Barn cats. You don’t know where they come from, but suddenly they appear and establish squatters’ rights on an outbuilding. If they are tame, they might become quasi-pets, rubbing on your legs and jumping in your lap – but eschewing the indoor lifestyle and comforts of the hearth.
If they are feral, barn cats will be stealthy presences, lurking, hiding and remaining distrustful of human intentions. Growing up on the farm, I recall hours spent trying to approach these feline phantoms of the sheds and animal stalls. It was possible to establish a sort of peace treaty with these cats, but they expected a certain buffer zone of distance.
Years had passed since our last barn cat disappeared. These things happen -- sudden and often mysterious absences, sometimes permanent -- when a feral cat occupation of your patch of ground and outbuildings ends without explanation or trace of evidence. I fear many barn cat eventually fall prey to stalking coyotes, disease or cars out on the hard road.
They don’t starve around my place. If they work for their keep, killing mice and rats, the barn cats will be fed. They also will get names. Farm folks talk to their critters, whether cows, goats, dogs or cats. This is why we are saner than big city residents. They won’t even talk to their fellow man, but I digress.
When a potential crop of new barn cats showed up last winter in the form of a pregnant calico, my wife named her Bristle – a fitting moniker for one of the ugliest felines we’d ever seen. She was a low-browed, evil-eyed, misshapen thing, with a short thick tail. The cat resembled a bristle brush, hence her name.
No doubt, she’d always been feral. She had never learned cat speech: no meows or purrs, only hisses.
“Good morning, Bristle,” my wife intoned, filling up a bowl in the tool shed with food scraps.
“HISSSSSSSS!” Bristle replied, eyes glinting with distrust and hateful fervor.
“You are welcome.”
But Bristle ate, and she grew rounder until her belly wobbled and dragged the ground.
“She’s going to have kittens soon,” observed my wife with a practiced eye.
And she did… in March… behind the freezer… in the garage, to which she had gained access via a hither-to unknown hole in the wall.
I saw the first kitten scuttle away into the shadows in April as I fetched ice cream for a birthday party. Somewhere in the garage, Bristle hissed. It might have been a warning or a motherly expression of pride – no way of telling. Bristle gobbled up food and hissed, but she battered down the rodent population and thus justified her room and board.
On a warm afternoon in May, Bristle appeared outside one of the sheds with three kittens in tow. My spouse, who is an inveterate cat lover, coo-ed and soft-talked toward the barn cat family, and was rewarded with an acknowledging hiss from Bristle. Undaunted, she immediately named the offspring.
The solid yellow kitten, a male, became Gen. Sterling Price, from the John Wayne movie “True Grit.” The yellow-and-white brother was named Bobby Lee, and the little sister, a calico like her ill-favored mother but with round, inquisitive eyes and better features, was Lucy Lee. A family of Confederate barn cats, my wife laughed.
There are opportunities to tame down feral cats and transform them into outside felines, companions to a farmer and his wife when doing chores and while relaxing on the patio with glasses of sweet iced tea. Such transitions enable basic veterinary services to be performed: rabies and distemper shots, worming and – very important – spaying and neutering.
My wife and I hope the kittens will transition to the outside cat stage before we are up to our necks in furtive, hissing Bristle clones. Things look promising. The rollicking babies have migrated to the deck of the house, much to their mother’s dismay. When they hear the door open and close and my wife’s footsteps, the kittens come running. Tails up, they follow her in the yard and garden, always a step away but getting closer.
At feeding time, they allow her to stroke their backs and sides. Lucy Lee even deigns to be picked up when her stomach is full and she is feeling sleepy – but only for a few seconds.
Scruffy and ugly, Bristle hisses in frustration when her daughter squirms in human hands. But the kittens purr, growl, squeak and meow in the normal language of felines. They are being raised more civilized than their mother.
I sense Bristle is growing restless. In the way of feral cats, some morning she might not show up for mess call. My wife knows this is coming, I think. She hopes the kittens will stay and become permanent fixtures in our barn and sheds, albeit with their adult reproductive capacities blunted.
If she could ensure the presence of only one, it would be Lucy Lee, a teacup-sized kitten with a dose of personality lacking in her brothers and certainly her mother. I don’t care, as long as they work for their pay and don’t hiss every time they see me. It is getting tiresome providing feline welfare and getting only curses in return.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.