When I took the huge financial, social and psychological plunge to abandon an increasingly random, aggressive and violent city and move to a less stressful, more peaceful existence in the country, I didn’t intend to have cats. I have also enjoyed the presence of wild birds a lot, providing feeders and natural habitat for them whereever I’ve lived in the city for over 25 years. The presence of many different species of birds and their cumulative songs were a major factor in my decision to make the largest property purchase of my life and the most recent, drastic, late-life move I have made in a life-long pattern of what most people say are drastic, re-inventive, “courageous” or downright crazy life changes (one of which, a divorce, was not chosen, but sadly deserved). I looked past the wasted shell of a barn, looked across the bucolic pasture, eyed the distant woods, watched and listened to the ubiquitous birds. The birds sealed the deal to make an offer on what I come to call the small calm farm.
Unbeknownst to me, I had inherited cats. Cats are the planet’s most historically successful and ubiquitous predators. Whatever plan I had for this small, calm, nascent farm did NOT include cats. But, on my first afternoon visit after signing the purchase papers in the morning, what greets me? A mewing, demanding cat at the front door. She wanted something from me, no doubt, but when I approached and tried to pet her, she hissed and ran a few feet away. Not too far away, just out of reach. She was a cat, a selfish cat, demanding sustenance or something other than my not altogether willing show of hesitant affection.
Neither of us made a good first impression on the other. I didn’t want or expect her at all. And she didn’t like me much either, except as a provider of food, acted like the place was her territory, and apparently lived here before me. So I went to town, bought her some cat food, bowls, fed and watered her, and went back home to Milwaukee.
By my third visit to the farm, in mid-late June (weeks before I moved in), what I initially thought was one annoying, nearly feral, demanding cat turned out to be 5 cats. She was the mother of 4 little kittens living, and presumably born, beneath the cracked concrete foundation of the ancient (pre-1900), falling down, and exceedingly unsafe barn. Oh goody. I didn’t want ANY cats. Now I have 5! And 4 of them are cute and vulnerable babies.
Razing the barn was my first order of business. Rebuilding it, as much as I would have liked to restore it to its original, classic form and function, would have been nice from a historical preservation sense, but well beyond my financial means and practical needs or wants. It was difficult to insure the new property because of the barn and attached silo. No insurance company would insure the property, unless and until the structurally unsound barn and dilapidated silo were taken down within 60 days of issuing a surprisingly costly — compared to my previous urban homes — policy. (Home insurance is MUCH costlier in rural areas, by the way, primarily due to the distance from a fire hydrant or station. That’s something I didn’t know or expect before I literally bought the farm.) At any rate, the barn had to come down and come down soon.
I may not have chosen to be the keeper cats, but I’m not so hard-hearted to be responsible for burying 4 little feral kittens alive during the barn’s demolition. So my son and I did what we could to make a safer shelter for them and lure them to it before barn demolition day. Mama cat was a savvy, wild (yet dependent) survivor and often nasty (but nursing) young mother who would’ve run far away from the barn when it came down. But her kittens would’ve probably tried to hide deeper into their den beneath the foundation. Dylan, my deeply compassionate, cat “parent” son of an urban stray, spent half a day building an elaborate, layered, multi-level kitty home with available materials. I put food and water in the garage, and kept the door open enough for cats to come and go. He cared immensely. I cared just enough to lure them away from an ugly living burial. Eventually, Mama cat and kittens relocated their home base to the garage, and the barn came safely down with no loss of kitten life. I visited the farm at least twice a week on my days off from work in Milwaukee, filling the food and water fixtures, savoring the bucolic space, watching and listening to the many peaceful birds and providing sustenance for the unwanted cat family.
Rural people say it’s fine and useful to have outside cats on a farm. They catch mice, rats and keep the farm free of rodents. That’s fine, as far as it goes. I grew up with an annually fluctuating population of wild shed/barn cats and they served their purpose. We fed them cheap dry food, provided water. They avoided direct human contact and presumably patrolled the shed and kept the environment free of bothersome small rodents. But cats, the most widespread, successful predator species on earth, carry the inherent, perpetual instinct to stalk and prey upon small birds. There’s no amount of “training” that takes that impulse away. Given a wild bird’s acute senses, protective instincts, natural quickness, impressive flight and, dare I say, keener minds, the average house/farm cat is rarely successful at catching a wild bird. But… I didn’t want ANY cat to EVER kill ANY bird. Not once. Not on my watch. Not within my sight. Period. Especially if I provide food, housing and sustenance for said cat. I’d rather put up with mice (eating feed or seed, nesting in small engines or eating through wires, doing what mice do) than see 1 bird in the mouth of a cat.
But I digress… I have a soft spot for wild animals of all sorts. Predators? Less so. They’re not welcome on what I envision in this new rural adventure. Coyotes? NO. I’ve heard them at night. Hawks? Well, ok… They’re impressive, work hard for their meals, are amazing to watch when they swoop down and snatch a vole or mouse or whatever it is they see from 100-200 feet away and have the skills to grab and eat. Cats? No ways. Unacceptable. Cats inhabit a space between a dependent, domesticated animal and a wild, instinctive predator. You can’t have it both ways. Not in my little world. Anyone who’s ever had a cat has probably seen it “play with” a mouse or baby bunny, basically torturing the smaller animal to death, without eating it. Then the cat bats and lifts and throws the dead little animal up to continue its game. Game over. Plaything dead. It’s the cruel show of a domesticated predator — an oxymoron for which I have no patience or desire to foster or encourage.
I like mice. They’re so cute, fragile, and preyed upon by nearly every other animal on the planet. Full grown humans (and elephants) fear mice. I’ve never understood that. I’ve had them in the house, several houses. Little bitty mice. Unless they poop in the food cabinets, so what? Feared and loathed by so many people? Why? What harm do mice really do? When I was 11 or 12 years old, still fairly new to driving the tractor on the family farm, I stopped chisel plowing a field, braking the tractor completely until a field mouse 15-20 feet below hopped out of the tractor and plow’s path. After I turned lifted the chisel plow, whipped the tractor 180 degrees around and headed in the opposite direction, I saw my dad’s truck at the end of the field. When I got to the end of the field, I stopped and got down from the tractor. Dad had a worried look on his face and asked “What happened? Why did you stop? What’s wrong?” He thought there might be something wrong the machinery. It never crossed his mind that his son would stop all proceedings to let a MOUSE safely pass in front of the oncoming tractor and chisel plow.. He wasn’t mad when boy me sheepishly admitted that I had stopped the work and big machine to let a… uh… mouse bound its little hop-steps out of the tractor’s path. Nonplussed would be the most accurate word for Dad’s reaction, I suppose. Stunned fits. Perplexed, too. Or, utilizing an acronym of our degenerate days, WTF is spot on. He didn’t process how a farmer’s son would willingly, knowingly and abruptly brake a 200 horsepower tractor while breaking up soil 12 inches deep In an 80 acre field for fall field preparation — halting all operations to let a mouse move out of the way.
But I digress again.
This is leading (maybe?) to a tentative conclusion about my general affection for wild animals, inside vs. outside cats, and one cat in particular.
To be continued…