It starts out with just one…then you get another one to keep the first one company. Maybe somewhere along the way you get a female who manages to come into heat before the trip to the vet, and then you have kittens. Before long you have a herd.
That’s sort of what happened with us.
I hasten to add, all our cats are neutered and needled. Most of them are rescues. But we have had kittens in the past, born in my closet, and at one high point we had eighteen cats and kittens living with us—at that time, home being the upper flat of an old farmhouse in another small valley community. It was a bit much…but we found homes for a number of them, got everyone neutered, and then moved to our current and hopefully forever home.
In the nearly seven years since we moved to this old farmhouse, we’ve had cats leave us and cats come to us. We’ve lost two to the road, several to unusual illnesses, one to old age, and had two decide they didn’t want to live here any longer. We’ve rescued kittens that were run over, kittens that were abandoned, kittens that came from feral cat colonies and were being tamed down, and one large cat who fell over at the cat shelter and pledged everlasting love. (Those are especially hard to resist.)
We’re now holding stable at ten cats, or as I sometimes remark, 9 ¾ cats, including Nibbs, our little three-legged one who lost his right back leg after being hit by a car.
Don’t feel sorry for him, though. Our vet told me that cats are born with ‘three legs and a spare’, and Nibbs certainly gets around just fine. In fact, earlier this evening I watched as he chased Spunky Boomerang gleefully through the house in one of their complex games of Tackle Tag and Earwashing. This involves racing through the house at top speed, each other, having a tremendous wrestling match complete with kicking each other, chewing and growling, then abruptly getting tired and washing each others heads instead.
We spend a lot of time watching our cats as they interact with us and with each other. My husband remarked the other day “they don’t seem to have a pecking order, do they?” Curious, I went and looked up some information. While domestic cats aren’t normally a herd animal, they do have social hierarchies and can be very territorial. We can’t figure out if there is an alpha cat in the family—although we do refer to Toby Soprano as “the boss of this here family”, mostly because he’s cute, fluffy and charming, and loves to jump on people and high places.
One article I read suggested that, to ensure peace, order and good government in your feline household, you have one litter box for every cat—in fact, one extra would be a good idea. Whew. Imagine having 11 litterboxes spread around the house! Four of our cats go outside every day, and they do their eliminating out of doors; the rest share the communal litterbox, which is a large tub, formerly used to carry fish in. I clean it daily and there’s usually a highly amusing interlude afterwards where the herd is lined up to do their business, as if the thought of a clean litterbox is just too much for them.
I cannot imagine living without cats, ever. They are so wise, so loyal and loving, and anyone who says they aren’t any of these things knows absolutely nothing about our feline friends. They know things. They know when I’m upset, and the ones I’m most close to will casually hang around, not being obsequious, but just being near and ready to purr and bump and comfort. They ham it up tremendously, putting on great performances that leave us breathless with hilarity at times, even when it’s a case of four of them arriving on the bed with a mouse, and as my husband wrote to me when I was away, “and no one was dead!” We’ve watched them fight with one another, just small snits mostly, and also comfort and play with one another. The rest of the herd is always protective of Nibbs; they will play with him, but when he first came home, they would sleep near him, wash him and seemed to comfort him when he was first adjusting to his tripod method of mobility.
Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing too much here. But that’s what it seems to us from watching them. And they grieve when one of them leaves through death. When Nibbs’ brother Tommytiger was killed after being chased by a raccoon out into the road, Nibbs looked for him for days, crying and coming to me to be comforted. And the strangest thing happened the day we buried Tommytiger. We have two cats who are brothers, Quincy and Mr. Rowdy Retread. They do not like each other, perhaps because they were separated for over a year and forgot that they were littermates, or maybe because Rowdy was late being neutered, or maybe just because, like some siblings, they don’t get along. We were sitting on the back deck, feeling very upset, and Quincy was lying on the deck with us, just being there. Rowdy came parading across the yard with a huge field mouse, fat and sassy on the lush food of early summer. He marched up onto the deck, over to Quincy, and dropped the mouse in front of him. Then he walked away, flopped down on the deck, and started washing himself. Quincy looked at him, looked at the mouse, and I swear he said, “thanks!”—Picked up the mouse and went away under the deck for a snack.
Rowdy climbed up on the chair beside my dearly beloved and purred and bumped. We were speechless with wonder.
My late grandmother DeLong, when she was very old and failing and starting to slip into the fogs of dementia, did not know who I was when I visited her for the last time. However, when I told her I got my love of cats from her, something like a veil lifted from her eyes.
“I was always good to cats, and they was always good to me,” she said with a wise smile. Just for that moment, we connected, and shared a thread of understanding, before that veil dropped again.
I think I should like that to be my epitaph when I’m gone.