April 2007

Barbara J. King

features

The Feral Cat Jones: Taking on Nina Malkin

"Feral Cat Jones" could be the title for a catchy sequel to the song "Stray Cat Strut." I use it, though, to highlight something Nina Malkin, An Unlikely Cat Lady, gets right: Working with feral cats is addictive.

“Feral” means untamed or living in a wild state. It’s this wildness that draws Malkin, a teen-magazine editor, to the cats straying around her home in Brooklyn: “The allure of these cats comes down to one thing for me. Savagery. Ostensibly I’m seeking to subdue them, but I want to be around them precisely because they are wild. This, I am loath to admit, is nothing new. All through my extended adolescence I dated boys least likely to meet with parental approval.”

Me, I see no link between my feral fieldwork and the dating patterns of my adolescent past. That I feel no urge to riff further on this point reflects just how strongly I feel about Malkin’s book.  

Malkin looks at ferals, and what stares back are “assorted nasty furbags.” “Furbags” is, in fact, her noun of choice throughout the book, though the occasional “one lazy mofo” or equivalent appears too. For Malkin, the cats embody savagery:  “They seem to get some pleasure from racing toward me, hissing and spitting and so forth, like a hockey team from hell -- it’s like a workout for their malice muscles.” Turning her gaze inward, the result is no more uplifting: “Submitting to the animosity of these animals is pure masochism…”

Neutral about these words, I’m not. In my family, the feral-cat loyalist is my husband. He feeds the colony (a couple of miles from our house) through rain, ice storms, and brute Virginia humidity. He doesn’t miss a day. Only a back-up feeder, I love the colony nonetheless, visit often, and help with TNR (trap-neuter-return, on which, more below). When I drive up, I am greeted by 17 cats of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors: not a hiss or malicious muscle in the bunch.

There is Marble, long-hair fluffycat of the still-nervous disposition, who won’t let us come too near, even after a year; the Orange Team, four colorful pretties, well-mannered and lively; and Grey, the colony’s old man, with his ragged breathing, whom we love for his stoicism and his willingness to stay still, finally finally, for a quick rub on the back. Hidden inside each, I see a head-rubbing, paw-kneading, curled-up-on-my-lap companion: not anymore, of course, they are too feral now for that. These cats were born into a generational legacy of outdoor survival, or far worse, into a human household with someone cruelly capable of dumping them, unwanted and all too ready to breed.  

Had Marble, or any of the others, been socialized -- never mind this code word, let’s just say loved --  from their infancy, she would be as purry as any housecat. To know this is true, I have only to go home and spend time with tortie Emma, orange-tabby Flamecat, and the jetblack Nicholas Longtail, the three “dumped” ferals we adopted (along with non-ferals Pilar and Jenna, and rabbit Oreo).

Now, more than one person tells us that our feral colony is unusual: stable, healthy, attractive. In part this is because our cats luck out by living near a boat landing used by watermen. As I write this on a spring evening, I’ve just returned from watching half the cats run about with large chunks of rockfish in their mouths. In part too, it’s because our team went to work: the cats were TNR’ed and Vax’ed (vaccinated against rabies and other diseases) one by one. The adoptables was adopted out; the few ferals who wouldn’t live long, due to feline AIDS or some other problem, were put down humanely.

Ferals have a short life expectancy; some are sick, sure. But I cannot fathom Malkin’s response to a cat who shows up one day. Fair enough, he’s got patchy fur, cloudy eyes and other seriously unattractive features. But when she writes, “He’s the color of pus, the color of cancer, an infection with fur,” I can only think she’s mean in spirit.    

Malkin hates this cat, and blames him in an explicitly superstitious way for calamities that followed his appearance into her life. These include a fire with which he had nothing to do. But hey, “bad juju” anyone?

Are you thinking that Malkin’s tough Brooklynese is a posture, a way to avoid over-sentimentalizing these cats? To some degree, I’ll concede the point. When one of her ferals dies, Malkin cries. Certainly, she extends herself for the cats. The roof-rescue missions are a high point of the book, and I admired her dedication in borrowing or hiring a car in order to get her cats to the animal clinic (a hardship my suburban van-driving self hadn’t stopped to consider).

Yet, I can’t get past how Malkin writes about the cats.   

Here’s one reason: Feral cats get enough of a bum rap from people who think they are all mangy and fleabitten. The last thing they need is an avowed friend taking the “filthy furbag” route.  

Here’s another: I believe that any two creatures who come together create a dynamic between them moment by moment. Each affects the other by way of the smallest movements and sounds. When the bigger, smarter, and more powerful partner starts from an assumption of “malicious,” guess what: that’s going to affect not what she thinks but also how she moves towards the cats, how she talks to the cats, and everything else under the sun in the cat-human dynamic.

To be fair, there’s an evolution of sorts visible in the book. Near the end, Malkin writes about her increasing closeness with the ferals -- the earlier “savages.” As one example, a feral jumps in her lap, and eventually purrs; this happened, I can see, because Malkin finessed a gentle conditioning process.      

And a final reason for my animus: Let no aspiring TNR’er start the book but cast it aside in disgust at the furbag-and-cancer passages (I would have done just this, had I not felt compelled as reviewer to read its every word). Everyone has a learning curve with ferals -- mistakes I’ve made prove this lavishly. But Malkin does and says things, especially early on, that no feral worker should emulate. She tries to catch barehanded her first feral. The sad results are none of the cat’s fault: “In the light of the kitchen I look at my hand. It is enormous. Instantly swollen. A bright red spot of blood where Ray 'Captain Hook' Snarls got me. I must be crying as I race upstairs; Jason follows me into the bathroom as I blubber, trying to explain that I am an idiot. Apparently he already knew that.”  

Her example can be a dangerous one, even at the very end of the book. Realizing that a cat fleeing from her is not a well-loved missing feral named Axl, she concludes, “Even raging with rabies, Axl would never run from me.” Has Malkin never read about the horrific disorienting symptoms of rabies in animals?   

And, even when Malkin finally “gets” TNR, and catches the detested “color of pus, color of cancer” cat in the trap -- she lets him go because she hates him. (True, she later makes an appointment for him with the free spay-neuter van, but he disappears before the time comes. Malkin assumes he died.) 

So, here’s my advice: Donate what you might have spent on this book, together with some time if you have it to spare, to a TNR effort. There’s no shortage of places to help, given the presence of feral cats in every city, suburb, and rural area in the country (ten million ferals in the U.S., by Malkin’s estimate). How to help? Check out the fabulous national organization http://www.alleycat.org/, also mentioned by Malkin. For anyone who lives where I do, in the Gloucester/Williamsburg/Hampton Roads area of Virginia, you can do no better than www.gpsnp.org.

-- Written for my husband, Charles Hogg; for our friend Ginger Zarske, who is a force of nature when it comes to animals in need and who taught us everything we know about feral cats; and for TNR-committed activists everywhere, who are going out into the rain tonight, to feed the ferals.