New neighbors, Part 2: Refugee cats at our door

When two hungry, rapidly growing, unneutered tom-kittens unexpectedly arrived on the scene — with a brood of our own cats to care for already — deciding how to deal with them wasn’t easy. Would I be overstepping my bounds to help them out myself? Or should I leave it up to owners who didn’t understand the Tao of Cats?
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Note: I have changed the names of the two neighbor cats in this post, and the post to follow, to provide anonymity for our neighbors out of respect for privacy. For the same reason I have not included any photos. I think it’s unlikely anyone in our neighborhood will read these stories, but you never know.

So where were we with the story of our next-door neighbors who moved in a couple of years ago, as we were wrapping up Act 1 of the tale? In a nutshell, the primary theme was: Nice people, but completely unaware of how the high level of daily, hours-long noise the family squalled out into the soundscape affected those around them. Particularly the constant whooping, hollering, and shrieking emitted by their five energetic, pre- and post-adolescent children.

Before moving on to the next chapter here about the neighbors and their refugee cats, though, there’s an interesting loose end to tie up that unexpectedly capped off the previous chain of events some time after I made the original post.

The conclusion of the initial installment of the story found my wife and me hunkering down, resigned to putting up with the ongoing noise for the time being, while contemplating a potential next move, but not eager to make one because of the potential confrontation or ill will it might generate. Because most of the noise comes during the warmer months, and particularly the summer when the neighbors’ backyard pool is open and in use, we got a long-awaited respite once the family closed it down in the fall of the first year they moved in.

For perhaps four months or so after that until springtime of the second year, we were able to enjoy some peace and quiet. Not complete, mind you, but with the noise level much reduced. With their five kids in school during the day in the colder months, and temperatures often too wintry afterward in the small slice of daylight left to play outside for long when they returned home, there was simply not as much opportunity to wreak havoc on the airwaves.

Come spring, however, the screech-monkeys began to rev things up again over the gradually increasing hours of daylight after class time, hitting full throttle once again with the opening of the pool early that second summer. The previous year, the kids would typically knock off for bedtime around 10:30 to 10:45 p.m. The second summer, however, as the season progressed, they began stretching the hullabaloo out to 11:00 or 11:30 at times.

Who called the cops?

One evening the first week in August, though, the screaming and shouting and splashing and yelling and whooping and shrieking and hollering kept going all the way until midnight or later before finally dying down. At that point, after having avoided talking directly with the family about the issue for so long, I finally realized I was going to have to say something very soon before the situation got completely out of control — if it hadn’t already, of course.

But then a solution happened to come out of left field. The very next day, I learned that another neighbor had had enough with the previous evening’s midnight screamfest, and called the cops. I found this out when I received an apologetic email from the husband and wife who said the police told them I had made a complaint.

But the police don’t tell someone who it is that makes a complaint like this, at least not the first time. Our neighbors had just assumed it was me, because I was evidently the only one who had ever spoken to them about the noise before. So I emailed them back that I wasn’t the one who’d called the police, and would at least speak with the two of them first before I would resort to that.

I suggested, though, if they were to bring the kids in each evening around 10:00 p.m. — the cut-off time our local city ordinance sets down after which undue noise constitutes “disturbing the peace” — that would go far toward making me happy.

For me, all in all, the other neighbor, whoever it was, calling the cops to complain was a best-case scenario. Because now the family next door knew I wasn’t the only one who was disturbed by the noise. For the rest of the summer, the noise began to subside at a much more civilized hour not long after 10:00 most nights.

Currently, with summer approaching and the pool now just having been opened — and the kids already beginning to ramp up the ruckus as the temperatures warm and daylight lengthens — we’ll see how much amnesia may have set in with the family since.

Next chapter: kittens Jack and Justin

The noise has been only the most obvious example of the family’s lack of awareness about the consequences their behavior has for others, however. Beyond that, another thing that has affected us has been their handling of the new cats they got.

Partway through their first year after moving in, the family decided to get two kittens. I learned that in the previous city where they lived, they had had a dog (or perhaps dogs). They had not owned cats before.

One afternoon after work in the late spring of the family’s first year here, I looked out our front window and saw a couple of gray-colored kittens, perhaps 10 to 12 weeks old, exploring our front ditch and the associated culvert that runs underneath our driveway out near the street.  Siblings from the same litter, Jack and Justin were at that slightly gangly stage of growth kittens go through after weaning, in between kittenhood and a more adult-sized and proportioned body.

As they gawked around, now past the “cute little kitten” stage but still delightful to watch innocently exploring their brand-new surroundings, I went outside to observe. As a nearly lifelong cat-lover, I also hoped to perhaps interact a bit with them, although that’s something you do at each individual cat’s pace and on their terms. It can’t be rushed — circumspect patience is the coin of the realm when first engaging with any cat new to you.

It turned out Jack and Justin were shy but also curious, and let me pet them a few times before then skittering off to do more exploring. It took several encounters over the following weeks, however, their window of trust opening but then closing again a few times, before they began to trust me consistently.

Another neighbor a couple of houses from us in the opposite direction of our new neighbors also is a cat-lover, although they don’t have any of their own at the moment, perhaps since their hands are full with two toddlers. Like me, the husband of the couple took an interest in Jack and Justin as well. The two brother cats often chummed around together as they gradually widened their exploration of the immediate nearby neighborhood. In addition to coming by our place from time to time, they would pay similar visits to this other neighbor’s place.

Plain to see: the catfights to come if nothing is done

My main concern at this point — since we have a few cats of our own, two of whom are themselves tomcats — was to head off at the pass any potential altercations between the two of them and Jack and Justin. It might be objected that I could have simply kept my distance and not made the acquaintance of the neighbors’ two cats. That was not a realistic option, however, with male cats of our own right next door.

Even neutered toms like ours are territorial and will strongly defend their turf against interlopers. (All of our brood are indoor/outdoor cats.) They don’t go out of their way to find trouble (one of the benefits of neutering) and stick pretty close to home for the most part, but woe unto any other male who insists on intruding into their fiefdom. The upshot is: Add two new males to an adjacent property where other male cats are already resident, and savage catfights that might seriously injure any of the males involved are a strong likelihood. At some point, one owner or the other, or both, will have to address the situation if they care about the welfare of the cats. If you don’t want either your or their cats to potentially be maimed, there is no choice about it.

Early on, since Jack and Justin were still mid-stage kittens and not yet adults, our own male cats seemed to regard them with curiosity tinged with territorial concern, but were not yet too aggressive about it. At this juncture, the two tom-kittens weren’t yet big enough or testosterone-fueled enough in their behavior to present a real threat. But I knew this would change as they grew, and so I wanted to do what I could to proactively broker a peace between them and our toms.

Ownership in absentia

As time went on, however, a sticky wicket presented itself: I began to realize the neighbors were as unaware of the ways of cats as they were about how disruptive the family’s noisemaking was to other households around them. This manifested itself in several ways, but one of the most obvious was that even as the two cats passed a year in age, they still had not been neutered. (Normally you would do that at anywhere from perhaps four months to eight months, and certainly before one year.)

As far as I could tell, our neighbors seemed to have little conception of why domesticated tomcats should be neutered, or at least not much intention to do so. I wondered: Was it perhaps because the family was Catholic and might not believe in birth control, at least theoretically? That they did not want to neuter the two? These were personal questions I did not want to ask.

Or was it perhaps because they put the cats out in the morning to fend for themselves all day until nighttime, keeping them in the garage overnight, and only seldom bringing them inside their home? (Or at least apparently, from what I could tell from next door, not being the type to pry.) Because if they had been letting them inside much, one would assume they would have eventually experienced spraying problems, which neutering will put an end to in just about all cases.

Putting a domesticated cat out all day long, though, then locking them up in a garage all night, both with no owner contact during those stretches, even if you feed them, is in practical terms a partial abdication of ownership, at least from a cat’s point of view. Given that kind of treatment, they will seek out elsewhere the fringe benefits they would typically get from ownership.

In any event, it was clear to me that as the neighbors’ two toms matured into full adults, if they remained unneutered, with an increasing and eventually full-on supply of testosterone fueling them, whenever territorial disputes arose, the added aggressiveness and strength from that would put our own males in danger.

Thor the bruiser, god of thunder

For the time being, though, any parity or superiority in battle the neighbors’ cats might one day possess was not the problem: it was the opposite. As Jack and Justin continued to grow but before they were fully mature, they — or at least Justin — began getting into fights with our largest male, Thor. As the alpha cat of our group, and bigger than most males, even neutered he is formidable.

Once, a few years prior, I had noticed him limping seriously for perhaps the first time ever and assumed maybe he had gotten a thorn or piece of glass embedded in his paw. On examination, though, after pinpointing the wound, our vet said it was clear he’d been in a serious fight with another cat. But she also pointed to his long and visibly protruding canines (significantly more protruding than is typical), and told me, “Those canines of his give him a real advantage. He got off easy here. I would hate to see how the other cat looks.”

To me, this all spelled big trouble eventually, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to deal with it if the neighbors weren’t going to neuter their cats.

For the time being, knowing that Thor currently had the upper hand in firepower, I began to harbor serious concern for Justin’s well-being. I was beginning to develop a bond with him and could feel myself being pulled into that. I had seen a few cats in the past who had either lost an eye or had one permanently scarred and blinded in fights, and I didn’t want that happening to Justin.

At this time Justin was not yet quite full-grown, but entering adulthood, when he and Thor started fighting. He had begun to come into his own and was feeling his oats, gaining in strength by the month, but was not yet a skilled or seasoned fighter. As such, he was still vulnerable to a cat with Thor’s power and experience.

Ravenous growth

Part of the reason Justin was being drawn into conflict with Thor was that he and Jack were coming over to our place for food regularly now in the mornings. I was feeding them just outside our front and back doors — not in direct contact with Thor since he and our other cats were fed inside, but still very close. I felt if I could get them used to each other’s presence at arm’s length like this for a while, eventually and slowly the animosity would ebb, but it would take time. An unpredictable amount of it, perhaps many months.

But the reason I had begun feeding Jack and Justin in the first place was because they did not seem to be getting enough food at home. When I had first started feeding them several months before, they were about as skinny as would still qualify as healthy — on the borderline, with their ribs showing, and growing by leaps and bounds. Of course, you do not want to overfeed an animal. For cats in this phase, though, the concern is if you cut it too close, their growth might end up being inhibited.

Anyone who has cared for at least a few male cats from kittenhood to adulthood knows that they typically hit a rapid and extended growth phase somewhere between maybe six to nine months of age going up to perhaps 15 to 18 months. During this time their metabolism goes into overdrive and they need more food to support their growth and development, and they can get pretty voracious.

On this score, I wasn’t paying as much attention as I perhaps should have been at the beginning of this phase with Jack and Justin. The reason was they were the neighbors’ cats, of course, and were their responsibility, or at least should be, I thought. But then one day someone living one block over posted a picture of Justin in an online discussion forum for our neighborhood, saying he had been dropping by most days for food. The neighbor was concerned about how skinny he was, wondering if he was a stray or not.

That woke me up, because I had come to care about him and his brother, and I immediately started paying more attention. When the two boys would come over in the mornings, I began making sure both had enough to eat, while at the same time trying to restrain them from going overboard so they didn’t develop the bad habit of overeating. (All too easy for domesticated cats to do, and a challenge with most, only a minority of whom can self-regulate their weight.)

It was a fraught decision, stepping in like this — because in feeding them, the consequence is the cats begin transferring some of their allegiance to you, away from the actual owner. Is it right to do this? In my opinion, it’s a gray area, sometimes a really gray area. But I did feel there were too many signs the owners just didn’t understand cats, and that trying to explain would likely only generate hard feelings.

A beckoning oasis

Another reason Jack and Justin appeared to enjoy frequenting our place was the nature of our property. The neighbors’ yard is manicured the “take no prisoners” American way, including being sprayed with herbicides to keep dandelions and other weeds down, and closely cropped. Even overlooking any potential toxicity concerns, a lawn cared for like this is basically a monoculture not very attractive to animals, birds, insect life, and so forth. Most of the neighbors’ trees, as well, had by now been chopped down for one reason or another, either by others before the new owners’ arrival or themselves afterward.

When you combine that with five screaming kids (more when friends come over) either water-fighting or dive-bombing the pool in the backyard, or zinging around all over the place on bikes, skateboards, and scooters in the front yard, zipping up and down the driveway and street whooping like Indians and sirens — it’s not a place most cats are going to want to hang around for long.

Especially not when right next door at our place you’ve got trees and organically gardened areas in both front and back yards that attract birdlife and all sorts of insects and other critters. Plus, the yard isn’t sprayed or fertilized with chemicals, and I’m on the lax side in its upkeep — it’s “rough around the edges,” more ragged, more natural. We welcome dandelions as well, which can be helpful fallback foods for birds and bees and other insects in the early spring.

My wife has a similarly relaxed approach with her gardening, which, together with the yard’s loose upkeep overall makes for more-interesting-to-a-cat things going on than on a more rigidly maintained property: happy hunting grounds with camouflage, along with lots of varied structures, enclosures, benches, trellises, railings, and cat-sized paths, nooks, and crannies to explore. Jack particularly is an avid hunter and can happily hunt for hours either here or elsewhere when things are to his liking at the height of the growing season.

There’s also a brick ledge at about chest or head height that goes two-thirds of the way around our house, running just below the bottom edge of the windows. Few cats can resist the attraction of utilizing its elevation and vantage from which to survey and patrol the surrounding area. Also, the ledge makes it possible for Jack and Justin as well as our own cats (and even the occasional, unfamiliar interloping cat) to peer through our windows from various perches on the ledge around the house, or paw the window glass, to get our attention.

The disappointed little boy

One small, unexpected event tied all these things together for me. From time to time, when Justin had been hanging around our place in the evening hours (Jack was more often elsewhere then), I would eventually pick him up, carry him over to the neighbors’ front door, and ring the bell to return him. I did this because some evenings I had heard the kids calling the cats to come home. The first few times, two or three of the kids would come to the door, crowding around me, their faces lighting up as I handed Justin over to them.

The last time I did this a few months ago, however, just one of the children answered the door — the older of the two boys but still very young at perhaps nine or 10 years old — and he seemed much less enthused than the kids had been previously. As he took Justin from me and put him down inside on the floor, he said, “He’ll just go stand in front of the back door,” i.e., to be let back outside.

The boy seemed frustrated, perhaps a bit resentful about it, and also a little sad, and that made me sad too. But it brought everything about the situation with Jack and Justin together for me: The kids must have more or less given up on the cats as pets to be loved and enjoyed. As the kittens grew up, they didn’t turn out to be what the children had expected.

Kittens grow up to become cats in a way different than how puppies grow up to be dogs. The outlook of the family seemed to be that of “dog people” who didn’t comprehend the ways of cats. The parents didn’t understand cats, and because they didn’t understand them, the kids hadn’t been educated about the needs of cats either. On their own, without informed guidance, it would have required children with an innate feel for animals, and who were much quieter in their behavior, of course, to have figured out by themselves what cats respond to best.

We were becoming Jack and Justin’s home away from home.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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