Wild Ideas: Of Gaeaf, Golda and birds

Gaeaf, the stray male cat.
Gaeaf, the stray male cat. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

I’ve been tortured over the decision to feed a stray cat who’s been hanging around the property where I live for almost a year.

I love animals, but I’m well aware of the predation of stray and feral cats on small wildlife, particularly birds. I’ve had many cats, and, except for my current “foster” cat, Golda, they’ve all been indoor-outdoor cats, most arriving that way as strays.

I hate to confine any animal that has had the joy of freely roaming the outdoors, but their being allowed out means they could prey on wildlife that was available, from insects to small mammals and birds. My mighty Maine coon, Felix, at a whopping 17 pounds, often left parts of young bunnies around for me to find, to my great dismay. Felix had an injured back when I got him, preventing him from being able to catch birds, but he was lethal on small terrestrial mammals. The last thing he did before I had to put him down because of a huge tumor was bring me a mouse.

I studiously avoided feeding the stray when he showed up last winter. He managed to survive that atypically cold, snowy winter without the help of me or my landlords and looked quite healthy. I kept hoping he’d move on, but by summer, he still was still showing up at least twice a week, apparently not expecting anything from the resident humans. He was quiet and dignified, and the most I saw of him was when he’d sit on a rock in the yard, apparently enjoying the warmth it had collected from the sun.

I finally gave in, having been primed to care about the seemingly bazillion stray cats in this county after taking on Golda. With the help of RappCats, I started feeding the stray twice a day, with the idea that we’d trap, neuter and release him, since the organization’s shelter was full at the time. At least he wouldn’t contribute to the production of more homeless cats.

For various reasons, I delayed the trapping until fall. In the meantime, he’d gotten quite tame, coming up to my porch to patiently wait for his handout, eventually mewing when he saw me. He also deigned to come within about three feet of me, but no closer — never any closer. He’d shake his tail, roll on the ground, mew and do the other things cats do to solicit attention.

In the back of my mind, I rationalized that, by feeding the cat, he would be less prone to eating wildlife, but I knew that regular food would likely only dampen a well-honed instinct for hunting. I watched him stalking insects in the yard, showing good technique, but my worst fears came home to roost when I spied a tiny gray-and-white bird feather — a chickadee’s or titmouse’s — in his dish after he’d eaten.

Golda, the feisty indoor foster-cat.
Golda, the feisty indoor foster-cat. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Golda, meanwhile, had developed an obsession with the stray, stalking his every move, going from window to window inside my small house. I couldn’t tell if she was merely pining for a feline friend or if she was being territorial. She had been spayed by RappCats a few weeks after I had taken her on, so I figured a desire to mate was not at issue.

I finally found out Golda’s intentions inadvertently when, as I was carrying out food and water to the stray one day, she sneaked around me and shot out the door. She had never shown any interest in being outside, likely because of her own harrowing experience as a stray, but here she was heading straight for him, all claws and cattitude.

Golda is a tiny, health-impaired female weighing in at about 6 pounds (up from the 3.5 pounds she weighed when rescued by RappCats). The stray was considerably sturdier, male and literally twice Golda’s weight.

Nevertheless, Golda drove the stray to the edge of the yard, where he quietly sat, on guard, waiting patiently to see what would happen next. I quickly moved in between them, afraid that one or both of the cats would get injured. I managed to encourage the stray to withdraw into the woods at the edge of the yard, while also trying to get Golda back inside. First taking refuge under my car, a few feet from my porch, to my relief she darted inside after I propped open the kitchen door and stood back.

I finally trapped the stray, and RappCats had him vetted and neutered, after which, not surprisingly, he disappeared for about three weeks. While I worried about what had become of him, in a corner of my mind I hoped he’d moved on, releasing me from the quandary of trying to weigh a stray cat’s life against the lives of all the wild animals I watch in my yard that would be at risk if he came back.

But the cat came back — maybe not the very next day, but he did indeed show up again, acting as if nothing had happened, except for an added aversion to anything new in his environment. Not having the heart to take a more drastic approach to removing him, I’ve resigned myself to his taking up what now seems like permanent residence on the property. I’ve even named him — Gaeaf, Welsh for “winter.” Pronunciation varies, but it’s something like “guy av.” I had already been greeting him with “how’s it going, guy?” And I will always associate him with winter.

Now I’m trying now to work out, with input from my landlord (who’s handy), how to modify a plastic doghouse Pat Snyder, president of RappCats, gave me and get him installed in it. And any thoughts I had of feeding birds this winter — which I normally only do in severe weather — will have to be modified to factor in having a potential bird-killer on the premises.

I was most concerned about the little winter wren that has been foraging around my house, often in low places where I imagine a predator could surprise it easily. However, the bird is apparently well aware of Gaeaf’s presence. The wren was foraging on the window screens recently when I heard it chattering, increasing in volume as it moved to the front-porch railing. Near the steps sat Gaeaf, showing no interest in the furious scolding or the presence of a potential meal. I don’t think I have to worry about the wren.

If I can get Gaeaf more used to humans, I think he’d make a great barn cat for someone. He’s healthy, adapted to the outdoors, a good hunter, independent, quiet, nonaggressive . . . and devilishly handsome.

© 2014 Pam Owen 

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”


  1. Disappointed must not live in Rappahannock County or he/she would know that one cannot trap a cat for “impoundment” here, since there is no county pound for cats here. It is indeed shocking that we are one of only 10 counties in VA that have a pound for dogs, but none for cats. The upshot is that here, if you find a cat, you have a cat.

    But more importantly, even if we had a municipal pound, “trapping a cat for impoundment” is simply asking the government to kill the cat instead of you personally doing it, since in most jurisdictions that is what happens to a cat in a pound.

    What you are saying to Ms. Owen, quite simply, is that she should kill a free-roaming animal, and I seriously doubt whether she would do such a thing.

  2. Your writing about the cat killed bird in the food dish is exactly whey cats should NOT be roaming, fixed or not. Cats are NOT wildlife. They are a domestic predator bred by humans to hunt. The domestic cat is killing billions of birds every year. Our county is one of the pristine areas left in Northern VA. Cats need to be trapped, removed, and adopted and/or contained, not re-abandoned. I have no cats on my farm because cats will kill the beneficial creatures needed for insect control. Our county is definitely not a place for roaming cats. Perhaps your landlord will allow you to have a portable outdoor enclosure for this cat if you can catch him. That way, he will be safe and so will the many creatures that he will otherwise torture and kill.

  3. This is so depressing. You express concern for the winter wren that is native to the area and has chosen to make your yard it’s home, yet you have condemned it to death. You know this cat kills. Sooner or later the moment will come when it has the opportunity to put a claw into this tiny ground-feeding bird. The cat will torture the bird until the bird is dead, and then likely leave the corpse to rot. Why have you chosen this cat’s life over the life of this native bird? Over the lives of all the birds and small animals it will kill? So terribly sad.

  4. You write a NATURE column? You are valuing the life of one cat over the countless native wild animals he will kill while living outside?

    Well-fed cats are NO less motivated to hunt.

    If you truly understand the predation, if you really are worried about the wren and other wildlife, then prevent access. Period.

    If you are ‘keeping’ him on your property, build a suitable enclosure, or take him inside and continue to tame him.

    Anything less is not acceptable. Stop feeding new strays when they show up. Trap them for impoundment. Some will get adopted, some will get euthanized. Domestic cats are not going extinct any time soon. Our native wildlife has so many challenges – do not add the stress of predation. Cats kill billions annually. Billions.

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