The Truth About Socializing Kittens


His official name is Optimus Prime since he came to us when the first Transformers movie was all the rage and my house was filled with junior high school boys who could talk of nothing else.  Somehow we shortened that mouthful of a name to Bop.  He and his two sisters and brothers were feral rescue kittens, brought into the cat clinic where Hannah volunteered one summer.  I must have been crazy, tired, dull-minded or somehow not thinking straight that day I picked her up after getting off work. 

“They need to be socialized, Mom.  Just come see them,” she said, “and after we socialize them, they’ll be ready to go to their own homes.  Don’t worry, we aren’t keeping them.”

And thus, four homeless kittens were bundled into the car and brought home.  It was safe to do this because 1) we could enjoy kittens knowing they’d go to homes in a few weeks, 2) we knew they weren’t ours to keep, and 3) we knew they were NOT, under ANY circumstances, going to stay in our house and become our own pets…absolutely not, no, no, no.  They’d be with us eight weeks tops and then whisked away by happily deluded new kitten owners.  We would get these itsy, bitsy bits of cuddly furballs with the most adorable little feral hisses to like people and then, after enjoying their kittenhood antics, eagerly pass them on to their permanent homes for spaying, neutering, and all the other wonderful things that come with cat ownership.  We fed them kitten milk and kitten kibble and after eating their fill, four tiny, full-bellied fluffs would settle around and on top of us for naps.  Sigh.  The cuteness factor was way above a ten. Within days the hissing was replaced by purring when they snuggled against us.  More sighs. 

Kota, our mutt, a cross between a shephard, a lab, and who knows what all was there but whatever it was, it was huge, was fascinated by the kittens.  We’d sternly warn him to leave them alone only to find them sopping wet from being carried around by him.  Whenever our backs were turned, he’d grab a kitten and toss it into the air and catch it, gently, but wetly.  He bathed their little faces after they ate and had a few licks at the other ends, too.  He would cradle them between his paws and they’d go to sleep there.  Never afraid of him, they seemed to adore him as much as he adored them, but Bop was by far his favorite.  Bop’s fur would be so matted with slimy dog slobber that it would take the grown up cats an hour to get him cleaned and presentable again. 

The grown up cats despised the kittens but couldn’t resist cleaning them on occasion, especially after they’d been dog-handled.  After taking care of business, they’d smack and hiss the kittens away as if saying, “there, I’ve done my cat duty by you and you’re on your own now.” 

As the tiny furballs grew, they learned to climb…the couch, the curtains, our pant legs, and anything they could get their sharp little claws dug into.  They would race, sideways, hippity-hop, back-flipping and skidding through the length of the house.  The grown up cats would watch with disgusting looks and seem to ask, “when are they going away?” while we would be rolling with laughter at their antics.  The four included Bop who not only has the whitest white and blackest black asymmetrical fur line but has what the vet dubbed a French tipped tail – all black except for a tip of white.  There were two short-hairs, Gizmo, wearing a cream colored coat with black tips so that he appears solid black, and Mimi, a dainty little black female with the tiniest patch of white on her chest. And Bett, the runt of the litter, a miniature gray long hair with a white face, chest and short socks, and a baby pink rosebud nose rocking the cuteness scale over the top. 

When are they going to new homes became the question asked again and again as the weeks turned to more weeks and then months turned to more months.  Soon it was time to have them neutered and spayed so our reasoning was that we’d get that done for their future owners.  Shots, spaying, and neutering are rough on foster kitten families and we all had to hold and love them after they came home from their surgeries.  Because they recovered quicker than we wanted, we let their “recovery” be the tacit reason they didn’t go to homes yet. Every week there was another reason…too busy to place an ad, Gizmo’s leg was hurt and we just couldn’t let them be separated from each other, Bett was so small and it would be better if we could let her grow a bit, Mimi was the daintiest boned kitty and she would have to have people who would understand her delicacy.  And then there was Bop. 

Bop outgrew his brother and sisters in size very quickly.  He was double the size of Bett within the first three months.  When the kittens ate, Bop would take his spot in the middle of the food dish.  He didn’t mew like the others.  He chirupped or gave long drawn out mewls, insisted we brush him, and made the edge of the bar counter “Bop’s spot” from where he could grab at our arms and shirts as we passed by.  Although not the cuteness factor of Bett, Bop’s personality drew people to him.  When the boys, Sam’s group of friends that participated in naming the kittens, would come over, they’d all go first to Bop, pick him up, talk to him, and give him bits of whatever they were snacking on at the time.  The question when someone came over became, “Where’s Bop?”  No one could enter without visiting with Bop lounging regally in his spot, snagging anyone within reach to pet him, brush him, or give him a treat.  

I came home from work one day to find Bop not in his spot but laying on the floor with his leg splayed oddly.  The vet said it was a broken femur cap, probably happened when Bop, who, the vet said as if I didn’t know this, was bigger than most kittens his age, tried to leap from someplace high and his legs couldn’t hold his weight.  The surgery was roughly the same amount as a house payment but there was no way we could not do it.  Over the next several weeks all thoughts of the kittens leaving were suspended by Bop’s painful recovery which required a team effort to give him the required medicine twice a day.  His siblings were overjoyed at having a food dish to themselves.   

The kittens had come home to us in July and we had discussed that they would be safely ensconced in their new homes long before Christmas.  When the Christmas tree went up, so did the now seven month old kittens.  Up the center, onto the branches, batting down the ornaments to chase.  They would hide stealthily under the low branches and ambush one another, including the grown up cats who would act as if they hadn’t jumped three feet backwards when a ball of fur suddenly hurled through the tree at them. 

The four homeless kittens rang in the New Year with us, pouncing the hats and noisemakers before settling down beside us on the couch.  They watched one of our grown up cats become giddy with delight when the Valentine’s Day box of chocolates were left open and she, the only cat we’ve ever had with a chocolate addiction, could steal a few licks.  They managed to free a colored Easter egg from the basket on the dining room table and leave shards of bubble gum pink to show their chase trail.  And when summer rolled around again, someone called to see if we could foster a mama cat and four kittens who were rescued in the 111 degree heat that day.  “They are the most adorable kittens and you won’t have any trouble finding homes for them” we were brightly assured.

Years later, Bop, Gizmo, Mimi and Bett have yet to be socialied enough to leave us.  Bop still perches on his spot and chirrups, reaching a giant paw at everyone who passes by, and begs to be brushed.  Gizmo inserts himself into every conversation, head butts anyone who will let him, and generally makes a nuisance of himself.  Bett and Mimi have team “mothered” the latest kitten orphans in between running from their mean brothers who chase them just because they run and screech.  The grown up cats have passed on and the kittens brought home to be socialized are now the seniors.  

Every now and then someone asks whatever happened with those feral kittens. Without a blink, I grab Bop’s brush, run it over his coat as he chirrups his pleasure, and glance at the contented felines in various cushiony spots throughout the house.  

“They were socialized.” 

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