The Rescue That Almost Broke Me: 13 Cats & Kittens From South Bermondsey
Late one Sunday in November 2018, the CatCuddles Sanctuary received an urgent message about a stray mother cat and her five kittens living near South Bermondsey train station. It was to be the start of an intense, eight-day rescue effort that utterly consumed me, and that culminated in the rehoming of 13 stray cats and kittens in total.
I’ve mentioned this story before on The Animalist, writing about how, after six days of trapping these cats in terrible weather, a concerned passer-by mistook me for a homeless person. As funny as we volunteers found this at the time, it should offer some insight into just how grueling this rescue became.
Four CatCuddles’ volunteers, including myself and my mum, made the thirty to forty-minute drive to Bermondsey that first night. We found the kittens fairly quickly, on a litter-strewn bank that ran alongside a busy path into the station. It was bordered by a corrugated iron fence, so the only way to access the cats was via the gardens of shops backing onto the bank.
The area around these shops - a row of bookies, newsagents, and takeaways - was pretty rough. The bookies, in particular, seemed to attract men who forever hovered in the street, sipping cans of lager and staring as we trundled past, daily, with our oversized cat traps. Millwall Football Club, and all the rowdy human traffic it attracted during matches, was also only a stone’s throw away.
The shop that backed directly onto the bank was a pizza takeaway restaurant, meaning that our ability to trap effectively was dependent on the management giving us access to their garden. Thankfully, the staff there - a group of young men who spoke little English - we’re extraordinarily obliging, providing us with a key to the garden and tolerating our comings and goings for a full week. One of them, a delivery driver, became quite enamoured with me, baffling considering how dishevelled I so consistently was, which proved highly amusing to my fellow volunteers. I spent a lot of that week hiding from him; as if this rescue wasn’t complicated enough.
So, we had our access; the next hurdle was getting onto the bank. This required a semi-perilous climb up some old kitchen units that were often slippery in the rain, and then a scuttle across a low tin roof that creaked menacingly with each step. Then it was just a small jump down onto the steep incline of the bank - but if you landed in the wrong spot, you were liable to sink into a kind of stinging nettle-lined crevasse, something I found out the hard way.
These stinging nettles covered the bank in angry tangles and hid numerous other hazards - reams of discarded barbed wire, broken bottles, needles. The mother cat had made a burrow of sorts for her kittens in this overgrown foliage, where they spent most of their time. When they did emerge, however, they were in full view of commuters traveling to and from the station. If they veered too close to the fence, it would have been easy enough to reach through and grab one.
Despite how grim the situation was, there were moments on this rescue that we still laugh about CatCuddles; like my suitor at the pizza place, or my being scruffy enough that an onlooker thought I was destitute.
Another of these memorable moments occurred when we were setting our trap on the bank that first evening. A man who presumably lived in a flat above the parade of shops climbed out onto his roof and shouted at us that he was calling the police. When on night-time rescue missions like this one, we volunteers would often joke that we must look like burglars; skulking around residential streets with torches and sitting in cars staking out traps for hours. But this was the first time we’d been accused of actually being burglars.
After four frantic explanations were given at once - we’re from an animal charity! We have permission, honest! - the man retreated, leaving us to finish setting up, laughing shakily.
When you’re trying to catch stray kittens and their mum, you’re often in a catch-22 situation. Get mum first, and the kittens are left to fend for themselves. Get the kittens first, and mum might leave the area and become pregnant again, rendering your efforts moot. Therefore, you need to get them all within a relatively tight time frame, meaning the pressure is on from the offset.
For a moment on that first night, it looked like we were going to be lucky. The mother cat went into the trap within a few hours, followed by two of her kittens. Our hearts thumping, we waited and waited. But the trap didn’t trigger. It transpired that it had been damaged recently after a volunteer had accidentally caught a fox.
The mother cat was extremely timid and wary, possibly even feral, so catching her in the old fashioned way wasn’t an option. Since we had no backup trap on us, we had to call it a night. But we weren’t too worried. If they were that willing to go into the trap, we’d easily get them the next day. Right?
In the next week, I’d frequently look back on this moment with utter despair and fury. Sometimes it feels like the universe is playing an elaborate practical joke on you.
We didn’t get the mum the next night. Or the next.
At that age, under 10 weeks, kittens are often dumb and easy to catch, even fearful stray kittens who’ve had no human contact. But as I said, we couldn’t simply rescue them and leave the mother cat behind. So we brought them into the sanctuary gradually, always intending to leave at least one or two kittens to keep mum around, and buy time for her to get in our trap.
Things got intense quickly. The weather was persistently awful, with the constant rain driving the family into their makeshift burrow on the bank, away from our traps. Even sitting in a car and just monitoring intermittently, we were freezing, damp, and coated in mud, as well as bored to death from the hours of “stakeouts”. Worse still, every day revealed fresh scrapes and bruises from the climb back and forth, and angry rashes from the nettles.
Kittens on a busy public pathway, even behind a fence, also proved to be a disastrous combination. They were like a magnet for commuters, who would approach, cooing, and scare them away from the trap at the most pivotal moments.
On one occasion my mum and I had to lecture a group of mouthy school girls about how no, they could not take one of the kittens home, and on another, a group of Millwall fans told me to ‘take a fucking picture’ as I peered through the fence, thankfully not realising what I was looking at.
Things went on like this. And on, and on. Still, mum just would not go in the trap as she had that first night, for no logical reason that we could see. Time after time, we'd check it after long stretches of waiting, only to find her hovering around it, on top of it, sniffing it, but absolutely refusing to go inside it. We exhausted all the tricks in our cat-trapping repertoire, like using the caught kittens as a lure - safely contained of course - or baiting the trap with pungent-smelling food. The local takeaways earned a killing from CatCuddles’ volunteers that week; we tried everything from battered cod to kebab to fried chicken, a sorry endeavour for a bunch of vegans and vegetarians.
The condition of the kittens added to the urgency of the situation. There were five in total, and as I said, we had to be careful to space out their capture, usually removing one per trapping session. But each kitten caught was severely infested with parasites, suffering from diarrhea and eye infections. We grew increasingly concerned about delaying getting them treatment.
Nevertheless, it seemed unthinkable to risk leaving the mother cat behind. A rare ginger female, terrified of humans and very petite, she looked little over a year old. Her short life had been, and would continue to be if we didn’t save her, pregnancy after pregnancy in that shitty, miserable place - and her future litters would be doomed to the same fate.
As the week wore on, I became increasingly obsessed with the rescue attempt.
I began to spend every waking moment in Bermondsey, and when I wasn’t there I was anxious to be. On days that I was completely or mostly free, I’d be trapping for up to eleven hours; on days that I had work, I’d don an extra few layers of clothing and go straight to the train station, falling asleep in the car as the night wore on. I’d often be with my mum, who was heroic in her willingness to make the forty-minute drive back and forth multiple times in a day, or with other CatCuddles’ volunteers, like Conchi or Tessa, who were also putting the hours in.
Then came a morning, mid-week, when I was off work, but there were no volunteers with a car, my mum included, available to accompany me to Bermondsey. I don't drive, and a vehicle is kind of a necessity in order to transport any caught cats quickly and safely. Taking a four-foot-long trap full of agitated cats on a bus isn't a realistic option.
My mum would be available later in the day, so all I had to do was wait and I would have a car at my disposal. But sitting alone in my house, listening for the sound of her key in the lock, proved unbearable. So I decided to go alone. I reasoned that if I caught the cat, I could get a cab, or beg a lift from a friend. I then took the trap on the train, drawing a lot of bemused looks from fellow commuters.
By the time my mum joined me in Bermondsey later that night, I had been trapping alone, without the shelter of a car or anywhere to warm up or even sit down, for about seven hours. It had rained for at least six and a half of those, and I was still no closer to catching the mother cat. Sensibly, she had spent the entire day inside her burrow on the bank, safe from the rain whilst I grew more and more sodden.
Despite wearing multiple thick layers of clothing, I was soaked down to my underwear. If I had jumped into a swimming pool, fully-dressed, I’d have been no wetter. In fact, I'd have been less muddy, so it would have been preferable.
I hadn't eaten, had anything to drink, or been able to sit down for hours, but I couldn’t really feel the cold, or much of anything. I was vaguely manic, utterly consumed in the work, certain that this day would be the one when we’d get her. I’d tapped into some mysterious reserve of sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness, and was operating on that and little else.
I’ve had this feeling before on rescues. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes it’s just like the world falls away and all that’s left is you and this task, this animal that you must help. And I am not religious, I don't believe in a higher power, but it’s as if you’re not fully in control of yourself, like you’re just a tool being used to put something right that has gone terribly wrong in the world. There is a sudden certainty, an affirmation for your entire existence; if I was put on the earth for anything, it's to do this. So that I could be here, at this time and this place, for this animal, who has no-one and nothing else.
At that time, I believe it had also been less than a year since I’d quit my role as the assistant manager at CatCuddles; I was now just a volunteer. That decision had left me with guilt that I’d been carrying around like a ten-ton weight in my chest. In hindsight, I wonder if I was so obsessed with saving this feline family because it symbolised some sort of redemption for me. It was my way of proving to myself that I was still someone capable of doing good.
When my mum saw me, she wrapped a dry coat around me, and thrust a flask of hot tea in my hands, like I was someone suffering shock after a terrible accident. We stayed until late in the evening, and then we left without the mother cat. I was at a point beyond exhaustion, and had proved nothing to myself that day.
On Friday, things really came to a head.
As the week wore on, we had caught the kittens one by one, until there was just one remaining. It was now crucial that we did not remove the final kitten until the mother cat was safely in our care.
But that night, disaster struck.
It had been a long day, work followed by trapping. I was checking the trap, which was, of course, empty, when I noticed the single remaining kitten slumped against the fence bordering the bank. These kittens, having had no human contact, were flighty and scared, but this one made no move to flee when I approached. So I simply scooped her up, my heart beating fast, and began to examine her gently. A lethargic kitten is not something to be taken lightly, particularly one living in these conditions. Her stomach was hard and distended, one eye clouded over, implying infection or a virus.
A wave of utter despair washed over me as I realised that I could not leave her there for another night. Unless we caught the mother cat in the next few hours - it was already very late - we’d have to leave her with no kittens at all, and hope she stayed in the area long enough to be rescued.
We were there until the early hours. I tried absolutely everything that I could think of, and I doubt I'd have gone home at all if we didn't have a kitten who needed to see a vet first thing in the morning. Of course, nothing worked, why would it when it hadn't all week?
I can’t describe to you how I felt when we drove away, leaving her there, alone.
On Saturday, with multiple volunteers off work, we had a virtual CatCuddles army at our disposal. We set off at 9 AM, and given the late end to the night before, I was like a zombie. More than just being tired, I felt close to being defeated. I had just the faintest ember of hope left.
I doubted the mother cat would have left, yet, but I also doubted our ability to catch her before she did, or before she became pregnant again.
We arrived, and within a few hours, we had spotted her, lurking. My relief was tempered by her crying and calling for her kittens, each meow like a little pin in my heart, a testament to how I'd failed to reunite them so far.
And then the day followed the usual pattern; we set the traps, she flatly refused to go inside them. A Millwall match was being played in the nearby stadium, and the distant sound of cheering felt vaguely mocking.
The day wore on and on, a feeling of despondency falling over the team as the sun began to set. We decided to take advantage of the mother cat’s pining for her kittens, once again using them as a lure, putting them in a secure, weather-proofed carrier in line with the trap.
They had started to respond to her calls, crying loudly, and it piqued her interest in the trap, more so than ever before - but apparently, not enough for her to enter it. As was her usual behaviour, she walked around it, on top of it, examined it at length, but no more. We had an initial burst of hope that quickly began to decline.
We couldn't leave the kittens out in the carrier for too long, as it simply wasn't fair on them to be confined that way indefinitely. Football fans were also hovering outside the station, increasingly loud and boisterous, and we were concerned about their stress-levels.
It got to about 8 PM, and we began to talk about returning them to CatCuddles, and by extension, likely putting an end to the chances that we'd catch mum that night.
I was thoroughly depressed, depleted physically and emotionally. I think at that point, I had truly given up.
We decided to wait another half an hour before taking the kittens back to the sanctuary. I went with Tessa to check the trap, leaving several others waiting in the car.
The mum was sniffing it, but this was nothing new and did not inspire much hope. We walked around the block multiple times to warm up, before going to check again, our hearts empty of any expectation of success by that point.
And then, about ten feet from the trap, we heard it, the most beautiful sound in the world; a click. The sound of the trap snapping closed.
We both stopped dead. Tessa's eyes crashed into mine and we stared at each other for a moment or two, utterly disbelieving. I ran ahead and looked through the fence. I saw a flash of orange fur. Not outside the trap, near it, or on it, but inside it.
The next moments are a bit of a blur. I do remember that Tessa and I started jumping up and down on the spot, silently fist-pumping the air. We couldn’t make any noise for fear of frightening the already agitated mother cat. It was the quietest, most joyous celebration I've ever experienced.
Millwall won that night, and so did we.
Tessa ran to tell the others in the car. I climbed up on the bank for what I hoped would be the last time, and started obsessively securing the trap. Cable ties, rope, bungee cords; I could not believe that this was really it, that something would not go wrong in this last moment to undo our hard work.
But it didn't. We got in the car and we headed to CatCuddles, though not before we cleared away all the litter on the bank.
During the drive, Tessa chose a name for the mother cat; Raewin. It still brings a lump to my throat.
I slept very, very well that night. And so did five kittens.
The entire family were reunited in foster care, looked after by an amazing volunteer called Liz. For kittens who’d only ever known a muddy bank as home, soft beds, toys, heating, and full bowls, must have felt like heaven to them. Physically, they recovered quickly, needing little more than repeated parasite treatments and consistent care. They soon learned that humans - the provider of all this comfort and food - were not so bad, and it did not take long for them to find adoptive homes.
Raewin was not so easy to persuade. Who knows how much of her life had been spent in that shithole, how long it’d been since she’d last been touched by a human? She was frightened and introverted, though not feral as we feared, and seemed exhausted somehow. She didn’t bother with her kittens much, as if she sensed the burden of their care had finally been lifted. She slept a lot.
We feared a long wait for a patient and understanding home for her, but it didn’t happen that way. An experienced family, willing to put the time in and earn her trust, made her their cat. I believe they kept her name.
I won’t ever, ever forget her, or that week when she was the centre of my world.
Here is the final twist; a few days after we wrapped up Raewin’s rescue, CatCuddles got a call from the same member of the public who'd initially alerted us to the situation at South Bermondsey.
On her way home from the station, this lady had spotted yet another five kittens and their mother, about fifty feet from the first family, at the back of a laundrette on the same row of shops. They too, were all ginger.
When I heard the news, I had to laugh. Like I said at the start of this mammoth blog post; the universe must have a sense of humour.
I went back to Bermondsey, expecting to start all over again, with a surprising lack of dread. But this time, we were able to catch the mother cat in the trap within the first hour, then round up her kittens relatively quickly. It was the complete opposite of the rescue that had taken place just a week before, a few hundred paces up the path.
They too, found loving homes.
There are still a few strays in the area that we volunteers have gone back to trap multiple times, so my days climbing that muddy bank are not quite done. We caught and rehomed one feral male, bringing the total of cats rescued up to 13, but the Bermondsey cats are a savvy bunch, and there remain a few who have resisted our traps.
Our work there is not yet over. But then again, our kind of work never is.