Barn cats and farms go together, and we have had our share of barn cats over our twelve years here. Starting with a population of one, at times we had nearly twenty, then dropped back to one or two as weather and predators took their toll.
Our first barn cat was Spike, the neutered tom we brought here when we moved. We had a half-acre lot full of gardens and fruit trees in Oakville, so he wasn’t at much of a disadvantage from his move to the country. At the farm, he would stalk around the pond and through the fields like he owned the place, happily catching mice and chipmunks until Major arrived.
Major was our Labrador-hound cross that we got from the pound, the best dog in the universe except that he liked to chase cats. It took quite a bit of gentle training but, after a while, he would only look at Spike and quiver with desire. Then the first of many cars and trucks dropped off kittens in front of our house. Now, this may happen to everyone in the country but it seems we always got more than our share – maybe because we were the only house on the road for a mile or two either way.
The first batch we found mewing as kittens in the grass down by the road and we were delighted to bring them to the shed next to the house and provide them with bedding of straw and a small house with blankets inside for them to snuggle into.
We watched to make sure their eyes were clear and they were eating properly. Occasionally we would give an antibiotic if one showed persistent signs of trouble. The local medical clinic was generous enough to give us baby syringes, just the right size for kitten use. Like people, many cats can develop the sneezing, runny nose, and general lethargy of an upper-respiratory-tract infection. Although the outward signs of this feline infection resemble the signs of a human cold, most of the organisms that infect a cat’s nose and throat have no effect on people. And the opposite is true, human colds will not infect cats.
When those kittens grew up and made friends with Spike, we had five cats patrolling the grounds and Major was pretty good most of the time although if he startled a cat and it started running, he just couldn’t resist. Otherwise he could control himself.
In the meantime, other kittens were dropped off. One we named Lucky because we found him across the road in the woods where he would not have survived for long. We also learned that there is a clear window for socializing kittens. If you don’t spend time with them between four and eight weeks, they will rarely respond to any friendly gestures later, and will scatter or stay just a few feet away at all times. But, once gentled, some would follow us on our walks for miles like dogs.
One day, a tortoise-shell female disappeared and I found her in the rain under the bottom rail of a split-rail fence with four damp kittens lying on the muddy ground. Not the best location for a nursery. I went into the house and got a shoebox with warm rags in it and gently gathered up the kittens with mother anxiously pacing and meowing. I walked very slowly to the shed where most of the cats lived on and off, now called the cathouse, and placed the shoebox in a protected corner with food and water for mom. Within days, the whole family was bouncing around in there.
My daughter Charlotte once called to me in panic from the leaning shed where we kept our gardening supplies. I raced down there to discover that she had found a kitten tangled up so tightly in pea netting, it couldn’t move and could hardly breathe. I immediately knelt down to try to untangle it and found it could move its jaws. It sunk one tooth out of sight into the base of my thumb, three quarters of an inch deep. I yelled but kept my grip and cut away the netting from that kitten’s neck with my pocket knife. When freed, it tore out of there and I went into the house to doctor my thumb. It was sore for weeks.
We had a yellow tom that my son named Peter the Great and he was. An imperial, lazy cat that only moved when he needed to and was king of all he surveyed. I used to like petting him and feeling the span of his skull in the palm of my hand. That’s how I always sexed cats as adults; the toms have these big, square heads compared to the females. We’ve had cats named Bighead, Hootie, Lenin, Wonderboy, Grace, Darlene, Patches, and Alanis.
At the height of our cat population, I would go out in the morning with something hot for them, perhaps organ meat from our butchered cattle, and they would come from everywhere, the garden, the pile of stones under the trees, the pastures, and form a line behind me, sometimes fifteen or twenty strong, as I made my way into the cathouse to deliver their breakfast.
The cats did their part by keeping rodents out of the livestock grain, and I soon noticed there weren’t nearly as many chipmunks running along the rail fences. The cats even hung around with the chickens, sometimes eating the scraps we threw out. We would often find cats sleeping peacefully in the hens’ nesting boxes. Never found any eggs under them, though.
We had black cats and white cats and every shade in between. Grey and tortoise shell and yellow and, my favourite, the grey and white domestic shorthair with the visible “M” marking on its forehead. This was how my first cat, Butch, looked, and he will always be the cat closest to my heart.
As Major got older, he lost his desire to chase cats and they became his best friends. Kittens used to tumble over his legs and bat at his ears for hours. He often slept with a cat or two between his front paws or curled up beside him. Major had a house inside the garage with access only from outside, so I built a similar house for the cats so they would have a warm place in the winter. It was a good arrangement for the cats and us, until the cats discovered they could get inside the garage through gaps in the screening and started using the floor as their latrine.
So, I had to carefully screen off all the places they were getting in, a process that took several weeks because they seemed to be smarter than I was at finding a bit of wiggle room through their screened area or Major’s. Finally everyone was happy and we could serve them hot breakfast in their garage pens.
We’ve had visitors point out kittens we had never noticed, and the children of friends come running to the house to tell us of a new litter we had overlooked. We’ve had kittens jump out of the weeds and startle our horses enough to send them running across the pasture. We’ve seen cats using the cattle’s salt lick and scramming when an old cow came over to investigate, and cats lying on bales of straw watching lambs nurse below. Just now, cats have climbed on top of the garage roof and are watching me through the second-story office window as I write.
I don’t think you could have a real farm without a clowder of barn cats. They are friends, entertainers, and faithful workers that provide a necessary service. Well worth their keep.