In 2003, thinking I would be teaching school and therefore have an income, I adopted two Great Falls kittens from the classified ads. They were not quite what I expected. The home had little girls who had strongly attached to the kits and taught them to be carried, cuddled, slept with, and talked to. But the home was breaking up — it was an Air Force family that was divorcing and the home had a high level of anger and, I suspect, violence. The mother cat was old and had only produced two kittens.
The two were totally different. The yellow one was mellow to the point of stupidity, large, and a little clingy. The tortoiseshell was adventurous, defiant, and could strike out if opposed. The human mother clearly did not like this kitten and the girls didn’t spend as much time with it. But it had learned to use the yellow sib as a buffer and crouched behind her when worried.
On the way home — it was August and close to a hundred degrees — the kittens became overheated and though I stopped at someone’s yard and ran them through the sprinkler, I think they took heat damage. It’s an eighty-mile drive.
I had money, so they were spayed right away, but the vet did a strange thing, maybe leaving their stomach skin loose, that created a kind of udder effect. It didn’t affect their health. I named them Crackers, who was the color of a ritz cracker, and Squibs. (It’s an old joke, too long for this piece.) Crackers stayed right by me, esp. after Caspar, the very big white altered female from across the street asserted from the beginning that this house is HERS. (No one had lived here for several years.) She beat up Crackers several times. The Siamese long-haired altered female next door never fought the kittens but peed on everything.
Squibbie went exploring. Up the trees, out back as far as the alley (there are deteriorated old buildings), and out the front. I kept very close track of these kittens when I was home, shut them in the house if I were gone. If they went onto the street or the alley, I followed and coaxed them back by calling rather than chasing. If Squib were gone too long for her own comfort (even if I were watching from the window), she came back calling for us. We could hear her crossing the yard and looking through the house. Crackers and I always answered until she got to us.
Squib had little judgment about which branches would hold her and sometimes I would look out the window and see her hanging onto a twig by one claw, but she always managed to recover. Once after a new snow she got onto the roof of the house and my neighbor called laughing to tell me to go look. In the new snow was the clear evidence of Squib sliding down almost to the edge and instinctively doing the V-shaped “snowplow” which worked in time. But what made the neighbor laugh was that at the moment when Squib started to lose control, she emptied her guts in a neat little turd.
Slowly I began to suspect that earlier Squib had been thrown or had fallen because her hips didn’t always track straight, but it didn’t slow her down. Crackers had a broken pelvis because of me, much later after there was no money. I got out of bed, not realizing she was sleeping on a rug just her color alongside, and stepped on her. She healed but a little crooked. As they aged, both cats had trouble with their rear ends. It may have been genetic, tracing back to that elderly mother.
This summer the cats couldn’t jump into their favorite chairs, threw up all the time and were fussy about eating, and sometimes cried. A year ago I had asked a veterinarian for advice and he (who is famous for never wanting to do euthanasia) told me it would cost nearly $300 per cat. We segued into a discussion of euthanasia drugs, full of threats and impossibilities. I have barely enough money. (This was a choice so I could devote my time to writing.)
The custom in this small rural town is that a domestic animal that is sick, defiant or just unwanted, is given to a man to shoot somewhere away from town. Men are expected to be able to do this without distress. Some take shooting in town to mean simply no guns that operate with bullets, so they shoot cats and other “varmints” with pellet guns or some variation. Only once do I know of a dog being shot. It was feral, had a LOT of puppies, and was badly infected with mange. It ate what it could catch, like cats. No one could touch it, so the sheriff and deputy shot it. They were not hunters by nature or experience.
This is a leash-law town but newcomers, visitors, and "feral" people don’t get the picture right away. Constantly barking dogs are major complaints everywhere. The great majority of animal control complaints in Portland were about barking. A leash has no effect, except maybe to increase barking. Of course, if there are grizzlies in town, one wants barking.
If cats can be trapped and transported, they are welcome with the grain farmers of the area. Coyotes kill farm cats often enough for them to need constant replacement. People here are chemophiles and use poison generously, both for rodent control and for chemical fallow. The coyotes have no ground squirrels to eat. Animals die of cancer and so do people. The GMO “Roundup Ready” grains have now passed the trait along to the weeds. The Roundup Ready alfalfa and flax are my most persistent yard weeds. I like the flax because it is such a beautiful blue but barely tolerate the alfalfa, which I used to dry to make tea (very healthy) except not now because of the GMO factor.
What I’m trying to convey is that cats are part of an active ecology. They are victims, perpetrators and interlocutors, keying into humans, small animals and vegetation. I’ll pursue this more as time goes on, but for now I’ll point out that the old buildings in my yard and a big patch of brush are great cat habitat that have attracted both pet cats (Caspar sleeps in the “cat jungle” where it is cool -- she staggers a little on her way there these days.) and ferals that can’t be touched or even approached. I’ve been an observer and (sigh) an enabler, but I try to justify that by taking an analytical approach as though they were a colony of foxes and, indeed, they are a source of delight and insight just as foxes would be.
But they mysteriously disappear, just as they mysteriously appeared in the first place. Did they move to new ecologies? Were they deliberately killed? And what about the Bunny and her love affair with Finnegan, who has disappeared during Homesteader Days? And what about my practice of reducing the size of any cat litter I find? Morality, attachment, relationships, temperament — mine as well as the cats’.
I found a veterinarian who was gentle and dignified as well as costing $50 each. Squibs and Crackers surrendered quietly, almost as though they were relieved. But for more than a dozen years I’ve checked on them every few hours to make sure they were present and okay. I still do that. Much of this household was rearranged to fit them and now I see I can undo those things, but maybe not yet. I’ve had many human deaths lately and cuddling a cat would have been consoling, but you can’t hug a feral.