… How We Got Him Back

May 30, 2011

The afternoon Deborah left I launched a renewed campaign. I updated my lost pet/reward posters and hung them on every door of the three buildings in Ted’s travel area. I also hung one near our mailboxes, which are centrally located for the entire complex. I did avoid the neighbor below us since he’s not friendly and has some anger management issues, I was more concerned that if he found Ted he might hurt him instead of help him… which brings us to list one.

Things you worry about while your pet is outside:

1. People who don’t have your pet’s best interest at heart. A lot of people don’t like animals, but it takes a special monster to intentionally hurt an animal. When you’re working with things like humane traps it’s vitally important to keep an eye on them. If someone who has ill intentions finds the trap they can hurt the trapped animal or even poison your bait. You need to strike a balance in checking the trap frequently enough to ensure any trapped animal’s safety and still ensure that you’re not crowding any animal that might go into the trap – a skittish cat won’t go near a trap they see you hovering over.
2. Cars, trucks, lawn mowers, and other things that move and hum. For any animal all of these things are hazardous, for a displaced indoor pet they are a loud, terrifying hazard. While everyone worries about their lost pet getting hit by a car an even bigger fear, for small, nimble animals such as cats, is that they will often hide up inside the engines of parked cars. Drivers often won’t realize that a cat is in their engine until it’s too late and the cat can be killed or seriously injured. If you know there is a lost cat in the area make it a point to make some extra noise before getting into and starting your car – often knocking on the hood is enough to set them running off.
3. Other animals. Along with disease, a lot of feral, alpha tom cats are actually capable of killing other, smaller cats that wander into their territory. Our neighborhood in particular has a large, white tom who runs things. This cat also happens to be Ted’s father, but after over a 18 months of Ted and his mother being homed there is no way his father would know him and spare him any grief. (In fact, the night we first saw Ted it was because his father was trying to fight him.)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have a special needs pet the list can be infinitely longer.

I reached out to some good friends of ours, the Hopper family, who run a rescue and frequently are trying to trap and capture feral cats and kittens. I knew that they had humane traps and that they might be able to tell me where to buy some. (News flash: none of the hardware stores in Tempe actually carry the large HavaHart traps.) I wound up borrowing two traps from them, and they were kind enough to come over and help me set them up in the areas Deborah and I had discussed. We baited them with tuna in oil the first night, and then we all started walking around the complex to see if we could see Ted.

We’d been out about a half an hour when I heard the familiar growls of a cat fight starting and I broke into a sprint. My footfalls scared Ted’s father off, I got there in time to see him run off, and also in time to see another cat dart under a low sitting Honda. I got onto the ground and looked just in time to see two, white, hind paws be lifted into the undercarriage of the car, at which point I laid on the ground and wedged myself under the car as far as I could. There they were! There were the hind paws I knew so well! The white was pretty much grey from soot and dirt, but the stripes started just where they should… and… I didn’t have my cell phone to call for back up. I stood next to the car, shouting for help, for about 15 minutes before I risked it and ran back to the apartment (where Spencer had gone after picking up dinner, assuming that this night, like the last two, would lead us nowhere). Grabbed my kit, while shouting what was going on, and took off back to the car.

The next five hours were a mixed bag. We went from having more people (seven at one point) to deciding we needed fewer people (just me and Spencer). We tried to find the owners of the car and failed. We tried to call the animal rescue emergency hotline* and the phone rang and rang without anyone ever picking it up. We brought out feather toys, laser pointers, and Ted’s favorite mousey toy.** I could touch Ted, and while petting him had him he had relaxed enough to start kneading the air in front of him. We felt confident that the situation would be resolved… until he lowered himself onto the pavement, heard a noise, and bolted under a different low sitting car.

I’m not especially proud of what happened next. Mostly because I knew better, and moreover because my execution was poor. I knew going in I was going to get bitten, probably badly, and I should have had Spencer ready to react. Instead I started grabbing Ted by the hind legs and hauling him out, one handed, while simultaneously shouting to Spencer to get the blanket and the carrier – that I was ending this now. Now, I made a valiant effort (everyone in the emergency room agreed) – I grabbed on and did not let go as Ted, terrified, bit me seven to ten times on my left hand and twice on my right hand.*** Ultimately this attempt was a failure – my arms were slick with my own blood (I know, gross – Spencer was actually gagging) and Ted was able to wriggle free. I sent Spencer on after him and retreated to wash my hands inside. By the time I got back out Spencer had lost visual contact with Ted and I stated that we needed to head to the hospital.

List two: Cat bites

Short list: do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly to your doctor (during normal business hours) or the emergency room (at 11 pm on a Tuesday when there is a full moon). Get antibiotics, take all of them, and pray that you don’t have any nerve damage. A startling 80% of cat bite puncture wounds get infected, you don’t want to mess around with those odds, because you can die. I was given an IV of antibiotics and prescribed two antibiotics by pill for seven days. (Along with some vicodin and a probiotic to help combat the pain and side effects of the antibiotics respectively.)

Now, as crazy as it is, I have yet to meet an animal professional since this incident (or even a doctor) who hasn’t said they would have done the same thing. When you’re in an emotional place and you see a quick resolution (and you haven’t slept well in days) sometimes you make decisions you will regret. (Honestly, I would do it all over again, but I would have had Spencer in position before grabbing.) And, sometimes? Grabbing works. (Our vet, in particular, retrieved his wife’s lost cat from the under carriage of a truck. He has a scar on this thumb from those bites.)

List three: tactics we employed that worked, or helped.

1. Initially, we set out food that smelled familiar near our front door and near the door of our neighbors where Ted ate as a kitten.
2. We never stopped walking, calling, and looking. Dawn and dusk are the most likely times to see a cat because they are, as we’ve discussed in this blog before, crepuscular and most active then. We had some anecdotal evidence that Ted was actually feeding mid-afternoon about halfway through his adventure but I’m inclined to think that this was more his actively avoiding being active around or seen as food competition by his father. Because I kept looking, even in the places I had look 40 times before, we discovered that Ted spent a lot of his day in particular set of bushes. While I couldn’t grab him to bring him home it was reassuring to be able to see him and know he was all right.
3. We set a dirty litter box, with some of his dirty litter, next to our front door. On one occasion, before he made it inside, our neighbors called to let us know he was sitting at the top of the stairs, near our door. He bolted when I opened the door, but I firmly believe it was the litter box that helped him figure out which door was his.
4. We set humane traps and requested our neighbors stop feeding the strays for a week. Unless a cat is hungry they will not go into a trap. Ultimately food was only withheld for about 3 days, but we were prepared to stick it out, as mean as it sounds. We baited the traps with everything from Mackerel (so, so gross), to sardines, to KFC hung on wires from the ceiling of the traps to encourage tugging and trap tripping. We also lined the cages with fleece blankets that had been rubbed over our other cats, sprinkled with cat nip, and sprayed with an artificial hormone called Feliway. You want to make the trap as enticing as possible.

So, what worked? Well, not the traps – not directly. We did trap a cat – just not Ted. What worked was a combination of things. Withholding the food, in the hopes that Ted would go into a trap to eat, setting the litter box near our front door so he would know which door was his, and sitting up with the front door open (in the dark, waiting with some Fancy Feast laid out) — essentially turning our home into the biggest humane trap of all – is what ultimately worked.

Now, I’d tried sitting up with the door open on four other nights and it didn’t work, so I truly believe that withholding food was key. (Ted has always been food motivated.) But I also sprayed our doorway with Feliway, and turned the kitty litter in the box to make it smellier the last night we sat up waiting. It took a few hours and a false start (his father actually came in about an hour before he did… and ate all of our bait… and sprayed our porch) but it worked. I was laying on the living room floor, starting to doze off, when I opened my eyes to see Ted walking across the room, sniffing things. My eyes got big, and I tried not to panic as I started whispering frantically to Spencer and trying to text Rae to please come shut our front door – my hands were shaking so badly that the message was a garbled mess. (She got it though, I heard her door open and close quickly after I hit send.) Getting the door closed was a flurry of activity, but it got done, and Ted was on the inside when it happened.

The fact is that different cats are going to respond to different approaches and there is no way to know which one will work – if any – for your cat. If you want your pet back your only hope is to throw all of the approaches out there and see what sticks. I am still angry and disappointed by the lack of support cat owners receive from actual pet recovery agencies, and it’s something that I think I will actively work to change in the future, but for right now I’m going to be happy that Ted is home. That the resources we did have were so wonderful, compassionate, and helpful and that our family is whole again.

Three and a half days later things are almost back to normal. We took him to the vet first thing Thursday morning, and he was given a clean bill of health. His integration into the household has been solid, but tentative. He’s acting normally, but his place in the pecking order is definitely in question, and he’s not ready to push it. I’m glad we have a few days with him before we leave for the wedding. I also think he’s as happy to be home as we are to have him home. What do you think?

Father and Son Reunion

*We found out later that they wouldn’t have come out for this anyway. A cat in a car engine isn’t an emergency. (Can you picture my face right now? CAN YOU?)
**The first toy he played with when he got home, I’ll have you know. I know my baby.
***You know when you go to the emergency room and there’s always that couple that kind of looks shady? They’re dirty and their hair isn’t combed, and they’re covered in blood? I found out how that happens. I’m not judging anyone in the emergency room anymore.

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