I once came dangerously close to becoming a cat hoarder, one of those strange individuals featured in reality TV shows whose homes and yards are overrun with cats of all sizes, shapes, and colors. I never thought I had anything in common with those unfortunate people. Why would anyone ever choose to live like that? How could anyone ever get to that point? They must have tremendous psychological issues. They must be deeply disturbed. Well . . .
The tale begins with a scrawny ginger-colored cat that watched intently from the bushes across the street as we moved into the Amagansett dunes. The surrounding homes were all empty, used by owners and renters only in the summer — in winter, a ghost town. The little creature with its triangular face and big green eyes was huddled against the sliding glass door the next morning: irresistible and very hungry. I set down that first bowl of warm milk and began a rapid descent into the world of cat hoarding.
The cat was female (of course) and pregnant (of course). Otherwise that would have been the tail end of this sorry tale. She was a summertime cat — or the descendant of one — abandoned at the end of the season by misguided owners who believe cats are perfectly capable of surviving on their own. After a couple of weeks she showed up with a tiny gray-and-white kitten that dove into the food bowl, scrapping for every crumb as though it were his last supper. It was. The sole survivor of an untimely winter litter, he never returned. My heartbroken children dragged me everywhere trying to find him.
In an attempt to avoid future traumas, I borrowed a Havahart trap from the Animal Rescue Fund in Wainscott, planning to trap Mama Cat and have her fixed. The kids didn’t think she was broken, and thought I was just plain mean. Apparently Mama Cat agreed. She sniffed suspiciously at the cage with the enticing mackerel, gave me a knowing look, and just said no.
The trap worked though — for raccoons, opossums, and even one angry blue jay that left half his feathers behind. One raccoon became a regular customer. He’d walk right in, enjoy his feast, and then wait calmly for me to release him. With a greasy little mackerel smirk he’d saunter off, already planning to return the next night to his favorite eatery, no reservations required. Others were not as sanguine. Snarls, shrieks, and body slams against metal bars would send me rushing outside in my nightgown to open the excrementally decorated cage and release the terrified artist — a nightmare for us all.
I tried everything to catch that cat, including stinky mackerel trails leading to a hidden cage with mounds of sardines deep inside. I wrapped the cage in paper yard bags, lined it with newspaper, and buried it in the bushes. Only my loyal raccoon was grateful, enthusiastically joining in the new game and relishing the variety of treats. I even tried not feeding Mama Cat for two days, thinking hunger would make her less cautious. My appalled children sabotaged that plan, sneaking her food when I wasn’t looking.
Finally I gave up and prayed for impotent males or feline menopause or at the very least some feline self-control. But Mama Cat was too young for menopause (if that even exists in cats), not at all interested in abstinence or birth control, and knew exactly where to locate willing and able paramours. She ate well and continued to enjoy an active Hamptons social life. She lost her big-bellied malnourished look and kept getting rounder and rounder until one evening she arrived with four bright-eyed ginger kittens. The kids were thrilled. Me? Not so much.
We watched them pounce and tumble on the patio. Even I had to laugh — grudgingly. Mama Cat, ever alert, sounded the alarm whenever we tried to ease open the glass door, and four little tails would scramble to safety, plunging into the bushes then melting into the beach grass and sand. When she gave the signal, they would return. They were delightful baby dune cats — at least the kids thought so. But now there were five.
How many were females? What if they all were females? I started calculating potential numbers of future dune cats all living in my yard and was horrified. This was not the new life I had envisioned when I fled the New Jersey suburbs for the peace and quiet of Amagansett. Nor had I ever yearned for a career as a cat hoarder.
So when the kittens were old enough to be fixed and before Mama Cat started dating again, the Mad Trapper sprang into action — this time with a plan. I was going to become the best Havahart hunter on the East End of Long Island. I created an elaborately camouflaged trap — not one piece of metal in sight, scrubbed clean of all human smells, festooned with vines, leaves, and beach grass, hidden deeply in the bushes. The only evidence of its existence was the reek of canned mackerel baking in the summer heat. The neighbors had roses and lilies, lavender and sage. I had dead fish.
That summer I caught every feral cat in the neighborhood and one pet — a big ginger tom with the same yellow eyes of two of the kittens. His owner was a bit miffed when his macho male returned home somewhat less of the tomcat he used to be and missing a couple of parts. But hey, he had had his fun, was a deadbeat dad, and enough is enough.
Eleven cats trapped, neutered, and released back into the yard. Eleven. I now had my very own hoard of feral cats. Oh joy. Several of them did leave immediately after their trip to the vet, deciding that although the food was tempting, the hospitality really sucked. My kids mourned each exodus, enjoying the sea of fur roiling around the patio at mealtimes. But I was worried about my neighbors. No one wants to see their million-dollar yard being used as a high-end litter box, or their designer birdfeeders and granite birdbaths as four-star restaurants, or their teak deck furniture as scratching posts. And no one enjoys having their tranquil summer nights interrupted by feline combatants, the hair-raising screeches emanating from just one property: mine. One small stray cat might be acceptable. Eleven? I was sure the complaints would come rolling in.
No one said a word. Since the cats were all ginger-colored and equally shy, maybe people assumed we had only a couple of cats, not 11. And I sure wasn’t interested in enlightening them.
But now I can go public. My feline hoard has diminished rapidly over the last few years, and I’ve now reached a socially acceptable number of dune cats: three. Feral cats succumb quickly to disease and infection. They get hit by speeding cars and trapped in sheds and pool houses. In some areas they are killed by dogs, although here in the dunes my cats have at least five pounds on most of the mini-canines leashed securely to their owners.
The adults are all gone. Three of the four kittens are still with us. Snooky, Mista Sista, and Sissame have never had a bad experience with humans, though they always howl their way to the vet. They have lots of food, lots of love, and their own straw-filled houses. In the summer they lounge on the shady front porch and watch the beach parade go by. In the winter they have their own special cushioned and blanketed chairs on the sunny lower deck. They line up every day to soak up the fresh air and sunshine — a healthy feline “Magic Mountain.”
Still, every Labor Day I pray that no more summertime cats will be set free to fend for themselves when their families return to their no-pets-allowed apartments or homes where cat fur and litter boxes would clash with the decor.
Three cats are plenty, because honestly . . . I am really a dog person.
L.J. Gurney teaches composition at Suffolk Community College.