And then Along Comes Mary (Part One)
Updated: Jan 9
Funny how one small action can change your life for years to come.
A female feral appeared in our backyard one day. We named her G.I. Jane, after the movie in which Demi Moore played a courageous and tenacious young lady seeking to become the first female Navy Seal. G.I. Jane would stand patiently on a large rock in our backyard, waiting for birds to fly overhead, hopefully providing her with a small meal.
Day in and day out she would appear there, seemingly as an act of faith, hoping to score some dinner. My wife began to take pity on her and put some chicken in a plate for her to eat. If you have ever been in a similar situation, you know that feeding a stray immediately binds you to that cat for life. An irrevocable bond is created between the two of you, a dependency that the planets themselves cannot revoke or alter.
G.I. Jane’s next move was calculated and very predictable. She appeared outside our kitchen with two of the six kittens she had given birth to about a month earlier. Only one of the five identical fur balls took up residence in our backyard, along with another kitty, most probably from a different father, since her coloration was night and day different from the rest.
Virtually at the same moment in time, Mary appeared from the north side of our house as Lydia and Edith strolled onto the property from the south. Although they seemed to be from different litters (Edith and Lydia were long hairs, Mary a common tabby), their paths merged and they walked up to our kitchen door as a unit, demanding to be fed, right now.
We had to relinquish our cats about 25 years ago when our daughter developed severe allergies, but with our daughter grown and on her own -- without the slightest hesitation my wife Phyllis put down a bowl of cheerios and milk for these three adorable kittens.
Lydia was named for a character in Firesign Theater, Edith after a life-long friend of our family. Mary, however, was somewhat special; she was the runt of the litter. A close friend of mine had a diminutive (in stature only) wife named Mary, so this tabby got tagged as her namesake.
They appeared to be recently weaned, and dove into the cheerios with gusto. Sated for the moment, they pitched their tent in a tree in our backyard, and proceeded to relax, doing what kittens do best. Although they were feral, they were young enough that they quickly lost their fear of us, now that we had become a source of food. Well, two out of three did. Mary was reluctant to give up her status as a wildcat, and decidedly hung back as Lydia and Edith approached us.
Phyllis established a firm set of ground rules for our interactions with the kittens, which were discarded almost as quickly as they were conceived. Their dinner plate quickly moved from the patio to just inside the kitchen door. They had us right where they wanted us.
Our experiences in the past with cats led us to believe that pairs of females from the same litter was the best of all possible worlds. Females didn’t wander like males tend to, and girl kittens are less rambunctious than boys. Having three females around was going to be an easy ride.
We set up a cardboard box on the patio for their home, and anything on the patio became fair game for play.
We worked hard to try and domesticate them, and had great success with Lydia, less with Edith, and none with Mary. We knew we were quickly approaching the point where they would become fertile and begin breeding, and did the best we could to get them to jump into our laps and beg to be neutered.
Didn’t work that way.
We let them roam around the house for brief periods, although their litter box was our desert landscaping in the back yard. Despite our best efforts, we still couldn’t pick them up like store bought kittens, and before we knew it, Mary had put on a lot of weight for the runt of the litter.
Due to the way female cats ovulate; multiple males can contribute to the litter. This is why you can see long and short hairs mixed together, calicoes and tuxedos popping out at the same time. The only male we are sure of is one we called Mucho.
Mucho was well endowed, hence the name. He had a tough time walking due to the weight he carried around, and his hind legs splayed slightly so as not to bruise his manhood. He was not just a spotted tabby, he was THE spotted tabby. Mucho was master of all he surveyed, and he surveyed every female cat in the neighborhood. We were very surprised that he didn’t nail Lydia or Edith, but there was a good reason for that.
We prepared a shelter for Mary’s first litter on the porch, and her attitude towards us changed remarkably, due to, we think, her perception of our kindness towards her kittens. For the first time we were able to approach and pet her. She lost any remaining fear. We were elated.
We left her alone with the kittens for three weeks, and then began to gently handle them. They became accustomed to our presence quickly, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief – as soon as they were weaned we would find homes for them.
Mary was a great mother, descended from hearty stock. Her mom, a cat we called G.I. Jane – for her unwavering persistence in finding food – was quite a lady. She was as feral as they come, but would stand patiently on a rock in our backyard for hours and hours every day waiting for a bird to fly by. Phyllis took pity on her and gave her a small piece of chicken one day. The following morning she brought three kittens to us, and then disappeared.
Mary’s first litter was born at the tail end of the breeding season here and were barely a month old when the brutal desert summer began. We were unprepared to bring them inside, so we constructed a shelter for them in the corner of the porch. The heat was unrelenting, and we provided a continuous supply of food and water for them. They were as pleased as could be.
The most fascinating aspect of watching these kittens grow up, was the role of guardian that Edith and Lydia assumed. Mary and her two friends triangulated the new litter, establishing physical boundaries for them commensurate with what they deemed appropriate.
Until they were a month old, they were restricted to the cardboard box they sheltered in. Mary would hop in to nurse them, but none of their guardians would permit them to roam. At four weeks they were permitted out of the box and on to the landscaped area adjacent to the house.
Any kitten attempting to escape the boundaries established for them would be gently carried back to the appropriate area. Even as they approached two months old, neither Lydia nor Edith would permit them to escape the yard and venture into the street. It was at this point we opened the house to them, to help in their adjustment to being indoor / outdoor kittens.
Even with their awesome responsibilities, Mary, Edith and Lydia found time to play while the new kittens rested.
Occasionally I would summon all the kittens together for family portraits.
Cat herding is an art that few can master. I come from a long line of cat wranglers, and have been sworn to secrecy regarding the tricks of the trade. I entrusted my secrets to Lydia – she was a quick learner.
Inside, the kittens learned about the joy of couches and boxes.
We were fortunate to find good homes for all four kittens. It was amazing to watch the dynamic interaction of members of the same family as they matured. The kittens did everything as a cohesive unit, where one went, the rest eagerly followed.
There is a dramatic difference in behavior based on the number of cats from the same litter in a single dwelling. While it may be possible to get multiple cats from different families to adapt to one another if they are young enough, once a cat has staked out its territory, others are seen as interlopers, and dealt with swiftly.
We had several other males prowl our property once they sensed the presence of breedable females. In the photo below, Zorro enters from the left while Mucho watches his actions carefully.
Mucho would permit another male on the property until it broached a four or five foot radius. He would then leap with fury and drive the invader from the property, regardless of any difference in size or weight. Food left outside attracted many other cats from the neighborhood, and a tense peace could exist temporarily as long as each maintained a respectable distance from the others.
In the next photo, Mary rests next to the rock near the wall (in the background), while no fewer than five suitors are scattered about.
The fights that ensued were brutal; all of the males wanted the status of the alpha cat. It was one day in the winter when the biggest surprise we would see occurred. Lydia was injured in a fight. Since she was a long hair, the wound was not visible to us until it began to fester. We took her to the vet immediately, and she was examined.
Aside from the obvious injury, the vet pushed her fur aside looking for other puncture marks and we discovered that Lydia was actually a male! The same was true of Edith. At that point, Lydia became Lyle, and Edith was hereafter known as Ed. Lyle needed two drainage tubes and a collar to help the injury heal. His beautiful bushy tail was shorn of all its fur.
Because of the surgery, the doctor could not neuter him till he healed. He wasn’t used to being inside all the time – he resented being cooped up. We had no choice but to remove the collar and let him out. He remained an outdoor kitty through the ordeal, coming inside for brief periods for food, medicine, and as much love as we could muster.
He recovered fully. Reflecting on this startling revelation brought to light something else. Male cats almost never take part in raising kittens. This is solely the responsibility of the mother. That Lyle and Ed spent so much time guarding and even playing with Mary’s kittens is now more incredible than ever.
Mary had a sister we named Trouser, because her two front paws looked like a pair of pants half pulled up. Trouser was as wild and feral as Mary was gentle. Try as we did, we could not get her to trust us so we could find a home for her and her kitten. After dinner, Mary and Trouser would run up the tree to their favorite spot for a little R&R.
As tame as she was, Mary would not permit us to pick her up. She preferred all four paws solidly on the ground. This delayed our attempts to get her neutered. While we TNR’d many cats, some reverted to their feral ways after the ordeal of being trapped and brought to the vet, and we didn’t want that to happen to Mary.
When breeding season began early the following January, Mary sported another baby bump, and we knew we were in for another wild ride. Mary had transitioned to an indoor cat by now; we were determined to permit her to birth her litter inside since it was still winter in the desert.
I was working in San Diego at the time, only home on the weekends. Using as much science as I had available, I predicted early in March that Mary would give birth on March 21, between 11 am and noon. At 11:30 on the 21st, she went into labor on our living room tile.
Macho was born first. He came into the world with all the fury of a hurricane. His umbilical cord was a bit short, and Mary could not reach to sever it. So she began to chase him around in a circle, lifting Macho off the ground and into the air. After about 3 dizzying spins, she latched on to the cord and was able to free the kitten, who was none the worse for wear, in spite of his dramatic entrance into the world.
When the mother cat is preparing to give birth, she searches for a safe place for the event. Mary began rooting in the corner of our bedroom, tearing up a corner of the carpet in an effort to create a burrow for the kittens. We purchased a large dog bed and furnished it with an old beach towel. With Macho firmly in her grasp, she sauntered over to it, surveyed it for a moment, and deemed it appropriate as a new home for her brood.
Within about 90 minutes, four other dumplings popped out.
We watched those new kittens feed for 14 hours straight without coming up for a breath! Knowing how exhausted Mary must have been, we moved her food and water dishes within easy reach. She never left the kittens for more than a few minutes to use the litter box.
Macho, Mojo, Frisky, Bandit, and Spot didn’t move from that bed for the next two weeks, save for our changing of the towel once to remove remnants of the birthing process. Our daughter Sasha came home, and in spite of her fierce allergy to cats, fell in love with the bunch. Sasha has a booming voice, and Mary took offense to the manner in which Sasha lavished praise and joy towards the newborns.
She rose abruptly and carried each kitten into the bedroom to a new safe space. They would remain there for the next month or so. I installed a security camera in the room so I could monitor their escapades from my desk at work.
At two weeks we made a trip to the vet with Mojo. One of her eyes was stuck shut and would not open. It was just a bit of goop from being born, and the vet managed to clean it out despite her protestations. It was the youngest kitten the doctor had cared for, and soon all of the staff gathered around to see the little munchkin.