14 Apr

The Story of Tater Tot

It was October. I was lying in bed at my father and step-mother’s cottage in Maine listening to the loons somewhere out on the lake and feeling sad that I had to head back to NYC the following day. I LOVE Maine in October–the quiet, the woodsmoke, the sudden heat of an Indian Summer day. For years I’d been taking an annual solo trip to the lakehouse and relishing every moment (Ok, I’ll cop to a visit to the outlets in Freeport, but I go only after a breathtaking hike along the Casco shoreline at Wolf’s Neck Woods State Park next door). I’d hiked, gone for long runs, eaten local foods (hello, clam chowder!), picked up some great bargains and enjoyed my coffee outside surrounded by tall pines every morning. I guess I was ready to go home.

I’d just reached over to turn out the light when my phone buzzed with a new email. It was from a neighbor, a fellow cat lover and generous woman who’d offered me her late cat’s wicker bed after he’d died. Karen had donated to several of my TNR projects in the past and was a new mother and an animal advocate.

“There’s a beautiful gray kitty hanging out begging for food in the Tot lot. Looks really skinny. Very sad.  🙁 Super friendly.”

My heart sank. Not only was there a kitty in need–never a happy situation (though all too common)–but I was 8 hours away in another state. The Tot Lot is right down the street from my apt and here I was in beautiful Maine unable to help. I quickly emailed Karen back to say that I was out of town but would stop by the next evening after my long drive home and see if the cat was still there. In the back of my mind–or sort of near the front–I was hoping this was a friendly indoor/outdoor house cat who just happened to be super skinny and would trot on back home as soon as she/he got bored of hanging out in the cold and begging for fo—sigh. No way was this someone’s pet–unless it was someone’s pet who had been dumped outside when it’s owners decided they no longer wanted it.

I got back to Brooklyn the following day around 6pm and headed out for groceries. I threw some cat food and my Cat-In-The-Bag  “cozy comfort carrier” into my tote just in case the hungry grey kitty was still in the Tot Lot. I half-hoped the cat wouldn’t be there and half-hoped it would be, because I knew hungry cats begging for food don’t tend to have great reversals of fortune unless they run into crazy cat ladies like me. Dusk was falling as I approached the Tot Lot but it was still plenty light enough to see the little grey cat in the arms of a 9 or 10 year old child. The kids were running after each other while carrying the cat, who was too skinny and exhausted to put up a fight. That or she was extremely docile, and I was about to find out.

“OK, guys, game’s over, let’s put kitty down….” These were nice kids. They put her down immediately.

“Is that your cat?” one of them asked, a boy of about 11. The other kids watched the cat wolf down a can of food I opened for her on one of the playground benches.

“Uh….Yep. She sure is.”  I’ve learned that white lies that help save lives are completely acceptable, including ones told to children. “I’m going to bring her home right now.”

The little grey cat let me pick her up with nary a complaint. I zipped her into her Cat Bag and she nestled into me. I swear, animals know when they’re being rescued, and their whole body relaxes. It’s a sweet, beautiful feeling. A parent of one of the children commented on how friendly she was. “I took a photo of her yesterday,” he told me. “She’s been here for a few days. I’m so glad you’re taking her.”

“You guys did great,” I told the kids, employing my tried-and-tested technique of complimenting people for behavior I hope they’ll adopt. “You always want to be gentle with animals you see outside, even if they seem friendly. Best thing to do is to tell an adult you see an animal who needs help and never, ever try to pick them up because they might get scared and run away.” My enraptured little audience nodded their heads. I hoped they’d remember my advice if they ever encountered another stray animal. This little cat was super lucky she’d come across well-behaved kids who meant her no harm. Sadly that’s not always the case.

Coming up with a great name is key to finding a cat a new home. Being found in the Tot Lot made this one a lot easier–“Obviously your name is now Tater Tot” I thought as I toted Tater home. She was happy to rest in my arms, unafraid of passing dogs and the loud noises of the Brooklyn streets. Once home I transferred her to a Sherpa carrier as I got to work setting up her new digs in my home office. I don’t mix my fosters with Momo and Sweetie–Sweetie would probably be game but Momo ain’t having it, and I aim to please where my resident cats are concerned. Luckily, I can transform my home office into a “cat hotel” when the need arises.

I have 3 sizes of crates (because Crazy Cat Lady) and I set up a large one for Tater. She was so conked out that at first I put the entire carrier inside the crate so she didn’t have to move. She seemed pretty happy:

tater small blog

I took her to the vet the next morning, which is one of the most important steps when rescuing a kitty off the streets. I also make a point to mention to the Vet’s office that the appointment is for a rescue cat–sometimes they are able to give discounts for rescue animals. The amazing vets at Animal Kind Veterinary Hospital in Park Slope do great work and Tater explored every inch of the examination room, finally sitting patiently on the table awaiting the doctor:

IMG_9931

The verdict: female, approximately 4 years old, FeLV and FIV negative, not spayed. Healthy, good teeth, great disposition. Really, really cute.

Tater would be spayed a few weeks later, once she gained some weight and got comfortable. She had to get used to loved up–I sensed that affection had not been a big part of her story. I took to spending part of each evening with her in my office, allowing her to jump all over me and learn how to fall asleep on my stomach. If this is conjuring up images of me working on my computer with a sleeping cat on my lap, let me correct you–I would lie down on the floor with my head jammed up against the door to simulate lying down on a bed, so Tater could get “sleeping with a human” practice. Also because Crazy Cat Lady.

Tater picked up her cuddling skills pretty quickly:

IMG_0058IMG_0063

When it was time to get her spayed I was a wreck–I had full confidence in her vet but any time an animal has to go under general anesthesia I am worried sick until they wake up. Tater did great–she stayed the night at the vet, who sent her home the next day with a cone of shame to prevent her form licking her stitches.

I am not a fan of the cone–not only because it breaks my heart to see an animal restrained in any way, even if for their own good–but because they are so poorly designed. I’ve seen animals wriggle out of them, stick one paw through and get stuck, bang their heads repeatedly against the door frame because they can no longer correctly judge distances and struggle to eat dinner because the damn cone gets in the way. I was determined to find a better solution. Here’s what I found:

The Bite Not collar comes in  few sizes for dogs and cats and prevents the licking and chewing that can prevent healing. Kong makes a soft collar that seems kinder to your pet than the hard plastic ones (esp for an animal that has recently had surgery and needs to rest and recover–hard to do with a hard plastic cone covering your face), and Contech makes a round inflatable collar that I chose for Tater because it allowed her the greatest  range of movement while keeping her from bothering her stitches while they healed. It also has the added bonus of functioning like a neck pillow, so Tater could get some much needed R&R:

IMG_0749

Of course, if you are very crafty you can learn to make your own here, or here if you are SUPER crafty.

Meanwhile I set out to find Tater her forever people. Finding a cat a home is a lot like being a salesperson—your eye is on the ultimate prize of a forever home of course, but at the same time you know you are building relationships that might result in later homes for future cats. You just never know when the right cat and right person will match up. To that end, I posted about Tater on FB, on my neighborhood blogs, on friend’s websites and on Instagram. I made sure to include the sadder aspects of Tater’s story (all true) to give her rescue extra oomph.

I find persistence, patience, and healthy doses of rational and irrational belief that “it will all work out” are crucial elements in finding a forever home for a foster cat.  Posting once won’t work—sometimes you have to post multiple times to the same list or page, spaced days apart and with small changes to the content.  Attractive prospects fall through, people change their minds and disappointments are many.  You may spend hours talking to people,  giving them advice and encouragement and expert assistance as they navigate adoption or adding a new cat to their brood,  only to find them balk at the last minute. That said,  it only takes ONE right person or family to seal the deal,  and I try to keep that in mind as I surf the waves of kitty placement.

In Tater’s case, I did have my eye on a potential adopter who I thought might be perfect. She was an avowed cat lover whose family adored their resident rescue cat. She was responsible and all her references checked out. She was willing to take the 2-4 weeks I recommended for new-cat introduction and she was friendly and kind. She also happened to be my older sister 🙂

Sarah (names have been changed to protect the privacy of….nah, just kidding) had a few reservations—the usual concerns about her resident cat’s reaction to a new little sister and disrupting her busy household (2 full-time parents, 2 children with the usual host of after-school and extra-curricular activities) while the two animals became acquainted. I assured her that my policy for all adoptions would be no different for her—I was there to hold her hand and give support, advice and information, and would easily take Tater back should she decide it wasn’t working. I offer a “no shame, no blame” policy and find it keeps the entire process on a positive and easy note.

Thus I found myself on a rainy Thursday evening borrowing a friend’s car to bring sweet Tater Tot to a new home in a new borough. I brought some of her favorite toys and beds with me because that’s how I roll—anything to make the transition easier. I also brought 2 adjustable window screens with me, size large, used to create a permeable barrier for the cats to sniff one another without full access as well as a handy way to keep a kitty from darting in or out of the door—Tater would be living in the bathroom for at least a week while acclimating to her new human and feline family & home (and vice-versa) and it was important to keep her in and her new feline bro out while my sister and her family slipped into the bathroom for frequent visits and snuggles. The screens adjust to fit inside most doors and can be covered with a sheet or towel so the cats can smell but not see each other until they are ready.

I also came armed with food, treats, toys, litter box and some used (but clean) Tater litter. Again, it sounds like a lot of work, but having familiar smells and favorite toys in an unfamiliar environment really helps reduce stress, which makes everything easier. Tater settled nicely into her new digs, and onto my nieces’ laps—the bathroom is small so cuddling happened on the edge of the tub or using the toilet as a chair. Yes, a bathroom is big enough for a cat for a few days, even a few weeks if need be. Cats in shelters often live in crates for months, so if your holding space is on the small side do not despair or freak out. It’s big enough!

I had my sister hold off on cuddling Tater for a few days, focusing her energy and love onto resident kitty instead (he’s a total Mama’s boy anyway!) Soon enough, Dapper Dan was lurking outside the bathroom door, aware that something or someone was behind it. There was meowing, a little growling, some gentle hissing….all perfectly normal. I explained to my sis that cats might have this perfectly normal and expected response to a new animal in their space. Our job as their humans is to allow them the space and time they need to learn that the newcomer is not a threat and may even be a good thing! So many times I’ve seen people throw two cats together and expect the best, then lament that “they just don’t like each other.” Introduced properly, there is no reason that a resident cat won’t accept a new cat into it’s space. Some cats will eventually cuddle together and groom each other, some will co-exist and basically ignore each other, some will play rough or play gentle, some will combine all of the above for a fully realized cat-sibling relationship. The key—and I’ll say this again and again—is giving them the time and space to figure it out., and following tested-and-true cat introduction protocol. If Momo and Sweetie could makework, any cats can!work, any cats can! IMG_2606

I’ve found that “one step forward, two steps back” is a good rule of thumb. Positive interactions are best followed by a step backwards or a break, lest the good feelings become over-stimulating (we’ve all seen what happens when cats get over-stimulated!) Sarah used some of my favorite tricks (rubbing a sock on each cats face and placing the socks by the other cats’ food bowls, doling out favorite treats on either side of the door/screen and letting them indulge next to one another while still safely separated, and playing with each cat in proximity to one another while still separated) and in about a week was ready to expose the cats to one-another’s space.

First we isolated Tater in a bedroom while Dapper had the full run of “Tater’s” bathroom. The look on his face while he explored every inch of her little den was priceless. We let him roam around to his hearts delight. We then closed the door and let Tater out into the rest of the apartment to do the same. Both cats were lively and alert and curious, no stress. They seemed to be looking for each other, actually.

When Sarah finally allowed the cats free access to one another we instructed everyone to be as relaxed as possible. They knew to expect some gentle hissing, possibly even swatting….and had a spray bottle of water (set to mist) on hand in case actual fighting ensued. Fighting can look a lot like rough play or tussling, but is generally distinguished by repeated growling, back of spine arching and tail puffing, ears flattened or tails begin swishing wildly accompanied by panting or spitting. You have to watch your cats pretty carefully as some of these things can accompany regular rough play – Sweetie’s ears always flatten when she and Momo tussle. Still, if it upsets you or seems to escalate, a quick mist of water in their direction can halt any questionable behavior. I also toss foil balls at them to “break it up” and it works every time.

Luckily, aside from some territorial swatting and gentle hissing, Dapper welcomed Tater into “his” home like a champ. What began as cool acceptance has blossomed into full-on friendship, aided and abetted by willing humans. Sweet Tater Tot went from an abandoned, starving and scared street cat eeking out a perilous existence in our local Tot Lot to adored lap cat and loving little sister to big bro Dapper Dan. Behold:

IMG_2556IMG_2555