The Story of Mr. Mistoffelees and the Jellicle Kittens

by suckers -R- us

It all started in the first week of October. I don't know why she picked our porch. We don't have any cats. We don't want any cats. In fact, we're both allergic to cats. And our house and yard are patrolled by two large furry canids who, while generally friendly and gentle, live by the words "if you catch it, shake it. If it runs, try to catch it. If it's furry and sits there, try to make it run".

The cat had her own reasons, no doubt. Be those what they were, she chose the space beneath our back porch, moved in the first week of October, and had her kittens. We noticed them when the Furry White Beasts refused to come in, being far more interested in trying to fit their six inch wide heads into the three and a half inch gaps in the fence surrounding the porch foundation. Investigation revealed Mama cat proudly purring over her four newborn kittens amidst the rubble under the porch.

We don't have cats. We don't want cats. We're allergic to cats. Inquiries around the neighborhood turned up no one who'd claim her. So we put a box lined with towels and some food under the porch and resolved to take the kittens off to the Animal Protective Association for adoption at eight weeks of age. St. Louis doesn't usually get too cold 'til December, and we figured that just before Christmas, the chances cute kittens would be adopted were probably good. So much for Plan A.

Mama cat was rather a striking female. She had glossy black hair, white paws and chest, and lovely green eyes. She kept her kittens clean and warm and well-fed. She drove off the Large Furry Beasts with a claw to the nose whenever they came rather too near her kids. Mama cat distained to take a handout. She eschewed the food we put out, in favor of earning her own. I think she must have vowed to keep herself and her kittens, no matter what degradation she had to endure. But two weeks ago, Mama cat made a bad decision. She stooped to the degradation of taking food put out by the County Rabies Control. Little did she know it was all a trap. She was caught and taken away.

We figured this out Sunday afternoon, after Mama cat hadn't been seen for a day and the kittens had moved near the edge of the porch and huddled there, crying for mother. County Rabies Control doesn't answer the phone on weekends. The Humane Society desk said we were welcome to bring in the kits if we can't get the mother back on Monday. What will happen to them? Well, we'll kill them; four weeks old, they're not weaned, they're too young to adopt. Animal Protective Association, same deal. OK, maybe we can get the mother back. What to do tonight?

Feed them tuna fish mashed up fine in its own water, we're told; even if they aren't weaned they should be able to suck the mash off of fingers. We keep a vegetarian kitchen, no tuna fish to be found. But one of the neighbors was willing to lend a can to the humanitarian (felinitarian?) cause. We extracted the kittens into a box and offered the tuna-fish which, indeed, was immediately sucked down. Or at least sucked; they got some moisture sure, but it's not clear how much tuna wound up swallowed and how much pasted to fellow kittens. Yuck, major mess.

denPlan B. Borrow a large airline crate from a friend. Insert kittens, and bedding, and litter box. In the morning, spring Mama Cat from the county pound and insert Mama Cat; the emergency vet assured us her milk wouldn't dry overnight. Mama Cat can live in the crate and take care of her kittens until they are weaned.

Feral cats, it turns out, are destroyed immediately. Feral cats, it turns out, are defined as any collarless cat who fights bites and claws when removed from a trap. Nursing queens are destroyed with the rest, and too bad if her kittens dehydrate and die slowly, crying out for mother with this peculiar "peep" that sounds more like a bird than a cat's meow. County Rabies Control doesn't answer the phones on a weekend, but they have plenty of weekend manpower to kill cats. Mama Cat had been classed as "feral" and killed on Saturday. I am not very happy with this policy, but getting back to the present problem, so much for Plan B.

We aren't cat people. We don't want cats. We're allergic to cats, in fact. But we can't have kittens starving to death under our porch. And something in me revolts at the thought of taking the kittens down to the pound to be killed with no chance at life. So we started handrearing four kittens.

Advice abounded. Feed them milk and bread. Feed them moistened dry food. At first, they were too young and clueless to eat from a dish, even too young to swallow backwards (women who've nursed know what I mean). Feed them milk replacement (various recipes). Feed them from a preemie nipple and bottle. Feed them from a nipple made from an old rubber glove. Feed them from an eyedropper. At least for me, none of the above worked worth a darn. Milk and homemade milk replacement gave them the runs and more milk got on us than inside the kittens.

lapful of kittensSomeone I work with gave me a stainless steel "animal feeder" his lab uses to set up protein crystallization trials. Feeding them commercial Kitten Milk Replacement with a syringe and the "animal feeder" proved to work pretty well. They would also suck canned kitten food mashed up with milk replacement off of fingertips (ouch! those little teeth are sharp!). Plan C: rear four kittens by hand.

So, three times a day, one or both of us set a bowl of thinned canned kitten food on the floor and encouraged the kittens to eat, then fed them one by one. It worked best to set them up on a leg and tuck the end of the feeder into the side of their mouths while squeezing the syringe gently. They would suck and thrust with their tongues, but the formula would go right to the back of their throats and down. They stopped crying, started playing more, then started to look like round tummies on springs. Gradually they ate less from syringes and fingers and more from a bowl on the floor.

kitten climbing wall At first we kept them locked in the airline crate with their bedding and litterbox. When they'd hear us come into the room, they would run to the door and start climbing the wire. By the time we'd open it, all four of them would be clinging to the wire door and we would swing it open with all of them holding on -- a kitten climbing wall! After they filled their bellies and played for a while, their favorite thing was to climb into our laps and dive into the hollow where we'd sit cross-legged. One or two would climb in and lazily bite or paw at any kitten- parts which went by. Soon all four of them would be happily snoozing out, piled on top of each other.

They had individual personalities too. There was Curious George, who was the first out from under the porch. We later renamed her the StarKitten Enterprise for her determination to Boldly Go Where No Kitten Has Gone Before. Then there was Handel, of the loud and musical purr. Handel was very polite; he would sit on a leg and knead and purr while waiting to be fed. Since we had George and Handel, we had to have Frideric. Frideric was the ultimate Lap Cat, the largest and handsomest but happy to sit purring while the others were playing or happy to curl up and sleep by himself. A future Gumby Cat perhaps. Then there was The Black One, the smallest but most mature, sleek and elegant while the others were roly-poly. The Cat who Walks by Herself.

frideric grown My vet told me that I could safely place them at six weeks, if they were weaned. So I made up a notice: "Give Thanks for Kittens. Four Orphaned Kittens Need Homes By Thanksgiving". I asked everyone I knew to put one up anywhere they could think of. Everywhere they could think of. I put them up everywhere I could think of myself. It worked.

george grown The last kitten left this morning, purring in the arms of her new owner. We divided the leftover milk replacer and food between the last two people to pick up their kittens. I think they all found good homes. I hope so. Twice as many people came to look as took kittens--I talked some out of it and outright refused to give a kitten to one person. We scrubbed out the crate and threw out the rug from the room where they were staying (we'd planned to remodel that bathroom anyway, just not now).

With apologies to TS Eliot:

Jellicle Kittens are black and white
Jellicle Kittens are Rather Small
Jellicle Kittens are merry and bright
and pleasant to hear when they peep and call
Jellicle Kittens have milk-coated faces
Jellicle Kittens have bright blue eyes
They like to practice their airs and graces
and wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise

So that's the kitten story, all black and white. And if Mama Cat wasn't Mr. Mistoffelees, had four kittens not seven, and didn't make it, at least her babies got a chance.
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