When Monty Lewis discovered kittens beneath a stump in his backyard, it was late December. Snow stood knee-deep and the mercury had slipped below 9 degrees.
Lewis got his Sawzall and cut a hole in the side of the house.
"The siding there has some rot and needs replacing anyway," he explained over dinner. "Now their ma can take those little kitties into the furnace room where it's warm and dry."
After dinner, he went outside and peered in the furnace room window. In the corner where he had put an old fleece coat, a skinny cat was nursing three little ones.
"I started throwing the food to her the next day: canned food, kibble, milk, table scraps," he recalls. "Everything she'd been able to find had been going into making kitties and feeding them."
Each afternoon, Lewis provided room service. When the cat heard him coming, she would scramble her kittens to hide beneath the stump. Then she watched warily as he picked up dirty dishes and replaced them with filled ones.
When the kittens began showing interest in the food, he added a bowl of moistened kitten chow. Starting on solid food meant they needed a litter box.
"Their ma had them all trained to use that sandbox within two days," he recalls. She was the best mother! I'd see her out in the yard, teaching them whatever it is kitties need to know. She made them stay under a hemlock where eagles couldn't get to them."
After consulting with the Gastineau Humane Society, Lewis trapped his guests and took them to the animal shelter. He had learned that feral kittens need to be handled while they are young. Then they become people-friendly and have a bright future as pets. Otherwise, they grow up to be feral cats.
He took the mother along because he did not know how long the kittens needed her. But he made it clear that he wanted her back.
"I figured she deserved a break," he says. His plan was to visit a veterinarian to have her spayed, then take her home and turn her loose. If she wanted to stick around, she could sleep in the furnace room and he would continue feeding her there.
Meanwhile, Lewis visited the shelter daily, helping the staff pet and play with the kittens -- who quickly decided people were the best thing since sliced chicken breast. They were healthy, bouncy youngsters. However, their mother was so thin and battered that Lewis put a collar on her "so people will know she is somebody," he explained.
Lewis learned from neighbors that the cat's name was Thelma. Two years back, she had been a pet. She was left behind when her owner moved away. Thelma managed to survive, living wild and giving birth to at least three litters before this one.
When she left the animal shelter, Thelma had enjoyed a total of five weeks' care. Still, the cat Lewis presented to the veterinarian had broken teeth and a torn eyelid. Her coat was dull, matted and patchy. She had scant hair on her tail and scars everywhere. "Too bad you couldn't find a beat-up one," the vet wisecracked.
Lewis brought Thelma home the next day to recover from surgery. She was supposed to be kept inside for two weeks. By the end of one week, she was yowling and literally climbing walls. Lewis opened the door.
The cat shot outside, ran to the backyard, stopped and looked around. She was on her own home ground. She paused briefly, then turned and walked back in the door.
As Lewis told her story last month, she lay across his chest, occasionally nuzzling his beard. They have been together 10 years.
Lewis does not think kindly of people who abandon pets. "The feral lifestyle isn't all it's cracked up to be," he said. "Thelma told me to say that."
Oct. 16 is National Feral Cat Day. Learn more about ferals at www.alleycat.org.
Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats. She can be contacted at email@example.com.