21 September 2008

Quakers in the Country: Cats

Cats are cheap in the country. We have a lot of them, but individually they don’t have a high number on the scoreboard of country life. Now, that might be considered a hard saying to a cat lover, but it’s a true one nonetheless. Individual organismal life isn’t valued as much by Mother Nature as it might be by people, and so cats out here where we live tend to be short-lived and temporary. Not that we don’t like having them around—we do—but we don’t worry much about them as individuals.

Right now we have about 14 cats, I think—seven or eight adults and as many kittens. There are a few that we don’t see as often as the others, but most all of them tend to congregate on the kitchen porch at meal times, so we can often get a reasonable idea of what we have then. Some of the cats are special, after all--there’s One-Eye, an elderly female whose right eye exploded during an infection years before we took her on. One-Eye is a delightfully good-natured animal who doesn’t presume on anybody’s good intentions. She’s low on the cat totem-pole, though, because she can’t deal with rivals if they approach from the wrong side, so she tends to stay on the fringes of social activities. Another special cat is Old Mama, a tortoise shell of indeterminate age who may be the primal ancestor of some of the others currently wandering about the porch. Old Mama is a friendly but sober animal who takes a dim view of our dogs in her territory, and savages them mercilessly. Then we have a variable number of unnamed cats that come and go, often quite pleasant animals, but so temporary that we don’t get attached enough to them to actually give them a name.

The cats are transients, drifters. For some reason, the people in town seem to think that dropping cats off in the country is a kinder fate than taking them to the pound to be gassed. I don’t know why. We’ll hear a car slow down near the house, and then speed up and drive off. Then that evening there will be another cat, or two, or three, on the porch for dinner. But they often don’t last. Coyotes love cats, and a town cat dropped off in our neighborhood generally has about a two or three-day life expectancy before the coyotes run them down, unless they latch on to a household pretty quick. Most country folks take a dim view of additions to their local cat population, and often solve the problem with a shotgun, what the Amish call a “long-distance cat-catcher.” We don’t do that here, as I like cats. When we get too many, we just load a few up into the van and drop them back off in town on our way to Meeting . They have a lot better chance of doing well in town than they do being deposited off somewhere else in the countryside, and for all I know might re-join the household that passed them to us in the first place.

We don’t bother with sterilizing them, because it doesn’t matter. Most of our older cats were spayed somewhere along the way (we don’t keep the toms around long—too much violence), but we still end up with a half a dozen new ones every year. Our additions from town often have a litter a week later (which is why we got them), so paying money to sterilize them isn’t part of our limited budget.

Barn cats are useful animals to have. They’re not house animals, although the kittens constantly invade through open windows and doors, always on the lookout for something interesting to destroy. As they get older they have less interest in the house and spend more time in the woods and outbuildings nearby.

They keep the mice under control for us very well. Although there are lots of Deer Mice, White Footed Mice, and various voles around, we seldom have them in the house, because the cats eat so many of them. Same with Eastern Moles, although I don’t know how the cats catch them. They bring in beautiful Short-tailed Shrews, too, huge insectivores to contrast with the tiny Sorex that show up as well. And of course, they keep the chipmunks down, and the larger tree squirrels stay away. Having a dozen dedicated predators around also means that the fledgling birds have a chancy time, but they seem to cope. The Barn Swallows don’t do well under the porch eaves, but then we do have barns for them, after all. As I write this I can hear a Mockingbird cursing the cats from the maple tree by the mailbox.

Life goes on, for all of us, not just the cats.

No comments: