A Really Good Cat (Or Two)

We’re THOSE people.

You know, the ones with all the cats.

Before we moved to our farm, we had no cats. You might have actually called me a hater. They made me sneezy, wheezy and red-eyed, and I honestly had no room in my life for another attitude to navigate.

You know what I’m talking about.

As a child, I enjoyed putting our gray tiger-striped family cat in a suitcase and taking him on vacation  to the garage. My mother mercifully put an end to this practice, and I didn’t have a positive experience with cats after that.

UNTIL the day we closed on our house. In the awkward silence before we were getting ready to sign papers, the seller chose that moment to let us know that two cats came with the property if we wanted them. Of course. Andy and I looked at each other. Knowing they would be outside cats and our barn would need good mousers, I reluctantly agreed.

They were actually really good cats. One very sadly got hit by a car the day before we moved in. But the other, Mickey, was a black-and-white mousing legend who won my heart over forever. He would often catch mice and bring them to our back deck in his mouth to show off his trophies, then sit and toy with them in the yard at leisure. He’d let them run a short distance away, then bat them down with his experienced paw and yawn.

Other days I’d find him sitting on top of Noah in the yard, snuggling and playing. That cat would follow the kids all around the property, just wanting to be with them.

We were all at home the day he got run over. We heard the thump, watched the white suburban drive on in ignorance (or apathy), and wept together as we buried him. That was a good cat. I didn’t know that was just the beginning of a long line of barn cats at our farm.

Pete, Poppy, and Penny came next and so did their kittens. So many kittens.

When Penny had yet another litter of kittens this fall, I marked my calendar for when they’d be ready for new homes. We are perpetually rehoming kittens around our place primarily because barn cats, while often very affectionate and good company, tend to be transient guests. They roam, get in fights with other cats, lose fights with meddling raccoons, get hit by cars, or abruptly disappear (usually right after we’ve spent money on them at the vet). We keep the ones we like to replace the ones we’ve lost, and find good homes for the rest.

While we love our barn cats (and lament the loss of the really good ones who have gone missing), we’re not looking to add to our collection. Our last litter of kittens got too big before we could find and tame them, so now we have three wild-ish grown cats in addition to our regular crew who are sure to make more cats any day now. Oh the joy.

We don’t *need* any more cats.

But when we found Penny’s kittens half-starved and abandoned a week ago, we did what our consciences demanded: we tried hard to save them.

One evening all five kittens were running around under foot at chore time, and the next night two were dead, one was dying, and two were crying for food and warmth. I don’t know what made Penny abandon her kittens like this, but they were way too young to fend for themselves.

The whole family pitched in to help, but it was Andy who took primary responsibility for feeding and caring for them. We are no experts at rescuing kittens, so we did our best and learned as we went along.

We syringed milk into their mouths, kept them in a warm place (our kitchen), learned we were feeding them the wrong kind of milk, went and bought the right kind of milk, and got up in the night for feedings.

The black and white one made it through the first night and seemed to be making a comeback. But he stopped eating unexpectedly after breakfast and died the following night, despite our efforts to revive him.

The two orange brothers left behind were the best of pals and vigorously went after milk and cat food at every feeding. They meowed often, purred in our laps, and slept one on top of the other at the front of their crate. They were recovering so quickly that we moved them back into their cat house in the barn and fed them there. All seemed to be well.

But with no momma to guide them, they soon floundered. Andy found them huddled together under the water hydrant a couple of days later one on top trying to get warm, and the other lifeless underneath. They didn’t know to stay in their warm house that we made for them.

What these kittens really needed was a responsible mother cat. All they had was us.

And Google.

So we brought Russell back inside (we had named him by now) and spent many more days trying to make him well. We really wanted to help him, but it was becoming clear he needed more than we had to give.

What do we do? Andy and I asked each other, pained over the situation.

But why were we pained? Farmers lose animals to sickness, injury, and accidents all the time. It’s just part of the job. What does it matter if the world loses one more kitten? It’s not like there’s a shortage of cats out there.

And yet we can’t help helping. This is just what we do. It’s our calling.

It may sound like we’ve settled the matter of our calling entirely. That’s not quite true. There’s a high cost to this lifestyle. We spend most of our days working like this to keep animals alive, and it’s demanding physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. The work is usually inconvenient and messy. My house shows more of our lifestyle than I’m comfortable with. There’s mud and manure in more places in my house than I’m willing to admit publicly. It’s kind of embarrassing.

But our consciences override our preferences. The dirt doesn’t diminish the value of life, though we wrestle over its costliness on a daily basis. Life has dignity all life. How can we not do our best to give life a chance, despite the inconvenience and sacrifice and mess?

This is just what we do we honestly can’t help ourselves. That’s not an attempt to pat ourselves on the back. It’s more of a lament.

As Russell ate less and less, and slept more and more, I realized: this is about hope. We need to believe this kitten will live to play and mouse and purr in the hay. We have to do what we can to give him a chance. To stop trying would be to give up hope.

And we need to hope: for the future, for better things to come, for joy in the midst of hard things.

Not all people would have kept up hope for this kitten. Some don’t have the time, some don’t value what we do, and some are more hardened to the death and loss that comes in waves on this side of eternity.

But we’re fighting against that. We’re fighting for hope because it’s what keeps our hearts alive in dark days.

And sometimes this is what it looks like.

We’ll miss you, Russell. Share this post on Facebook

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