photos and text by Michele D’Amour McDanel
A few years ago, I was an active foster home for one of my local animal shelters. My particular skill was socializing kittens that had been born to feral or semi-feral mothers. Semi-ferals are generally considered to be animals that have some comfort level with humans, but have grown up, or continue to live, in essentially wild conditions.
I had just finished work socializing a brother-and-sister pair, Callie and Smokie, and had found a home for them. They were adopted together within an hour of when I brought them back to the shelter.
On a hunch, I asked the volunteer coordinator if they had any cats that needed my help, while I was there with an empty carrier.
“Oh yes, please,” he said. “I have some triplets that need you to work your magic.”
On the way to the back room, I learned the full story. The triplets – two brothers and a sister – had been born to a feral mother and trapped at the age of 2 months. They had then spent two months in another foster home, being vetted and neutered / spayed. Their prior foster Mom thought they were ready for adoption, but their demeanor once they got to the shelter said otherwise. They were black cats, and it was about a week before Halloween.
The three of them were skinny and frightened, hissing and growling in a cage in the back room. There was no way they were adoptable in that state.
Now, Halloween or not, I have always had a soft spot for black cats. So they came home with me.
It has been a long and difficult, but rewarding road from there. Since they were already four months old by the time I got them, I knew they wouldn’t completely lose their feral ways.
Yes – they were a failed foster in the sense that I decided to keep them. At the time, I thought their best life would be if they could stay together, because they are each other’s comfort and security. I didn’t think there would be much chance of anyone adopting three semi-feral black cats together, except me.
They are eight years old now and a delight to have around; they each have their quirks. For anyone looking to rehabilitate a semi-feral cat, I’m hoping this gives you an idea of what can be accomplished and what life with them might represent. It’s interesting that even though they are siblings and had the same upbringing, so to speak, they each have their own personalities and differing degrees of socialization.
I kept the triplets in a separate room for over a month, and would spend as much time as possible in there, just sitting quietly reading a book or humming a tune so they would get used to me. I never picked one up, petted them when they were sleeping, or did anything to interfere with them feeling safe. I let them come to me when they wanted to and built our relationship from there. Once they felt secure, I gradually introduced them to the two other cats in my home.
Neo is a lean, sleek ten pounds, and is the most gregarious of the three and was the first to warm up to me, within a few days of his arrival at the house. To this day, he’s the most social of the three, and loves to “talk” with us and follow us around the house with a running commentary. He will even sit on my husband’s lap for a few minutes during dinner and is a shameless beggar for treats. He is incredibly wary of anything new, whether that be a person, an animal, or a piece of furniture. He will sometimes mark when stressed.
Trinity is a bit plump at ten pounds, with a gentle, sweet disposition. She was the second to allow me to pet her and will also allow my husband and son to do so. She’ll even come up to one of us, meowing and seeking attention. On the other hand, she is the most easily stressed. Trinity has absolute fits about going to the vet’s office: she will yowl as if she’s being tortured, pee and poop in the carrier, and foam at the mouth during the car ride. She also has a habit of hiding, but will usually do so with one of her brothers around for security.
Morpheus is the biggest of the three at twelve pounds; he’s also the most timid. It took about a month of being around me before I could even touch the tip of his tail. Today, he will jump up on the bed and ask to be petted, and I am even allowed to rub his belly. He will often hide behind the couch or in a kitty condo, but is happy to come out for meals and treats. He’s the first to run away when people come over, but is very accepting of other animals.
Each of the animals in my home has taught me a great deal about how to be a good pet parent. My triplets, though challenging at times, have been very rewarding to have in our home.
Tips for those who might want to adopt semi-ferals:
- Keep them in a separate room initially; be prepared to do this for several weeks or months, particularly if you have other animals in the house.
- Even after they have the run of the house, give them a place to feel retreat and feel safe.
- Don’t force things. Let them come to you, and build from there.
- Never forget how far they’ve come. You may not ever turn a semi-feral into a lap cat, but they can still be a loving companion.
Podcasts relating to feral cats: