The Granny Mama Cat AKA Patches
This morning the temp has moderated and the snow is settling into the ground slowly, the best way in terms of grass roots. When I took catfood out to the garage, there were no cats. In my closet is a box with four newborns looking about like drowned rats, with their mother and their grandmother. There must be other cats in heat somewhere else which is maybe why the bull tomcats here have left. This is a natural history project, not a YouTube string of cute images.
In terms of the tension between community and individual, cats — though they are thought of as solitary— are examples of community. Only when they are pets do they become individuals. They are one of the species that — like their prey — persist because of fertility. If you have a female cat, you are well-advised to have it spayed. Otherwise, there will be a steady stream of kittens to deal with. To say nothing of noisy, smelly intact males.
In my five years at animal control (’73-78”) during summer I daily picked up a garbage can full of run-over cats from the streets. At the shelter people brought in boxes of kittens they let their cat have “because they are so cute.” (At first.) The shelter veterinarian had to kill them with a needle to the heart because they were so small — which is why they seemed like toys.
To most people there are two kinds of cats: pets and strays. They may have a little consciousness of ferals, which are animals that were once “owned” and lived with humans, but now have gone wild which cats can do rather easily if abandoned or offended. In truth there are many styles and conditions of cats, and they can mix and match. They might be “satellite cats” which have a loose attachment to a household that puts out food for them. They might be double-dippers who divide their time between two households. They might be wild as foxes, avoiding human habitations. There used to be a category of “farm cats” in the days when people had cows, a barn of hay for them, and a lot of small rodents to be kept under control.
Today in this area (Montana) no one keeps milk cows, hay is fed to beef cattle on the range, and rodents are poisoned, as are the kinds of birds that are attracted to granaries, like pigeons. Ground squirrels are poisoned, grouse nests are harrowed, so there is now little highway kill for hawks and owls. This is background to the fact that cats’ individual lives are usually short, but they remain a stream of life. We don’t run out of cats despite the challenges.
When I moved back here (I was in East Glacier for the record-setting winter 47 years ago), I had no cat. This house had been empty for three years so the cat across the street, Caspar (because of being white as ghost), was a big belligerent cat who thought this was her house. If I challenged that, she threatened to kneecap me.
Then I had a teaching job and decided to get two cats so they could keep each other company while I was at school. These were Squibs (a tortoiseshell) and Crackers (the color of a Ritz cracker). They were womb-mates from an Air Force family in Great Falls. Properly sterilized and vaccinated, they outlived my teaching job by many years and when they became decrepit, I finally had them put to sleep by the vet. By then I had little money so had to put the euthanasia on my VISA.
After a few years in this house I began to notice a feral calico cat in the neighborhood. Her specialty was cat flaps — she slipped in during the day to eat whatever been left for the house pet. One day I looked out my computer window and saw a line of cats: Patches in the front and four half-grown kittens following. A small striped gray kitten, a runt, walked so close behind Patches that if the mother stopped suddenly, the Smudge ran into her. This set of cats moved into my back workshed and I got in the habit of feeding them, thinking they would become tame. Not. But I couldn’t catch them to be sterilized, assuming I had enough credit on my VISA. The rez has a special program, but I’m off rez, white and barely above the poverty line.
When it got very cold that winter, a black tomcat, very muscular and stubborn, snuck in through the cat flap to sleep in the comfy cat bed. I called him “The Hammerhead.” He fought with my tubby softies, so I closed him out. He went across the street, squeezed into their hot tub room, and got deported into the country.
I intercepted a discarded igloo doghouse and put it in the shed, lined with my worn out old satin reading comforter from seminary. Every six months or so, Patches had kittens but then they would disappear and I never know how or why. If I found newborns, I drowned them, but once their eyes are open, I can’t bear to do it. By the time they get to scamper age, they’re impossible to catch and not heavy enough to trip a trap.
The Smudge was still around. By now I was calling Patches the “Granny Mama Cat” and I enjoyed taking photos of them all. Finally this fall Patches was old and feeble. She began to sneak into the house and bury herself under the pillows on the biggest reading armchair. I didn’t realize she was using one area behind the furniture as a latrine — stupidly thought it was the litter box stinking. Granny Mama Cat looked worse and worse and finally disappeared. It took some work to remove her left-behinds.
In the meantime the neighbors brought home an old pickup they intended to fix. Undetected, it held three kittens. One died, one stayed there and was named Tiger, and one came over to my house. It was a male gray striped cat and quite different from Patches, who had been a small mild cat. This male became very big with long legs and a terrible yowl. I called him Finnegan the Bar Brawler. I think he had genes from an experiment with Bengal cats, which are wild — I mean, like, naturally wild in jungle. He was exceedingly fertile. If I were a true Montanan, I’d have stuffed him in a boot and taken off his balls. But I don’t even own any boots anymore. And maybe I’d have lost a hand in the stuffing process.
Smudge had kittens. I drowned them before their eyes opened (carefully, in warm water, holding them as a group the way they were in the liquid womb) but missed one. Smudge raised her baby under a big pile of windfall sticks I kept for craft projects — or something. This kitten was an unusual shade of gray that looked blue, so I called her the Blue Bunny and as soon as she was out from under the sticks and on her own, she fell madly in love with Finnegan. She sat beside him and leaned on him, purring.
Finnegan disappeared and Bunny accepted me as a surrogate: she DID become tame. When she produced kittens (I assume the father was Finnegan), I went to drown them and she understood but didn’t approve. While I was filling the bathroom sink, she carried the kittens down the trapdoor to the dirt crawl space under the house and hid them below the geranium-window bump-out where I couldn’t get at them. The tuxedo kitten got carried by one foot instead of her nape (Bunny was not experienced) and shrieked horribly all the way down, or I wouldn’t have known where they went.
In time I thought the kittens might be dead down there, but I left the trapdoor open. One day I heard mewing, went down to see, and Douxie, the male kitten, came staggering out of the dark. A couple of days later, it was Tuxie, the black and white female, who came tottering out of the dark. Because of lack of sunshine, they were a little damaged. Douxie has only one testicle. He doesn’t compete well with the bull tomcats.
Offensively, Douxie has been humping Tuxie for a week, though she was so full of kittens that she was practically rolling. Last night she came into my bed intent on ripping the bedding into a proper nest for birthing. To distract and help her, I spent the hours between 2AM and 5PM rubbing her back, the same as I did for Blue Bunny, who was a skinny cat with a small pelvis. Tuxie kept trying to push into my face. I think she wanted me to lick her. I decline to go that far in cat care-taking.
Just in time, I heard the cat flap rattle. It had been jammed by some big bull tom — naturally I suspect Finnegan who has inexplicably returned after months and months — so I couldn’t keep any cats from going out. I went to see and it was Blue Bunny, Tuxie’s mother, who gave birth to Tuxie on the same spot in bed with me, making it the official birthing place. So Bunny went to work helping with the licking and by 5AM Tuxie gave a terrible hoarse open-throated scream and there was a kitten, a little silver one about the size of a thimble. (Hyperbole.) Bunny kept licking and I kept back-rubbing and the second kitten was black.
By now — the next day — I’ve deserted the bed. Douxie is still banished to outside. (Uncle Shortie, one of the lesser garage tomcats, will eat newborns. I didn’t know whether Douxie would.) My head is swimming from lack of sleep. I don’t know whether more kittens will come but there have been no more terrible cries. Usually there are four. I think I’ll leave Thimble for Tuxie to raise. It’s a mistake to give cats names.