Barn cat politics are complicated. They are full of alliances, double-crossing and violent overthrows.
My personal introduction to all this began my first summer on the ranch when a young beauty named Roxy arrived without fanfare to our barn. She proceeded to charm our crusty old tom, Yellow Cat, raise a litter of kittens, and then slip away as unobtrusively as she had appeared.
The litter consisted of six kittens. Two went to live with my sister; the others were left to the freedom of pack life in the wild.
We decided four outdoor, and two mostly indoor cats were plenty of cats, so we spayed the remaining female, Dora. “Those toms will start disappearing though,” the man of the ranch warned me. “
Why?” I asked. “They are all getting fed enough.”
As is often the case with these types of inquiries, the man of the ranch simply shrugged his shoulders. Some things just go the way they go.
Alfie was the first to disappear. A burnished gray and white striped cat with golden eyes, he had been the tamest of the brood. When I fed the orphan calves their bottles, he would tiptoe along the round metal fence railing and leap to my shoulders, purring. He was the cat who would emerge from the underbrush to wrap himself around my ankles, and he never missed a meal. Then one day he did. And another. And another.
Next, Yellow Cat started appearing a little worse for the wear, a new triangle of ear missing here, a tuft of hair missing there. He visited the barn for breakfast and supper, but otherwise kept his distance.
That left the remaining males, Francis and Thor, to vie for the position of top feline. Francis was sly and sneaky, wafting like smoke through underbrush and tall grasses. He was lean and getting leaner by the day, and had inherited Yellow Cat’s slightly cross-eyed gaze, which made him appear a wee bit sinister. If I turned to discover him staring at me, the hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle.
Thor, on the other hand, was the biggest cat on the ranch, with muscles like a clenched fist. He was striped gray with a gleaming white chin, and pure white socks. Thor never prowled. He strolled, strutted and sometimes stalked, but he did it out in the open, like a lion pacing across the savannah.
The cats often followed me as I proceeded through my evening chores. Perhaps it was the smell of milk replacer in the calves’ bottles, or maybe it was just anticipation, as they knew the barn would be my last stop.
Francis stuck to the raggedy weeds beside the corral, while Thor sauntered on the other side of the fence, unafraid of the calves’ heavy hooves. Slim little Dora walked with me between the two, glancing around with her bright green eyes.
When we finally made it to the barn, Yellow Cat would be waiting, hunched on the raised bin next to the empty bowls, tensely holding his ground. Dora and Francis would stand by the door. I poured out the kibble, and Yellow Cat and Thor crunched heartily into their dishes of food.
Sometimes, Francis would creep up beside me and lunge silently onto the bin, hoping that my presence will keep violence at bay. But before he could even sneak a bite, Thor was on top of him, hissing and spitting.
On those evenings I trudged back to the house brooding: Why can’t I keep the few animals under my care safe? Why can’t they get along?
Meanwhile, refugees were fleeing bombs, food shortages and violence; I worried about barn cats while fathers and mothers, grandparents and small children arrived foot sore and bruised from walking rough, unfamiliar roads to places that wouldn’t let them stay. I am as powerless to influence world politics as I am to influence cat politics.
That first barn cat summer, I put out more food and tried standing guard while they ate, but Francis was gone by summer’s end anyway. Cruelty is common when resources are limited. Why is it still so common when they are not?
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