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I rescued some stray kittens, and now their mother wants them back. Help!

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a male kitten that keeps meowing day and night, so I was going to adopt a new kitten because I knew he was lonely since he would become as quiet as a mouse when we played with him and he's very adorable and extremely tame. We thought if that didn't work we would need to take him back because we were going bananas at the constant loud meows.

About two days ago, I noticed a wild mother and her two kittens and decided that I wanted to see them closer. I followed the mother to her outdoor shelter, where I found her kittens. The mother ran away when I got there and left the kittens, a male and a female. Inside I knew that she would be back, but I decided to take the two kittens anyhow. I figured rescuing feral kittens would be even better than adopting from a shelter, and they would keep my kitten company.

I was surprised when the male took an aggressive stance, hissed, batted with his paw, and when necessary, bit strongly. When I got hold of him, though, he was harmless. I clipped their nails, gave them a bath, and took them to the vet the next day. The vet said they were beautiful and very clean, and when I asked about the kitten that was ferocious he told me that was his personality. His sister was very tame and playful from the first day. She got along with my first kitten very well.

Now the problem: Recently the mother reappeared, and it seems my three days of work with them hadn't made them forget their mother. The mother hasn't forgotten them, either. They were outside at night in a little home I prepared for them, when my first kitten came to inform me something was going on. When I went outside the kittens were rubbing noses with their mom, I shooed her away, they ran after her. I picked them up, she stopped and came back. When one of her kittens meowed she, jumped even closer, responding to them without really threatening me at all. Actually she was the one who was risking it -- she was scared but her instincts made her get dangerously close to me. It's puzzling to see such attachment.

I now have the kittens inside. She's meowing outside and they're meowing back. Today she seems to have left, but I'm sure she'll be back. When I play with them the sister plays with me as usual. The brother does his defense stance but doesn't bite or anything. But when the mother meows she and her brother just go to the door and meow back. I don't know what to do! I don't want to give them up. Their mother is a wild cat that would probably teach them to eat from garbage bins or something. Yet she definitely loves them like crazy and they love her back. What's should I do?

~Ashraf

Siouxsie: Well, Ashraf, you're in a tough situation. But we think there may be a way to resolve it so that everybody wins.

Thomas: Your heart is in the right place -- rescuing feral kittens and giving them a "forever home" is a wonderful thing. What you didn't count on is that mother cats do have a very strong attachment to their kittens.

Dahlia: It's as natural as the rising and setting of the sun that a mother cat would want to protect her kittens and keep them close to her, until she's finished teaching them how to be cats. Sometimes mothers and kittens stay together happily for their whole lives.

Siouxsie: We're not sure whether the mother cat is truly feral -- that is, born in the wild and raised by a wild mother -- or a stray that once lived with people. Far too many people get a cute little kitten and then dump her when she becomes an adult or gets pregnant because they neglected basic pet caretaker responsibilities like spaying and neutering. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Thomas: The fact that she ran away and left her kittens in the presence of a person suggests to us that she has lived with people before.

Dahlia: If she truly thought all humans were a threat, she would have stayed with her kittens and done everything she could to keep you away from them.

Siouxsie: For whatever reason, the mother cat is afraid of people. It would take effort and patience to get her comfortable with living in a human household.

Thomas: Ultimately you're going to have to let the mother and kittens be together. However, you may not have to let the kittens go in order to do that.

Dahlia: The first thing you're going to want to do is get the mother cat to a vet for a checkup and spay. Because Mama Cat is afraid of people, you're going to have to capture her with a humane trap. It's called a humane trap because it's a cage. You bait the trap with some yummy, tasty food, and when the cat goes into it to get the food, a door closes behind it.

Siouxsie: You can rent or buy a humane trap. In our small town, people can rent humane traps from the local hardware store. We'd recommend that you place the trap near where the mother cat goes to visit with her kittens. Place it under a bush or in a sheltered area where she would feel safe. Put a towel or piece of fabric with the kittens' scent in or near the trap as a further lure.

Thomas: Check the trap twice a day, in the morning and at night. You don't want to leave her in there for too long. Once you've got Mama Cat in the trap, bring the trap inside and place it in a quiet room (or in your garage or some other area where there's not a lot of traffic) and call your vet.

Dahlia: If you take her out of the trap or attempt to transfer her to a carrier, make sure you do so in a room where she can't possibly escape.

Siouxsie: Once Mama Cat gets spayed and vaccinated, she can be reintroduced to her kittens. It would be best to keep the little family in a room of their own until Mama Cat gets used to being indoors. We've written several columns about introducing new cats, where you can get information about how to do this.

Thomas: When it comes to reintroducing Mama Cat to people, you're going to have to take that very slowly, too. A cat that's lived on its own for a long time has learned to be wary of humans. People can be awfully cruel to stray cats, and who knows what her life was like before she ended up in your yard!

Dahlia: Be quiet and patient. Spend time in the room with her, treating her kittens gently and talking in a calm and quiet voice. Allow her to approach you when she's ready; don't try to force the process. In this column, we describe the process of bringing a skittish or scared cat out of her shell.

Siouxsie: If you don't have the time or financial resources to take care of Mama Cat's spay and rehabilitation, we'd recommend that you enlist the aid of a feral cat rescue or advocacy group in your area. Alley Cat Allies is a US-based national organization that advocates for the "trap-neuter-return" method of managing feral cat colonies. They may be able to point you to feral cat coalitions in your area. If you live outside the United States, there may be organizations in your country that do the same thing.

Thomas: Your local animal shelter or humane society may also be able to help you.

Dahlia: You may find after a while that Mama Cat never gets comfortable with being an "indoor cat." If she was born feral, she may prefer to live outside. Her kittens may become indoor cats, but they may still want to go outside to visit with their mother. Or the kittens may decide that they'd rather live outdoors with their mother.

Siouxsie: It's hard to know how these things are going to work out. And it may seem like you'd end up investing a lot of time and money in cats that only end up living outdoors again. We don't know what the right answer is because we don't know your situation. But we believe in you, because the first decision you made about these stray kittens (and your own resident kitten) came from a place of kindness and compassion.

Thomas: If you can't manage having the mother cat and the kittens, please don't feel bad about that. If the little family wants to be together and they can't fit comfortably in your home, your local feral cat group or humane society will be able to find them a place where all three can flourish.

Dahlia: And maybe it'll turn out that the wild girl kitten will want to stay and be friends with your resident kitten, but the mother and the boy want to be outdoor cats. Who knows?

Siouxsie: Most humans will tell you that cats move in mysterious ways. We choose our people, and the mechanics of and logic behind those choices are nothing that we can share with you.

Thomas: We do know you're a person who cares about cats, and we're grateful for what you've done for the little stray kittens.

Dahlia: Please write back and let us know how things work out.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.