Saturday, October 10, 2015


Browning cats from the Sixties.

I resisted the idea of cats in the Valier household until I was hired to teach English in Cut Bank and felt I could afford catfood.  Then I answered a classified ad in Great Falls and came home with Squibs and Crackers.  It turned out to be a bad decision since I quit the teaching job in about three months and couldn’t even go on unemployment since I had quit.  (Quitting pleased the principal, a chunky little woman with bitten nails who had never wanted to hire me in the first place.)

New and suspicious Squibs and Crackers

A few years after coming to Valier, I noticed a white cat with spots of brown and black, one of two feral mother cats living along the street.  I called her “Patches.” I tried to be friendly with no success.   She hissed like a teakettle.  I held out my hand and drew it back dripping blood from slashes. The other queen was a tuxedo cat, also evasive and then mysteriously gone.  In my decrepit back shed I would occasionally find kitten remains, usually long dead, just a fuzzy patch.  I don’t go out there much.  There are feral cats all over town.  People dump them off because of a fantasy about sweet apple-cheeked grandmas who will take them in.

Teens everywhere climb trees.

Then a couple of autumns ago, Patches came marching past the computer window with a row of kittens behind her.  One was Smudge, a little gray runt kitten I couldn’t even see at first, until I finally realized that the shadow behind Patches that kept bumping into her was another kitten.  There was a splendid gold and white kitten I called Ming because of an emperor-like high-arched neck, and a beautiful female calico with mascaraed eyes who later had a broken shoulder, maybe from a fall.  It healed crooked but she learned to walk with a crumpled leg.  I’m notorious for inanimate things from the roll-off dump and spotted a nice dog house, one of those fiberglass igloos.  I towed it into the decrepit building and stuffed it with old comforters.  They passed the winter there.  

The Crip, Ming and Patches

Then they disappeared.  I spotted them once, marching in a line, but this time Ming had a crippled back leg -- probably imposed by a full-grown Tom -- and when they disappeared again, Smudge stayed behind.  Patches came back, had four kittens in the igloo and this time her four kittens were reduced to one, due to human intervention.  That was the yellow patched kitten I called the Skeezix, who disappeared while still a kitten.   No clue how.

Patches, Skeezix, Ming, Smudge

All these kittens were unapproachable except when they were newborn and couldn‘t escape.  I have a live trap but the kittens were too small to trip the trigger and Patches was too wary.  I did catch something and only heard a lot of commotion and screaming.  When I went out, nothing was in the cage.  Then I stopped because if I caught Patches, what would the kittens do?  If I caught a kitten, I would have to hand-feed it. 

I’m told that the town owls eat kittens, killing them the way seagulls open oysters, flying them high and then dropping them.  I’m also told that coyotes pick cats off on ranches, so that ranchers always welcome new cats and don’t care if they’re feral.  Squibbie narrowly escaped that fate in her kittenhood, but I was monitoring pretty carefully.  It was a hawk that time.  It sat on the telephone wire and watched all one day.  I don’t know why people identify cats with sweet cuddly little soft toys.  My cousin asked me why I couldn’t write about something nice, like kittens.

Indoors cats or are they sofa cushions?

The neighborhood cat who seems indestructible is Caspar, who lives across the street and tries to kneecap any human who bothers him.  I always pick up a stick when I run him off.  Except that he’s not male -- Caspar is an altered female.  Trans, I guess you could say.   Aggressive, hard on kittens.  Longhaired white, slant yellow eyes, long nose, gray tail and ears.  Determined to own my yard.  And any catfood that’s outdoors.  I feed the ferals, though I should not.  Caspar’s owner objects to ferals.  Once in a while a feral dog will begin to pick off cats, but the old women in this town despise loose dogs as much as they hate weeds and dust, and are soon on the phone to the sheriff.  The two crippled half-grown descendants of Patches disappeared as well as the Skeezix.  Patches was gone.  Smudge had four kittens, reduced to one I called “Hop.”


This one was evidently not feral, just pushy.  Maybe it was testosterone.  He came marching through the cat flap and demanded food.  He assured me he would help wash the dishes but he wasn’t supposed to jump on drainboards and, ick!  There was water involved.  He could have used a bath himself and emitted the foulest swamp gas in such volume that I wondered how a small striped cat could manufacture it.  (Actually he had as many dots in his coat as dashes.)   Lucky for him, I don’t get upset by stink.  But he had other symptoms which I suspect were from worms.  So I bought some pills, crushed half of one and put it in tuna fish, which this kitten, still claiming to be famished, refused to eat.  He was also beginning to “play” which meant anchoring his twenty small fishhook claws in whatever: my hand, the comforter on the bed, a crumple of paper.  Squibbie tried to return the favor, aiming for his little balls.  When he connected, he got a terrible shriek and respect.  For a while.

By now I was calling him “The Martian Weirdo” because he had an alien bug-eyed big-eared head but a scrawny pliable body plus a lot of strange traits, esp. an aggressive and voracious appetite even though he didn’t always eat the food.  He wanted to drink out of the toilet, which I don't allow.  There ARE limits!

Each of the three indoor cats, had food dishes in different corners.  I put the food out, they each eat a couple of bites, then go over to the next cat’s dish and kick them out so as to eat THEIR food, so that cat goes to the next dish.  The two little original charming kittens of mine are more than a decade old now, big and opinionated.  They smacked the Martian around to no avail.  What worked was getting his belly full enough that he would sleep for an hour.


My mother read Paul Gallico’s cat books and admired them.  In “The Abandoned,” a kitten is lost and remembers his mother’s advice:  “When in doubt, wash.”  My mother went around advising us to wash when in doubt, but it never took hold.  Maybe we just weren’t very doubtful.   But this pushy kitten believes it.  Despite stinking, he is constantly washing to regain his poise after being smacked or rather violently lifted off my keyboard.  As he grows, he stinks less but still squalls, yowls, shrieks, and claims murder attempts.  He’s growing into his eyes and ears.

But in the midst of all this, he will suddenly drop the aggression and sweetly sneak onto my collarbones for a tender nap, purring like a well-tuned two-cycle engine.  Finally I was looking for an image on the computer and ran across some starving kids.  That reminded me where I’d seen this kind of weird other-worldly look and obsessive persistence: starving children.

"Martian" -- not the movie

When I was working for animal control as the education coordinator, my boss let me indulge my belief that the officers needed in-house training about animals in general.  I invited the Oregon Primate Research Center to come and tell us about their work.  They were reluctant.  One project was deliberately starving baby monkeys and then, when it was almost too late, experimenting with ways to begin feeding them again that wouldn’t make them sick, as well as recording the effects of starvation.  It was meant to help save human babies, but it was excruciating to watch.   Even the tough guys turned their heads away.   The Primate Center became very secretive because it horrifies people to see such a thing -- unless it’s human children dying, whom they shut out of their minds.  Those children have that same Martian look, which comes back at night in fantasies of spaceships.

This summer's kittens

I have tried not to name the latest batch of kittens, which are just entering adolescence and run like foxes even when I just look out the window at them.  There are two yellow ones I call the Goldfish, and one black and white I call the Panda, and there was a little grey one that caught something and shriveled up and disappeared.  I thought it had died, but this morning it was out there again, restored, along with Smudge and Patches.  If the sentimentalists knew about it, they would want to save it and they’d call it “the miracle baby.”  If you want it, swing by my house.  Bring a butterfly net.

They say California is the future

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