I got the idea a couple of months ago to create an outdoor space for the cats – for when they were ready. The shelter had recommended keeping them in for at least 8 weeks, and as June approached we felt it was safe to start making plans for their first trip outdoors.
Having fished a couple of wooden pallets out of a skip down the road, I started to make plans for a ‘Catio’ – a cat patio, obviously. The idea was to have a climbable space with interesting (cat-safe) flowers to sniff and little fluttering insects to bat about.
It was all going swimmingly – June 17th was the hottest day of the year so far. As Gaz was here in the morning, we opened the back door and let the 3 fur balls venture a little way outside into the yard. Cautiously, sticking to the walls like little magnets, all 3 stepped over the threshold to explore…
They came back in after about 20 minutes – a brief trip was exhausting enough, and mid-morning naps are important. Fast forward an hour or 2, and I was outside the front of our flat painting and stenciling, feeling very pleased with myself. The cats were indoors, snoozing away. At about 3pm, thanks to the heat, the Catio was completely dry and ready to be carried through to the back.
With the cats (supposedly) still fast asleep, I started carrying through the wooden palettes from the front to the back, assembling the finished piece and ensuring all the rubbish and recycling was put away. Just then – disaster struck.
The through-draft from the back and front doors being open slammed the front door shut behind me, leaving me outside in nothing but shorts and T-shirt, no phone, no shoes, no suncream… and the back door remained open. I could see my keys sitting on the table just inside the door, so after about 45 minutes of banging on neighbours’ doors and attempting to break in by force, I finally worked out that I could use a broom handle and a chopstick, held together with some masking tape (all of which I had been using for the painting earlier) to fish the keys through the letterbox. Crisis averted – or so I thought…
I carried on assembling the Catio and clearing up around myself, and before I knew it, it was dinnertime. Sheba for the cats – pasta for me. After about 20 minutes of calling for the cats, it became apparent that only 2 were making an appearance for dinner that night. Moo and George got stuck in, and left me climbing under furniture and looking in cupboards for Betty. After an hour I couldn’t find her anywhere at all, and it was then that I realised that she must have escaped during my lock-out.
Sure enough, at about 11pm, she appeared out the back – but had absolutely zero intention of coming back in. We decided she’d be ok for a night and probably come back in the next day, so we left a window open and went to bed.
Three days went by, and we had no luck, so in an act of desperation we decided to leave the doors open again and waft some nice chickeny smells from the kitchen into the garden in an effort to drag her in by her nose. This had a reverse effect and in fact resulted in George deciding to go camp out with his sister under a bush in the back yard. So we were left with a very sad Moo.
At around 7am the next morning, Gaz went into the bathroom to find George sitting quite happily on the rug in there having jumped back in through the window during the night. This was Wednesday 21st, my work from home day, so I was able to ensure George was fed and watered and happy. There was still no sign of Betty.
The next morning I left, and told Gaz to ensure the bathroom door was closed and the window left open, just in case Betty wanted to come back in.
Can you guess what happened next?
If you said: Gaz forgot to close the door, you’d be correct. And so we lost the Moo. Luckily Moo had even less of an adventurous streak than George, and at around 3am on Friday morning she too leapt through the bathroom window and came home. Betty remained in her bush.
It’s important to say that during this time we spent every single evening outside either looking for her or trying to coax her in with food, but as she is a little feral at heart anyway, nothing was going to bring her in. She had a good bush, fine weather and had worked out that coming down in the dead of night to eat any food left out for her would not endanger her freedom.
We began to despair, so I ended up requesting a humane trap from the Celia Hammond Animal Trust in order to get her. They were lovely enough to send someone round with one the next day (we’re now at Wednesday 28th June) so I set it up in the back yard with some tuna. As it was a manual trap, it required someone holding a string at some distance and waiting for the animal to come and get the bait before slamming the door shut. So, I threaded the string for the door through our bathroom window and sat in the dark and waited.
And waited. And… waited. After 3 nights of this, it was fairly obvious that Betty was having none of it, and refused to come down at all. So, Amazon to the rescue once more…
I was able to buy an automatic humane trap for around £30 which you just needed to set up and leave and it would catch your beastie with minimal fuss. So, Friday night this thing arrived and I immediately went outside to set it up.
Pilchards were recommended as a better bait than tuna, so I dished up a tin each for all 3 of them, which proved to be an awful plan as Betty didn’t touch them and George ended up puking them up all over my sofa. Saturday morning came, still no Betty, the pilchards had been left well alone, and I was about ready to accept that she was a garden cat now and we would only see her when she got too cold.
I cleared out the unwanted pilchards and replaced them with the plain old Harrington’s cat biscuits that they seem to love, fully expecting them to be left the same as all our other offerings. At about 5pm on Saturday 1st July – 2 whole weeks after she went missing – I was sitting in the front room when Moo and George (who were sitting on their tree perches at the time) both whipped their ears round and stared towards the back door. I didn’t think anything of it, but decided to go and check the trap just in case… and there she was! The angriest, blackest little beast you ever saw.
I covered the trap with her favourite blanket and tried to talk to her in soothing tones about ham and chicken and how nice everything would be, but as I was making my way back in the door of the cage almost fell open. I found myself trying to stuff the seething black ball of rage back into the cage whilst running through shrubbery and half giggling, half crying with adrenaline (this is WAY more stressful than you think). Eventually, I made it back inside and closed the doors behind me safely, leaving Betty in the cage on the kitchen floor to cool off while I made a ‘safe room’ for her in the bathroom. She was very hungry – so hungry I managed to feed her a worming tablet without her noticing.
She is now settled back in with Moo and George, and they have all discovered a new favourite treat: ham (the low salt, healthy version from Sainsbury’s).
A few things to say about this experience:
1 – Cat non-recognition aggression is weird. Moo reacted very badly to both George and Betty as they had their smells altered by venturing outside. Having seen how she reacted to George, I was sure to make the space in the bathroom for Betty full of familiar-smelling things like their cat tent and blankets so when I let her back into the flat with the other 2, she didn’t smell *too* different… but that didn’t stop Moo growling at her for the next few days;
2 – You really only get 1 chance at using a trap – especially with smart cats who don’t want to be trapped. Patience is key. And don’t use pilchards because pilchard puke is literally the most foul thing you will ever experience;
3 – I will not be letting them out again for at least another 5-6 months, by which time it’ll be winter so they might be more likely to return quickly.