During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had read that during the pandemic, more people started looking to adopt cats, to help ease loneliness and boredom, as people were constantly advised to avoid going out and to stay home to flatten the curve of the virus. Even before the pandemic, we had thought about bringing another cat into our home, but figured it was something we might do later, though I did keep looking out for cats that piqued my interest on all the rescue group pages. Inevitably, any great looking, well-socialized cat was snapped up by cat parent wannabes, which led me to look more closely at rescue cats that were less likely to be adopted, ones like Jimmy.
Jimmy, The Semi-Feral Rescue Cat
One of the Vancouver-based animal rescue organizations I followed, Straight Outta Rescue Society, rescued a 3-year-old half Maine Coon from a feral cat colony. My first exposure to him was the video below with the accompanying description:
"You're lucky you're so handsome big fellow. Jimmy is your typical shut down feral kitty. He will need time, love, quiet and patience. That’s what he deserves and that’s exactly what we will give him. This big, beautiful, fluffy boy is scared and has never had a positive human interaction. He was trapped from a feral colony and given the situation, with coyotes moving in and kitties going missing, the decision was made to do our best to tame him. We are going to make sure that life changes for him, and that people become really great for him. We know we can earn his trust, and we are going to make sure his future is happy and full of kitty adventure."
This rag-tag cat had scars on his ears and nose and was missing his front teeth on the top and bottom of his mouth, but fluffy and cute despite the markings of his hard early life. I was impressed with the foster mom's efforts to work with this cat who, at the time, seemed to not want to have anything to do with humans. She worked with a long brush to get him used to human affection, which he either attacked or suffered through with the most pissed off expression I had seen on a cat. I couldn't help but wonder if there was any hope for a cat like this to ever come around to being a domestic house cat. Upon doing some reading, the success rate for being able to do so with feral cats is quite low, though the organization referred to him as "semi" feral, which seemed to imply that there was some hope.
The next video I saw them post of Jimmy saw some of this hope materialize into something real:
I was amazed at the transformation. He was actually purring and even allowed the foster to pet him and scratch his cheeks. A week or so later, there was a video of him sprawled on the floor next to the foster, purring and actively seeking affection from her. It was at that point that I got it in my head that I wanted to help. We had a dedicated room that we could take in a cat as a foster. I thought what better way to ride out the pandemic than to volunteer and help bring a cat out of its shell, so that it would have a better chance of being adopted. At the back of my mind, I even considered the possibility that if he were to get along with our resident cats, River and Ezri, we might even adopt him ourselves, but that can be a bit of a stretch, requiring a commitment to the slow process of cat introduction so they can get used to each others smells, presence, and body language. Even with all the best methods, it still might not work out, especially with two different cats that need to accept him. I don't know if it was all the episodes of My Cat from Hell that I watched of Jackson Galaxy helping people work through cat behavioural issues, but I was confident that we had the means to help Jimmy.
Jimmy's "Kobayashi Maru"
When we first brought Jimmy home he was scared and confused. We set up his base camp, a room to call his own, to help him get comfortable while he got comfortable in a strange, new world. At first, we opened his crate, made sure he had plenty of food and water, and just left him alone so he could explore the space without fear. We set up a motion-activated camera so we could see how he was doing, and just let him do his thing. The next day, I went in to feed him, but I couldn't find him anywhere. I eventually found him crammed in behind the couch. Any approach near him led to flattened ears and the occasional hiss.
Fearful cats will often try to crawl into the most enclosed space they can to protect themselves against threats. But if you let them keep doing this, they will make it a habit and they will always struggle to gain confidence and have the cat mojo to enjoy life out and about. I had read that the solution to this is to block off their preferred hiding spot, and provide them with enclosed places they can feel safe, but that you can easily access so you can get close and interact with them. So I stuffed a blanket and some pillows behind the couch and put his enclosed cat bed in front of it. I went back in for his evening feeding and again he was nowhere to be found. After some searching, I found him crammed in tightly behind our sauna. So again, I blocked this off to force him out into the room. The next time I found him in the enclosed bed and I felt satisfied that the situation was solved. He had a super pissed off look on his face (as seen below), but I felt I had won this battle. But the war was not over.
Later that evening, I went back and yet again, he was nowhere to be found. I searched for ten minutes before I found him. Somehow he had managed to worm his way through the blankets and pillows behind the couch and had settled into a small gap there. Enough was enough. I was going to block the space no matter what it took. I brought up a bunch of old martial arts training mats and pads, and all the pillows and blankets I could find, and stuffed every nook and cranny as best as I could. I looked at it and thought, "There is no way he's getting back there now." The next time I went back, I found him in front of the barricade behind the couch, doing a sphinx pose in defiance, as seen below. I had won... sort of.
The thing is with Jimmy, even in his fearful state, he was incredibly resourceful and just wouldn't give up. It reminded me of Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk and his legendary approach to defeating the "Kobayashi Maru" test at Starfleet Academy. He reprogrammed the simulation to get around what was meant to be a no-win situation. The next time I went back into the room, I found Jimmy like this:
This sad attempt to defy my barricade made me snicker in sympathy. But then I went back a few hours later to find him like this:
He had managed to pull out one of the pillows to create his own personal nook. He looked at me with such a smug look on his face, even with all this being borne out of fear, as though he was saying, "I WIN." I decided to let him have this victory temporarily, and that Jimmy was possibly the best name that could have ever been bestowed on this cat, and that if we ever adopted him, the name would stay. He had earned it. Nevertheless, I had to change the situation so that I could access him and get closer to him so he could learn to trust humans. The next day, instead of trying to block the area behind the couch, I took away all the pillows and blankets and pushed the couch forward, far enough so that I could put his enclosed cat bed in the corner and get back there myself so that I could play with him and work on getting him used to human contact. Game, set, and match.
A Semi-Feral Cat Learning to Trust
I started out by petting him with the long handle cleaning brush that the foster mom had originally used to safely pet him. If I approached him too quickly, he would hiss, and he also hissed the first time I managed to stroke him with the brush, but after two strokes, he changed his tune pretty quickly and started purring. He started to remember that this was indeed something he liked, and day by day, he became more comfortable. It wasn't long before I was able to entice him out of his bed with treats or with a shoelace. After some encouragement from my father during a FaceTime call, I decided to try and pick him up and put him on my lap. Miraculously, he didn't object. It helped that I immediately gave him a treat, but he still stayed on my lap without me restraining him. When he did move off, he didn't go all the way back into his hut and sprawled out on the floor next to me. Each day saw more improvements and he started to feel more comfortable exploring the room when we weren't around. We were able to observe him moving about and investigating through the motion-activated camera. He even started staying out in the middle of the room when I entered, and would come to my lap or present himself to be petted without the enticement of treats. We also found him up at the window sill when we went in for an evening feeding.
We even saw video footage of him playing with a hanging cat toy that was in the room, a sign that his confidence was building. After a few short weeks, it was time to start the slow process of introducing him to the other cats.
Meeting Ezri and River
The first step is to start feeding the cats at the same time but with a barrier. We would do Ezri and Jimmy's feedings together on either side of the door to his room. River doesn't do feeding schedules, preferring to graze throughout the day, so we knew this wasn't going work with her, so we just worked with Ezri. That being said, one time I left the door slightly ajar, and River got into the room. The camera caught her sniffing the air after which she let out a low growl and a hiss then left the room. River had no interest in being there, so it wouldn't be until he actually left the room before she and Jimmy would interact. Ezri, on the other hand, is a little timid but curious. Little by little, we would lessen the feeding barrier, first by opening the door and putting a cloth barrier that kept them from seeing each other, but making it easier to hear and smell. Then we pulled the cloth up little by little to give them some visual lines. We then took the cloth away and kept the folded up clothing rack between them to give something of a barrier, but a full view. Then we took the barrier away completely but moved the food dishes back. The next iteration was to move their bowls closer together within Jimmy room.
At each new stage there was a little discomfort, with Ezri hissing at Jimmy and Jimmy sometimes fleeing away to the safety of his hidey hut. But after each repetition, it would get better. Eventually Ezri became interested in exploring Jimmy's room without the lure of food. Jimmy clearly wanted to interact with another cat. He would chirp happily when he saw her and sometimes would get up and move toward her, dying get close, but if he moved too quickly it would piss Ez off and she would hiss or growl or flee the room. Little by little, she would accept being closer to him if he didn't try to push her boundaries. She would often enter the room, find some high ground, and watch him, or just look out the window. It was progress.
The Great Escape: Our First Major Setback
Once it was clear that Jimmy and Ezri were relatively comfortable, we decided to open up his world a bit. We opened the door to his room but blocked off the top of the stairs so that we could get him to start expanding his territory. We started feeding him and Ezri in that area. Ezri would come and go through the blanket draped over the clothing rack, but Jimmy had never shown interest in trying to get past it. We thought he was too afraid to try and go through himself. One day, that all changed when Jimmy's curiosity got the better of him. He bolted through the blanket and down the stairs. I was startled at this development and chased him down, not wanting him to surprise River and possibly have a bad interaction, which could set back his progress. I tried to scoop him up and run him back upstairs, which caused him to panic and run away from me. He holed himself up in a shelf cubby where we stored cat food and he refused to budge. He was frightened and would hiss any time I tried to get near. I was home alone, and I didn't want to make things worse, so I just kept an eye on him until Chris got home and we could work together to get him back into his room. It would be weeks before he showed any interest at all in the downstairs world again.
Since Jimmy didn't appear to want to go downstairs, we decided there was little risk in just opening up his door, allowing Ezri to visit the room as desired, since they seemed to have an understanding at that point, and were getting along without signs of aggression. We thought it might encourage him to explore outward a bit more, and also get more used to the sounds of the house. It was an epic win the first time I found him hanging out at the top of the stairs, looking down. Any time a human would approach, he would scurry back into his room, but soon it was a couple stairs down, then a couple more, eventually he made it down to the second landing where he could observe parts of the main floor. We would use treats to try and encourage him down further, and he would come and get them, but would go back up right after. But eventually, he would stay, even venture further. We started doing his shared feeding times on the second landing of the stairs so he would have more positive associations with being downstairs. Then eventually, he took his first tentative steps on the main floor. His world was expanding outward. We gradually moved his feedings down the stairs. Soon enough he was exploring the main floor. It was awesome to watch his confidence blooming.
Increasing Cat Conflict with the Increasing Confidence
Once Jimmy had full access to the house and started to see it all as his territory, his confidence increased massively. We knew he was a playful cat, but this tendency multiplied exponentially and he would want to play constantly. He played with every toy we had and would want to play at any given moment. His style of play was unfortunately rather aggressive. He was clearly a hunter cat and had probably engaged in rough play during his time in the feral colony. Unfortunately, this translated into hunting Ezri and River.
River, our 11-year-old bengal, despite being two thirds the size of Jimmy, is the queen bee of our cat colony. She doesn't take shit from anyone, so when Jimmy started trying to stalk her, she made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she was boss, and he would do as he was told. Ezri, on the other hand, is only 2 years old, and while she is a similar size to Jimmy, she doesn't have his physical prowess. When Jimmy would stalk her, she would get upset and meow at him aggressively to back off, but he could tell she wasn't as confident. He just wanted to be near her and to play with her, but if she wasn't in the mood, she would get upset when he didn't back off and would try to fight him. And she simply wasn't equipped to win these fights.
It was disheartening, after all that progress, to have Jimmy terrorizing Ezri and to see Ezri retreat away from the newly confident Jimmy and hide from him whenever possible. What was hard about this, is that Jimmy was really bonded to the humans, so much so that he would always inhabit any space where we were, especially me. He bonded in a way that is almost doglike. Any time someone would sit on the couch, he would promptly arrive and drape himself across their lap. Jimmy would even join me on my lap during my morning meditation practice. He also started to sleep in our bed, which at first Ezri was fine with, but eventually she was too intimidated by him to relax there at night.
We tried our best to break up the conflicts, but for weeks, this was how the situation was. We questioned whether or not Jimmy would ever fit in with our cat dynamic. It wasn't fair to Ezri to have her position in the household usurped by the new upstart. And now that Jimmy was so well socialized with humans, he would make a great cat for anyone, so long as he got along with the other pets in the household. We decided to make some extra efforts to help the two cats settle their differences and to give it two final weeks to see if we could make it work. Over time, we started to notice that every so often when Ezri would get up to a higher spot, Jimmy would leave her be, preferring to stay low, a natural "bush-dweller." The trouble was that Ezri's tendency was to fight rather than take flight, but it gave us something to work with.
Creating Comfort Zones
After having watched countless episodes of My Cat from Hell, as well as helpful cat care videos from Jackson Galaxy's YouTube channel, we decided on an approach to making things work. We set up a few more cat window perches to give the cats more chill-out spaces off the ground where they could enjoy "cat TV". We also decided to set up a "cat superhighway" high off the ground, adding another cat tree, as well as bridges and platforms up on the wall, all of which would allow Ezri to escape Jimmy when she felt threatened.Whenever we saw tensions brewing, we would pick Ezri up and show her where to go to escape, so she would learn to take the high ground rather than fight him. We also increased shared playtime so that they would both be playing before their feedings, allowing her to become more comfortable being close to him and his overall physicality. We also increased Jimmy's food intake. We thought that he might be doing more "hunting" as a result of wanting more food. It was possible that he was still growing since Maine coons don't reach full physical maturity until somewhere between 3 and 5 years, and there was no way of knowing how much more growing he would do, especially since he was only partly that breed. At first it didn't feel like we were making any progress with them at all, but after about a week, things started to take. Ezri began returning to her old haunts, and adding other high places to her repertoire. Jimmy also started to back off more when Ezri would object to his physical pushiness. I knew things were getting even better after finding Ezri and Jimmy both in our bed at night, though on opposite sides of the bed. Sometimes we would find Jimmy with River or Ezri, sharing the joys of window, or seemingly engaged in conversation. Then there was the big breakthrough when I woke up one day to find Jimmy tucked in under one of my armpits, and Ezri sound asleep in my other. Ezri was getting more and more comfortable near Jimmy, even chilling out right next to him and me at times. All three cats were co-existing, even starting to play with each other without us guiding the play. We saw River and Jimmy racing around the house together, and checking out the neighbour cat from the window. We would see Ezri and Jimmy come to the top of the stairs and greet us when arriving home. And on occasion, all three cats were spotted lounging near the same window. It was at this point that we knew our persistence had won the battle for cat harmony. The next day we submitted our application and adoption fees.
Check out all the video footage of his journey here:
COVID-19 Pandemic Home Challenges
During the pandemic, so many people have found themselves taking on various home projects that they either didn't have time to do before being housebound, or didn't have the motivation since they weren't being forced to stay at home so much. For some people, this took the form of home repair, for others, remodelling or redecorating rooms. Other people chose to go through all their belongings embracing "konmari" concepts or other forms of minimalism. We did many of these things ourselves as well, but taking on the task of fostering and introducing Jimmy to our home was probably the biggest challenge we have undertaken as a home-based project during the pandemic. We knew we wanted help out a cat by adopting one day, and rather than get an easy "A", we decided to try to work with a semi-feral cat who might have never been adopted with all the difficulties they can present as part of the process of trying to socialize a feral. We were ready to embrace that challenge, to do something rewarding that would help an animal that needed more care and compassion after having had a hard life in their early years. It was a lot of work and required daily commitment to the process, but all the efforts paid off and I am so grateful to officially welcome our little bundle of joy into our home. We just love him and he makes us smile every day with his warmth and unabashed affection.
I don't believe everyone should go the route of pet fostering and/or adoption just due to pandemic boredom. Adoption is a lifelong commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. There is nothing worse for a pet to finally find a loving home only to have it ripped away from them when the owner gets "busy." Fostering is a commitment. Even if you're not committing to that pet for life, you are still committing a good portion of your day to its care, especially if you're trying to socialize a feral animal.
But if these are things you feel passionate enough to take it to the next step, there are a LOT of animals in need out there. And if it's something you had wanted to do even before the pandemic started, and have the means to do it properly, maybe it's time to make it happen. If not, there are plenty of other ways to help your community if you're willing to look for those opportunities. Giving back offers us all a way of taking some of the control back that we have lost, by doing your part to make the world a better place.
What forms of volunteerism and community-building have you embraced since the start of the pandemic? Please share your experiences in the comments so that we can all gain insights and ideas from each other.