Hines Hospital is a sprawling medical complex on the outskirts of Chicago. At one time, the grounds hosted a racecar track and an airstrip. Charles Lindbergh flew mail runs out of an old hanger located here. This multi-acre facility contains numerous buildings, fields, trees, bushes, and hedges. A forest preserve and a few large cemeteries border it.
It’s the perfect place for wild animals to visit, linger on, and make their homes in amidst the ever-increasing destruction of their natural habitat due to urban sprawl.
On any given day, cardinals, hawks, ducks, geese, squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, and skunks can be found on the grounds. Occasionally, a coyote is spotted dashing across the complex. Finally, numerous feral felines have made this complex their home. All of these creatures have one thing in common – they are simply trying to survive.
Periodically, a raccoon, an opossum, or a skunk burrows under one of the hospital buildings to make a new home. Groundskeepers usually ignore these tenants until one of the skunks ‘deodorizes’ a building and someone complains.
When this happens, traps are set to catch and remove these uninvited guests. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate. Animals of all types, even the most gentle, are disposed of.
Over the years, feral cats have moved into these burrows under the buildings. Female cats have their litters underground, and eventually move on to find more suitable quarters.
Recently, we had the opportunity to meet two adorable little waifs who didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to vacate their newly found home.
Last summer, several of us placed a bird feeder and birdbath out on our building’s porch. We soon attracted quite a variety of songbirds.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, we also attracted two of the cutest predators you’ve ever seen. Two beautiful silver and black kittens, one shorthaired, the other longhaired, appeared on the porch to stalk these birds.
We started leaving food out for these ferocious hunters, hoping their appetite for sparrow or finch could be curtailed. We soon discovered these kittens were living under our building, and the mother cat had vanished.
We then began placing food near the den entrance and enjoyed watching our two little friends come and go as they pleased.
As it got colder, the kittens would emerge from their cozy little home less frequently. We knew the kittens were still under the building, however, since their food deliveries were being devoured daily, and tiny paw prints traversed the snow. The feral felines seemed content, and we enjoyed having them as non-rent paying tenants.
Everything was going smoothly until the blizzard hit right after New Year’s Day. Twenty-three inches of snow fell on the weekend and several of us worried about the welfare of our two little tenants.
I was concerned enough to visit the office that miserable Sunday morning to check on them.
When I reached the building, I was horrified to find snowplows had deposited a massive hill of snow directly over the burrow entrance. I tried to dig it out, but the weather had turned extremely frigid, and the mound of snow had quickly turned into an impenetrable hill of ice. After several minutes, I gave up. I couldn’t uncover the entrance. I also began to worry that our two little friends had been buried alive.
I soon decided to go into the building’s basement to determine if I could hear the two cats scratching at the walls or crying out in despair. With flashlight in hand, I searched every room in the basement and continuously listened for any sounds or noises. Nothing.
Just as I was about to give up, I noticed a small hatch leading to the building’s crawl space. I cautiously pried it open. I was both relieved and delighted at what I discovered.
The two little orphans, whom we had named Fritz and Furball, were patiently sitting by the hatch entrance, as if they had been expecting me. They were also extremely hungry.
I gave them some food and watched them eagerly devour every last morsel. When they were finished, they slowly and quietly retreated back into the deepest recesses of the dark crawl space.
After that day of discovery, one of us visited Fritz and Furball on a daily basis and brought them care packages. Although they would never let any of us touch them, they seemed to enjoy our human visits almost as much as we humans enjoyed their company.
Fritz, the smaller, shorthaired cat, although curious about his human benefactors, remained quite shy and aloof. Furball, however, anxiously ran towards us whenever we brought him his latest meal. He was a joy to watch as he grunted and groaned in delight at every bite, as if he were dining in the most elegant of gourmet restaurants.
By spring, we decided our two little friends had been living underground long enough.
We contacted Operating Room Nurse Kathy who is definitely a ‘cat person. In fact, she’s one of our heroes. She’s rescued dozens of stray felines from the hospital grounds.
She quickly brought a live trap over to the building and placed some cat food in it for the two little critters. By the next morning, the smaller, shorthaired one was safely trapped.
Fritz was placed in a makeshift pen in the basement, and the trap was re-set for Furball. By the following morning, our other feral feline was safely caught.
Nurse Kathy picked them up and whisked them home for a much needed flea bath, a good brushing, and a trip to her veterinarian for neutering and vaccinations.
We’re confident that our two little feline friends will happily live out their lives with Nurse Kathy. She has more than a dozen of these rescued cats in and around her property, and she treats each and every one of them like royalty. She truly is one of the great ‘cat persons’ of all time.
Written by Ed Kostro
Ed Kostro is a freelance writer and member of The Cat Writers’ Association. His work has appeared in Catholic Digest, ByLine Magazine, The Almanac for Farmers & City Folk, Pets: part of the family, PetLife, and Cats. His new book, Curious Creatures – Wondrous Waifs, My Life with Animals, depicting his 50-year love affair with all animals, has just been published by Publish America, INC. He resides in Illinois with his wife Rebecca, five rescued felines, and two rambunctious canines.
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