“Is the baby outside?” asks my wife, alarm bubbling up through her groggy vowels.
It’s summer, the middle of the night. We’re sleeping with the windows open, which is why we can hear the plaintive cry coming from the neighbor’s backyard. “Yooooooooww.”
In the fog of sleep, it does sound like a baby. But the ensuing panic — Is my kid okay? — helps to clear the fog, and when I hear it again, I start to wonder. Something sounds just a hair…off. Is it because the baby is delirious, maybe with fever? Did she somehow wander downstairs and out the door? Did we forget to lock the door? Check the bed. Oh, thank God — baby is inside the house and fast asleep. But there’s that cry again, floating in from the darkness: the sad moan of a sleepy toddler with a splinter or a stomachache. Crap. Is that someone else’s kid stuck out there?
Actually, no. But if you’ve never heard the whine of a feral cat, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Mrs. Doolittle Has a Problem
“People at work call me Mrs. Doolittle,” says the woman I’ll call Mrs. Doolittle. “I love animals.” This love affair has been going on for a while now. “You can get a bunny to use a litter box,” she says at one point in our conversation. “The bunny we had when I was a kid did it. He was big, 25 pounds. We lived in Hawaii, and once we went camping for a week, and when we came back, he’d stolen my dad’s jelly beans, chewed his black socks, chewed a square out of the arm of a couch. My dad was like, ‘That’s it, we’re eating it!’ He had the knife out; me and my sisters were crying. My mom called the Hawaiian zoo and said, ‘We’ve got a rabbit. Do you want it?’ They said yes. We drove it to the Hawaiian zoo, and they had areas set up like fairy tales — the old woman who lived in a shoe, things like that. He went into one of those, and they took care of him.”
Today, she has a bunny of her own on her patch of land at the foot of a boulder-studded slope near Barrett Junction. The bunny lives in a cage with one of Mrs. Doolittle’s roosters. The other rooster lives with her dozen or so chickens. The people at work who call her Mrs. Doolittle are happy to bring her empty egg cartons, which the chickens are happy to fill.
Rusty, her 29-year-old Arabian horse, shares a corral with a couple of voluble geese, though there was a time when he snuck into the backyard and stuck his head through Doolittle’s bedroom window in an effort to get at her vanilla wafers.
Only the dogs have the run of the fenced-in front yard. Boomer is an Australian Shepherd; Poochie is an old black Labrador with epilepsy severe enough to require phenobarbital. The dogs belong to Doolittle’s stepdaughters, but the stepdaughters do not live here with Doolittle and her teenage son Andrew. Only their dogs. “You just take things in,” Doolittle explains. That’s how the geese got here. “Some family was talking about ‘getting rid’ of them, and I was like, ‘No way. I have the property. I have ducks. Bring the geese out.’” The ducks got picked off by a predator, but the geese remain. The ball python in the living room — the one in the glass cage next to the corn snake and above the tortoise — arrived in much the same way. “I do the best I can,” she concludes. “It’s tough to feed all these animals, being a single mom. But I can’t let them starve. Nothing needs to suffer or starve. That’s how I am.”
So when she called San Diego’s Feral Cat Coalition about her cat problem, it wasn’t because she wanted them gone. It was that she didn’t want any more of them. “It started when I moved out here four years ago. There was one cat that had kittens in my doghouse, and my horse stuck her head in the doghouse…it’s been crazy ever since.” Now, thanks in part to a couple of tomcats who stop by for a few months each year, she reckons she’s up to 18, blacks and gray tabbies, many of them living in the crawl space under the house. “I feed them in the morning and at night, and they go through 25 pounds of food a week,” she says. “When I drive in after work, they come running from everywhere. ‘Hey, she’s here!’” The ones that don’t get the message hear the dry tinkling of cat food being poured into a metal bowl and know it’s time to eat.
That’s a lot of feeding, and a lot of food. “I’ve been trying to find someplace that would help me get them fixed. Thank goodness this guy Josh is going to help, because spring is coming, and that’s when they’ll start breeding. I have one male here who’s a horndog; I’m stopping him all the time. He’s one bad boy. The females can get pregnant very young. It’s not fair to them. They hardly know what to do.”
Trap Training with the Hirschmillers
Somewhere around 1994, Josh Hirschmiller noticed some feral kittens hanging around his neighborhood in El Cajon. “I like animals,” he says, “so I thought they could maybe be pets. I didn’t know anything about the Feral Cat Coalition then, but I found out. I caught the kittens and then used them to catch the mom. I went to the FCC to get them all fixed and then I put the mom back where I found her and found homes for the kittens.”
A good deed — and for many people, involvement with the FCC ends there. “We spay and neuter about 2000 cats a year,” says FCC volunteer coordinator Sandy Dodson. “And we could do more. How this usually starts is, somebody will call the hotline and say they’ve got a feral cat issue. One of our screeners will call them back, find out what’s going on, educate them about what’s necessary, and if needed, arrange for them to get traps. We find out how many cats they expect to bring in and then give them a reservation for one of our clinics. It’s usually about a couple of months’ wait because we have a waiting list.”