Vista rescue group gives feral cats a fresh start

The word “feral” is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as unsocialized behavior suggestive of a “wild beast.”

But Amanda Hodder, foster coordinator with the Vista-based rescue group Love Your Feral Felines, has a different definition.

“To me, feral just means misunderstood,” Hodder said. “So many of these cats can be socialized toward humans with time and attention.”

The Oceanside resident is one of four volunteer officers for LYFF, which was founded in April 2011 by Vista resident Christine Hubbard. While working at a North County animal shelter, Hubbard was surprised to learn about the high euthanasia rate for cats and kittens deemed feral.

Feral cats are born or abandoned in the wild. In the absence of human interaction and neutering/spaying, they can develop defensive, stand-offish and sometimes hostile behaviors.

When these cats and kittens hiss, spit, growl, hide and spurn physical contact, shelters will declare them un-adoptable. If they’re not picked up by feral cat rescue groups, most will be euthanized.

LYFF has two programs for giving feral cats another shot at life.

Over the past six years, the organization has taken part in the countywide barn cats movement. Designed for feral cats that prefer living outdoors away from humans, LYFF’s Barn Cats program sends pairs of spayed feral cats to live in barns and out-buildings on ranches and other rural properties to control vermin.

Over a five-week barn socialization program, the cats gradually come to associate the barns with food, shelter and minimal but positive human contact. LYFF also works with the Feral Cat Coalition and SPOT Rescue's Cat Team to rescue wild cats and neuter them to gradually reduce the population of cats in the wild.

The second program, which launched in May, is for under-socialized kittens. Overseen by LYFF senior director Melissa Dunaj of Fallbrook, the new program takes in under-age and abandoned kittens that would otherwise be euthanized or go feral in the wild.

The kittens are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, de-wormed and micro-chipped, then sent to live with foster families where they’re socialized to live indoors with people and, in some cases, other pets.

Since May, just over 140 kittens have been rescued through the program. About 70 kittens are now in foster care and, of those, about 20 are ready for adoption at events like one from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct 8, at the Kahoots pet store at 1535 Valley Parkway in Escondido.

Brianne Youngberg, a veterinary hospital nurse who joined LYFF in June as its behavior assessment coordinator, said that since the program started six months ago, only 11 kittens have failed to “graduate” into socialized behavior. This is usually because they’ve lived too long without human contact. Those who don’t socialize after six months of training become barn cats.

“These kittens have missed the window of learning things and having positive interactions with people,” Youngberg said. “If we get them young enough, we can work with them.”

When litters of kittens born in the wild arrive at local shelters, Youngberg said it’s often impossible to know whether their skittish behavior is feral or just plain fear. Cats are solitary creatures, very sensitive to noise and not as adaptable to change as dogs. As a result, many cats appear hostile at shelters.

“They all start out with the behaviors that are describes as feral. They’re scared, they hiss, they growl, they run and hide, they’ve got airplane ears (arched back like plane wings),” she said. “But I’ve seen them transform in just 24 hours when you get them home.”

Depending on the age of the kitten, the socialization training takes from a few weeks to a few months, with the average foster stay about four to eight weeks, Youngberg said.

Among the socializing techniques is something called “burrito-ing,” where the kittens are swaddled in a towel or blanket and held to reduce anxiety. Another is for foster parents to build trust by getting the kitten to lick baby food off their fingers.

“Baby food is the key to every kitten’s heart,” said Dunaj, who joined LYFF in June after volunteering for three years at a local animal shelter.

Right now, LYFF has 25 foster families caring for kittens. Dunaj said it could use at least a dozen more. About half of the kittens now in foster care are feral and lack the social skills for adoption. The other half are abandoned newborns who would die without full-time nurturing.

When kittens from 2 to 4 weeks old arrive at shelters or are found in the wild, their chances of survival are low. Not only do they need to be fed by bottle every two to four hours, 24 hours a day, they also need to be physically stimulated to go to the bathroom (a mama cat will lick her kittens’ abdomens to stimulate the reflex, but foster parents must rub the kittens’ abdomens with a washcloth).

Because shelters don’t have the manpower to care for under-age litters, they keep groups like LYFF on call for emergency pickups. Two weeks ago, a litter of underweight, underage kittens arrived at a local shelter just an hour before closing time. Hodder said she was given just 30 minutes to find someone to pick up the kittens or they would be euthanized that night. Fortunately, a transport driver arrived in the nick of time and the kittens are all now safe in foster care.

Hodder’s day job is as a receptionist. She started volunteering for LYFF as an afternoon driver, transporting cats from shelters to barn homes. But the more she learned about the fate of feral cats at shelters, the more she felt compelled to do.

“Nothing involving rescue was as hard as not getting involved. I needed to do more,” she said. “There were a lot of sleepless nights, but it was something I had to do.”

Hodder recruits foster families who must undergo training to participate in the program, but are required to give only their time and love. All animal care costs are covered by LYFF, which is a donor-supported nonprofit (loveyourferalfelines.com).

It costs LYFF about $35 to $50 per month to care for each cat, plus the $50 one-time cost of spaying/neutering and the ongoing cost of transport cages and unexpected veterinary care.

They’d like to grow donations by at least 50 percent next year to take in more feral cats from Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.

As the organization grows, Hubbard’s dream is to one day have a property donated where she can build a permanent home for LYFF. Dunaj said it will be unlike any other shelter.

“We imagine large community cat rooms, two-story cat condos where each kitty has enough space to feel comfortable and other cat-friendly amenities to keep the kitties stress-free while giving the public a place they will feel good about visiting and adopting from,” she said.

Most months, LYFF’s expenses top $2,500, but last month they doubled to $5,000 because LYFF joined 10 other local groups that arranged a convoy rescue of dogs and cats from high-kill shelters in Louisiana after Hurricane Harvey.

LYFF took in 15 hurricane refugees, including Ralphie and Tinkerbell, tiny striped kittens who love being held; Bandit, a curious black and white kitten; and Rory Donovan, an outgoing light gray kitten who loves to play. Most of them are now fully weaned and socialized and should soon be ready for permanent homes.

Dunaj said she and her fellow volunteers have an emotional connection to every kitten they save and when these once unwanted kittens are adopted, it’s cause for celebration.

That was the case on Sept. 17, when one of the program’s most notoriously finicky cats, Posh, found her new parents at an adoption clinic in Oceanside.

Posh was born to a cat that lived in a car mechanic’s garage. While all of her siblings eventually found homes, the 6-month-old Bengal mix would hiss at all comers at adoption events. Youngberg said they’d nearly given up hope for Posh until she locked eyes and hearts with a couple who stopped by the adoption area on a whim.

“They just bonded instantly,” Youngberg said. “I captured the whole interaction on video as I sobbed.”

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com

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