn’t risk the coyote damaging the livelihood of one of the families here. It had to go.
I also didn’t mind participating in the hunt because I’m literally the only person up here who does not rely on the land for an income. I work from home, doing the freelance writing thing, so…I had the time to devote to the hunt. It didn’t take me away from tending the livestock.
Collected from Quora.