During an Easter egg hunt in Mike Shirley-Donnelly's backyard in March 2016, someone found what they thought was an opossum. On closer inspection, the fluff ball turned out to be a pile of 5-day-old kittens.
That's the day the kitten portal opened up.
"Our backyard had a lot of overgrown oleander bushes and we were planning on doing some landscaping to tame them a bit, but they became ground zero for kittens," Shirley-Donnelly tells MNN in an email interview. He's the founder, singer, songwriter and guitarist for a group called Curious Quail that, at the time, was based in San Jose, California.
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#MonthOfQuailkittens Day 02: POSSUM // This is the cat that bonded to me; from the moment I pulled her little rodent-like face and rat tail out of that pile of Kitters in our backyard, I knew she'd be called Possum. A similar coloring pattern to Kindred (see yesterday's post for info about him) with the exception that her white spot wasn't on her nose but rather off to the side, and she sports a beauty mark on her face. She is by far the smartest and cleverest of the cats in our colony, with intense eyes that let you know she's working the situation out. She grew from tiny little rodent who used to sleep on my neck like a scarf to a wizened, sleek 'velociraptor-in-cat-form' who for a long period of time was incredibly hostile towards all new kitten arrivals to the colony. Prior to the move her favorite pastime was sitting atop the fridge in the Kitchen, chewing on her tail and making what I'm sure IS a meow but sounds like a female human voice indiscriminately yelling. At the new house she does it in the front bathtub. It sounds like those yelling goats videos, can't explain that shit at all. | 📷's: @curiousquail| #PossumShirleyDonnelly #QuailKittens #CatsofInstagram #Catstagram #Meow #RescueKittens #FoundFerals #Cat
Over the next year, Shirley-Donnelly and his wife worked to capture, fix and find homes for five litters of kittens (and various adult cats) that mysteriously appeared in their yard.
"First instinct was to call a friend who is a vet tech because my wife Delicaye is incredibly allergic to cats ... so we 'knew' we couldn't take them in," Shirley-Donnelly says. "Our friend Liz is amazing and explained that newborn kittens don't generally produce the dander that causes most cat allergies until after they've weaned and learn to wash themselves, i.e. we had a window to take them in and find homes for them."
And in the nick of time. Only a few months before the kittens had arrived, the couple had noticed coyote droppings in their yard.
"Our house was located about a block off of an uninhabited hill network/county park full of coyotes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, etcetera, so we knew we had to get them inside because they'd either be eaten or end up overpopulating," Shirley-Donnelly says.
Becoming kitten experts
He had always had cats in his house when growing up, but Shirley-Donnelly says he had little to nothing to do with their care. That changed overnight as he became a kitten caretaker. There was an awful lot of bottle feeding to do.
"The only time in my life I didn't live with cats was when Delicaye and I got married," he says. "We both love cats but her allergies meant we had to keep them at arm's length, and we're both kinda through the moon that this all worked out because CATS ARE SO GOOD."
The first batch of five — dubbed the Kitters — were about a month old when they found the sixth kitten. He was part of another litter from which only three survived; they eventually caught all three.
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Our sixth found kitten. Since he's got different parents we named him Jon Snow but he went from hissing in the corner and being scared to being a full purring cat scarf. The other 5 have accepted him as family and it's adorable watching him learn how to not be scared and feral. | #quailkittens #foundkittens
"We'd named him Jon Snow after the "Song of Ice and Fire"/"Game of Thrones" character since he was the sixth kid in the group and had different parents," Shirley-Donnelly explains. "His sister Bison (a tortie) was found in the woodpile outside about a week or so after him. The last sibling (Lilith, a calico) unfortunately escaped as a kitten and lived in the wild for about a year before we finally caught her. Around the time she got settled, we were able to adopt out one from the first litter, so we stabilized for a time with six kittens."
Documenting the experience
Because Shirley-Donnelly is also a photographer and his wife is a photographer, visual artist and writer, they began chronicling their kitten escapades on social media.
And the cats kept arriving.
"I mean, by litter two we were amazed that we'd gone from zero to seven kittens so fast," Shirley-Donnelly says. "The next litter showing up was met with a resounding 'YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING.' We did realize at one point that we were the only people on our stretch of street who didn't have a dog, so the theory was the other yards were considered unsafe and ours was, 'Hey mama, drop your babies here cuz those big stupid furless giants will take them in and feed them for you.' "
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#MonthOfQuailkittens Day 03: SMOKEY // One of the first things I noticed about Smokey when she was put into the box with the rest of the Kitters found in the backyard was the notch in her tail; it forms a letter T at the end like some kind of kitty Ankylosaurus. She looks for all purposes to be a "Russian Blue" who looks exactly like her mother, Cersei (The first feral mom we encountered, whom we trapped and fixed but not before absolutely mauling me and relieving me of the use of my hands for a week, in case you're wondering why we named her Cersei) but honestly it's hard to tell anything with these ferals. She's a huge goofy loveball, and in recent months has taken to almost like clockwork approaching @stardustica at a certain time in the morning in bed to aggressively snuggle her. Like, "knock phone and/or coffee out of hand" aggressively snuggle. It's absolutely endearing. | 📷's: @curiousqauil | #SmokeyShirleyDonnelly #QuailKittens #CatsofInstagram #Catstagram #Meow #RescueKittens #FoundFerals #Cat #russianblue
Fortunately, as word spread in the feline network, it also spread among humans. The couple has friends interested in taking home kittens and, as their personal social media pages became filled with all things cats, their inboxes also filled with requests to adopt their new furry friends.
But their home remained a constant flurry of feline activity and litter boxes as kittens kept arriving. At one point they had as many as 21 cats at one time.
To get to the root of the problem, they realized it wasn't enough to just take care of the kittens. They had to also track down the parents.
"We'd initially borrowed a Havahart safe trap from a local pet store to catch the first mom but after litter two, we knew there were more moms out there and invested in our own. We'd put some wet food in it, leave it out back (or out front) and sure enough, they'd come for it. We became regulars at our local Trap/Neuter /Release shelter."
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#MonthOfQuailkittens Day 22: PARENTS // It's hard to pinpoint exactly which male cat is responsible for which kittens with the exceptions of the ones we saw Rhaegar caring for (Jon Snow, Bison and Lilith). I only have one photo of him and it's incredibly out of focus because he was in a hurry to find another place to spread his seed, so it's not included in this. What we DO know is that while we were in the process of trying to trap Cutie this orange beast here appeared as if from nowhere. His trip to the trap and release shelter showed that he'd been QUITE sexually active and his testicles were BADLY scarred from combat with other male cats. We named him Zeus. Photos 1 and 2 are from his capture moment, photo 3 is post fixin' and release time. The final shot in today's post is of Cutie's sister, Cersei. The cat that started this whole situation as she was the first to give birth in our yard. We caught her IMMEDIATELY (like within 4 hours of the kittens) and tried to reunite her with them in our bathroom (we were so young and stupid) but something about our scent / interference pushed her away from them. She refused to engage, to feed them, to even go near them...to the point where she tried to hide INSIDE our plumbing. She went berserk on me while trying to re-trap her in the safetrap to get her to the trap and release program - I've used this descriptor before but it was essentially that opening scene of Jurassic Park with the "SHOOOOOOOT HAAAAAAHHH" and the cage. I ended up in the hospital (bless @daktachen for being the kind of friend who'll show up in the middle of the night to take you to the ER because of feral cat attack) and lost use of my hands for almost a week. HOWEVER this story ends well, as Cersei was successfully taken to the trap and release shelter, fixed, and re-released into our neighborhood to live our her days. It bums me out that we learned so much in the following year and that maybe if we'd handled things differently she could have been (at least somewhat) domesticated like Cutie and Lilith, but we did our best by her and for the kittens. | 📷's: @curiousquail | #CatsofInstagram #Catstagram #Meow #FoundFerals #Cat #feralcat
With a little sleuthing and the help of a neighbor, they figured that all these kittens came from just two female cats that had been abandoned on their street and had hooked up with a series of feral males.
Almost exactly a year later, the kitten portal closed. The couple had apparently trapped and neutered the adults that had been parenting all those kittens, and many of the kittens had found homes. But not all. Several stayed with them as they relocated to a new home in Palm Springs, California.
They relocated to be able to have a home studio ... and a bigger home for the cats. The new place does not appear to have a kitten portal — at least not yet.
Def blessing. pic.twitter.com/UGTYTopNOp— Curious Quail (@CuriousQuail) December 3, 2017