Feral Cats


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The frequently over-looked feral cat is one denizen of the suburban/urban environment who desperately needs our help and understanding. This special edition of The Monday Garden created in collaboration with Stamford’s Friends of Felines is dedicated to Stamford, CT’s wild cats and the awesome volunteers who care for them.

THE ANCIENT COMPACT. Some 4,000 to 7,000 years ago Homo sapien and Felis catus formed a lasting mutual aid compact. The so-called “house cat” has been keeping our vermin in check in return for a warm bed, supplemental food, and, of course, a few pats. Humans have given Felis catus free transportation from their original home in West Africa to virtually every piece of dry land on the planet. After thousand years of co-habitation, they’re cousins of a sort. In fact, they’re part of the family in 34% of USA homes.

Half our cats are homeless. In the USA, we have a staggering 60 to 100 million cats living without the benefit of the ancient compact between our species. The numbers show that, despite millions of “waste” cats being put to death every year, half our cats are on their own.

HOMELESS AND FERAL CATS: Many of these millions of non-domestic cats were born within the compact but became homeless after being lost or abandoned. However, many are the homeless ones’ wild children. These children are truly feral, no more accustomed to humans than a raccoon.

Homeless cats, born within the compact, welcome a new human family, once they re-learn trust. Feral kittens can be brought within the compact. However, after a certain age, the born-wild ferals can not adapt to the ways of our tribe and can only be happy, living on their own, with their own kind.

COLONY LIFE: Like their African ancestors, wild cats band together in colonies, caring for each other as extended family.

Surviving wild: A squirrel constructs a nest; a chipmunk digs a burrow. Felis catus, evolved in the arid West African heat, is ill-equipped for the cold, the wet, and the predators of the temperate zones. Our wild cats survive by seeking food and shelter near human habitations. Dumps are popular for the waste food, and the vermin that it attracts.

Slow death. A female cat starts bearing at 6 months, and has about 3 litters a year until she dies from the strains of bearing and raising 30 or more children. The Toms, driven by their hormones to dominate territory by prowling and fighting, don’t fare much better. The “life” of an unneutered cat, on its own or in a colony overrun with kittens, is often a slow, early death due to malnutrition, feline diseases, injuries from fighting and other causes, and harsh weather.

Look carefully, they’re there. There are wild cats in your community, be it New York City’s back streets or New Canaan’s backyards. Trust me, they’re there. Unfortunately, some humans respond to “stray” cats by harassing, torturing, and poisoning. The survivors have learned to avoid humans, making them hard to spot.

Care giving humans: Part of the problem (and much of the solution) is the many humans who honor our ancient ties by providing food and shelter for the wild ones. This is often done discretely for fear of humans who might harm the cats or don’t want the colony “in their backyard”.

These food-giving humans are part of the problem unless steps are also taken to control the cats’ breeding.

THE “NO-KILL” SHELTERS: In my town (Stamford, CT), tax-supported animal control stopped taking cats during the 1990’s budget cuts. Volunteers quickly filled the gap. Many thought that the “no kill” volunteers were a step forward.

In addition to the rescued homeless cats and the captured ferals, the shelters house domestic cats put up for adoption because their humans can’t or won’t keep them any longer. Sadly, this includes the beloved companions of people going into nursing homes.

Today, my town’s volunteer “no-kill” cat shelters are full; ditto the neighboring towns. Janine Paton, a founder of Stamford’s all-volunteer Friend of Felines, described the heartache of the volunteers, as their shelters (usually volunteers’ homes) fill with unadopted, and unadoptable, adult cats. She said that every night she finds her home answering machine crammed with pleas for help that have no answer.

There’s no room in the inn, yet each day, more cats are born than there are homes or shelters. So, what happens? More cats are abandoned and more strays go unrescued. Some are not neutered, and the number of wild children continues to rise.

Eco Groceries

Community Supported Agriculture


Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) is a great way to get farm-fresh organic food, cheap, while supporting a genuine farm engaged in sustainable agricultural. So, what is the catch?

How CSA works is that the members each pay the farm up front in winter or early spring for a share of the summer and fall harvest. If the harvest is poor, the members get less. The farm gets the money needed to finance the crop, the farm isn’t devoting massive amounts of time to selling the product, and even petroleum is saved by limiting deliveries to once a week. CSA lets the farmers concentrate on farming and spreads the risk of the harvest between all of the farm’s CSA members. The CSA members get to eat healthy, cheap food and feel good about what they are doing.

Getting started: I’ve wanted to be a member of a CSA member for some time, but there were no groups near me, until this year. We now have a successful start-up group. Some things that were tried worked; other didn’t. I’m hoping this story might inspire you to join a CSA group or start your own.

I learned about the new CSA group-to-be from an email forwarded by a neighbor who was a friend of a friend of Nancy, the person who started our CSA. Nancy had been a CSA group member in another city, so knew the basics. Her former CSA farm with was willing to take on a new group in our town, so there was no question about the farm’s reliability or quality.

The deal being offered was 24 weeks of vegetables for 4 (or 2 to 3 vegetarians) for $400, starting in June, and/or 20 weeks of fruit for $175, starting in July. Very reasonable.

To get started, we set up a (free) Yahoo! Group, to make data generally available and have easy email communications. Over the winter, emails were sent out and brochures hung up around town but we weren’t getting close to our initial goal of 20+ families – enough customers to pay for the farm to send the truck to our town once a week.

Then, in early spring, two things went very right. First, Nancy was driving around looking for a place near the interstate where the farm truck could conveniently make its weekly drop off. She stopped at a local church to look over their parking lot. She started talking with some parishioners and, two weeks later, our CSA group had a church sponsor! About the same time, the local newspaper did a short article about the new group. (I don’t know how this happened but it was a big help).

So between the church members and the newspaper article, we had our minimum group of 20+. Then, Nancy did one more very smart thing by limiting new applications after we hit the 30+ mark. She correctly pointed out that we needed a small group the first year while we were getting organized.

In May, we had our organizational meeting and pot luck lunch at the church, complete with recipe swapping and kids running around.

How it works: June came and so did our first vegetables. The delivery logistics took a couple of weeks to work out. Now it goes like this: early each week, we get a letter from the farm through the Yahoo! Group, telling us how things are going and what our share for the week will be. It’s actually exciting as there’s always something new on the menu. (Excerpt from a weekly letter: “Bright Lights Swiss Chard-1 bunch; Boothby Blonde or National Pickling Cucumbers-15, General Lee Slicing Cucumber-6, Summer Squash-mix of varieties-10, Green Spring Onions-1 bunch, Oriental Eggplant-2, Oregano-1 bunch….”)

On our delivery day, Wednesday, the truck stops by the church around mid day. Our crates go into a storeroom set aside for us, with a door leading to the parking lot. At 3:45 PM, the week’s “opening volunteers” sort and label the crates. The members pick up their shares between 4:00 PM and 6:00 PM, lingering to chat for a while, and perhaps to buy some organic eggs from the small stock brought weekly by one of our members from her backyard chickens. At 6:00 PM the day’s “closing volunteers” sweep up and stack the empty crates, to be picked up the following week.

Excess produce, and a share bought by the church for this purpose, are donated to a local care-giving group.

The food is wonderful. Enormous heads of crisp, dark green lettuce; tiny, pale green, thin-skinned cucumbers by the handful; pints of tart, tangy currants; elegant bunches of chard with bright colored stems; and piles of baby squash shaped like fat yellow stars. Each week, some familiar stand-bys and some new and different things, all carrying a hint of warm sun, fresh breeze, and moist, fertile soil.

It is a change to eat each week what’s harvested that week rather than what you chose to buy. I, for one, tend to buy the many of same things over and over at the grocery store. Now, it’s learning new foods and new ways of cooking, aided by our group members who have generously posted recipes and how-to’s on the group site.

For example, did you know that you can cook a cucumber anyway that you can cook zucchini, and that green onions freeze well? I still won’t eat beet roots, but I’ve learned several delicious ways to cook the beet greens.

Diet-wise, I lost 10 LB in a month by having large portions of lo-cal but delicious vegetables every day.

The people are great, too. CSA groups attract nice people. I’ve met several very interesting people that I like a whole lot. Also, those of us who didn’t need a whole share are able to split a share with someone else interested in the project. I hadn’t met my share partner before, and she’s wonderful. We not only help each other by jointly owning the share, if one of us can’t pick up on Wednesday, the other one covers it. My wonderful share partner even likes beets, so she’s willing to take the roots and let me have the greens. (grin).

The farmers are worth supporting. I had wondered what would happen if the crop wasn’t good. Well, this year was pretty bad. The spring broccoli bolted and several other tragedies were occasioned by the too cold and too wet, then too hot and too dry, then too hot and too wet weather.

Here are the words of our farmers, Deb and Pete, taken from their June letters:

“This has been one of the most challenging springs we remember. A 100 Year Flood, a flood of a magnitude that only happens every 100 years, started April. The fields were covered, the barns flooded and all we could do is watch….

“May was dreary, gray, cold and dry. We thought we would never see the sun and then June rolled around with 90 degree temperatures and still no rain. The irrigation has been going every night for weeks ….

“Some of the vegetables that we count on each spring-the bok choi, broccoli and possibly the spinach-are just not going to be harvestable this year. They are all very sensitive to the heat and bolted before they grew to harvestable size….

“We were broiling just about a half hour ago and then the heavens opened and rained over 1/2 inch. The temperature dropped almost 20 degrees.“

In July, growing conditions finally improved. Despite all this, somehow our farm has come through anyway every week, with plenty to eat. Thank you, Deb and Pete.

Start your own: I walk to pick up my share but several of our members are coming from other towns – a waste of petroleum. What we were discussing the other night is how they can start their own in-town CSA groups. Next year our group should grow much larger, since the product sells itself. I hope that several of our members also start their own groups in other towns as well. And perhaps those new CSA groups will lead to even more new groups through out our county.

If you look on the web, you can find a list of CSA farms in your area. The farm doesn’t have to be very close as long as it can get to you on the highways in a couple of hours.

As you can see from our experience, you can get a CSA group going once you have a farm, a dedicated organizer or two, and a sponsoring organization. Nancy, I can’t thank you enough, for being our dedicated organizer.

Master Gardeners



Last spring I mentioned that I was enrolled in the Connecticut Master Gardeners Program (Bartlett Arboretum location). Well, here’s one of my 27 awesome classmates from the Class of 2004, getting her certificate.

The Master Gardeners Program exists in most states. It’s sponsored of the USA Department of Agriculture, through the state land grant colleges (UConn in Connecticut). Since there’s still time to register for the 2005 classes, that begin as early as January in some locations, I thought that I’d share what I experienced to help you decide whether this is something that you’d like to pursue to improve your home gardening skills, to get started in a career in horticulture, or because you’re involved in horticulture-related community service such as community gardening. Or perhaps, you just like to learn interesting things.

The program didn’t make me an instant genius (sigh!). It’s not the same as a four-year degree program, let alone a master’s degree. However, it is very useful to round out “hands-on” horticultural knowledge, in a reasonable time at low cost. It’s also a great for making community contacts, and kind of fun, if a bit of hard work. Overall, I think that the program can add significant value.

At my location, the program consisted of 14 weeks of class work and a major plant research project, with 60 hours of required community service as the “pay back” for the program, which is free except for materials.

During the 14 weeks of classes, we covered a topic a week. The classes included water quality, soil chemistry, botany, plant pathology, pesticides, woody plants, garden perennials, invasives, vegetables, fruit trees, bugs, lawn care, and much more. Each week, there was a full-day lecture on the topic for the week, and a day or two of reading at home. Each class seemed to me to be a condensed version of the first year college course for the area. Some topics were things that I won’t have studied on my own, so the class was good incentive to get familiar with the area. Every now and then, I got an answer to a question that I didn’t know to ask. I also got a better idea of my own interests for future study.

In addition to the class work, we had a “hands-on” research project which required learning all we could about 20 to 25 common trees, shrubs, and vines. The project required obtaining a live sample of each assigned plant so we would learn to recognize it. Then we did a write up on the plant’s history, culture, and uses. In addition to learning a lot about the assigned plants, the project helped to build research skills.