Saturday, September 15, 2007

Three Kittens: A Parable

Working cats, like working people everywhere, have varying degrees of success and ease. Life in the North of Scotland should never be considered easy, especially for cats making it on their own. I have seen them working the tall grass along the farm road for little varmints that I hope they think are tasty or pouncing on baby rabbits, where, I must admit, my loyalties are somewhat divided. I trust that there are some large, sturdy cats working in the barns that may from time to time stand off the larger rodents. I try not to think too much about the large rodents other than a generic gratitude for those sturdy cats.

I especially admire the hardworking single mothers of the barn cat clan. They need all the wile and strength of the rat catcher cats and the efficiency to do that job quickly to feed and protect their kittens--a bit like Ginger Rogers, dancing with Fred Astaire but doing it backwards and in high heels. I leave food for the cats and always increase the amount and the availability when I become aware of a mother and kittens. From time to time apparently orphaned kittens appear in the barn or elsewhere on the steading and then I step in to try to fill the big paws of their mother.

I don't know what happened to Ninja and the five little kittens behind the cistern in the walled garden. I left food for them, but I must have gotten too close for Ninja's comfort. She and the kittens disappeared. I hope her distrust has served her well. I am in a minority here in my admiration for cats, so I do not take offense when cats choose to eat and run.

My husband found this latest set of kittens first in their home behind the fertilizer bags in the barn. By the time even the most observant human sees kittens, they have probably been through two or three moves. These kittens may also have been more obvious because they were hungry and looking for mother-food bringer. Hunger disarms us all. He began feeding them in the time-trusted farm way---leftovers. So these little carnivores began their orphan life much like Oliver, eating porridge.

Hungry, helpless kittens cannot afford to be picky. They ate all their porridge and would have asked for more if they could. But cats that choose to live in the barn have to be both agile and discreet. These kttens, being kittens without a wily mother to teach them how to be an Artful Dodger of giant combines and fork lifts and grain mountains, were at risk. If they were to enjoy the right to earn their living as rodent catchers and defenders of the realm, they had to find someplace other than the barn to live.

First I had to replace my husband in their minds as the food-bringer, then I had to convince them to associate my voice with food and, hence, security. Once these were accomplished, I had to move the food to the edge of their comfort zone. For days they teetered at the edge of the barn. I watched them from the garden; they watched me from the barn. Between us was a gap of about 20 yards actually or the impossible chasm of that last little leap of faith.

As always happens, the first step happened by accident. I discovered one of the kittens had come all the way to the cottage on his own. He scampered back when I appeared suddenly around the corner of the garage, but if he had come once, then I knew he could come again, whether he would or not is a different matter. As a parent, a teacher, and a person of some years now I know that no one--cat, cattle, human can ever be persuaded to do something that they don't want to do.

The day of the big move, I called the cats to the food bowl and then moved it slowly, slowly all the way to the cottage. Two of the kittens came. I thought perhaps the third would follow along later, but I have yet to see him in the cottage or with the other two. Perhaps he has that wiliness that has allowed cats to exist in barns and on farms without apparent human help for many many generations. I always leave enough food so that the cats can have a guest or two stopping through in the night. Sometimes I see a bit of movement in the corner of my eye that might be a cat or a starling or perhaps just the wind or my own active imagination.

The two kittens in the cottage are growing apace. They get fed at least twice a day with little milk breaks of specially purchased low-lactose cat's milk. I have endured incredible teasing and ther neceesity of countless explanations that even though farm cats have been fed cow's milk, it is easier on their stomachs to have this kind of milk. I have an uphill battle to persuade experts on animals and animal nutrition that I actually know about cats. As I see the two sleek little kittens with the milk dribbling down their chins, I wonder where the third kitten went.

What made the two kittens able to accept the gift of hospitality that the third one could not accept? We all know people--in fact, we have been at one time or another someone who could not accept the gift of hospitality. We grow up like the kittens, at first selfish by design: we need to focus on nothing more than our needs. Then we begin the hard job of learning to share, discerning how to trust and to put our needs second. Some of us, like the third kitten, perhaps learned those lessons too well.


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