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Taming barn cats

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When we last posted a story about Jeff Worth bringing two young feral cats into his barn (female siblings), Bullwinkle, his established barn cat was full of welcome for the newcomers. Bullwinkle had recently lost his brother Rocky, possibly to a predator, and had been sitting at the side of the road waiting for his sibling who never returned. So, Shelter Me Inc, our rescue group, arranged for Feline Friends of New Hampshire to bring Bullwinkle some new companions, and these turned out be a beautiful pair of young, female feral cats whom Jeff named Sarah and Lulu. The picture features Jeff with Lulu, formerly feral and wild no more. Jeff has a way of taming wild cats. This is his latest missive about their progress.

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Things are progressing really well with Lulu and Sara. It’s been about two months since they’ve come to live in Pepperell and both have settled into the routine quite well. In fact, they are very comfortable indeed. They sit on the top shelf of their cage in the morning taking turns warming themselves up. When they get too hot, they move one level down and sprawl out, apparently dreaming of when they’ll get to leave the shop and go visit the chickens that they watch through the window.

Lulu has become quite tame at this point. When I open the door to the cage, they both come right to my hand but Lulu will “bow” her head down a little (cat people know this gesture) and I’ll respond by “bumping” her head softly with my fingers and then scratching her behind the ears and around the neck. If I go slowly, she’ll let me scratch all the way down her back before lifting her rump and letting me scratch her right at the tail. When she’s in a really good mood (which is often for her), she’ll lie down on her side stretching her legs out while pushing at my arm and hand. She’ll play like that for a few minutes. I can even scratch her belly a little.

Sara won’t tolerate contact much. She no longer hisses unless a stranger comes in and even then, the stranger has to come right up to the cage and stare. Sara will back away from my hand but will only retreat to the nearest corner. Then, she’ll sit down and let me slowly and carefully touch her neck, head and shoulders. If she turns around, she’ll tolerate me scratching her hip and stroking her tail. After a few seconds you can see her tense up so I just back off and she typically just lays right down where she is and let’s life go on as usual.

For each cat, I think this is good progress. They are so calm on weekends that they’re sleeping in the open when I come out to the shop early in the morning and they stay out all day long….usually sleeping….no matter what I do in the area. Half the time I glance over at them and their eyes are closed even if I’m putting something together with power tools or doing shop chores. Bullwinkle hangs out there all day long and they’re so used to him that I think they miss him when he goes out to hunt. When Bullwinkle sits on the window shelf and looks out, the two kittens come up to smell him and figure out what he’s looking at. It’s common to open the door to the shop and see all three cats together even if two are in the cage and one is just outside the bars.

So, for the big news. I’ve let them out twice now. The first time they were really tentative. Climbed out of the cage; climbed up under the workbench; scurried under the chairs and the table saw and anything else they could hide under. Lots of sniffing around and head bobbing. The second time was just a party. Out of the cage and across the shop they ran. They played hide and seek before attacking each other. Sara tried to climb up the wall using the cracks in between the lapped siding. Lulu decided that Bullwinkle’s food was just out of this world. All three cats bumped into each other trying to catch the laser light (Bullwinkle, at 15 ½ pounds easily won the bumping match). I had trouble getting them back into the cage and after, they were both worn out. That was Friday night and I haven’t let them back out yet. I think they’re still recovering.

Then, yesterday I decided to pick Lulu up since she seemed so friendly when I would pet her belly. I had been putting my hand under her to lift her up a little each time I reached into the cage. I want her to get used to the feeling of her feet off the ground. I’d only lift her a ¼” or so at first. Later, I would lift her from one shelf to the other before putting her right back down. Look at the attached photo. She’s in my arms, out of the cage and staring at the camera. She was in my arms for about a minute before she got squirmy. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to run around or if she was nervous and wanted to get back into the cage so I played it safe and put her back. She immediately lay down, then turned on her side with a “play with me” look on her face. So, I played with her paws and scratched her belly for a while before calling it quits. Sara sat beside her and yawned. I think she was grateful to NOT be picked up right now!

If the weather were warmer I’d let them out but I’m going to wait. Once they are released from the cage I want to keep them in the shop for a while and that means I’ll have to block access to that area from Bullwinkle. I think his presence is important so I’ll work out some other way to handle the release. In the meantime, they’ve gained weight and are living the good life.

The slide show features pictures of Bullwinkle and Rocky when they first arrived in Jeff's barn and were placed in an acclimation cage, and includes snapshots of their life on the farm after he tamed them.

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