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May 2, 2014, 5:00 am
Family Photos of Feral Felines
By WHITNEY RICHARDSON
Jason Houge never intended to live with 30 feral cats.
Granted, these wild creatures had always scurried to and from the front porch of his farmhouse in Green Bay, Wis. His sprawling two-acre front yard provided the ideal environment for the roaming felines. Mr. Houge and his girlfriend, enjoying the cats’ visits, often put out cat food and a bit of fresh water for those that came by. As winter approached, Mr. Houge built an outdoor shelter as a temporary home for his new companions. Each month brought new visitors — some that lingered for the entire winter, others that came by once or twice, never to be seen again. By summer’s end, more than 20 cats were regular visitors to his home.
Make that 30 — two of the cats had litters. Now his office is a makeshift cat club and his bathroom a kitten nursery.
“They’re all over the place,” Mr. Houge said. “But I think we see each other as family.”
And he’s the family photographer. He began capturing and sharing intimate moments on Instagram several months ago, hoping, he said, to give the public a deeper understanding of the lives of wild cats.
“There’s not a lot of understanding of cats, even when they live in your home,” Mr. Houge said. “I was mostly interested in seeing how they lived and interacted within a colony.”
Tending to an ever-growing cat colony brings satisfying moments, as well as concerns. Chief among the latter are keeping down birthrates and making sure the cats are healthy. He recently started working with Cats Anonymous, a local nonprofit group that has assisted him with spaying most of the female cats.
Mr. Houge, who has spent most of his career documenting social issues, said that when approaching the idea of documenting his cats, the same practice of gaining trust from his subjects before taking pictures applied to this project — an important lesson he learned at a workshop with the Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey.
One of the first images Mr. Houge posted on Instagram was of Diane, a small male kitten that had developed a highly contagious upper respiratory infection. At the time, Mr. Houge did not have a proper cat carrier for his car, but he wanted to take Diane to the nearest veterinary hospital so that he wouldn’t infect the other cats. On the way there, Diane slowly climbed onto Mr. Houge’s lap — his eyes gently gazing up in slight discomfort. At the next red light, Mr. Houge quickly pulled out his camera and took a photo of the moment.
Diane’s ear twitched back.
“Our sick kitty, Diane, rested his head on my leg while I drove to the vet on Saturday morning,” Mr. Houge wrote in a caption. “Diane was born in a shelter on my porch last spring and was named after Diane Arbus before we knew he was a boy.”
From there, the images continued to stream into his feed, each one becoming more detailed, about both the cats and his relationship with them. On his free days, Mr. Houge can spend hours with the colony, lying on the grass of his front yard as the cats nonchalantly roam around him. By using his phone instead of his film camera, he said he felt more at ease to remain present with the cats, without the pressure of missing pivotal moments of their interactions.
After taking an image, Mr. Houge edits the photo into black-and-white, giving a certain emotional tone and intensity. Stripped of color, the cats appear hauntingly stark and wild, as in one image of Diane foaming at the mouth (slide 2), right after he had given the animal a deworming pill.
“There are so many cute pictures of cats out there,” he said. “I didn’t want these to be confused with cute pictures of cats.”