10. Tails & Wings I: “She was Made that Way by People!”

“Uncle Randy, I just saw a cat under the log-holder.”

“What,” I thought, rolling my inner eyes, “do they not have groundhogs in Minnesota?” Five or so woodchuck pups had once crowded the landing by our screened-in porch, maybe taking shelter from hawks. But my other grand-niece issued a verification: “There are four kittens.”

cats Lady 3

So to help us celebrate the Fourth of July we had a scrawny black-and-white mother who herded four mainly-ebony offspring. These squatters succeeded the cat Tuxedo, whose game leg made its home here for eight weeks until it was placed in someone’s home by Darcy, the Cat Lady. (She earns that nickname not for any resemblance to the whip-packing burglar of the comic book, but because of her devotion to placing and otherwise caring for homeless felines.) All of our cats seemed to have been dropped off by Anonymous.

I thought of shooting them, a step that acquaintances have taken, but too much violent noise and motion. (To help with this decision, I remembered blasting a large, torpid, rattler that shared a narrow South Carolina riverbank.) Drowning? After sixty years I could still feel the baby rabbits struggling in the pail of water under my hand, a job assigned by my father, safely at work in Chicago.

Having phoned the county’s animal shelter, I got a recorded but clear message—No cats. Humane Society ditto. Said our friend Val, “This is the time of year.”A veterinarian in town, Dr. Meredith McGrath, noted that cats have litters in summer and then get dropped off in a sort of Floyd County ritual. Were these negligent people? Maybe they just didn’t have enough money to have their pet spayed. Another cause: “People bring them to Floyd County,” explained one citizen; “think they can live wild.” 

I tell a store’s clerk that I have just made a super deal: someone leaves four cats and I buy the food. “I have eleven,” she replies; “People drop them off.” Another clerk tells me she has taken home a border collie that was left in the parking lot. By now our own castaways are on their way to plumpness.

Our own ethics being flexible, we filched a couple of bowls from the drop-off point at Angels in the Attic and in return left a radio and a pair of pants. Then we bought flea collars for the kittens, dry food, litter-pan-liner-scooper–and a can of sardines as a lure to get the mother spayed. Although the kittens were less and less standoffish, the mother would zip away at the slightest attempt to inveigle her. At someone’s hint, we stuck one redolent fish at the end of the havahart© cage-trap we had used for squirrels in South Carolina. Early in the morning I took the panicked animal to the meet the Humane Society truck bound for Roanoke. The drivers kindly let it ride up front away from the barking dogs. That same night I picked up my cat, who then twisted around in the carport licking its mysterious stitches.

Eventually two of the kittens were shipped to our daughter’s temporary digs. Lady, however, mewed in what seemed like distress at their forced departure. After a while, however, Katie’s partner brought them back after a contretemps that involved urine and upholstery. Somehow, to our deep gratitude, Val and Darcy were able to place them. 

So when the felines appeared, an unknown door cracked sideways from our expected routine. It opened to a series of relationships–between humans and animals, among animals, among humans, within an animal, and within humans.

Would anybody like a kitten?” I ask at the grocery store. In reply an unknown customer laughs: “I get the neighborhood cats.” Our friend Ken grins as he strokes the front of his neck: “I had to give up eating them because the fur got caught in my throat.” Reports a nearby acquaintance: “I refused to take my sister’s cat, which she was allergic to, so if I took this one, she’d kill me.”

Petting a kitten at 7 p.m. in the August shade, I noticed to my pleasure that the fir was sun-warmed. But Mama had fleas and would never accept a collar. We would rub the kittens’ tummies and spines, but sometimes they would almost scratch and bite. I finally noticed the white blaze on the nose of one of them that made it unique.

Now I’m at a Dollar store buying milk, a bed, and collars. “Would anybody like a cat?” A mother with three children replies, “Would you like a kid?” Laughter. At Slaughters’ Supermarket a young clerk smiles: “I love cats but my daddy doesn’t.”

The twosome were curious, a trait I appreciated. They played with ropes and went crazy over boot-strings. They enjoyed a histrionic jump when I hosed water on them. But they were nuisances, and it was hard to pull in the car or back it up for fear of squishing them. Yes, the kittens were affectionate with people, but they left a gutted mouse by the door. Under the carport they often slept together in a canvas lawn chair, and they also found a rolled-up wire net used to protect the buds of a little tree from deer, then played and slept in it. They tore off their flea collars, which we found and replaced more tightly.

One day Lady glancingly touched my outstretched fingers.

Down the pet-food aisle I am pushing the basket, an aisle usually avoided. Meow Mix, $12.59. I think of the money I could give to favored organizations.

The kittens frolicked around the post where a bat clung and they once ate something down to a long leg. They turned shy, however, when a nine-year old visited with the yard mowers, I reached into the tall grass by the flower garden to tease them out, but all I got was a tiny brown slug on the back of my thumb, which I displayed for the lad: “Will you hold this booger?”

The siblings played with work-socks that aired on wheelbarrow-handles and messed with hydrangeas in a container. Once they slept in Val’s animal-carrier and merely strolled out when we opened its fallen gate. They would snuggle together in a folding canvas lawn chair. But the little darlings would always try to get in through the door to the basement whenever we opened it: “No, no, this isn’t your house.” The mother cat was skittish but would pick up kibble thrown to her, and it would sometimes follow me at a distance when I worked in the yard. I was a little concerned about her safety from rolling tire and swooping hawk. But as always the kittens turned over and presented their tummies for a rub before playing around the carport junk.

kitten on bushAll three cats watched as I dug in a butterfly bush with shovel and mattock. Then the twins, insensible to the irony, jumped on it to catch the insects, which they carried in their mouths and left as dismembered black and yellow wings lying by the door. Marjory and I put up a wire fence, but the animals climbed it for sport, and I had to help one kitten get down. Said Marge, observing the mess: “Cute they are, but a pain in the ass also.” The fence had been used in winter to protect the Atlas blue cedar from deer—like the cats, dependent on humans and annoyances to them.

Cat foot can350One night we heard bumps and went outside to the front; the light on the porch landing revealed kittens on the railing, mother on the stairs mewing. Lady would never be able to throw off her spooked vigilance, and often when I talked “kitty cat” with her in the carport she glanced furtively toward the underside of the car or the corner of the shed. After we bought a treat—canned food–we found one of the empty cans in the yard with respectable toothmarks.

Was Marge talking outside on her cell phone? No, to a cat again. I myself once informed a kitten that it had a sock on its right rear foot, then repeated the observation verbatim. Explanation to Marge: “I say it two times in case they don’t understand me.” She made a bed for “Mama” and once she carried a kitten through the house because it was afraid of the lawn mower. From front porch she brought it to the deck and showed it her brother or sister and mother below.

Often I pondered the irresponsibility of the original pet owner. This was just one form of such negligence. Another, as someone reported, was allowing a dog to run free on the roads. Another was letting dogs drum on the tympanic membranes of neighbors. I felt less resentment when I imagined this deposit as Pay it Backward, i.e., for any carelessness of my own in the past.

One of the kittens got locked in the shed after exploring it. “I heard a ‘meow,’” reported Marge. She put towel in a basket for Lady, and the kittens sometimes wrapped themselves around each other in it. We admired her because she let the kittens eat first. But Mother always hung back from us, too, while the brood got underfoot. Again they tried to squeeze into the doorway: “God damn it, get out!” I yelled while pulling a tail. But the cats had a way of attracting benevolence. One day I heard myself actually say “Hello, Kitty.” Marge once sang the following words to the tune of “Mulberry Bush”: “Lazy days for the kitty cats, the kitty cats….” But the hill near the carport became a privy that smelled intolerable. “Damn cats!” exclaimed Marge. Once I swatted at a kitten with an Audubon magazine.

The weather cooled, so I warmed some milk a few times. In gratitude the half-grown cats jumped on the Subaru hood and went after the toy-turkey-on-a-string that hung from the carport roof to mark the stopping point of the windshield. When driving, we regularly looked through paw prints. The kittens sipped picturesquely from the birdbath, but one got caught in a tree and had to be extricated. Their tails had become not just furry but bushy.

Once I got irritated at my chatting wife–“Let me concentrate on getting this ladder into the basement”–when a cat zipped through the door. “I’ve got it,” she said. “No, you don’t,” I snapped as the other one slipped in. Once a kitten on the driveway faced away from house and arched its back. “Neighbor’s cat,” I surmised, then walked out of the carport to see two young deer bounding away. We enjoyed a respite for a while when Katie took the offspring again, but when she returned, they followed me everywhere and I accidentally stepped on a toe.

Marge tried to distinguish between what our daughter called Mantra and Iggy; I refused to call them anything except “Bud.” To entertain them a few times, however, I dragged yellow ribbons that they followed and pounced on. A less playful aspect of the animals’ claws appeared after inspection of their bedding: the disaggregation of a mouse and a complete but half-flattened bird.

On the front-porch landing, Lady would often make a home by circling an artificial tree in a big flowerpot. When a human approached, she would make a quick escape. The kittens made a frequent needy whining, its highest note almost almost two octaves above middle C on the piano. Every time we opened the door from the basement to the carport, the Buds would crowd around as the mother zipped past so as to be seen disappearing. Lady had a true psychological conflict, maybe approach-avoidance. I surmised that she should have been raised in a house on a someone’s lap. Finally she accepted the blandishment of outstretched fingers above kibble and let me touch her head. Marge and I would share brags about how long our touch had lasted. Eventually Lady would plow into my fingers with the side of her ear and top of her head, prizing this affection more than the bowl of food. We would have our private time only when the offspring were shooed back to their own chow.

One day I heard a sound as I rubbed Lady’s back and she swiveled around to shove the side of her ears against my fingers: purring.

But most times she would refuse the offer of affection. “OK, I won’t eat you today.” Ignored by her progeny, she would nevertheless observe their action from a distance. Not entirely passive, she once batted a kitten, who got the message, but she would give way if another cat greedily shifted to her bowl. Day after day I would shoo off the trespasser if I was trying to have quality time with its mother, a phenomenon that she would allow only near the food area. At any other time when I would crouch down and hold out my hand, she would have grooming to do, maybe some exploring of shrubs. “Piece-of-shit cat,” I declared. “No she isn’t!” retorted Marge. “She was made that way by people!”

Katie promised to take the twins when she and her partner could buy a house. But then what about Lady? Who would take care of her when we gone for weeks at a time? Val and another friend drove over to feed the squatters for a few days, but this arrangement was an imposition on their time and the world’s gasoline. And who would ever take a mainly-wild animal? We continued to ask around. She was a beautiful and spayed. But however dependent on people, she would pitter-patter fleetly by them–”Look at me”–only to disappear in a bush. Maybe come back only to hide under the car or around the shed.

We fed the animals two servings of kibble a day, dipping mug into bag. All three gained weight, a good sign, now that the temperature was falling. We carved out an igloo from a foam-plastic cooler for Lady. I shielded it with various scraps of whatever, then one frigid night covered it for the rest of winter with the dirt-imbued jeans and the shirt I had worn while removing rocks to plant clover for bees. When the water-bowl froze, we would bring out liquid from the tap. Every time I carried firewood to the porch, I had to shut the screen door to keep out aggressive eight legs. One day as I chopped wood, a curious kitten laid its tail on the block, drawing a laugh at its insouciance.

Winter began to make sallies from its northern fortress. I suggested that we put an ad in the Floyd Press: Free Frozen Cat. Or get it still warm. But Marge recoiled from the idea. We argued. She kept assuming that the cat could be fed and watered by one or more people whenever we vacated the place. Possible, I would reason, angry at being the bad guy, yet a waste of resources for a wasted life. Marge, close to tears: “But she was a good mother!”

Marjory and I traveled south for two spans of a month each, leaving the cats to our daughter. With their fat, fur, and makeshift shielding of scrap materials they survived nights in the ‘teens. She reported, moreover, that even when the temperature fell to zero, Lady refused to go in the barn. When we returned from out of state and country, Lady welcomed us with zealous ear-rubbing. When paw prints materialized on the snowy deck, we realized that the younger cats had learned to claw up the carport posts, causing me admiration and irritation.

As spring warily began to return, I got a kick out of seeing one of the black cats wrapping itself around the base of a locust tree and scrapping with it. But when it exercised its claws on the trunk of my precious redwood species (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), which I’d bought at Slaughters’ Nursery, I made a loud, stomping-and-arm-waving protest, which did not prevent later scratches on the transplanted gingko. However, I got a kick out of seeing an occasional black furry shape up in every climbable bare-branched tree, sugar maple or crabapple, no longer a daunting challenge for cats that were now bigger than their mother.

Whenever I opened the door from the basement, the younger cats whined as they rushed it. Our Randall! Source of food, entertainment, affection, perhaps even meaning! Marge and I stuck it out as we waited for our daughter’s promised house. Once Marjory expressed affection for her favorite cat. “It will never stick out its claws when you rub its stomach.” Then either the kittens or a prowler tore up a large bag and strewed it into one large and eleven small pieces. Both twins could almost magically get into the basement. The first time we yelled and chased one upstairs and did some grabbing; the second time, more cerebrally, I shook a cup of food. Once we heard a meow in the house somewhere while a door was open, and in the living room—the sound of scratching—on a fabric-covered armchair.

At last we took the black cats to our daughter’s newly-bought place in the country. One rode in Val’s carrier, which tipped loudly onto its side; the other struggled to get out of a box taped and covered with a sweatshirt as Marge held down both box and animal. Eager to get there, we drove at fifty-five squalls a minute.

We relished our new degree of freedom. But now we were dismayed to notice that the mother cat had developed some kind of inflammation or lesion by her rear end. I refused to pay for veterinary care when that money could go toward a charity instead of an animal with no prospects. I would have paid it, however, as sort of a dowry, if someone would have taken cage and cat home from the vet’s. But how would we even get the animal into the spay-cage again for treatment? And if the animal returned and regained her health, how would we get her back for a regular checkup? And whenever we fired up the RV or otherwise rolled downhill out of Floyd County, what kind of life would she have with no company except for the kind that goes bump in the night?

Her fate was sealed when I read an essay in the New York Times: “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat,” by Richard Conniff (March 23, 2014). Tabby, it maintained, is a bird-killer, the primary host of toxoplasmosis, and often a victim of predators, parasites, and infectious microbes. Marge and I now became uneasy about sending the two cats to our pregnant daughter’s house, but we became partly reconciled because cats kill white-footed mice, a prime carrier of the black-legged tick and thus the bacteria that cause Lyme Disease.

On the internet I typed in “euthanasia cats” and learned that one reason for putting down any animal—ethically, I inferred–is the owner’s lack of resources. Time was pressing us for a decision because once again we would be traveling. Yet Marjory would not countenance my solution: “It’s yours, just don’t tell me about it.” But I came to feel both justified and satisfied; unhappy but not guilty; in a word, responsible. 

On April 2, 2014, I was quickly drawing up a curtain in the living room when I looked down to see a startled Lady look up from the grass. She gazed at me unwavering yellow lasers. It was if she suspected. Don’t you dare! Or perhaps I know what you have to do, and our fates are joined like our eyes. Hungry after not getting her usual bowlful, Lady several times trotted past the sardine’d cage-trap with a skeptical glance. I waited another half hour, then another. Finally Marge and I had to enlist the affection the cat had entrusted us with. As she uneasily made her way between us to her newly-poured bowl, she accepted a few caresses, although perhaps suspicious about the gloves: I grabbed her shoulders to push her struggling muscles and claws into a 66-quart storage-box onto which Marge slammed the red cover.

I drove her off, plaintive meows modulating to silence. We sat for an hour or so at the veterinarian’s, where I was once again duly quizzed. So that the cat had enough oxygen, I often cracked the top. We often stared at each other through the nearly transparent plastic as she reclined Sphinx-like, and I answered her slightly-faded irises with gentle words. Final quietus took place in another room by means of a cage that contracted in phases to restrain the black-and-white wriggling; then the needle; then the still-warm drowsiness. The black, tightly-taped biohazard garbage bag gave new meaning to the word catafalque. After another ride in the box, it was the clay-covered spade and the endless tension between justification and recrimination.