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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Redemption for Kitty Mama

Last summer, we had a bit of a traumatic experience on the farm, when Kitty Mama (one of our multitude of barn cats) suffered an extreme lapse in judgment and opted to give birth in the flower bed beside the pool. I still don’t know whether she actually thought it was an ideal location or whether the birth just took her by surprise and she was not given the opportunity to find a more secluded spot.
In any case, when we discovered the three new wet bundles shivering beside the pool – and the mama nowhere to be found – we just had to tuck a blanket in around their little bodies. Now, we were careful not to leave human scent on them – we wore gloves and handled them as little as possible. But we didn’t fool Kitty Mama. She knew human interference when she smelled it.
The next morning, the mother cat had moved all of the babies. To a safer place, we assumed and hoped. Unfortunately, this story didn’t have a happy ending. I found the kittens abandoned beyond the stone fence a few days later.
Our cats tended to have kittens in the spring and sometimes (but not always) again in the fall. Kitty Mama had to wait until April of this year for another chance at motherhood.
I watched her as she came up each morning to eat from the communal bowls on the back porch. I spoke to her as her belly grew a little more every week. I encouraged her to find a safe spot for her young.
Eventually the cat disappeared for a couple of days. When she returned to the back porch, she was skinny again.
I asked her where she had hidden her babies. She just looked at me. Then trotted off to the barn.
As the days went on, I noticed Kitty Mama traveling to and from the barn. One day, about five weeks after the birthing, I followed her to the abandoned silo. Some old doors were leaning against it, and Mama disappeared underneath. I could see white paws, a tail or two and a couple of pink noses peeking out from under the boards. When I looked behind the lean-to there was Mama, nursing four little kittens. She looked up at me and winked. I told her she was a very good mama, and her babies were beautiful.
It amazes me that the kittens do not emerge from their hiding place for the first month or so, no matter how long their mother leaves them to go foraging for food.
Last week, I was walking through the stable when I heard a distinct “prrrrt” from the direction of the hay bale. There was Kitty Mama, standing with bowed legs, her four fat kittens sprawled beneath her, each one attached to a nipple. She looked quite proud of herself and in control of the situation.
The kitty family (I have named them The Grays) were next spotted in the woodpile beside the shed. They use the maze of tunnels as their shelter from humans and the elements. Mama lies on top of the pile, where the wood is toasted warm by the sun. If she lies too close to the edge, a kitten will often be seen dangling off the edge, its mouth still firmly clamped on its mother.
If one of the rather feral kittens spots an approaching human, it will attempt to scoot into the woodpile between the logs. It’s quite a funny sight when the kitten suddenly realizes it has increased in size since the last time it wedged itself into one of the wooden tunnels.
The litter is getting closer and closer to the house. Some of the braver kittens are bounding up the stairs to the back porch behind their mother, peering through the screen door into the house and disappearing behind the recycling bins when we approach. Soon it will be apparent which ones are tame enough to pet, and which ones will remain wild barn cats. As soon as I am able, I start catching and cuddling the cats. Getting them used to being handled makes it easier to administer first aid in the event of an emergency, or regular preventative care (i.e. flea powder).
So far, the kittens look good. It amazes me that our barn cats rarely have eye infections or skin disorders, like the cats on other farms. Something about the sheep population seems to create the perfect conditions for cats in the barn.
The cats have taken over the abandoned playhouse that the Farmer built for his girls years ago. They can sleep in a sunbeam on hay in the horse stable, or hide among antique farm equipment in the loft. They are fed each day, on demand. But I don’t give them too much, because I don’t want them to be too lazy to hunt the next time they spot a mouse – or rat, Heaven forbid – on its way to the grain bin.
They are earning their keep, and the farm is plenty big enough for all of them. The horses and cows accept and share their space with them, and even the dogs don’t seem to mind them hanging around.
We are hoping 2009 will be a better year on the Fisher Farm, in terms of hay and healthy livestock. It’s already a better year for Kitty Mama. She has found redemption in a litter of fat and fluffy kittens.


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