KITTEN CHRONICLES

 

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Though we had a cat in the house as I was growing up, I’ve used TG fear to ward off cats ever since. By knowing just enough about Toxoplasmosis Gondii to sound convincing, over the years I’ve talked my partners into backing off kittens… for all our sake. You look up the actual term if you need to. It’s enough to say it’s a kind of germ warfare that tricks mice into liking cats. Yes, you read that right; and it seems potently unnatural to me.

Of course, having a dog is a whole other story. I lost that battle. Well, I may have sort of lost the battle…but I sort of won it too. You can read about it here: Debating Dogs.

Anyways, back to cats… sort of. My friend and former roommate Mariko often said that I needed to have a daughter. It barely registered that these were moments when my sensitivity to a woman’s plight was perhaps lacking. I would agree, as usual, with the odds of what she was saying. I would say, “That may very well be true…,” before carrying on. Her words come back to haunt me regularly. You see, I have a little girl now. I think of Mariko often.

The point is that little girls like kittens. And there’s no way TG matters to her.

So from the time she could speak the word cat, my little girl has been angling for a kitty. Add to that, wouldn’t you know it her mother also happens to be female. Confounding things, she was also a little girl once too. And furthermore, she remembers what it’s like to be a little girl with a desire for a cat of her own.

All this to say there has been an active campaign at my house for a number of years on the kitty front. Of course, we had a dog. Unfortunately, I had to put her down before my daughter’s recall began in earnest. I suppose for most people memory’s start is somewhere around three or four  years old, when a great consolidation of neurons gives way more or less to permanent pathways of remembrances.  My girl came out of this period with kitten on her mind.

It was a bit risky to even show her old pictures, lest we’d come across one with our dog Maggie May in the background. Charlie would point and ask, “Who’s that?” I’d offer what meagre explanation I could, but all that did was set the stage for the next part of her gambit: we had a pet once; we could have a pet once again.  Iron-clad logic.

Children are like that, especially in those early years: marvels of perseverance.
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So this is how it was when we found ourselves recently relocated on 200 acres of land just south of the nation’s capital. We left our pretty little spot In Cobourg, pop. 18,504; and just off the main provincial highway between Montreal and Toronto. Our property faced the expanse of Lake Ontario; our lives having settled into a comfortable groove, surrounded by the very best people and that small town feel. Missus wanted a yard for the kids. It was an argument no morning sunrise could counter.

We arrived to this acreage without domesticated animals. Though, after an uninhibited summer in fields of grasses as tall as they are; with ample frogs and snakes to capture and examine; with dragon flies and darners buzzing all around; with spiders to wonder at by day and fireflies to marvel at by night; with birds nesting and feeding within reach; with bats out from the attic zig-zagging around at dusk; with deer and rabbits and fishers and foxes and turkeys walking about the yard, and mice and vole burrowing and scampering all over, it’s more like a certain wildness influenced my children at ages five and almost three. We had animals-a-plenty, was my thinking.

Howie teetered while standing when we arrived in May. By the time he had his third birthday at summer’s end, his once spindly legs are newly muscled from all the running through open space, climbing over everything in front of them in great adventures with his sister, played out daily in full force at the forest’s edge. He’s eating better than ever, and he’s become notably wilder, in a good way: in a way that blends.

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And Charlotte, by early August, after careful training by her mother, having learned just when the vegetables were ripe and where to step and where not to step, took me out to the garden and showed me how to pick fresh parsley. “This is how you do it daddy; this is enough for what she wants.” All I could do was defer to her expertise with thanks.

That time, after her explanation about parsley, she stopped after first motioning towards a small clearing not a hundred yards from the house and declared, then asked a question, then declared again.

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“When I grow up… no wait… when I grow up, will you still be alive?” she questioned, looking at me uncertainly for a moment.

Charlotte is practical about these things after losing her grandmother almost two years ago. We’ve had many talks about death and life, ours and others. With as much wonder as respect, I learn a little something from her each time. Perhaps I reassure her in return. I often do this while envisioning Mariko standing silently by, perhaps in approval, unseen, reminded once again.

I thought for a moment and said, “Yes, that’s in about 20 years so I should still be here.”

To this she said, “Well then, when I grow up, you better call the workers in and build a house for me right over there,” pointing to the spot, “and I’m going to stay near you so you can visit every day. I’m going to become a farm-girl.”

I don’t want to sound melodramatic but somewhere deep inside just a little piece of my heart warmed to melting when she said that. I wondered if others get this kind of thing said to them… ever in a lifetime. I may have even shook my head and looked up, wondering how the heavens could have blessed me with this kind of devotion.

She continued, “And we’ll move all your guns and weapons into my new house so I’ll be safe.”

“But, daddy doesn’t have any guns, Charlotte,”

She says, “What about the coyotes?” Ah, I think to myself, that’s where this comes from.

“Oh you’ll scare them off when you’re bigger Charlie; they’re afraid of us mostly. It’s only when you’re small like you and Howie that we have to be careful about them; that’s why daddy doesn’t let you go into the forest alone. But when you’re bigger, they’ll run away from you. Plus, I’ll always be near.”

She considered my answer and seemed satisfied.

A little while later, she came into the garage wearing coverall jeans; showing me how she’ll dress when she’s a farm girl. She asked for my advice about boots, remarking that farmers don’t have bare feet. Soon, she was walking around with her flowered rubber boots and her mother’s gardening gloves on, ostensibly to help me pull up a patch of bull thistle but really she spent her time exploring for bugs. That day she found a beautiful black and yellow spider.

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So, you can see that’s what I was up against on the cat front. A little girl who unbeknownst to her has my heart held captive. Her reinforcement, a mother, my missus, a gal who ended up providing me with fresh vegetables all summer long while gardening in a dress and who can start her own gas-powered tiller.

Oh, and she gave me not one but two kids, neither to be ashamed of.

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I could feel my resolve weakening as each summer day in the century old house wore on. The place needs a lot of work so no chickens this year, but the whole question of adding a menagerie of critters to our lives seems natural. Or maybe it was just that I am learning to relax and let the seasons of my life evolve as they might.

You see, it’s a full complement type place. They tell me, if you’re going to garden you’ll need animals on the land to replenish the soil. A couple of cows or cattle should do it. The chickens will spread manure around nicely. And since the forest encroaches from all sides, sending out saplings like scouts to colonize open space, we could use a few goats to keep it at bay. If we’re going to have cows and goats and chickens, a few pigs might as well be in the mix, and turkeys and ducks. The idea really: what animal could you legitimately say no to?

Once fences go up, any beast could live here. Wait a minute; perhaps I’m ahead of myself.

 

It was about 10 at night when the missus shrieked, “A mouse!”

Standing in the kitchen she swore one zoomed past her. We searched and sure enough, a mouse hole was uncovered high up the baseboard under the kitchen cupboards. How was that missed by the renovators? The place was built piece-meal early in the last century, and had been left empty for a year or two before a hasty remodel. Why wouldn’t it have mice? That’s probably a better question.

Off I went the next day to fetch mousetraps. Sure enough, the following morning after that, there for all to see, a good sized mouse, crushed and dead in the trap, right along the wall between the bathroom door and the door to the basement, peanut butter smeared on its face.

It traveled along the wall, I noticed. Typical for rodents… unaffected by toxoplasmosis…

Missus pipes up, non-stop: “We’ll need to get a cat! My girlfriend keeps cats on her acreage and they never come into the house… but they keep the mice problem down! She hardly feeds them… just enough to keep them around… and no mice! They’re farm cats; they make their own way and do their job. If one dies or is eaten by a coyote, there are plenty more where that one came from! We’re in the country now!” All this said in one breath.

I was a little surprised at this. Since my missus can barely kill a spider and won’t lift a swatter to swat a fly, this sudden pioneer-woman attitude was refreshing. I may have rolled film in my mind, picturing her next year slaughtering chickens, blood splatters on her dress and entrails on the floor, going about doing what is necessary for our survival. It was all so… primal.

Charlotte pipes up: “Yes daddy, let’s get a kitten. I’ll look after it and the cat can eat the mice and we can play with it.”

“You’re suggesting an outdoor cat?” I mumbled in reply, before leaving for work.

“Yes, an outdoor cat,” was the consensus reply.

Look, I’m busy. I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this stuff. I went off and forgot about it.

In the evening, my sweet woman announced that a lady just around the corner was giving away cats. She’s like that, my missus is. She finds more free stuff online than anyone I’ve ever known. Sells a fair bit of old stuff too, or gives it away. She’s a trader at heart.

So it was that while I was out to work the following day, missus and children were at the vets spending $145 on de-worming meds and whatever. Mel had a picture of the kitten and a naming contest on Facebook which I followed between appointments in the city. Her friends joined in. Creative bunch they are.

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Of course, I opened my big mouth and offered up a name combination to include most of the best suggestions. And it’s my compromise that wins the day. She’d be called Miss Molly Fuzzy Patches; Miss Molly for short. I’m getting a nagging sense by then, not sure what, just an unsure feeling buried by my distractions at work, only later realizing it was a clear case of déjà vu.

So the outdoor cat comes home and the women in the house are pleased as punch.

The first evening, with the cat now an official member of the family, I suddenly realized that the mouse in my kitchen wasn’t outside. No. it had been scampering across my floor.

It dawned on me, what good was an outside cat if the mouse was inside? Inside the very house the cat was supposed to be protecting. I imagined inside mice lining up at the windows in the still of night and taunting the misplaced feline outside about the absurdity of the situation. Outside cat, inside mouse; what was I thinking?

So Miss Molly began her life here… inside.

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Charlie carried her all over, and the cat mostly slept with my daughter. Missus thought it was “adorable,” and the rest of it. Turns out, Molly purrs as loudly as my wife snores. I swear, it’s like a John Deere tractor idling. Where? You guessed it, at the end of my bed!

Not satisfied with my daughter’s company, the darn thing first tried to sleep up beside me at times, actually sharing my pillow. Instead of being out roaming the halls looking for vermin, pussycat’s in my bed waking me up like it had some right to the best comfort we could offer. It was like it knew who was running things… and did not consider me a threat in the least.

The first few weeks did not go well from my point of view. Add to that, Miss Molly had to practice hunting. Sitting on a window sill and killing a house fly stuck buzzing around and eating it is a small start but one I appreciated. That the fly weighed nothing and was about a ten- thousandth of Miss Molly’s size also dawned on me. Nevertheless, I saw this as progress and was prepared to cut her some slack.

But the nighttime habits of cats don’t mesh with my sleep. It was about the second week in that missus mentioned she thought they might be nocturnal; something I could see would be useful in the rodent control department. Presumably killing time before killing mice, in the dead of night Molly would knock around and chase whatever plastic toy was left on the floor, of which there is no shortage in my house.

I’m already bi-phasic—getting up in the middle of the night to spend a cycle reading or whatever. And I generally sleep well but lightly, as if one hemisphere of my brain is left on alert while the other side rests, dolphin-like if you can imagine.

Add to this, my youngest often wakes up for no reason, or gets up a 4-5 am and refuses to go back to sleep. “Go back to sleep Howie,” I’ll hear the missus hiss. A few moments of silence will pass, and then “No!” said firmly and matter-of-factly.

This cat was becoming a sleep deficit tipping point. Add to that, all it caught its first two months was a tiny little mouse, looked like a baby to me. Nevertheless, this was cause for celebration all around. After torturing it under the porch for what seemed like an inordinately long time, Miss Molly finally ate it down. OK. Good sign. And you want to sleep on my pillow right? Ah…no.

So it was that I had occasion to visit a dairy farm down the road a bit. This turned out to be a serendipitous stop. Looking for a way in, I happened upon the missus of the farm feeding calves in the nursery. Instead of asking her about my reason for being there, I exclaimed, “This place is awesome. Can I bring my kids to see it?”

Five hundred cows were busy lining up on their own for a turn on the milking machines. The whole place was organized into herd groups and running efficiently. She answered with a big friendly smile, “Sure, anytime. We milk twice a day, 4:30 am and again at 4:30 in the afternoon”. I said I’d be back with the family later in the week. After a pleasant conversation, I left her to her charges and went to search for her husband to talk business.

That Friday, I was back, her confessing she never expected me to return. There I was with Howie on my shoulders, Mel and Charlotte on foot. The place was humming by 5:00 o’clock. The larger herds were being milked by her sister in law—another gal with a great smile and an unmistakable efficiency about her. Meanwhile, Susanna oversaw the feeding of the new calves, as well as the cow equivalent of an ICU—where a half-dozen cows were on watch because their production was low. They got her full attention.

She was being assisted in the calf nursery by a coterie of kids, the ones belonging to the scattering of bikes we saw strewn about the path outside the barns as we arrived by truck. The ten and twelve year olds went about feeding and laying fresh hay down for the 30 odd new cows. Younger kids showed up, presumably siblings. It was these kids that got Charlotte’s attention, for each of them held a cat.

There were cats everywhere. We saw at least a half dozen in our immediate surroundings, maybe more, in three different sizes. As Susanna offered to let Charlotte try milking a cow, the Holstein beside it dropped at least a full bucket full of sloppy manure from its rear-end at a five foot height to splat all over the concrete floor. Charlie was splashed and froze in place as the excrement hit her face and clothes. A quick wipe and reassurance from Susanna failed to convince her that getting close to these critters from the back end was a smart thing to do. After all, they were twice her height too.

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Mel took a turn at the cow’s teat while Charlotte returned her attention to the kittens.

It was then that Susanna suggested we take one home. There are ten here she said, we can spare one easily. After quickly conferring with sister, she re-confirmed her offer, saying, “Take a cat home, please… or take two. “

The negotiations began, but not with the adult doyennes of the milking barns. No. it was with their kids. One of the young boys, maybe six or seven, suggested we find a cat elsewhere. Yeah that’s him in all his cocky countenance in the picture up above. I countered that we already had a cat—establishing a stronger frame—like we didn’t really need your cat.  He countered by asking where we got it. I told him my wife had picked it up from a lady nearby our house. He suggested we return and get another cat from her. Nice counter, I thought. I knew I was in thick; this was to be no lay-down sale.

And so on it went. His negotiation skills were considerable. It felt nothing short of weird to find myself advocating for cat ownership with this cadre of kids. He held the high ground: these were his cats and his place and he had possession. But there I was, against cats in general, shooting down this kid’s objections and re-closing as I went. I was fighting for Charlotte now, maybe a part of me making Mariko proud.

I appealed to the group, befriending each of them. I converted most of them, ending up with allies. Most of the kids were for Charlotte taking home a cat. Of the six kids there, two held out—the little boy and his cohort little sister. Try as I might, there was just no convincing them. I respect loyalty to cause.

But Decision Maker Susanna was with Charlotte. Sorry kid, I don’t need you now, I thought. She was concerned little boy’s defense was impolite. I had to let her know that I was not offended in the least by a little feistiness. In fact, I admired him I said, throwing him a bone of victory in what was really a defeat. I hadn’t convinced him. In another situation, he would have had my backing. But with my little girl involved, the balance tipped against him in sacrifice.

Some of the cats had six toes, suspected interbreeding, she said. Here’s where my missus stepped in, examining the candidates and a choosing black and white male with five toes. The kids had named him Sketch. He’s pure barn cat; milk and mice his diet.

 

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All the way home, the idea of two cats in the house dawned on me. I think I was caught up in the moment back at the barn, one of those occasions where I relented against my better judgment. Or perhaps it was just the universe speaking to me again, through the voice of women as usual. I’m not sure which, but two cats in the house was out of the question. Missus suggested I build a cathouse.

The faster I can build an outdoor cathouse, the better, I thought. So I had a version from scrap wood built in hours and placed it just so against my shop. It has a back door out which the cats could escape down an old gopher tunnel under the garage in case a predator attacks in the middle of the night. Fishers are a mean lot when hungry and we’ve seen them in the yard.

 

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Perhaps I was just being hopeful. Not about the predator, but that the cats would actually use the cat-shack and live outdoors. At this point, all I knew was to not stand in the way; to be helpful in the directions things were going, towards outdoor cats, without seeming to be cruel by insisting on it. Both the cats took to their new abode like they knew it was for them. I was relieved, knowing there’d be trouble if those cats stayed in the house. I had to walk a fine line here.
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We compromised: instead of living outside all the time, the cats overnighted at first in our mud room. We let them in for visits and the kids scurried after them for a time mornings and evenings. Then, they are gathered up and put out in their night time accommodations. The two cats didn’t get along but after a couple of cooler nights, they’re snuggling like old pals. At first renaming the new cat Fuzzy, Charlotte decided to keep the name Sketch. I’m not sure why, but perhaps she realized it was more fitting.

We’re thinking we might build something in the basement so they can come and go in winter. It was from there I figure the mice came from anyhow. It’s empty, moist and had flooded while the house sat empty and the power to the sump pump was shut off. Now tidied up but still old and dirty, it’s a perfect place for cats and mice.

As for their mouse catching prowess, it’s coming along nicely. Within a week, Sketch had caught one right next to the house that seemed as big as his head. I think he’s teaching Miss Molly too. Or it’s just that she’s taking longer to take on the larger ones. Truth is, they quickly adapted and couldn’t wait to be let outside in the morning. A couple of quick calls at dark and they’ll appear out of the shadows.  Sketch comes to my little girl; Molly comes to the missus.

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Unbelievably, the missus and daughter are now alright leaving the cats outside all night. They don’t even come into the mud room, having abandoned it completely after a week or so. And their fur has become thicker, more luxurious. These cats are looking great.

The missus has been guided in her care and control of these animals by her friend. She was brought up a farm-girl. Her father used to let her take his pick-up truck to high school, as long as she kept the horse trailer attached. She can shoot and skin and make the kind of hard decisions that need to be made living amongst critters, wild and tame.

The missus and her often send each other pictures of each other’s kids at play. The internet is great for connecting isolated rural moms. Spying a cat indoors in the background of one of these routine pictures brought the missus an immediate rebuke. “Why is your cat in your house?” her friend demanded to know.

 

You know what else is pretty cool about cats, at least outdoor cats? They’ll walk with you.

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When I gather my little troupe and romp down the trails surrounding the house, hundreds of acres to explore, those two cats follow like scouts, each taking up a side in our mutual exploration. Miss Molly and Sketch use this opportunity to go a bit further afield. We may not even realize they’re with us because they’ll disappear into the bush. Here and there they emerge, as if checking on our progress.

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And back home, entering the back yard I’m inclined to find them lounging on top of their cat-shack. They watch, sitting like sentinels, spying, stalking and pouncing on all manner of rodents who dare to show. Missus is pretty happy to find the cats working the inside caged area of her garden, keeping nibblers at bay.

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These are now working cats. Just like she said they would be. How nice is that?

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At her girlfriend’s suggestion, missus got a few bales of hay from one of the local farms and stacked them all around the cat-shack for insulation. When Auntie Sharon visited a couple of weeks ago, she knitted some cat mattresses now carefully placed inside. Those cats love it in there, and don’t even try to come in the house much anymore.

This is turning out way better than I could ever have imagined. Way better. Before winter’s cold, I’ll build a cat-door to the basement they can access. It’s there the most likely ingress of rodents will occur. This way, we’ll keep the cats on their meat diet, and alive, and accessible.

I’ll also look like I care; because I really do. In the end, that’s all that really matters. In deference to all the women who continue to teach me so much, I’m paying attention. I’m also humbled to be someone’s hero.

In which case, what’s a little toxoplasmosis?
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©CKWallace, October, 2016, all rights reserved

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