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Broadway, Vesuvius, and Little Girl
Broadway, Vesuvius, and Little Girl were born in an auto mechanic’s shop, where their feral mother had taken up residence. A kind-hearted woman discovered them there when they were 8 weeks old. The mechanics didn’t really want the kittens in their shop—the mother was free to stay, and they fed her—and woman thought that the kittens deserved a better life. So she arranged to have the mother spayed at her veterinarian’s and, because she had her own pets and couldn’t take the kittens home, she paid for them to be vaccinated, spayed and neutered, FeLeuk/FIV tested, and boarded at the vet’s until she could find them a home.
Although she tried everything she could think of, she found no interested adopters. Eventually, she turned to us for help, but by that point the kittens had lived in a cage at a vet’s for two months. Instead of living in a cage, they should have been meeting people and other animals, experiencing life in a home, and developing the social skills they needed to become friendly and confident companion animals. The three were old enough for adoption but far from ready for it.
Initially the kittens were catatonically fearful at our shelter. They lived in the darkest corner of their condos, behind their litter boxes, peering out at the world with suspicion. When someone opened the door to feed or clean, they would hiss and spit, even lash out with their claws if a hand got too near. Our caretakers complained that they couldn’t handle the cats at all and were finding it hard to clean their condos properly.
The combative little kittens even had our behavior and training team dismayed at first, wondering where to start with such young cats who had such deeply ingrained fear and aggression towards people. They decided to work with the kittens’ innate curiosity and instincts by starting with “play” training. They encouraged them to explore various interactive toys to build their confidence. It took two weeks, but the kittens started to come out of their shells and look forward to the games and the people who would play with them.
The next problem was that the kittens play rough with their teeth and claws. They hadn’t developed any inhibitions. The solution to this problem involved clicker training, which we use a lot at the League. A trainer would stroke a kitten three times in a row. If the kitten remained calm, the trainer clicked and gave the kitten a treat. She would then stroke the kitten more—essentially “pushing her luck” and increasing the likelihood that the kitten might respond with claws or teeth. If the kitten didn’t, he or she got another click and a treat. If the kitten did use claws or teeth, the trainer responded like a “dead mouse,” holding completely still and ignoring the kitten until the kitten let go and relaxed. If the kitten acted inappropriately three times, he or she was returned to the kitty condo for a minimum of 10 minutes…a “time out,” as it were.
All three of the cats were adopted in the midst of this stage in the training, which was going pretty well. The adopters were advised to continue the exercises at home, plus some additional ones to make them more relaxed about being picked up.