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June 3, 2008


It's a cat's life

Just across Cesar Chavez from the “gritty Mission,” Bernal Hill rises 433 feet into the sky. Perhaps because it has more than the city’s usual allotment of open space, it’s also home to more than the city’s usual assortment of four-legged critters. In addition to the famed coyote, there are raccoons and possums and skunks galore. Several shops on the hill place bowls of biscuits on their counters for the resident dogs. And there are cats, lots of them.

I don’t think anyone has ever conducted a census, but cats seem to be even more numerous than dogs. They sit inside, staring out the window, watching life go by. They wander outside, investigating life in their neighbor’s garden. You don’t see their private interactions, but it goes without saying that some of them have active — and productive — sex lives.

The result became obvious about a year ago when one of the tenants on the east side of Bernal died. It turned out that he’d been generously supporting a whole colony of cats, the offspring of these promiscuous kitties. The now-abandoned cats had never really become domesticated and they quickly set up shop in a couple of vacant lots. The neighbors became concerned for their welfare.

Enter Elaine Perednia.

Elaine owns the Petsitters, one of those services that cares for dogs or cats — or goldfish or hamsters or boa constrictors — while their people are out of town. Her job meant that she was especially attuned to feline needs. She also knew how to get information about taking care of the orphans.

Because the City of St. Francis frowns on harming innocent members of the animal kingdom, the San Francisco SPCA has an active Feral Cat Assistance Program that provides valuable advice in cases like this. Before long, Elaine had recruited several neighbors to help feed the cats. And she herself got busy, trapping the strays and delivering them to the SPCA. Full-grown feral cats are accustomed to being on their own and don’t take kindly to adoption by humans. They were neutered and returned to the lot after a few days’ recuperation.

The cats were characters. One, dark and intense, protested all the way. Elaine named her Moxie. Once back in Elaine’s garage, awaiting repatriation, Moxie went on a hunger strike and refused to eat, no matter what tempting food was placed before her. Elaine feared that Moxie would starve to death and returned her to the lot early. She watched her flee under a fence and wondered if she would survive. But Moxie’s still there. She appears every so often and stares from a safe distance, looking fatter and sassier than ever.

Stella, on the other hand, wasn’t cut out for the outdoor life and knew it. Stella is a beautiful longhair with blue Siamese eyes. She settled into a cage in the garage and eyed Elaine calmly when she came bearing food. Stella had no trouble eating. And she didn’t appear the least bit worried by the presence of humans. Eventually, Elaine decided to move her upstairs into the house instead of returning her to the lot. Day by day, Stella grew more comfortable in her new surroundings. She found a cozy cushion in a corner and watched the other cats in the house, who seemed unthreatened by her presence. Soon she was wandering into the kitchen or climbing onto the bed with them. And before long she began to let Elaine pat her. She’d found a home.

One day when Elaine went down to the vacant lots to feed the cats, she discovered workmen clearing out the brush in one of them. They told her that their employer had just bought the properties and was planning to build on them. They also told her that they had discovered a mother and three kittens under one of the rocks they’d hauled away.

Great consternation! What to do?

But the workmen didn’t return. And the other lot remained overgrown.

Elaine began checking the lots at odd hours, looking for the kittens. For weeks, there was neither sight nor sound of them. Then one day they ventured out, exploring, just as she happened by. She scooped them up — they were each no bigger than a fist — and transported them to the SPCA. Not yet fearful of humans, they’ll easily adapt to human companionship. But the poor mother… she came back to the spot for several days, looking for them, waiting for them to return. Finally she stopped coming.

And still the workmen didn’t return. The brush on the other lot grew high, turning into a jungle. Every day Elaine and her helpers delivered food and water to the cats. Every night the cats crept out of their hiding places to eat and hunt and do whatever cats do at night.

Until last Friday, when the bulldozers arrived.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008