Farewell, My Feral Friends

Mr. P was part of my feral cat colony.Mr. P/Photo by Suzanne Bierer

After almost eight years as “head mom” for a feral cat colony, this afternoon I said goodbye to Harmony Hall. I sat in the woods at the cats’ now unused feeding station and lost myself in memories of the feral friends who came and then went, always much too soon, from my life.There were sweet, petite Mrs. P and her spunky look-alike buddy, Groucho. And Blaze. And Torti Love (we never did think of a good name for her). And Molly, who came and went from the group and then came back again. And there was the handsome, bright orange Raider. And our beloved Mr. P, a rotund and almost friendly orange and white tux. How I miss them all.

​My journey with my feral cat colony actually began nearly 20 years ago. A friend was visiting at Harmony Hall and discovered 30 cats in the parking lot. They were everywhere… on cars, under pickup trucks, lurking in bushes, lounging in the parking lot…. And there were cats of all sizes and colors, although most were orange or orange and white. They had a feeder, but my friend offered to help and said she wanted to get the cats neutered/spayed.

With help from Metro Ferals of Maryland, Barbara managed to trap the entire feral cat colony and load all 30 cats into her soccer mom van for the trip to the spay/neuter clinic.

For years, she fed the cats by herself. Finally, with some urging, she recruited volunteer feeders so she wouldn’t have to go there every day.

But maintaining that feral cat colony was never easy. With every new manager at Harmony Hall came new rules. First the cats “had” to eat behind a row of pine trees. Then, Barbara was supposed to feed them under a construction trailer. Next stop was behind the Dumpsters.

After years of jumping through hoops. she moved the cats off Harmony Hall’s property to a patch of woods in what turned out to be a homeowner’s yard. But even that wasn’t good enough for the manager who came along eight years ago.

Relocate We Must

Feral cats eatingMealtime in the woods/Photo by Suzanne Bierer

Craig had been there just a few days when he told Barbara the cats had to go. Now.
By the time she included me in their email conversations, they were already fighting and calling each other names. Nothing was going to change his mind.
He complained that the cats were all over the parking lot, and he didn’t like looking at the “structures,” the cold weather shelters lovingly built years before by Barbara and her husband. Oh, and he was building an outdoor dining area for the residents of Harmony Hall, and he didn’t want a bunch of cats anywhere near their food.


I couldn’t address the outdoor dining area. But since Barbara was now living in Leesburg, I checked the parking lot several times a day. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find the shelters tucked into the woods. And I never noticed cats in the parking lot, except for the evening I saw a line of cats walking across a ridge with bright orange Mr. P, tail held high, in the lead.
By then, our feral cat colony was down to 10 elderly cats, and we were determined to keep them together. But finding one barn home for a large family of aging ferals is not easy. No one wanted our wonderful cats.
Meanwhile, Craig was becoming more and more impatient, and Barbara was beginning to panic.

Out of desperation and a huge amount of love, one of the feeders said the cats could live in her yard on the other side of the woods. So Barbara loaded her newest soccer mom van with traps and made the trip from Leesburg to catch and relocate the cats to Susan’s yard.

Heck No; I Won’t Go

Trapping the cats was easier than any of us expected. Barbara got all of them the first day. Except for Groucho, the sweet but feisty little orange and white tux with a white Groucho Marx mustache. For the whole two weeks the others were confined in huge crates in Susan’s yard, Barbara came every day from Leesburg to try to sweet talk Groucho into a drop trap. But he wasn’t having it.

He’d lurk in the woods or sit in the middle of the feeding station and stare her down until she gave up and left for the day. Then I’d give him his evening meal.

I loved my time with Groucho. Stubborn as he was, he was a nice guy, and we became good friends.

Barbara and I were sad that he was alone and worried that Craig would call Animal Control (not that they could have caught him either). But Groucho didn’t care. He wasn’t going to leave his home, and nothing we did was going to persuade him.

A few days after the other cat’s confinement period was up, Groucho had a dinner guest at his feeding station. Mrs. P!

For the next few days, the entire feral cat colony straggled back to their old home. Blaze appeared the day after Mrs. P did. Then Mr. P arrived, followed the next day by Raider, and then Torti Love. Molly joined us a week later.

Barbara and I were frantic and couldn’t decide what to do. Should she trap them and take them back to Susan’s? Should we try again to find a barn home? Then I got a really bright idea. If I walked towards Susan’s with their feeding station and food, they would follow me. Maybe. I figured this journey would take several days, or maybe even several weeks.

Somehow, I never managed to do this, although I walked the route several times. I wondered how the neighbors would feel if a bunch of cats and their wood feeding station suddenly landed in their yards.  How would I get them to follow me across the street and then around to the back of Susan’s house and her yard? I procrastinated for months, and meanwhile winter was coming. We decided to wait until spring.

We moved the feeding station to a better hiding place, and Barbara buried the shelters even deeper into the woods.Craig never even noticed. Maybe he thought the cats were gone. Or maybe he just looked the other way.

Home, Sweet Home In The Woods

Feral cat hiding under a carMrs. P hiding under a car/Photo by Suzanne Bierer

The cats loved their home in the woods, and I loved visiting them there. They’d meet me where I parked my car and walk up the path with me to the feeding station. I’d fix their food, and then I’d just sit at the feeding station enjoying their company for a little while. I could never touch any of them. But they touched my heart and soul in so many ways.

But caring for a feral cat colony isn’t without heartache, especially when the cats are 15 or 16 years old.

First, our dear little Mrs. P began to lose weight. A friend and I debated endlessly. Should we trap her and take her to the vet? Maybe there was something to do. Or should we take the advice we give to other people who rescue: “Think about what the cat wants, not what you want for her.”

In the end, we took our own advice. We knew she wouldn’t want to get caught in a trap and go to a vet where she’d be terrified by the strange humans touching her. Hard as it was to watch, we let nature take its course.

The next one to get sick was Molly, who developed a tumor on her jaw. Then our beloved Blaze, who did not look well, disappeared. So did Groucho, during an especially cruel and hard winter. My feral cat family was shrinking. And with each loss, my heart broke a bit more.

When Mr. P developed a tumor on his eye and began to lose weight, I kept reminding myself that the cats were old. They’d lived their lifestyle of their choice for 16 years or maybe even more. That was small consolation, but it did help put the terrible losses in perspective.

So Now It’s Goodbye

Feral cat in the leavesRaider/Photo by Suzanne Bierer

I always thought Raider and Torti Love were the youngest and healthiest of the group. But Raider disappeared about a month ago, leaving just Torti to meet me at the feeding station. For the first few weeks, she was always there. But then there were many days when I didn’t see her at all. I wondered if she was afraid to go into the woods without Raider.
Today, I saw Verne, the man who owns the house next to the patch of woods where the cats lived. Much to my amazement and joy, he said he feeds our Torti Love every night and sits on the porch with her while she rubs against his legs. She loves to be pet.
So she has a human friend to keep an eye on her and love her as she continues to age. She no longer needs the people who cared about her so much for so many years.
As I sat by the feeding station this afternoon, I remembered clearing snow up to my knees away from the shelters; sitting down to slide down the hill in the winter because I’m a wimp about ice, chasing away the crows and turkey vultures, who scared the cats, and making my way through sticker bushes to retrieve the dishes the raccoons scattered in the woods.
But most of all, I remembered the cats. Mrs. P., Groucho,  Molly. Blaze, Raider. Torti Love. You touched my life in almost magical ways, and I will always remember and love you. Until we meet again, dear friends.

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