I have tamed many feral cats over the years, none was as easy as Rilke. When I worked at an SPCA we occasionally had feral kittens brought to us. If they were young enough, and cute enough, I was assigned to take them home and tame them. The health tech told us that if they were over a few months of age it was impossible to tame them. Once I moved out to the farm where feral cats were more common I soon realized that this was untrue. It was possible to tame older feral cats too.
Most of the time we would catch a feral cat, whisk it off to the vet to be neutered, and then confine it in a bathroom at home where we would spend days or weeks taming it. A few times we caught kittens and kept them in small rabbit cages while we tamed them. Rilke’s brother was one kitten we tamed that way.
It was a cold December morning, we had snow, and temperatures were below freezing. We knew a feral female cat sometimes came around and helped herself to the cat food we had on our deck, but she was always terrified and as soon as she heard people moving about inside she would run off. We rarely saw her except in the distance, running into the woods.
One morning though, my daughter was getting her breakfast and she called “There are kittens on the deck”. Presumably mother cat had brought them for food and although she ran off, the kittens remained. I was able to catch one but the other got away. They would have been about 6 weeks old at that time.
Rilke, photo by author
Over the winter we didn’t see any sign of that kitten again. Then one spring morning I saw a fluffy grey and white kitten sitting on the deck. It ran when it saw me. I knew it was the same kitten from the winter.
Over the summer we saw it rarely and it always fled. By the time winter came around we started to see it more frequently, coming onto the deck for food, then running away. We tried to befriend it, talking calmly and so froth. Eventually it let us get fairly close. We didn’t have a proper trap at that time, but had used a kennel to catch cats before and set it out, the idea being that we would lure it into the kennel then pull a rope to shut the door. He wouldn’t go in the kennel…
By the time it was December we had nearly a foot of snow on the ground and some very cold days (well below freezing). One day we saw him outside again and were determined to catch him. I went out with canned food and although I don’t remember exactly how it happened my daughter managed to grab him. She knew to take him straight into the bathroom where he could be contained/controlled. He had never been indoors before and typically when a cat comes inside for the first time they freak out.
She remained in the bathroom for a few minutes then, surprisingly enough, came out holding the cat, who looked like he was quite relaxed and not scared at all.
It was the most amazing thing. Consider that we are rural, have no neighbors, he had not been held before in his life, had never been in a house, and yet here he was being held and carried as though it was an every day thing.
Rilke outside, age 4
We did keep him in the bathroom for a few days, got him neutered, vaccinated, wormed, and so forth before he was able to meet our other cats (including his brother whom we had caught the year earlier). He acted as though he had been domestic from the start, but he was a bit goofy in terms of not playing like a regular cat.
I still have no explanation for why Rilke was so easy to tame other than that he quickly realized the warm house was a far better place to be than outside.