Maybe it was all the talk of New Year’s resolutions that got me thinking about it. Or maybe it was a blog written about puppy mill dogs from another blogger. Resolutions are essentially a hope that we can unlearn something and relearn or take on something more beneficial. For dogs that have had the misfortune to start life in a puppy mill, and for cats, like Annie, who are making the transition from feral to domestic, these days are about unlearning much of what they knew and discovering a whole new reality.

The blog that captured my attention a few days ago was this one, about fostering a puppy mill dog, Maggie, who has a long road ahead of her learning to live in a real home. I’d never thought about it before, but Maggie’s doggie journey and Annie’s kitty journey share much in common.

One place they diverge is that puppy mills are wretched institutions created entirely by human greed. We can and should make them disappear off the face of the earth. The feral cat population has probably existed forever, although it grows in part because too many people dump cats they don’t want anymore. They move away and leave the cat to fend for herself, or they take her someplace where they’ve seen other ferals and simply dump her there, much to the distress of many responsible colony caretakers. Cats who were once homed who are fortunate enough to find a new home have a shorter road back to domestic bliss, but for ferals and for dogs who have grown up in puppy mills the road to trusting people and a new environment is a challenge.

Annie’s journey, as a kitten about 7 months old, is a shorter one than Maggie’s, by the sounds of it. Seven months old is late to bring in a feral kitten, but not impossible (as you’ll see.) But as I read about the challenges Maggie faces, I saw a lot of Annie in her.

The stories about Maggie are much about her safe places in the house, and that is Annie in spades. When she arrived she was afraid of absolutely everything. Hands, noises, even a new blanket. She lived in the back of a large dog crate, buried under her blankets, for quite a while.  Kevlar gloves were required equipment for retrieving her for meds.


Fast forward a month or so and she wants to be with us…sort of. She is limited to the upstairs cat room until I have her health problems nailed, and I can trust her to let me pick her up for meds, etc. But when I walk in the door she RUNS to see me, and just as quickly, RUNS back to her safe corner, behind one of the cat trees. Little by little she ventures out (on Annie time), but it is hide and seek all the way some days.

Annie hiding

Annie hiding

Annie’s best way of learning is from our other cats, as Maggie’s is from other dogs. Annie had no idea what a toy was when we first rescued her, but let her watch me play with a fishing pole toy or a laser with another cat for just a minute or two, and Annie’s ready to tackle the toy herself. She is madly in love with a fishing pole toy with a centipede at the end of it, and catnip toys are real favorites. My husband got her a little mouse that squeaks for Christmas and we hear that little squeak from her kitty condo at all hours.

Annie on catnip
Annie on catnip!

When I first started letting her out of her kitty condo for free time in the cat room, she limited herself to the cat tree next to the condo, and to the lowest levels of it at first. Day by day she has climbed higher and higher, a sign of confidence. Lily, one of our cats who seems okay with Annie, and hangs out in the cat room with her, has introduced Annie to the rows of cat beds. Sometimes, when I come into the cat room, Annie is out and playing in open spaces now. Other times she is curled up in one of the shared cat beds. Today she and Lily were both sleeping in beds not far apart. Lily has been a non-anxious presence for Annie, and her teacher.

Annie and Lily

Annie didn’t have as much to unlearn and relearn as it sounds like Maggie does, so she is well on her way to relaxing and enjoying her new (and gentler) reality. Rejected by her colony, she is accepted by at least some of our cats…others will come around in due time. She truly wants to be around other cats, but she is amazingly patient about letting them come to her first.

She’s got everything a cat could want, and a few things (like medications) that she wishes would go away, but that’s the way it goes. I no longer need gloves, kevlar or otherwise, to pick her up. Much to my surprise yesterday and today, she actually let me pick her up and put her on my lap, where she settled in and started purring. For a feral kitten of her age to ever become a lap cat is quite extraordinary, but she just might decide laps are good.

She has her challenges still. When she is having trouble pooping she is a true crank. She does not want me to help her or even touch her. Her feral colors come out in spades and she wants nothing more than to bite me, the vet, or the vet techs. We’re still working on getting the meds just right, but we’re close. It isn’t clear yet if she will need them for life, or just for the time being, or something in between. Her colon seems to have done an astonishing job  of healing over the last month or so, and we’re hopeful that she could be medicine-free in the future.

For Annie, and for Maggie, unlearning and relearning will take up much of their time and energy in 2014. For me too. We brought one other feral kitten into our home about three years ago. Minh was the same age Annie is, more friendly, but just as sick, and he’s doing great. Dealing with his health issues was the challenge, but he was the friendliest little guy you could want.

Minh, taken in from the streets maybe three years ago

Annie is a new experience for me. Working with her when she wanted nothing more than to bite me, and letting her do it through the kevlar gloves, until she wasn’t so scared anymore, was quite the experience. Getting meds into a cat who is terrified and reacts with claws and teeth was quite the challenge. Reaching out to her the first time without gloves was more than a little unnerving. But we’re making wonderful progress…she is my teacher in many ways. And if she turns out to be a lap cat, like many of our other felines, she can have fun fighting for a place on the lap with the rest of the gang, and that will be the icing on the cake!


11 thoughts on “Unlearning & Relearning

  1. It is truly a time and love a young feral she has a fighting chance..i had an adult feral who had been bought into the shelter I volunteered at that had his collar around his had become one with his at some point he was someones but this collar was deeply was removed and I made the mistake one day of getting between him and another cat in the iso room..he ripped my arm to shreds..tore the glove clean off my arm ..poor thing I should have seen the signs..he had to be PTS as there was no way of ever rehoming him ..broke my heart..i still wear the scars and I think of him and all the others out there..I am so glad Annie is getting to find her new reality 🙂 Hugs Fozziemum x

    1. Such a sad story…at least the cat was euthanized rather than dying of pain and starvation, since that collar would have chocked him eventually. But still sad.

      1. I agree..with dignity and care surrounded by people who wanted the best for him..i have no idea how long this collar was around his waist..he was trapped (humanely) by us at home after he came to our yard and beat the daylights out of Merlin Merlin caught Feline Aids of this attack which surfaced years later and after a five year battle we had to say goodbye to this feral had no chance really..poor thing.

  2. Really great comparisons. I am so glad that Annie has come so far already. I think she and Maggie are more similar than we can imagine. I lobbed reading how she watched the other cats and learned how to play from them. Maggie has already learned to follow the other dogs outside and that when all the dogs are in the kitchen there must be treats being handed out. She even started figuring out hand targeting yesterday!

    Hoping that both Maggie and Annie can continue to make progress and get better and trust people. 🙂

    1. That’s very cool that Maggie is figuring out hand targeting. That must be a real help for a dog who is afraid of hands!

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