Living in Italy

STARTING A FAMILY

Between 2008 and 2013 I lived in the hills of Northern Tuscany and wrote about my experiences. This was a post written towards the end of my first year, about how I began to gather a family of animals around me. Sadly three of those I talk about are now no longer with me, but Josie, who is in the photograph, is doing well. And there were more to come.

It was never really meant to happen. My new life in Tuscany was about breaking free of responsibility and being able to get up and go whenever I wanted. And I was also really missing our cats who had been with us for seventeen years and remained my husband’s companions. I couldn’t envisage replacing them in my life quite so quickly. But it just crept up on me.

My landlady, who was English and lived in the UK, had told me that there were cats in the woods round the house who always came to be fed when there was anyone staying. It was up to me, but if I did, then they were not to be allowed in the house, only the garden. One in particular, a ginger, black and white calico, was bolder than the rest and had been named Patch by her young children. And there she was when I arrived, weaving round my ankles and shouting for food, her small, wiry body thin to the bone, with more bare skin than fur. 

So I bought food and set it out for her near the front door. Immediately two more appeared, one blue grey and one white, and they all rushed at the bowl, bolting the biscuits between them. It was Spring, there had been few visitors to the house since the previous summer, so they must have been surviving on whatever they could catch. And that’s how it started. I saw myself as their caretaker whilst I was there and could feed them up, but of course who knew how long I’d stay there…

In that first week I was busy unpacking what worldly goods I had brought with me, and after a few days started to take empty boxes to the cabana, a little barn in the garden. I heard a squeak, looked round, and there in a dusty old armchair was Patch, with four very young kittens. So I lined one of my boxes with a towel, made them comfortable, and took food to the cabana for all of them twice a day. It turned out that all three cats got in the box at night and bundled up together with the kittens.

I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give them all names, and my landlady’s children might like it. Thinking the blue grey was a boy we started out with Smokey Jo, but I was soon to find I was wrong, so she became Josie. And the white, who had one lemon yellow eye and one china blue, was of course Snowy. Oh, those eyes.

Patch was a loving mother, but a dreamer and a wanderer. To my amazement I found both Josie and Snowy suckling the kittens as if they were their own. There was no competition, but there were some disagreements. Patch took to carrying the kittens in her mouth to the front doorstep, or even round to Angela and Matteo’s house, leaving them there, and forgetting. Josie was not happy about this and I would see her trotting briskly past the front door, taking them back to the safety of the box, one at a time. I decided that a solution may be to bring the box from the barn to the doorstep, so we could all keep an eye on them.

Sometimes in the night I would hear screeching and arguing, so I put out another smaller box alongside, for those times when someone got grumpy and wanted to sleep in the spare room. It made me laugh when I came down one morning and found they had all somehow managed to squeeze into the little box together!

But sadly the kittens were dying, they were just too weak and malnourished, and eventually there was only a tiny black one left. Every morning I opened the front door and picked him up to see how he was doing, and one day as I glanced back into the box at the others I saw a little black tail and thought “oh my God it’s come off…”

But when I dared to look, there was a tail on the kitten in my hand, and in the box were four new, tiny kittens, and an exhausted, happy Snowy. She was so thin I’d had no idea that she could be pregnant. So off we went again, everybody being mother, and even when Patch’s last kitten died she was not too concerned because she had shares in the new ones. 

However, Snowy worried me. She was clearly very loving with her kittens but hardly had the energy to move, and also had a nasty tumour on her ear which was bleeding. I asked a friend if the local vet would think I was a crazy English cat freak if I took a feral cat in to be treated. He’s a vet, she said, you pay him, he isn’t going to say no.

The verdict was pretty dramatic. This was the worst case of malnourishment he had seen, if this cat had kittens again it would kill her, she had a weak heart and no strength left. Her teeth were all rotten and must be hurting her a great deal, and a good part of her ear would need to be cut off to deal with the tumour. Crikey. I really hadn’t thought past just getting her ear fixed, and this put a whole new slant on things.

It was make my mind up time. The tom who prowled the garden daily was going to ensure that there were regular pregnancies, so as the cats became well fed and stronger I’d be inundated with kittens. There were two options – shut the door and leave them to it, or go the whole hog, take them in and look after them properly. No contest.

So I bought loads of cheap throws in the market to cover all the furniture, set up a litter box inside, wrote to my landlady explaining, saying I was incredibly grateful for being allowed to keep them in the house when I hadn’t actually asked her, and opened the front door. They stood stock still and stared at me. For weeks they had been trying to sneak in and I’d never let it happen. Then very gingerly, one paw at a time and looking at me after each step, Patch led the way in.

They explored every room, racing from one to another, even Snowy finding some energy, and it was so lovely to watch. I was surprised by their intelligence and the way they adapted so quickly to unknown territory, making themselves at home with real appreciation for every comfort. They understood the litter box right away, and for the first few weeks would come running in from the garden to use it, revelling in the novelty. 

The vet neutered Patch and Josie and said he’d like to see Snowy again in three months, if she was still alive, and he’d be able to determine if she was strong enough for the operation, and then have her teeth out. He doubted it. Gradually she gained the energy to eat a little more, and as weeks passed her transformation was amazing. When I took her back the vet was silent, examined her from head to toe, then looked at me and said “this isn’t the same cat!” She had both operations, the tumour on her ear shrunk to nothing to worry about, and she is now as heathy and happy as the others.

And so my family began. I couldn’t have found more grateful and affectionate companions, and we were lucky that one of Snowy’s kittens survived, so we have a boy, Tiger, who was brought up by us all. Born in the wild, they still flinch and scatter if I move too fast, and remain afraid of other people. But gradually we’re building trust and understanding, and I’m so glad of them. Wherever I may go from here, they’ll be coming with me.

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