(NB I have not included any graphic images in this account.)
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m completely crazy about animals. Everyone I know understands this, including my husband, Jack. An engineer by trade, he claims not to understand my passion. He prefers calm, predictable engine parts – but it’s just a claim.
Despite moaning about my constant strivings to save and nurture all manner of creatures, Jack’s always at the front of the queue when there’s any rescuing to be done. That said, our attitudes have recently been sorely challenged.
Last month we were forced to deal with a deeply disturbing situation. It was one which involved our cat, Brutus.
Earlier this year a newcomer arrived on the scene. Spotted by the dogs before me, they galloped off, chasing it up a tree. I rushed up to find a scruffy, muscle-bound cat attached to the trunk. It was mainly white with a tawny brown ear and tail. Understandably, it looked extremely grumpy.
Interlopers such as this aren’t unusual. We live in a very rural part of France, snuggled between sprawling meadows and deciduous woodland. With no neighbours close by, our usual visitors tend to be wayward hunting dogs, feral cats and lost delivery drivers. Assuming it was another feral traveller, I called the dogs off and let it be.
Surprisingly, the cat hung around. We had regular sightings of a small, spectral form, slinking, ghostlike, into the farm buildings shadows at dusk. No doubt hunting for vermin, we felt this was behaviour to encourage.
Predictably, Jack was the first to react.
“I spotted that wild cat again – it’s ever so skinny. I’ve put a bowl of Brutus’ food in the wood store to see if it’ll take any.”
“Great idea,” I replied, always happy to welcome additions to our animal family. “There won’t be any problems with Brutus, he doesn’t go out much during the day, and I’ve never seen him near the outbuildings.”
I confess to being hopelessly soppy about our moggy.
Brutus came from a litter of six drop-dead gorgeous feral kittens, all of whom were born in the tractor barn. His siblings went to our friends. Each family was given the choice of which to take, and luckily for us, nobody wanted Brutus. He was incredibly timid, and absolutely terrified of humans, except for Jack and me.
Now he is a huge, incredibly handsome tabby. Yet despite his inordinately long legs and oversized body, he has retained his shyness. But that’s fine by us. He sleeps most of the day, ventures out on modest hunting trips, and comes home for mealtimes and cuddles – in that order. Brutus does love his food.
The daily food offerings Jack left in the wood store were always eaten by the wild cat. Now named Whitey, Jack and the cat were beginning to develop a cautious pact.
“Whitey is letting me get really close now. He’s still hissing, but he’ll allow me in the wood store while he’s eating.”
“That’s great progress. Is it a male or female?”
This was a fair point, observation not being a strong point of Jack’s. At least he’d realised he wasn’t feeding Brutus.
“If it’s a male it’s pretty obvious, Jack.”
“I haven’t looked. You’re not going off on one of your animal welfare missions again are you?”
“Nooo, but we’ve got enough feral cats in the area as is it. If it’s going to live here it needs to be neutered. We’ll have to trap it.”
“Huh, good luck with that!”
Over the following months Jack and I shared feeding duties. Very quickly I discovered we were dealing with a feisty young man. Whilst Jack was efficient but perfunctory, I spent 20 minutes or so most days trying to gain his confidence, but he was no pushover. It took patience, time, and a lot of hissing from our feline.
Eventually we saw some positive changes. Whitey, overcome by the alluring whiffs of Whiskas, would tolerate my presence so long as I sat perfectly still. One quick movement, though, and he’d be off like a shot. It was then that I realised he had a damaged ear.
Spring morphed into summer, bringing with it our usual high temperatures. Each day I was getting closer, and Jack, on his rounds, was too. Alerted by our, “Supper time!” calls, Whitey would silently appear and approach the bowl cautiously, making sure he had an emergency getaway. Although I couldn’t touch him, I could clearly see his ear. It was horribly burned and scabby.
Closer and closer I got until I could sit right next to his bowl, fingers touching the rim. At first, he stared, hissed, stopped, backed off. Finally, the penny dropped. One day, realising I was simply an inconvenience, he began to eat. I was thrilled.
As the weeks wore on he became more confident. Never tame, never happy with our presence, but his need for food won. With the help of decent nourishment, laced with a regular wormer, his scruffy body gradually transformed. His coat shone lustrously and his tummy filled, but that ear was still poorly.
A few weeks later I decided to try and handle him. I reckoned there could be three outcomes: he’d run a mile, tolerate me, or shred my hand. Those spirited golden eyes suggested the third. I waited until he was tucking into his nosh then, ever so gently, swept my hand across his whiskers.
A fourth outcome – I hadn’t expected this one!
Whitey abruptly sat up. He stared at me, slitty-eyed. Then, with his claws retracted, he quietly raised one paw and smartly cuffed my outstretched hand.
He accompanied this with a gusty spit, and retired sulking to the back of the shed. Well, I thought, at least there hasn’t been any blood loss.
Our progress continued into the autumn. Whitey wouldn’t permit me to stroke him, but I was allowed to help him shovel up errant morsels of food that were stuck to the bowl. A little overfamiliar though, and I was clouted for my impertinence. After his meal he’d stretch luxuriantly and lie on a plank at the back of the store, snoozing gently to the tune of my inane chatter. But he never slept, he was always watchful, ready to flee.
While we were progressing towards our goal of humanely trapping our wild cat, other feline problems began. One evening Brutus came home from an evening jaunt. I noticed his head was slightly on one side and he kept flicking his left ear. He settled down beside us and began purring so I didn’t think much of it at the time.
The next morning there was no improvement so I pinned him down and had a good look. There was a mass of black dots in and around his ear. To me it looked as though he had mites, which was odd as he was up to date with his tick and flea treatment.
By the end of the day, his behaviour had changed. He was restless, constantly shaking his head and swallowing. I looked again and was horrified to find a large swelling had appeared on the left side of his face. I tried to examine it but Brutus wriggled free and darted out of the house.
We called and called, searching high and low, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Brutus had gone to ground.
That night I didn’t sleep a wink. He had never behaved like this before. I couldn’t believe a simple mite could have caused such an ugly swelling. To our relief, mid-afternoon the following day he reappeared. The swelling was bigger and he looked dishevelled, but at least he was home. We blocked the cat flap, called the vet and managed to get an appointment for later that day.
Brutus, being a naturally shy soul, is absolutely terrified of anything to do with the vet. This includes cat carriers. For a start he’s too big for the standard size, and trying to get him into one is like feeding toothpaste back into its tube. It’s a nightmare. For this reason we have started using a dog crate – an Australian Shepherd sized one. It looks eccentric, but does the job nicely.
It’s Jack’s job to do the loading and he’s very good at it. Our howling boy was summarily stuffed in and I whizzed over to the vet.
Our French vet, Dr Bonnet, briefly examined him, peeling back his fur as Brutus tried his best to bury a hole in my tummy.
“These are not mites,” she said. “They are cat bites, he has been in a fight.”
I couldn’t believe our gentle giant would fight. He wasn’t intact and anyway he wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Dr Bonnet explained she’d have to clear the injury site with clippers. I had no idea how Brutus would react, he can’t even bear the sounds of passing cars. A veterinary nurse was brought in to support one end and I had his head.
Guess what? Brutus was a hero.
He didn’t mew, he didn’t scratch, he didn’t move a muscle. I was so proud of him. The vet’s work revealed a large, weeping abscess on the site of a nasty bite. She also removed several fragments of feline nail sheath embedded in his skin. The black marks were not mite marks at all, they were dried blood. He was battered and bruised but there was no lasting harm done.
Dr Bonnet gave him anti-inflammatory and antibiotic injections and we were sent home with care instructions for cleaning the wounds, and antibiotics for the next 10 days.
Jack and I discussed what might have happened. With no other cats close to the house at that time, there was very little doubt in our minds that Brutus must have fought with Whitey. Our resolve to trap and have Whitey neutered became an urgent mission. If he was the combatant, without testosterone coursing through his body, we assumed he would calm down.
We’d already tried using a humane box cage trap. It was one with a treadle in the middle that activated sliding doors either side when triggered. We’d put food in every day, it was ignored. We even tried with milk, but that was ignored too. Whitey was a canny lad but not for long. Jack had a stroke of genius.
“Why don’t we try with cream? He loves it, I gave him some yesterday.”
“Did you? That’s so bad for cats! Huh, well, okay, anything’s worth a go.”
The trap was set and amazingly it worked. The cream proved too good to resist – Whitey was in. It was 5.50pm on Saturday and the vet was due to close at 6 pm. I telephoned immediately and they agreed to stay open for us.
To his credit, despite it being a dreadful experience, Whitey made the car journey without a sound. The vet was involved on an emergency case so we had to leave him overnight. We felt wretched for him, but there was no choice.
That evening we met up with cat-loving friends at the local auberge. We related our tale and I showed photos of Whitey. One of our pals stared intently.
“That’s Chalky,” she cried.
Jane explained that he was one of a feral litter she and her husband had cared for three years previously. Chalky had been a tough character and disappeared around 12 months ago. We couldn’t believe the coincidence. Delighted that he was still around, they said they’d like to take him back. What a couple of stars!
The next day I collected the patient. The good news was that he had been successfully neutered. The bad news was that skin cancer was confirmed on his ear. There was only so much that could be done for a feral cat, the vet said, but he was optimistic that it wouldn’t cause too many problems.
I drove Whitey to Jane’s house. Still soundless, but scowling, Whitey made it clear what he thought about the treatment he’d received. With no confidence at all that he’d stay put, they left him in the cage to get used to his surroundings.
Sadly, our predictions were correct.
It took less than two days for him to travel the four kilometres back to our home. There he was, waiting for his food, but this time he was even more furtive than usual. Not surprising, given his experience at the hands of us humans, but it was a behaviour that we encouraged. We would no longer tempt fate by trying to handle him.
A couple of weeks later I got up early. I spotted Brutus lying on his bed and did my usual thing of stroking his back. He mewed softly, grunting strangely. Huh, I thought, it must have been raining. I went over to the window to check the weather and glanced down at my hand. To my horror I realised it was covered in blood.
Calling to Jack, I quickly switched on the light and tried to find out where the blood was coming from, but it was impossible to be sure. Brutus has dense fur and every time I tried to touch him he mewed and groaned. We could tell by the matted areas that there were injuries to his neck, but we had to try and see if there was damage in other places.
I gently lifted him and we both had a look. Brutus, eyes half closed, mewed and wheezed, but never scratched. Had he been run over? Had he been in another fight? We had no idea. Cats are extremely good at hiding pain, but it was clear he was suffering.
We left him to settle back down and rest. We closed the cat flap, showered and changed, but by the time we got back he had disappeared. We couldn’t believe it. The only saving grace was that he hadn’t managed to get outside. We looked in his favourite hiding place. Sure enough there he was, hunched up in a ball under our bed.
We agonised over what to do. He was obviously well enough to walk, and he had only just finished his ten day course of antibiotics, so we assumed he would be guarded from infection. We tried coaxing him out but he just ignored us. Getting him out from under our bed would be nigh on impossible anyway, so we decided to leave him to rest.
Jack went off to do his jobs, returning to tell me he had seen Whitey limping. If there had been a cat fight, it was likely that he was the opponent.
That evening, much to our relief, Brutus came downstairs. He was wobbly but seemed much brighter than the morning. We tried him with supper, but he wouldn’t eat, preferring to lie on the sofa between us. No eating in Brutus’ case is bad news. Our minds were made up, he was going back to the vet.
The next morning Brutus had relapsed. He was back on his bed. His eyes were closed, his body was twitching and he was moaning gently. Panic stricken, I called the vet for an emergency appointment. There were nothing available but they kindly told me to bring him in to wait our turn.
This time, putting Brutus into the cage was no problem, he was simply too ill. We covered the cage with a big blanket and I drove over as quickly as I could, tears spilling as I fought dreadful emotions that we had delayed too long.
Luckily, Dr Arnaud, our usual vet, was on duty that day. He knew Brutus well and helped lift him onto the table. I explained what had happened.
His superficial examination showed that Brutus was running a high temperature. Next, he began to examine the wound, which meant the clippers again. Our poor boy, he had already endured one trauma with them, I wasn’t sure how he’d cope a second time. I needn’t have worried.
Brutus lay stoically against my side, eyes still closed, still moaning quietly – rigid with pain.
Dr Arnaud clipped several sections of fur and what was revealed confirmed his theory. I stared in horror. The top of his head had been very badly scraped and lacerated, there was a nasty, raking gash between his shoulder blades and there were deep incisor puncture wounds either side of his jugular.
“Yes, as I thought,” he said. “Brutus has not been run over, he had been attacked. The bad smell from him, it is pus from abscesses. They take a while to develop, you would not have seen them before.”
“But…but, attacked by what?” I asked stupidly, shocked by the injuries.
I could barely believe it. Some feral cats are truly wild, he said, they will viciously fight to claim territory. He pointed to the position of each injury. It was clear that the cat had jumped on Brutus’s back.
“C’est comme la chasse,” he explained.
Brutus had been hunted.
Dr Arnaud spent the next half hour working on Brutus. Five major wounds had abscesses, each needed to be drained, and cleaned. He used forceps where necessary, removing necrotic tissue to accelerate the healing process. There were many other claw wounds, which he told me would respond to a new course of antibiotics.
Dr Arnaud gave Brutus painkilling and antibiotic injections, and another course of tablets to go home with. We had a new care plan which meant he needed to be housebound for a week so I could deal with his dressings.
Before leaving, I discussed my concerns about Whitey with Dr Arnaud. He told me it was highly probable he was trying to take over Brutus’ territory. He said having him neutered may help a little, but it was unlikely. Injuries like these indicated a highly aggressive nature. Cats are natural predators, many are extremely competitive. His advice was to try and relocate him.
I took our boy home, feeling distraught and racked with guilt. Our wonderfully placid Brutus was in a bad state. Jack was anxiously waiting.
We talked long and hard about what to do. Our conclusion was simple, neither of us were prepared to risk Brutus being attacked again. That evening I set up the box trap with new bait. Cats are very intelligent animals, I had no confidence at all it would work a second time, but it was worth a try.
As luck would have it, Whitey had been absent for a couple of days. I called a few times and he eventually appeared looking fit and well. Very cautious, but obviously hungry, he sniffed the food inside the cage. He placed one paw in, withdrawing it immediately. I sat down beside the cage, coaxing and pleading. He repeated this twice more before venturing in fully.
The cage doors came down, Whitey was captured. It was time to put our plan into action.
We loaded him into the car and drove into the countryside, over the Garonne River, to a rural area nearly 20 kilometres away. We found a remote expanse of woodland, bordered on one side by a stream and a vineyard on the other. Perfect.
Here it would be teeming with wildlife so he would eat well, and he would be safe to spend as long as he wanted building up a new territory. We opened the trap door to release our French wild cat into the woods. He looked at us balefully, those beautiful golden eyes glinting, then he was off like a ghost into the woods.
I end this story with a purring Brutus sprawled across my lap. He still has his Mohican cut, but his wounds are almost healed. His confidence has returned and the nightly patrols of his mini kingdom have resumed, fears of being stalked now distant memories.
Has my love for animals been dinted by this experience? Of course not. But I have learned that not every cat can, or wants to be, domesticated. I believe we made the right decision for both animals, and have confidence that Whitey, the French wild cat, will quickly flourish in his new woodland domain.