Saturday, September 8, 2012

what in hell / have i done to deserve / all these kittens

It doesn't make for a very satisfying story: it started in the middle, and as soon as we were introduced to the characters, we knew the ending would not be a totally happy one. This was not the fault of the characters--it was a simple fact of their existence.

We were introduced to the story by accident. As I was walking from workshop to house one hot evening a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that some of the wood that I had so carefully stacked to dry in the woodshed had fallen over. I stuck my head in the shed and shone my flashlight in to see how much of my work had been undone, and saw my orderly stacks made into a jumbled pile. Worse, on top of that pile, at the farthest end of the shed, there were twelve little green eyes shining back at me.

Now, in the right place, I like cats. House cats are fun, and I still miss Unnamed Cat. Barn cats can be both fun and useful. However, I hate feral cats. I knew there was a feral cat on our property, a kind of slinky grey thing that I'd occasionally catch prowling around. I also knew that there were at least two mated pairs of quail living near our house, and that no quail chicks survived this year. So, an upset lumber pile suddenly seemed pretty minor compared to a feral cat population boom. The kittens had to go.

Catching the kittens was a challenge--a jumbled log pile is not especially stable for an adult human, and is extremely porous for a young kitten. After an hour's sweaty work (an adventure in itself--it was dark, so we had to use flashlights, and there was as much effort spent in keeping two eager nine-year-old nephews from injury as corralling kittens), the Real Doctor was able grab three kittens, all hissing and clawing. We called it a night, unsure as to whether the other kittens were alive or dead under the shifting logs.

By the next day, the still-free kittens had escaped the woodpile. They had been moved by their mother into a boarded-up section of one of the sheds, visible and accessible only through a drain. A Havahart trap was obtained, and put up in front of the drain; this was too small for the mother cat, but over the next night two more of the kittens were captured, apparently trying to get to their mother. After that, there was still one more kitten, but it had gotten moved by the wily mother, and we didn't know to where.

This last fugitive was captured when the Real Doctor went to feed the other kittens; I was bringing her some newspaper, and noticed a pair of eyes looking at me from under the stack of hay bales. After walling off the room and throwing the bales aside, we cornered and captured the last of the future bird-murderers.

Our niece, L., immediately gave all the kittens saccharine names, and the Real Doctor immediately called the local animal shelter to see about getting rid of them. Unfortunately they were too young for disposal, and we'd have to fatten them up for a couple of weeks until they were about a kilo each before the shelter wanted them. The niece and nephews were all over this delay, and overnight the kittens expanded in size until they occupied some sixty percent of the universe--at least, in the attention of the kids. To the Real Doctor and me, they were another chore, another set of beasts to feed, and cursed with awful-smelling food to boot.

The relationship between a six-year-old girl and kittens is interesting. They were her obsession, but unfortunately for her, the presence of an adult was definitely necessary for her to play with them. She would "walk" them on a leash and rat-harness, and delightedly proclaim how much Mittens or April loved it--while the kitten was splayed, trying to flatten itself into the floor or any corner, ears back and looking terrified. Eventually, both of the young mammals got slightly better at their respective jobs; the niece would proudly point out that Moppet especially loved being carried around by her, oblivious to the fresh scratches all over her upper body. I guess it is better to live in a pleasant fantasy world than in one in which everything is out to get you.

My relationship with the kittens was still somewhat resentful, and predicated on their ultimate delivery to the animal shelter. (The Real Doctor notes that despite this fact, she started enjoying feeding and playing with the kittens, and started not to mind the smell of the cat food.) I suppose they were cute, and if I wanted to I could have bonded with one. Lab rats are also cute, and I have loved them as pets--but I have also murdered a fair number in my career. At some point in the life of this farm, we're probably going to have to butcher some lambs and chickens. So, I did my best to think of the kittens as things to fatten up and get rid of.

Last week, one of the kittens, Attila/Fluffy (The Real Doctor's name*/the niece's name), got adopted by one of the Real Doctor's co-workers as a house cat. The rest I took to the shelter; they were weighing about a kilo each, the perfect weight for adoption, and thanks to the ministrations of our niece and nephews, they had seen the worst of being broken in. The kitten-dumping process is pretty straightforward: you walk in with the cats, certify that they truly don't belong to anybody else, indicate what you can about their provenance and health, sign a statement that the animals shall be as nothing to me, like the dust of the earth, and walk out without them.

Of course, we were left with the mother to deal with; a brief conversation with our neighbor indicated that she was both hard to catch and, with the assistance of a feral tom up the road, annoyingly fecund. Last year she had a litter in the middle of a wall, requiring destruction of the wall to retrieve them. She is also a good mother; the whole time we were fattening her kittens, she would visit them while we slept, loudly bewail the sorrows of her separation, and leave parting gifts of a rat, a vole, half a bunny, and so on. She easily avoided the medium-size Havahart trap we set next to the kittens, and pretty much all we saw of her was her heels as she ran away. Returning from the animal shelter, I stopped at the Co-op and purchased the larger Havahart, and the Real Doctor baited it with some of the stinky cat food and put it next to the now-empty kitten cages.

The next morning, I found Momma Cat in the cage--I almost didn't see her at first, and thought the trap had sprung shut on nothing, since she was dark grey and hidden in the shadows. She looked at me with a fair amount of what I project to be hate, fear, and confusion:
So, it was another trip to the animal shelter, and here we come to the unsatisfying end of the tale. Per the terms of the drop-off, I am not allowed to seek any information about any of the animals; they may get new homes, or they may be euthanised. For kittens, The Real Doctor informs me that the odds are favorable, but they are still odds. For Momma Cat, the odds are worse: she is smart and good looking, an excellent mouser and mother, but feral and lousy pet material. When you read this, she may be dead, executed for the crime of following biological imperatives. The Real Doctor and I both feel some guilt about this--perhaps owing to our own inability to follow the same imperatives--and I made some atonement by a cash donation to the animal shelter. But it's still not a satisfying story. Next year, when we have clearer heads and more time and a more stable environment, we may get a kitten.


The first thing I thought when I saw the kittens in the woodshed, and perhaps an epitaph for Momma Cat, was an archy-and-mehitabel poem by Don Marquis**:

mehitabel and her kittens

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned

    • archy
*on account of fearlessness and a certain assertiveness in getting his way
**The poem is written from the point of view of archy, a vers libre poet who was reincarnated as a cockroach who pals around with mehitabel, a cat on her ninth life. You should read the entire collection.

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