Stymie has been separated from the other cats for 5 months. After living in the house for several years, we decided we finally had to make a serious attempt at taming him. He's always been an odd duck, we suspect he's a little slow (even for a cat), so he has trouble figuring things out that other cats master in seconds. He's doesn't understand people, and is frankly not so hot with cats, either. He clearly wants to be friends with them but he doesn't know how to do it. He's only had a few who understood him through the years, the rest of the time he's off by himself.
We have been using the patented Elmer Method, isolating him so his only social interaction is with humans (okay occasionally we let other cats in to visit him). He's only fed when we're with him and for a few months now I have been slowly trying to pet him while he eats. This is a cat who has never been touched by humans before (save for his neutering). It's been slow going, it took a long time for him to just eat with my hand near the plate, let alone trying to touch him!
But slowly he got used to it, and in phases I was finally able to touch him lightly. I found that he was most tolerant of having the side of his face touched, odd since you'd think he wouldn't like fingers near his face. Eventually (and I'm talking weeks here), I was able to extend this to touching the side of his body, but only very lightly. I could only use the back of my fingers, if I tried to use the palm side he would detect it and scratch me but good. But I learned to not react to the swipes, and to just wait it out, resuming when he started eating again.
This went on for months, and it wasn't always fruitful. He often had phases in which he wouldn't let me touch him. Sometimes he preferred not to eat at all rather than have me pester him. In fact, last month I said I was probably going to give up and release him back into gen-pop. After all, with months of work I had only succeeded in getting him to let me touch one side of his body lightly. And that was only because he was eating. But then I found some food he really liked.
Stymie would always pretty much eat anything, so I never thought the food itself could be a motivation. I have been feeding all the cats a homemade raw diet lately and he liked this fine, but one day I ran out and out of laziness I gave him a plate of Innova cat food. I could tell he really liked it so I started petting him, slowly working up to his back (heretofore an off-limits territory). And he let me do it!
I have since been able to pet his entire back, from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. I can even use the palm-side of my hand. Of course there are plenty of moments of self-doubt. Usually once the initial thrill of eating wears off he becomes a little more cautious, often stopping to scoot back and sniff my hand. But now instead of running away, he just starts eating again. And I start petting again.
We're a long way off from 'tame cat' but we're making real progress now. All of this still only happens when he has food on his plate. The second it's gone the magic ends. And when food is not present he still remains scuttling around, hiding behind stuff and hissing if I get too close. As I said, we think he's a little slow, so he may have trouble making the connection that I'm the same guy who sometimes gives him that canned food he likes and pets him. But he's doing pretty good, I just hope it doesn't take another 5 months to get to his next big breakthrough. But I finally feel a little optimistic that we can turn a nearly 6 year old feral into a house cat.
Here's some video from last night. If you can make it through, you'll see this odd setup we've come up with where Stymie basically has to crawl under my legs to get at the food, putting him in a good position to pet. These videos are spliced together from about 5 minutes of footage, so it jumps around a bit. Somewhere in there you will see him stopping to sniff my hand but going back to eat. When I'm petting him it seems like his back is arching a little and his tail is going up some, to me that's a good sign that he may actually be liking it, but I'm just guessing here. At the end of the 2nd video, he's done eating and you'll see what happens when I try to pet him without food present.