The Wild Kittens Who Tamed Our Neighborhood

YOU never know what surprises are waiting for you just around the corner. For example, I would never have thought Mr. Ianelli, who lives on the corner of our street, would turn out to be a kitten tamer. He's a perfectly ordinary-looking man. He usually wears a sleeveless undershirt and old slacks. His bald spot glints in the hot sun as he scrapes, paints, prunes, and mows. Since he turns his radio up while he works, we used to just wave when we passed by. Other people called in and yelled about politics.

So it was a big surprise one day on our way home from the library when he turned around and said, "I have five kittens. Come and see them." He explained that a mother cat had turned up at his back door asking for food, and when he fed her, she trotted off and fetched her litter. They had moved into his backyard. We went in his gate, but we didn't see any kittens. We saw their mother rush under a bush. The kittens had already dashed away. They'd been born outside and weren't used to people. They were shy , like wild animals.

Mr. Ianelli didn't think he could adopt all of them. He offered us one. That's when I began to wonder how you tame a kitten. What would we do with a kitten who ran off all the time? Could it really be a pet if it was as wild as a squirrel or a robin? I didn't think so.

Any kittens are interesting. Kittens you can't see are fascinating. We got in the habit of going home from the playground, the library, or the store by way of Mr. Ianelli's corner so we could watch them scoot under the fence or vanish into the hedge.

Pretty soon they were too well fed to be invisible any more. They were getting fat bellies eating the food Mr. Ianelli left for them. Three were tawny orange, like lion cubs. The others were the shyest, black-and-white streaks that zipped around the corner if you came too near. They liked the little house Mr. Ianelli made them out of tipped-over lawn chairs. And I think they were glad he sometimes stayed up late chasing away other cats that came looking for a fight.

But Mr. Ianelli wondered where they would go in winter. He couldn't have six wild kittens living in his house. And even though wild birds and rabbits are happier that way, cats, even cats born outside, have a hard time living in the wild. He called animal shelters, hoping one would keep them until someone came along and gave them a home, but the shelters wouldn't take his six unless they were tamed. Better tame them soon, one said, or they'll wander off when they grow up and become strays.

THE kittens didn't know this. They were just having a fun summer. They lounged on Mr. Ianelli's lawn, battling each other and stalking us from behind the hedges as we walked by. Sometimes they were rolling on the back steps, or playing tag in their lawn-chair house.

We found someone who needed a kitten, but he couldn't catch any of them. How can you adopt a kitten that dives for cover if you even look at it? That's when I decided we needed a kitten tamer.

I called a friend who knows about animals. She had a friend who worked in an animal shelter and tamed kittens in her spare time. The friend agreed to try to tame the six - all we had to do was get them to her.

Mr. Ianelli said, "Sure, give it a try, but I don't think you'll catch them." He was right. We rented a trap that would catch them without hurting them. Our friend came over with her parents. We set the trap and tried to chase them in. We stalked them by their food bowls. We fanned out and looked in the bushes. But as soon as we got close, Zip! Rustle! They were gone with the swish of a tail.

"They're too fast for you," said Mr. Ianelli. I could be wrong, but I thought he looked pleased. We left the trap, hoping one might wander in. One did, but Mr. Ianelli let it out. "He was screaming," he said.

It seemed hopeless. The kittens were too wild to even get to the tamer's house. We stopped trying. Mr. Ianelli took the trap back to the rental place. The kittens grew into graceful young cats. It got colder. We didn't see them playing anymore, and we wondered if the jolly pride of summer lions had already become strays. One day, when it looked like snow, I saw Mr. Ianelli in his backyard. "What happened to the kittens?," I asked.

Mr. Ianelli smiled. Three had gone off with his daughter, to a shelter that agreed to keep them until they were adopted. The rest? Sylvester, Reddy, and Ringo now live inside. "They got so they'd eat out of my hand," he said. All that time we were chasing them around and trying to find a tamer, they were being tamed. They had Mr. Ianelli looking after them, feeding them, and caring about them. Sometime over the summer, they must have realized they were pets.

Mr. Ianelli tamed us, too. Now instead of going and watching him paint, we call out, "Hi Mr. Ianelli, how are the kittens?" And he smiles and comes over and tells us all the cute, crazy things those cats are getting up to. You never know what surprises are lurking just around the corner, in your own neighborhood - wild creatures, kitten tamers, and best of all, neighbors.

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