It’s high summer, and as is often the case this time of year, we are experiencing an abundance that exceeds our capacity to deal with it. Yes, the garden is producing beautifully, the calves and lambs are growing strong on their mother’s sweet milk and the good green grass, but that’s not what I am referring to. Year after year, without even trying, our ranch churns out litters of kittens that threaten to overwhelm the barn.
Now, I grew up in a city where pets are routinely spayed or neutered with few exceptions. When I arrived at the ranch, I kept up the practice, but soon discovered that barn cats appear and disappear at an alarming rate. The flurry of vet bills incurred by cats that didn’t stay under our care for very long made me rethink this strategy of cat management. Thus, every summer we have a dozen or so kittens that need new barns to haunt. It’s hard on the heart every time we wave goodbye to the babies, but the alternative — a ranch populated by thousands of cats — is far worse.
So, this week we sent a litter of kittens to a neighbor’s ranch a mile to the west. Usually we just send the kittens when they are ready to be weaned, but this time we sent their mama, Tigery, too, as we knew Mama-Cat was going to be welcoming another litter herself any minute.
The kids and I peeked into the cab of our neighbor’s pickup and waved at the little family as he started the engine. Poor Tigery and her five babies, snuggled into a cat carrier, looked panicked at the sound. “Don’t worry!” I told them, “you are going to love your new barn!”
Our timing was impeccable. Within the hour, Mama-Cat appeared, crying to be let into the house. This is because we brought her, and her first litter of newborn kittens, in during an October blizzard. Ever since, she’s marked the end of her gestational period by deciding to be a housecat.
As the hour of labor approached, she asked to be let out again, and disappeared into the tall grass. Usually I find her later in one of the outbuildings with a pile of kittens already cleaned and fed. This year, however, she came back to the house the next day, her pumpkin belly replaced by slim flanks. We gave her food and cool water, and then she stretched out for a nap. “Don’t you need to take care of your babies?” I asked. She looked back at me with unblinking eyes and began to purr.
This went on for three days. Every time she’d come to the house I’d feed her and let her rest. Then I’d put her back out, and try to follow her to see where, or if, she had a secret nest. I also scoured the outbuildings checking all the usual hiding spots. No kittens anywhere.
On the fourth day, I went to do chores, and who should I spy in the barn? Tigery! “Uh-oh...” I said under my breath, thinking of her abandoned kittens and wondering what to do. Meanwhile, trailing Mama-Cat finally worked, and led to six beautiful babies hidden in the tall grass of the windbreak.
Back at the barn, Tigery disappeared and reappeared -- this time with one of her tiny kittens by her side. She’d walked all the way back to the neighbor’s then returned, carrying her baby the whole way.
Tigery has since disappeared and reappeared once again with a second kitten, and there’s a better than middling chance that after I email this column to my editor, I will be driving to my neighbor’s house with a cat carrier in the back seat to collect the three remaining babies. All the while mentally comparing the cost of two spays to the summer feed bill for 13 cats and questioning my life choices.
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