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The First of the Third Ones

The Kittens of Willow Rill

Barkley & Reggie

Michael Hillman

I really had not wanted to go to the party that afternoon. I had a lot to do on the farm and spending the afternoon in the company of people I didn’t know really didn’t appeal to me. But as the party was for Ashley, one of my first and better students, I had to go.

It was an afternoon barbecue in celebration of her 30th birthday. She had grown a lot since I first spied her at 12-years-old, watching me through the slats in my arena’s fence as I rode. As we sat and chatted about the glory days gone by, my gaze drifted over her shoulders to the creek next to the pavilion in the park we were in. As I was about to turn away, my eye caught something moving in the distance, something small and shy. Intrigued, I got up and walked toward it. At first, all I could see were two gray ears, then a face—it was a kitten.

Realizing he had been spotted, Barkley, as he would soon be known, tried to make himself invisible— but not totally. For every ten steps I took toward him, he only took five back, as if saying, "I’m scared, but I don’t want to be."

I went back to the table and picked up my half-eaten hamburger. When I turned around, I discovered Barkley had followed me halfway, as if in a dance (which in many ways it was).

I tossed Barkley a chunk of the hamburger. He followed it through the air and jumped at it when it landed. It took only seconds for him to devour it. Clearly he was hungry. When he was finished, he advanced toward me with a look that said, "More please?" I tossed him another chunk, and then another, and then another.

When I went back to get a second hamburger, my wife asked me what I was doing. When I told her, she smiled and offered me the remains of her hamburger. Barkley was not satiated with even that, so I returned a third time, this time with a hotdog. With that in his belly, Barkley finally lay down and stretched out. He was full and quite happy with himself.

As we drove home from the party, my wife and I talked about Barkley. The park he lived in was small, right next to a major road. As the summer was mild and moderately wet, the creek along which he lived provided an ample source of water and vegetation alongside it. It was surely a steady source of mice and moles, not to mention cover for a growing kitten. But winter was just around the corner and all those positive attributes would soon change. The park would soon be devoid of water and prey—leaving him no better option but to start roaming. The chances for survival would drop dramatically as the weather turned, unless he had help.

So we decided to help.

Barley and Willow (Reggie) at their feeding station three days after their discovery in the park

Learning to trust

Knowing full well that domesticating feral cats was difficult at best, we settled on trapping, vetting and neutering him, and then releasing him on our farm where we could keep an eye on him. That was the plan at least…to execute it, however, we would first need to get him to trust us.

Knowing he would be hungry around the same time the next day, I returned to the park, this time with cat food. Sure enough, Barkley was waiting. I spied an old Styrofoam hotdog holder, which I used as an improvised cat bowl and set down for him. As I retreated, Barkley advanced toward it. I can’t recall if he even bothered to sniff it. Within an instant it was all gone. Once again he gave me the "More please?" look. As I advanced to fill it a second time, I noted he didn’t retreat to his original spot, but instead, only retreated halfway.

The pattern was repeated the next day, and the day after. On the fourth day, as I was watching him eat, I saw movement in the bushes behind him. Slowly, another face emerged—it was a second kitten. This cat was clearly much more shy than Barkley, and I found myself having to retreat almost back to the pavilion before it would come out of the bushes to join its brother at the food bowl. Don’t ask why, but I got the impression it was a female.

At the time, we were referring to Barkley as "Rile," since the creek he lived by was called "Willow Rile." So she was immediately given the name Willow. Needless to say, the plans we had laid for Barkley were expanded to include her.

On day 7, "momma cat" made an appearance. Being fully feral, she took one look at me and disappeared.

By day ten, I found myself lying in bed at night worrying about the pair. The nights were getting colder and a major rain storm was being predicted. To ease my anxiety, my wife suggested we build them a habitat that could serve as a temporary shelter for the kittens and a permanent shelter for momma cat. A quick search of the Internet brought me to the website of Alley Cat Allies, which had several nice diagrams of shelters—one of which quickly took shape in my carpentry shop.

Barkley, who by this time had become quite bold, just had to help me install his new home. As I filled his food, he was busy inspecting the inside of the shelter. He must have approved, for as I sat down to watch him eat, I was surprised to see him walk not toward his food bowl, but rather straight up to me as he began to rub his head all over my outstretched legs. I reached out and offered him my hand. He sniffed at it and, accepting the offer of friendship, he advanced to my side, rolled on his back and offered me the opportunity to give him a belly rub—an offer I was unable to resist. For what seemed like an eternity, he just laid there and purred. The fact that his sister was eating all his food was of no concern to him whatsoever.

It was now obvious that the plans of simply trapping, spaying, and releasing the pair was now out of the question. Barkley, and just maybe his sister, had a destiny as indoor cats, which in our household, was a pretty good life.

But first things first—we needed to trap them.


Because of Barkley’s newfound openness to physical human contact, the trapping date was advanced a week, which also served to get them out of the elements before the arrival of a nasty tropical storm.

The night before the trapping, I once again found myself lying in bed at night worrying about what could go wrong. I knew I would be able to trap Barkley. Heck, by now I could probably simply pick him up and carry him to the car, but what about his sister? How long would I have to wait? What if we were unable to trap her? I planned for everything.

The following morning, weary from lack of sleep, we drove to the park with two traps in tow. Once again, curiosity got the better of Barkley, and he sat patiently watching us set up the trap. We no sooner opened its door than he walked boldly inside. Now he was none too happy to have the door spring closed behind him, but with a towel placed over the trap to darken it, he quickly settled down and accepted his fate.

Now I faced my biggest fear—trapping his sister. She had watched Barkley enter the trap and made a beeline for the tall grass when the door sprang shut behind him. As I watched my wife pull away in her car with Barkley, I settled down with a stack of newspapers, ready for what I expected to be a very long day. But, I was wrong.

I had no sooner finished scanning the headlines on the front page than Barkley’s sister made her reappearance. She followed the trail of tuna fish oil my wife had led up to and into the trap. Much to my chagrin, the trap failed to close behind her, and once she finished the tuna fish in the trap she simply walked back out! Thankfully, she didn’t leave the area, but instead patiently waited as I circled the trap a few times.

Having been in the trap once without issue, the smell of more tuna was enough to get her to go back in. This time however, the trap worked. The whole thing had taken us less than 15 minutes from start to finish.

The pair didn’t know it, but their new lives had just begun.


Introducing new cats into an existing cat population is always a little tricky, not to mention dangerous. Until we knew that the kittens were not carrying any communicable diseases, such as Feline Leukemia, we decided to keep them separated from the rest. Fortunately, we had a heated tack room in the barn, so that would be their home until we knew what we had.

Unsure of how they would respond when we released them, we hauled out the large dog cage and set it up in the middle of the tack room floor. My wife placed a cardboard box in the back of the cage, which would serve as a hiding "cave" should either of the pair feel the need for one. On the cage’s side and roof, my wife hung all sorts of kitten toys, enough to keep them occupied for what was going to be a long period of isolation.

Barkley was released into the cage first. He strolled out of the trap as if on a Sunday walk in the park and immediately began to explore his new home. So far, so good.

When Willow’s cage was opened, she darted out as if on fire, ricocheted off one of the walls, and went out the front before we knew what had happened. Barkley, sensing something was wrong, followed her in hot pursuit. So much for our well laid out plans.

It only took a few moments to recapture Barkley. On the other hand, Willow wanted nothing to do with us. Each time we cornered her, she somehow managed to find an escape route. She darted from one side of the tack room to the other, getting more frantic with each dart. A lucky throw of a towel and a quick grasp ended the event. It was much rougher than I wanted, and was everything we had feared, but at least we had her safely back in the cage. It was going to be a long, long time before she allowed us to get near her again, that was for sure.

Over the next few days we made a point of visiting the kittens at every opportunity we had. Barkley was always at the cage’s door with an outstretched paw as if to say,

"Let me out." Willow was always squished as far back as possible in the box, clearly terrified.

As the days wore by, the pair soon began to associate us with food. Barkley, ever eager to get out of the cage, did his best Houdini impersonation every time the cage’s door was opened, unless of course the door was being opened to refill the food bowl. In those cases, he seemed more interested in climbing into the large food container than escaping out the front door. Willow was more than content to watch the food bowl get filled. Only when the cage door was closed and she was sure that no one would be attempting to lay hands upon her did she venture out of her box.

By the end of the first week it was obvious that Barkley had outgrown the cage and was ready to be released into the tack room. Willow, on the other hand, could have benefited from another week or two in the cage, but Barkley wanted out.

Upon their release, Barkley immediately went to work exploring the tack room. Willow, on the other hand, ran into the bathroom and hid behind the toilet. It was hard not to feel sorry for her.

The next morning we were greeted by Barkley, who had taken up a position on the tack room counter next to the door. From the counter, Barkley could look out the windows that lined the walls next to the counter. Willow, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Our first thought was that she had somehow escaped. Before we had placed them in the tack room we had gone to great lengths to secure all the openings. Even the tack room’s window screen was reinforced with a tougher chicken wire mesh, which was secured by 250 staples. For what seemed like an eternity, we looked high and low. Willow was simply nowhere to be found. Finally my wife let out an, "Ah ha!" and pointed to a speaker sitting on top of one of the cabinets hanging above the counter. Squished back as far as possible between the back of the speaker and the wall was Willow. Her natural instincts were to find a high, secluded spot from which she could safely survey everything around her.

Willow’s unwillingness to engage us, when compared to Barkley’s outward acceptance of everything new, began to make us question the correctness of trapping her. Maybe it would have been better to leave her with her mother after all. But the die had been cast and we decided to let events play themselves out.

While we hadn’t yet decided on what we would do with them, domesticating the kittens would be critical if the option of making them indoor cats was even to be considered. So every evening, I would set an hour aside and sit on the tack room floor playing with one of the many cat toys that now littered the floor. Barkley took to playing like a fish to water. This was just way too much fun for him.

At first, Willow would have nothing to do with me, but as the days wore on, she took more and more queues from her brother. Soon, she abandoned her cave behind the speaker and was hunched over the edge of the countertop watching Barkley’s antics as we played "bat a bird." By the end of their first week out of the cage, Willow’s confidence had grown so that she now felt safe on the floor and occasionally, even dared to venture near one of the catnip mice for a sniff.

During the day, the pair spent their time sitting in the windowsill that overlooked the walkway out of the barn. Adjacent to a large cedar, which was home to a plethora of finches, it offered them non-stop entertainment as we went about our normal daily routine.

It was about this time that my wife finally got a good look at Willow and discovered that she wasn’t a she, but in fact, she was a he. We had not adopted a brother and sister, but two brothers. Willow was going to need a new name.

We racked our minds that evening for a suitable name, but nothing came to mind. Star Trek wasn’t exactly known for its shy, reclusive characters. But then it hit us. We had named Barkley after Lt. Reginald ‘Reggie" Barkley, who was a nice, but sometimes "goofy" outgoing character. But Lt. Barkley also had another side to him—a recluse, shy, unsure side. In the show, Lt. Barkley was always referred to as "Reggie’ when he was being shy, and Lt. Barkley when he was being outgoing. While it seemed wrong to name both cats after the same character, it nevertheless worked. Willow was renamed Reggie, and the name stuck.

Barkley and Reggie thrived on what soon became their routine. Breakfast was followed by a full day of bird watching in the window. Every night as the sun began to set, I joined them for two hours of play, then dinner, then a long restful night. Barkley would follow me on the countertop as I walked through the barn—ever inquisitive as to what I was doing. Reggie, on the other hand, was more than happy to spend his days spread out on the windowsill, soaking up the fresh air.

As play became more and more acceptable, I soon found Reggie growing brave enough to approach me. First, it was a simple sniff of my shoes, then my legs, then a sniff of a finger held out as far as I could. Slowly but surely he was beginning to trust me. Of course it helped that Barkley thought nothing of climbing onto my lap and rolling onto his back for a belly rub as soon as I sat down onto the tack room floor.

First Contact

We had had the brothers now for close to a month, and while Barkley was clearly domesticated, Reggie was still feral. While he was growing more and more trusting as the days wore on, fall was approaching. Soon the warm nights were replaced by cooler air, and the discussion around the dinner table began to focus on when to bring them into the house and begin their introduction to our four dogs and three cats. But until we were able to touch Reggie, the conversation was moot.

Reggie had to be willing to be picked up before we could even think about getting him to a vet for his shots and checkup, and the shots were a prerequisite to coming in. But that was our timetable. Reggie had his own timetable and we were going to have to work to his, not ours.

One evening, near the end of a long hard play with the pair, Reggie settled down within arms reach of me. I chanced it. Slowing moving my hand along the floor, the fingers acting like a crab’s legs walking on the beach, I inched my hand forward. Reggie sat and watched, making no effort to run away. When my fingers got within an inch of his paws, he reached out and took them, curling his claws around my index finger and pulling them toward him. He pulled the finger to his mouth and after a good long sniff, he began to lick the finger.

When he released my finger, I withdrew it and called it a night. I didn’t press the issue. We had made first contact on his terms and that’s the way I wanted it.

While progress with Reggie continued, it was a painfully slow pace. With the nights now becoming increasingly colder, the need to get on with their vetting took on increased importance. My back, and especially my butt, could not take much more sitting on a cold floor for two hours. So it was time to go to plan B.

Knowing that cats are inquisitive by nature, my wife struck upon the idea of placing the cat carriers in the tack room and feeding the brothers inside them. Of course this was perfectly acceptable to Barkley. Ever suspicious Reggie on the other hand would have nothing to do with it, and instead climbed into Barkley’s carrier.

Reggie tries out his cat carrier

Eventually the pair got used to their new feeding routines, and after what seemed like an eternity, the morning finally came when the flaps on their carriers were closed with them inside. Barkley thought nothing of it. Reggie practically had a stroke.

At the vet, Barkley went on a charm offensive and everyone loved him. Reggie went limp. It was only after being worked on that the vet told his technician that the pair was feral. She found it hard to believe as neither had so much as hissed once or tried to escape—something one typically expects from feral cats.

The number one issue that needed to be addressed was treatment of their fleas. Reggie’s constant scratching indicated he was infested. Because Barkley would allow me to comb him with a flea comb, his fleas were not as bad, but still the fleas had to be gone before they could come inside.

Upon their return home, the brothers spent one more week in the tack room to allow the flea medication to work. The flea combing of Barkley was used as the indicator. Once a few nights had gone by and no fleas were found, it was deemed safe to bring them inside. It was none too soon, as a cold winter was settling in early and my back was not going to make it much longer.

The guest room that they would call home was made ready. The screen door, which had been used by many a cat as a divider between new and old cats, was installed. To help ease the transition, the lower two-thirds of the door was covered with plywood to prevent the brothers from seeing the other cats and dogs. The idea was to let them first get used to the sounds of their future companions, and then slowly, over a few weeks, remove sections of the plywood so they could begin to catch glimpse of everyone.

Like the earlier trip to the vet, the cat carriers were placed out again and while Reggie and Barkley were busy eating, the flaps zipped. A few minutes later they were released into their warm new home. Barkley went exploring, and Reggie hid under the bed.

That evening, much to my back’s pleasure, I sat on the bed for our evening routine play. After a few minutes delay, Reggie joined Barkley in the games. Later that evening as I was going to bed I peeked in on the pair. Both were stretched out, side by side, on the bed. Clearly they were enjoying the heated blanket that I had turned on to high for their first night inside. I smiled. They were about to discover the luxury of life as indoor cats.

Reggie and Barkley and their new favorite best friend - a heated blanket!

Life was going to be good for them.

Meeting the Crew

I’m not sure who was the happiest with the their new status as inside cats, Barkley, Reggie or Leah.

Leah, a female tuxedo kitten, had been rescued off the road on the hottest day of the prior summer. Still very much a kitten, dehydrated and fatigued, she probably would have died that afternoon had she not been spotted. While Leah was appreciative of her new life, she didn’t enjoy being the low cat on the totem pole. Tolerated by Kirk, our male, and picked on by Gracie, life just wasn’t that much fun for Leah. The introduction of Barkley and Reggie changed all that.

Leah, Barkley on the heat register and Reggie (in the cat tube)

Barkley and Reggie had no sooner settled in than Leah was climbing the screen door to peek into their room. The "boys," as they soon became known as, were wide-eyed, first at the sound of something climbing their door, then at the appearance of Leah.

Once she had confirmed that she did indeed have two new playmates, Leah lost no time in playing. In spite of the door, she and Barkley began a vicious game of "paw" under the door. When playing "paw" got boring, they passed a catnip mouse back and forth. When they tired of one thing, they found another thing to amuse themselves. The play never seemed to end.

From the time they came inside, Leah was never very far from the "boys." We’ll never know if she knew that like hers, their confinement would someday come to an end, and they would be allowed to roam the house free. Be what it was, she was making sure that when they were freed, she would not have competitors, but rather playmates.

Every night, Leah would try to sneak into their room when I went in to play with the "boys." And every night she would be foiled and would have to satisfy her curiosity by climbing the screen door.

The evening play consisted of the same games that I had played in the tack room, albeit in a much more comfortable environment. "Stick" was followed by a round of "laser light," which was then followed by a round "feather on a string" and then another round of "stick." On and on it would go until such time as the "boys" would give up and lie in front of the screen door as if to say, "OK, we’ve had enough."

As the "boys" grew used to the noise and smells of the existing "critter crew," the paneling that I had screwed to the screen door to prevent direct eye contact was lowered. At the start of the third week inside, I cut a four-inch slot on the bottom, just large enough for the "boys" to peer out, but small enough that they could retreat, if necessary, to the safety of the bed if they were scared for some reason.

Barkley and Reggie approved. The pair would lie on the floor, peering out as if studying all the comings and goings of the upstairs. When it was apparent that the door was going to be opened, Reggie fled to the safety of his cave under the bed; Barkley, on the other hand, prepared for his daily attempt to escape.

After three weeks, it became apparent that it was time to release the "boys’" into the general population. To make the event as painless and trouble-free as we could, on the day of the big event, we blocked off the stairs so they could not go downstairs—which also meant that all the cats and dogs, with the exception of Leah, could not go upstairs. When all was ready, we opened the door and kept our fingers crossed.

Barkley, as expected, was the first out. He took about four steps before he came to a full stop as he took in his new domain. Reggie watched cautiously from the bed, waiting to see if Barkley would be eaten by some wild beast. Once he decided that the coast was clear, he ventured out and joined his brother—who was still mesmerized by all that he saw. Leah, of course, was beside herself, getting her first good, up-close smell of her new playmates.

Barkley eventually regained his composure and began to explore, followed by Reggie. For two hours, they explored the whole upstairs, stopping every few seconds to take in new smells. We called it a night when Barkley came to the barrier at the top of the stairs and began to look for a way around it to explore the mysteries that lay beyond it.

The routine was re-enacted every night for a week. One the third night, Millie, our old Jack Russell, was introduced to the "boys." Being the oldest, she had no interest in them, only in her bed. Meeting Millie allowed the "boys" to get some good, up-close smells of their first dog in a non-threatening fashion. They were intrigued. Millie was unimpressed.

Every night a new dog was introduced until such time when everyone had an opportunity to meet the "boys" one-on-two.

On the seventh night, while I was watching Reggie explore our bedroom, Barkley found his much sought after escape route around the stairway barrier and began his exploration of the downstairs. When I realized he had escaped, I began a frantic hunt for him—for downstairs remained the dominion of the only animal he had not met yet, Kirk, our old tomcat. Kirk didn’t take the introduction of new cats lightly and we feared that he would take the longest to accept the "boys."

After a frantic search, I found Barkley sitting next to a thoroughly confused Kirk on the bed in our room. Had they met outside, the results would have been completely different, but for some reason, having been introduced inside made all the difference to Kirk. As I stood and watched, Barkley laid down next to Kirk, as if knowing he was top cat, and began to groom himself. The two have been fast friends. Kirk also accepted Reggie and the two "boys" became Kirk’s posse.

Barkley & Kirk

The next day, the barrier was removed and the "boys" were given full access to the house during the day. During the night, they were secured in their room, more to ensure that we had a good night’s sleep than out of fear for their safety.

Our once quiet house was suddenly filled with the sound of thundering paws as Leah played a non-stop game of tag with the "boys." One minute Leah would be chasing Barkley, and the next minute Reggie was chasing Leah. It never seamed to end. The fact that Leah was finally having the kittenhood that had escaped her brought a lot of smiles to our faces, and it was clear in her eyes that she was happy.

For Barkley, everything was his dominion. When you sat down, your lap was all his. You would no sooner open the paper than Barkley would appear to sit in the middle of it. You dinner plate was his dinner plate—much to the chagrin of my wife.

Barkley in his favorite spot

Reggie, on the other hand, with the exception of his play with Leah, remained reserved. He would sit on top of the china hutch and survey, from the safety its height afforded, the comings and goings of the downstairs. Try as we might, we couldn’t coax him into joining the routine. While Barkley would roll over for belly rubs, Reggie would run in fear at the very thought you might touch him. Over time, Reggie got to the point where he would let you touch his nose—once—but trying to touch it twice was off limits.

Reggie in his favorite spot

With Barkley becoming more and more sociable by the day, and Reggie becoming more and more reclusive, the much-dreaded conversation of what to do with him began to be broached. We could release him in the spring in hopes that he would become our barn cat, but we feared for his safety and decided to let nature take its course and give Reggie all the time he needed. If he came around, great. If not, well, there were worse things that could befall him.

As it turns out, Mother Nature did know what was best for Reggie.

Every time I passed Reggie, I would reach out with my finger and touch him on the nose, just for a second.  At first he objected, but over time he began to accept it, albeit begrudgingly.  In early April, seven months after being trapped, Reggie brushed up against Audrey's leg while waiting to be feed. She seized upon the opportunity to touch him on the tail.  As expected Reggie ran away, but stopped and turned around.  Food overcame fear.

Over the next week the game of him brushing up against my wife and she touching his tail continued. Then on April 10th, my birthday, Reggie sauntered into my study and brushed up against my leg.  I reached down to touch him, fully expecting him to bolt, but instead I was greeted by a full body press against my leg. 

So I dared to try a scratch. The more I scratched, the more he rubbed against me.  The scratch went on for a full half hour. I had waited a long time for this and I was going to enjoy every moment of it!

When I finally did stop (you can only bend over to scratch a cat for so long at my age) Reggie followed me into the next room and pressed against my leg asking for more.

I had been officially claimed by Reggie as his property. 

I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.

Since that day, Reggie is the first to greet me in the morning and the last to say good night.  Every chance he gets he makes up for all those lost scratching opportunities.  Humorously enough, he still shys away from my wife - but when he does, he runs to me.  Which frustrates my wife as she is the official 'cat person' in the family - I'm the dog guy!

But all the matters in the end, is we have two very happy kittens who will enjoy and long and happy life.

Every cat, every dog, deserves nothing less.  Every Human deserves nothing less.

The nicest part about rescuing Barkley & Reggie is they well get to spend the rest of
their lives with a litter mate - they will be friends forever!

Read other stories by Michael Hillman