Jason Houge

My Feral Family

Since the day my girlfriend, Kayla, and I first moved into our rural apartment, we have provided food and a modest shelter for a number of feral cats that have come to visit us. Over time, we named each one and have tried to gain their trust. In 2012, two kittens arrived with their mother and grandmother and became the first family to stay longer than a single season. During that first year, this family of four grew to over 20, most of which continue to see our second story porch as their home. Since most of this colony grew up with interaction from Kayla and myself, they have come to accept us as members of their family. In January of 2014, I began a seven-month exploration of feral life and with Instagram shared my intimate view of the unseen lives of feral felines.

A note to the audience: I have worked closely with Cats Anonymous, a local organization, to control the population growth of this colony. At the time this statement was written, all kittens born in 2014 have been socialized and have found forever homes. All but one female and a few males have been spayed or neutered.





Jason Houge’s work is that of a compassionate wanderer in search of human interest stories that explore the many facets of humanity and life in today’s world. Houge has been published online by the NY Times Lens Blog, Feature Shoot, and Resource Magazine and also in print by a number of small publications. Houge has taught workshops to people of all ages and is an Associate Lecturer of Studio Art and Photography at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. In 2011, Houge earned a B.A. in Design Art from UW – Green Bay.

This work was shortlisted for the Emerging Photographer Fund 2014 

Related links

Jason Houge


33 thoughts on “Jason Houge – My Feral Family”

  1. On another subject, there’s this:

    I’m not sure that this is even possible, much less probable; some things are possible but not probable, other things are probable but not very likely, and other things are neither possible nor probable, as when you tell the credit card company that the check is in the mail; but I am reasonably certain that my house is haunted and the spirit that haunts my house has an incontinence problem. I know this because the toilet in my back bathroom keeps flushing when no one is in my back bathroom and since toilets don’t flush themselves, unless you go to the mall; the urinals are completely hands off in the men’s room there, which is a very good thing, I think; I must assume that there is some sort of spirit using my back bathroom. It seems the only logical explanation, but it does pose something of a conundrum: why would a spirit need to use a bathroom in the first place?

    Incontinence does seem to challenge the conventional wisdom about ghosts, which, as we all learned as children, are the disembodied spirits[i] of the dead. One would think, given that the dead are, in fact, dead, and therefore have no further need for an excretory system that they would choose to inhabit some other portion of the house, like the living room, the bedrooms, or the kitchen, rooms redolent with time and family memory, unlike the bathroom, which is only redolent of last night’s dinner. In death, just as in life, it seems, there is no accounting for tastes. Of course, I could be very wrong about this; ghosts might choose to haunt bathrooms because bathroom users are usually in a state of partial or total nudity. It is difficult to run away from a ghost or to explain why one is running away from something no one else can see while one’s pants are down around one’s ankles or when one is wrapped in a bath towel, if that. Ghosts may think this sort of thing is funny. They have to do something to pass the time now that they have lots of time to pass.

    Be that as it may, the spectral toilet flushing in my house also poses the question of why anyone would want to haunt my house in the first place. I live in the house my father built for the family when we joined the great white flight to the suburbs—in our case, the exurbs—back in the 1960’s. It is a small house; it began its existence as a much smaller house, but my father kept adding to it as the family expanded. There is nothing dramatic looking about my house; it is vaguely split-level looking but I am not sure if my father intended that or whether he had some building materials left over and chose to use the stuff up. We have no way of knowing because there are no architectural plans for the house; my father kept all of that information in his head, where it is currently unavailable for review. So, basically, there is nothing about my house that would be especially attractive to a ghost looking for a nice place in the country. There are no previous owners with a taste for Black Masses or who indulged in cannibalism as a means of supplanting their protein intake or who conducted wild sex orgies that went horribly awry, requiring the secret midnight burial of comely young blondes in the back yard. My house is utterly unprepossessing, not at all the kind of place that an ambitious young ghost would want to go in order to advance his/her/its/their career in the spectral realm.

    Actually, I do not mind sharing the house with a ghost. They seem reasonably polite—they stay out of the way during the day light hours, for example, when I’m trying to get something done—and I don’t have to remind them not to smoke in bed and they do not purposely leave the toilet seat down in order to provoke discord.[ii] The ghost or ghosts—I still don’t know if this is a solo act or a group enterprise—do not, however, pay rent, and this is a major bone of contention between us. If you live in my house or you choose to not live while in my house, I expect the rent on the first of the month and I don’t want to hear any excuses about family emergencies or needing the money to pay the bills this month. I have bills too and I don’t like deadbeats, especially when they’re dead to begin with and so don’t have any excuse for not paying on time. I’m providing these people; well, you can’t actually call them people anymore, can you, and calling them ex-people seems a little silly, doesn’t it; I’m providing these presences with a place to stay while they wait for whatever it is that they are waiting for to happen and all I am asking for is some money to cover the expenses of running a haunted house, and, and this is a very big and, that they stop flushing the damn toilet in the middle of the night. I don’t think it’s funny anymore. At this point, it’s just annoying.

    Which brings me back to my original problem: I don’t know how I got stuck with ghosts with incontinence problems. I assumed at first that it was simply my bad karma. I was, no doubt, an evil person in a former life and so the people I harmed then in that life are here in my back bathroom to remind me that they’ve neither forgotten nor forgiven me for the things I did to them then. There’s a lot of that sort of thing here in our happy little burg. Whenever there’s a wedding reception down at the Knights of Columbus hall you can see the turkey buzzards and black vultures circling over the building and the happy couple; the consensus around here is that those birds are the reincarnated souls of divorce lawyers circling over a fresh kill. Depressing, alas, but very true, I fear. Karma can be a royal pain in the backside. It does makes me wonder, though, what the hell I did to those people that they’ve come back to annoy me as much as possible. And it has to be personal. I don’t think any sane ghost would try to manifest itself through a flushing toilet. No one finds flushing toilets in the least bit frightening. None of the great horror classics of literature or film features a flushing toilet as a means of scaring anyone. There are slasher films; there are no flusher films. Anthony Perkins does not eviscerate Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with a toilet plunger. So why do it, other than the ghost has to go and when you got to go, you got to go, even if you’re dead and technically have already gone. You know, now that I think of it, they could be teenage ghosts. This flushing thing has all earmarks of the incredibly stupid juvenile nonsense that teenagers think is incredibly funny, like fart noises and setting alley cats on fire. If that’s the case, I should invest in some earplugs, I think. The nights are only going to get longer.

    [i] I’m sorry, but aren’t all spirits, almost by definition, disembodied? If they weren’t disembodied, they’d be alive, or, like zombies and life insurance salesmen, a reasonably good facsimile thereof.

    [ii] The toilet seat stays up. My house, my rules. You don’t like it, use the haunted bathroom or go to a hotel.

  2. Jason– well done series. Even though we are bombarded every day with cute cat pictures, you manage to present something very fresh and original and deeply evocative for anyone who has lived with felines. Nos. 1, 7, 12, 13, and especially 16 are the strongest individual photos. I would love to see large-format prints of those images.

  3. Hello everyone, and Thank you – It is a major honor for me to be published here…
    When I first saw the email about this post, I wasn’t sure I was really seeing it. After all, I’d already been awake almost 48 hours. I started a print sale earlier this month to help cover the costs of going to Look3 this summer – Details are on my site linked in the work above. If any of you will be there, I hope to see you!

    John – if you mean frostfrog Bill, He was one of my biggest influences during the making of this work!

  4. Jason, Congratulations! You already know how I feel about your great work and how glad I am to see it here. The only frustrating thing is I’ve been in the field for four days no with at least 2.5 weeks to go and I forgot my reading glasses! So it’s all a little blurry. I must wait until I return home to get the full impact of it. You have also succeeded where I failed. Thinking it might bring some Christmas publicity to my “Carrizo” ebook I submitted a “Carrizo” essay to Burn ahead of the holiday season but the Burn team lost their normal good judgement and ignored it. How fun it would have been to have seen these two essays back to back!

    You have shot a cat classic and have done honor to us all.


    nice work here my friend….somehow you managed to go beyond “cat picture” and yet they are indeed cat pictures!! in any case, great to see you get hold of a theme and stick to it….

    hope we see each other at LOOK3……

    cheers, david

  6. Bill, I have yet to see the book you’ve made as I don’t own either a Mac or iPad… I would have loved to seen your work here too.

    David, thank you so very much. I’ve found when I really am passionate about my subject and I’m not afraid of it because I love it, I can’t let up.
    I fully intend to see and meet up with you at Look. My offer still stands – if you need help with anything – getting stuff to and from, setting up, preparing… I’m happy to lend a hand. You’ve got help, I’m sure… Anyway I’m really looking forward to this, and seeing you again.

  7. Jason you’ll get a chance yet as I plan to migrate it to the other tablet platforms and to make a traditional book of it. too. I had hoped to in time for this coming Christmas season but I have been too busy and it looks like I will be too busy for quite some time to come. By then, I should have a copy of your book. I know it’s coming and it is going to stand as a classic. I want an autographed copy for sure.

  8. Bill, when it happens, you will have definitely have an autographed copy…. I don’t know if it’ll be before Christmas this or next, but it’ll happen sometime.

  9. AKAKY

    toilets will indeed flush by themselves….if you have the floater ball set too high it will trip the flusher wire plunger causing a gravity vacuum and therefore an automatic flush…i do like the idea of ghosts however….


    how could be possibly get Carrizo in a Burn essay format? seems to complex compound for that use…no?

    cheers, david

  10. David, as the book is structured, yes – too complex. But the basic, underlying story told in 20 – 25 pictures, no, not at all. I Believe I submitted 28 pictures, thinking that might be cut back. I think it is too narrative for your personal taste, but it could have worked. I feel a little foolish for having brought it up but, given all the interaction Jason and I had in the process of creating two very distinct but true cat works and the encouragement we gave each other along the way, I could not help but be struck by how neat it would have been to have had the two pieces back to back. It could have worked. Between us, we would have destroyed all the stereotypes about cat photography. But the window has passed, I should have restrained myself and not brought it up. I should have listened to The Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want.” I will now listen to The Beatles speaking words of wisdom and “let it be.” Damn! I must be getting old.


    well yes i can somehow imagine that you would somehow imagine that two cat to cat stories back to back would be cool, but i don’t think so….i could think that about any two photographers shooting the same subject of which there are many…just not quite enough of a hook in my opinion….we of course looked at both…the Jason work just resonated as an essay…Carrizo needs a lot of words to understand what it is all about….even with 28 pictures…it is not clear exactly what the story IS…with Jason work i do not need any words at all…his is a simpler story….if i read Jason’s words i understand more, but if i do not i still see a lot of provocative cat pictures….

    at the end it is all about only one thing….pictures…..

    cheers, david

  12. David, I recognize that in the end what matters with Burn is whatever you, the creator, host and true master, decide. As stated above, I was wrong to ever bring it up. All the focus here should be on Jason’s truly excellent and timeless essay. I apologize and will let it be.

  13. Frosty, David, et al

    As Jimmy Stewart used to say, “Now just a darned minute!” I don’t mean to steal any of Jason’s thunder here, but before Bill ‘lets it be’ (which in this case means concedes to the received conventional wisdom), I want to register a dissenting voice… not about the the immediate choice of going with Jason’s essay rather than Frostfrog’s, or about not combining two cat picture essays back to back.. but about the underlying view that “…at the end it is all about only one thing….pictures…..” Of course it is David’s blog, he sets the parameters, takes the responsibility, and his very broad tastes and deep experience rarely lead anybody astray. But he has expressed views before about telling stories with pictures only versus with text, and has showed some negativity, or at least skepticism, about mixing pictures with text (I’m not talking about captions, but actual text). Forgive me if I am misrepresenting those views… but that is honestly the impression I’ve been left with over the years I’ve followed this blog: that David prefers text to be only text, and pictures to be only pictures.

    That is certainly a long-standing view in the world of book publishing… that the kind of people who buy photo books (or who used to buy photo books anyway) did not read text, and that literate/literary types who actually read books did not go in for picture books. However it started, I know some serious publishers who accepted that division as a given for many years. And photographers and book editors will point to the dearth of successful combinations of pictures and text, although I wonder how many serious efforts there have really been. Usually books that are heavy on text content, if they do use pictures, cobble together stock photos from a variety of sources and stick them together in one or several clumps somewhere in the book (I think of these as ‘photo ghettoes’). Or photos may be used as ‘illustrations.’ Admittedly it is rare to find a book that was designed from the bottom up to feature evocative photos in a coherent style by a single photographer that complement the text but do not ‘illustrate’ it.. and a text that could perhaps stand alone but is infinitely better because it is combined with photos. Offhand, two outstanding examples that come to mind are ‘Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla’ by John McCoy (text) and Ethan Hoffman (photos), and ‘The Inland Sea’ by Donald Richie (text) and Yoichi Midorikawa (photos). Examples where one person does it all are of course far rarer, but one book worth both seriously reading and seriously looking at is Wade Davis’ ‘Light at the Edge of the World’ (there are both text only and text- with-photos-by-Davis editions.. in the latter there aren’t a huge number of photos, but the ones that are there are rich, impactful, reveal an original eye, and add immeasurably to the book.

    The whole concept of course of National Geographic Magazine from fairly early on was to combine text and photos to tell stories that could not be told by one medium alone. Up until the mid 1970s the photos were largely used as ‘illustrations’ but that started changing with Bill Garrett, ‘Mr. Gilke,’ and the young photographers they hired that included DAH. In the last few years the New York Times has done a lot of interesting and sometimes brilliant experimenting with combining photos, text, graphics, and video together to tell deep and complex stories in their online edition and in the NY Times Sunday magazine. While admittedly far fewer people now buy books than 20 or 30 years ago, there are still many people who read. What has changed is that photography has become so ubiquitous and democratized that many of those committed readers are also visually literate. So I personally don’t see why the old prejudice (which I never shared) about separating photos and text shouldn’t be challenged. Of course, whether or not BURN should be a vehicle for that is totally up to David, but since the topic was alluded to here, I could not resist contributing my long-rehearsed rant. Frostfrog, don’t ‘Let It Be’! Future audiences will thank you for your willingness to break the mold. Cheers, all…

  14. Sidney, as a person who has raised a family, wandered in and out of every region of the largest, most ezpensive, mostly roadless state in the union, where one must travel by air (and for 15 years I did most of that wandering in my own airplane until I crashed the damn thing) and all on income derived from a nearly 40 year freelance career built entirely on the COMBINATION of words and photographs, well received and understood by a cross cultural readership, I agree. I must clarify one point: “let it be” is not a concession to the “received conventional wisdom.” To so concede would be to negate my own past, eliminate my own future. I disagree with David. Strongly.

    “Let it be” concedes nothing but does recognize David’s ownership of Burn and the fact that he can and will make his decisions based on whatever criteria suits him and for whatever reason. And I do feel badly about diverting attention from this work of Jason’s that I so greatly admire. Jason, by the way, was the first person to suggest to me that I make a book on Carrizo. He was right there with me through the entire two-week rescue. If there had been any chance I could have turned David around, that would have been one thing. There was no chance. And that is why I apologized. But I concede nothing.

  15. Jason Houge…
    Congratulations great work. As David mentioned you’ve managed to trascend the average cat portrait. Never thought I’d see so many cat photos which are eyeball kicks. Your style style kinda reminds me of Robert Frank, sort of like if Frank had just got back from his crazy RoadTrip and kept on shooting at home…
    Your work proves that a potent image ca be made anywhere.


    Bill no need to apologise for heavens sake…this is a freestyle forum where you can say whatever you want…..please notice that i said WE made a decision…all of us on the Burn team look at each essay and talk it over…sure i can unilaterally DECIDE if i want, yet it is usually a consensus of reasonable minds who look at lots of pictures every day, have a good sense of photo history, and also see the overall context of one essay or set of pictures over another…i enjoyed Carrizo as an online book….lots of pictures and lots of explanation…our format here is not perfect…we have limits on what we can do with this platform…the nature of the beast so to speak….books and exhibitions are much better vehicles….

    cheers, david

  17. SIDNEY

    i love words..i love pictures…i love it when they work together…..

    what i have said it that USUALLY they do not work together…this does not mean that i do not see this as an IDEAL for some stories.

    one of the problems for text in photo books is really really simple..photobooks are generally not physically manageable to read…try reading Nachtwey’s Inferno for example…it’s just too damned big…how could anyone read it? you cannot hold it….and again, i really do believe that it takes one mood to “read” pictures and another mood to read text…usually..not always…

    my recent art commissioned book by the Jeju Island arts council, “Haenyeo: Angels of the Sea” i must say does manage to have one reading and looking at pictures pretty much simultaneous…the pictures are small, the book is small physically, and the captions are pure poetry by Korean writer Kil-un Hyun…he also has an essay in the book, which fewer people are likely to read and nobody is going to read my afterword i do not think…but it’s there for some…still after watching people look at this book, 90% do not even read the captions unless i suggest they do so…

    that same Haenyeo essay in NatGeo would be a nightmare of maps, and captions ,and body text and pictures….sure VALUABLE INFORMATON CAREFULLY GATHERED. yet nobody can digest NatGeo for all the information that is carefully put in there..it is there…it is accurate, but i am guessing only a very few really really soak up all of it…sure they SHOULD but they don’t…circulation continues to fall….for sure irrelevant in a very few years if not already imo….

    I am reading now Every Day is For the Thief by Nigerian author Teju Cole….now he does something very interesting….he has about 10-15 pictures interspersed through his novel….like every once in awhile…at the end or beginning of a chapter…these pictures are really effective…mood makers…vignettes….no captions for the pictures THANKFULLY….i don’t even want to know where the picture was taken or even exactly what it is of…that would kill them to tell the truth…but they WORK in the context of this novel…

    at NatGeo i was always frustrated that the pictures and words never seems to really work together…New Yorker has pictures and words working together BETTER imo…a nice essay and ONE PICTURE…that works…OR an essay with primarily pictures also works…again it is 90% a use of physical space thing…not competition between words and pictures but how your eye travels around a page that has both text and pictures…its hard to do…especially if the book is too big to hold in your hands easily…

    Yes the New York Times online is probably the best way to combine the two….yes the Sunday Magazine too, yet that circulation continues to fall as well….for INFORMATION in the future it is going to be your iPad or your phone…that is the reality…

    in the meantime since i have not too much interest for myself in pure information for what i DO , i will continue to experiment with books….some will have words some will not…Teju Cole and i are however thinking of a mutual project for 2016 that will combine his words with my pictures…yet i am guessing right off the top that the pictures will be in one place and the words in another place , yet all of it between to hard covers..actually i hope for soft cover….soft cover books are way more user friendly….and user friendly is i think what we are talking about here in general…

    cheers david

  18. David,

    Thanks for the clarification and elaboration. Everything that you wrote is very interesting to me and I suspect to many other readers as well. Had I not dumped my rant here, I suspect we wouldn’t have heard all this from you, at least not right now, in one big bite. I acknowledge of course the problems with mixing text and pictures in both magazines and books that you cite. For me personally, the quest continues. I’ll be very interested to see what comes from your collaboration with Teju Cole. Thanks for taking the time to write at length!

  19. Nat Geo was one of the monthly magazines that was ALWAYS on my grandparents living room table. I was always attracted to that magazine because of the images but I found and still continue to feel the written side of Nat Geo to be a real snoozorama.
    I don’t like soft cover photobooks because mine always end up falling up.

  20. integrating text into images ans images into text …… create a language ……make it accessable to be translated either via the image or text

  21. The further I went along this series , the more captivating it got for me , GREAT build up and a release at 9 from laughing followed by 10 that right away set another emotion . I do like this contrasting edit . So now I have seen my second good series with a cat , the first one was from Nobuyoshi Araki .

  22. a civilian-mass audience


    Viva amigo !!!

    MY BURNIANS, there are many cats and dogs and birds out there…go out and shoot…same subject,different

    FROSTY, don’t forget my cat…I am watching you …I AM FOLLOWING ALL OF YOU…maybe I am not that vocal BUT
    once a BURNIAN …always a CIVILIAN…!!!

    viva BURN!!!

  23. Pingback: My Feral Family | JASON HOUGE

Comments are closed.