Living on more than an acre of land in the Town of Lockport, Anita Gullo-Eardley and her husband, Edward, have helped many cats that were dropped off "in the country" to fend for themselves.
Little did they know that one thin kitten -- "the skinniest, ugliest cat I'd ever seen in my life," says Gullo-Eardley -- would turn out to be the most devoted, affectionate cat she ever had.
It was a spring day in 2004 when the couple, pulling into their driveway, noticed the kitten, walking toward the car and meowing. But when Gullo-Eardley got out and tried to approach the cat, she ran.
Over the next several days, they saw the tortoiseshell kitten, sometimes with its mother, a more brightly colored tortoiseshell, "hanging around the house."
"I thought, I have to feed her," says Gullo-Eardley. She started putting dry food on the porch. The kitten would hide in the bushes until she went back into the house, then eat.
This went on all summer and into the fall. To distinguish the kitten from its mother, whom the Eardleys would still occasionally see, they named her Baby.
When cold weather arrived, Edward Eardley built a small house for the cats and lined it with carpet, which Baby used until a raccoon claimed it. After the first snow, Gullo-Eardley says, they would see Baby "walking in the snow, and she'd put her little paws down, then pick them up and shake them."
They decided they had to get her inside. Although experts say that feral-born cats have the best chance of being domesticated if they are exposed to people early, the Eardleys were willing to take a chance on this shy, skittish kitty, even if she would never be fully tame. The first step was luring her into the house.
"Every morning before I went to work, I would put her food out, watch for her to come to the porch and then move it into the house," says Gullo-Eardley. "Finally, she was so hungry and cold that she came into the house. She went running upstairs immediately and hid under the bed."
Eventually, Baby emerged to explore her surroundings, and even approached Gullo-Eardley "to rub up against me as if to say thank you." But Baby fled when people tried to touch her, and, says Gullo-Eardley, "When she wanted to go out, I would let her out."
After about six weeks of being an indoor-outdoor cat, one night Baby stayed out all night -- and came home pregnant. A few months later, she delivered four kittens on an expensive Oriental rug in the Eardleys' front hall, adding a fifth kitten the next day.
Time and gentle treatment helped Baby become more comfortable with people, says Gullo-Eardley. "I've had cats and dogs all my life," she says. "I knew that you can't force yourself on them, you have to wait until they are ready to accept you. You have to be very patient."
As the kittens grew, the Eardleys noticed that Baby kept a tight rein on her offspring. "One of the kittens loved to chew on my corn plant," says Gullo-Eardley. "But when this kitten would chew on the plant, [Baby] would meow at it, as if to say, 'Look, we have it good here, don't mess things up for us!' "
Baby was content to live inside with one exception. The couple found homes for three of Baby's kittens and kept two (they later died from kidney problems). "The night I gave away the three kittens, she tried to break through a window screen to get out. My husband grabbed her and pulled her back in."
Although she had grown to enjoy being petted, Baby was not a cuddler and did not like to be picked up. So it was a surprise when, five years after Baby arrived, Gullo-Eardley was sitting at home recovering from knee surgery when the cat jumped into her lap.
"Now, she gets up on my lap at least three or four times a day," says Gullo-Eardley. "I cradle her like she's a baby and she purrs like crazy, then she starts to pet me with her right front paw, reaching up to my shoulder. When she gets comfortable, she looks up at me with these adoring eyes, and she smiles, and she has one fang tooth that hangs down, which is comical."
In 2006, a hungry, six-toed black cat with health problems, ranging from eye ailments and lice to ear mites and intestinal parasites, also showed up at the house.
"He was a throwaway cat, he wasn't feral," says Gullo-Eardley. He had open bites on his head, possibly from a coyote, and he had to be kept apart from the other cats because his ailments were contagious. After a few months and a lot of veterinary treatment, Yogi Berra, so named because his paws looked like baseball gloves, was healthy and joined the family.
Today, Yogi Berra keeps Baby company, and even has helped her with her severe fear of loud noises, sitting near her and licking her face during thunderstorms.
Gullo-Eardley says, "It makes me absolutely sick" to think that people dump their pets in the country to fend for themselves. The Eardleys have tried to save other abandoned cats and kittens, only to see them fall prey to coyotes. "People think that their pets can survive out here, eating mice and birds," she says. "They never stop to think of what horrible conditions there are, including starvation and coyotes and foxes."
Luckily, those are threats that Baby and Yogi will never face again.