(Athena takes her ease)
A couple of readers have asked me to describe all the people and critters on our farm - they are newer readers or old ones who know things have changed a bit but not how, so I thought I'd do a series of short posts introducing you the residents. For some reason, I thought we'd start with the cats.
The cats are the only true pets on our farm. That doesn't mean they don't have a purpose - they do, of course, the obvious pet control, but ultimately we'd have them (although probably not quite so many) even if we had no use for them. We're just kinda cat people. I love my dogs and goats, but the cats have a special place in my heart - and in all of our hearts.
When Eric and I moved in together we each had two cats, so our household norm was four. Eric had Myxie (Mr. Myxzpltk) and Minnie (Mnemosyne), and I had Gustav (Mahler) and Entropy. The latter two were quite elderly, and Entropy died while we were still living in an apartment in Somerville Ma, and was shortly after replaced by Turnip, a battered old sweetheart who belonged to a friend's grandmother when she had to go to a nursing home. When we made the move here, we came with four cats.
When we arrived, the former owners of the house noted that a nearly-bald yellow (you could tell his color by his tail, which was the only part of him that had any fur) had been hanging around the house, but she'd been unable to get him to come in or entice him with food. Within 24 hours of moving in, I opened the door and Angus (Og) raced inside and became the lap cat he'd always dreamed of being. Thrilled by a reality involving food and copious petting, our cat quantities edged up to five. We now tell people that Angus came with the house.
Over the 11 1/2 years we've lived here, we've lost Gustav, Turnip and Myxie (who just died last spring at the ripe old age of 16), and only Minnie remains of the original foursome. I'd call her the grand dame, but she's gotten kind of squirrely in her old age (she's nearly 18) and mostly hides in closets and drawers and screams when someone accidentally shuts her in. Her most charming quality, however, is that she loves human babies, and she's delighted to have another one around to purr at in her old age. She's much less fond of toddlers, but then, who can blame her. She is a remarkably spry old lady, showing little sign of her age, except for the aforementioned tendency to crawl into corners and not remember how to get out.
Angus is 13 or 14 now, and a rich, sunny yellow with the softest fur I've ever touched. He's the lord of the neighborhood - a fine hunter of voles (but not of birds - we only allow our cats outside the fenced yard once we are certain they are not bird killers), and he wanders with us, coming down the driveway to meet us, going to visit the neighbors for a little treat. He's also the sweetest cat in nature - he tolerates any behavior from any child, including the rough handling of toddlers with an air of resignation.
We've added and lost several other cats over the years. Zucchini was a barn cat who absolutely refused to come into the house (and escaped every time we tried to force him), and was eventually taken by coyotes - we mourn his company, as he used to follow us on walks in the woods like a dog at heel. Yorick (Alas Poor) was lost to a brain tumor. Tycho (Brahe) was an indoor cat who slipped past our house sitter while we were away and was killed by a neighbor's dog.
Culpeper (Nicholas) came as a freebie. We adopted a kitten after the death of one of our other cats at the height of the recession, and were told that the local shelter, overwhelmed by cats dumped by hard-up owners or victims of foreclosure, had reduced the lifespan of older cats for adoption to 3 days - they just didn't have space. I was standing there chatting with the shelter worker about the effects of the economy and absently petting a long haired and super-friendly older cat when the shelter worker said "And I have to put him down this afternoon." I expressed my sorrow that such a beautiful cat would have to be euthanized and she said "I won't charge you an adoption fee if you take him too." Well, I'm a sucker, and that's how we came to have six cats.
Culpeper is a curmudgeon - he prefers to pet you, rather than you pet him. He'll jump on your lap and rub himself where he wants, but if you pet him, he'll pretend he's going to bite you (he doesn't). He started out grumpy, food aggressive and hostile to other cats, legacy of the hard time he had during his wandering years, but has become a sweet, fluffy goofball who snuggles with the other cats, and a great pleasure. I love older cats, and never understand why they are hard to adopt - he's been a joy, and a constant amusement.
Those are the old guys. The younger bunch (I like to have a mix of ages) are Athena, Rubeus (Hagrid) and Shamash. Athena is a skinny, loud voiced, black and white half-siamese who adores Eric uber alles. I call her Eric's slutty girlfriend, because she inserts herself between us any time we attempt to be alone, but also indiscriminately adores all men who visit us. She sleeps on Eric's chest at night and barely tolerates me. We have an ambivalent relationship, not because I mind her adoration of him, but because she tends to make a lot of noise at 5am.
Rubeus is also black and white, but silent and twice Athena's size. He is sleek as a seal and never meows at all - he makes the occasional tiny squeak, but otherwise is silent. He's as much my cat as Athena is Eric's - in fact, almost the only time he makes noise is when he chases me around the house trying to get me to sit down and make a lap for him. He and Athena are best buds and playmates, and he is very clear that he's really my baby - Baby Z. is an interloper who has no right to my lap.
Finally, there's Shamash, who we adopted last Chanukah as a gift to the boys, knowing that Myxie would probably not live much longer (in fact, he made it to Passover). We adopted what we thought was a thick-furred, grey male kitten with a stubby tail, a birth defect shared by his siblings. Three months later, when we took Shamash in to the vet to be neutered, I get a phone call from the vet "Ummm...did you know this is a female cat?" I cracked up - some farmers we are - in three months we never flipped her over. The vet added "You do understand that spaying is a different operation, right?" To which I cracked up and replied "I understand why you think I'm an idiot after this, but yes, I do grasp that!"
Shamash is simply the sweetest, mellowest, happiest kitten in the world. She's small like Athena, but round where Athena is skinny, and frankly goofy looking. You'd never call her beautiful, but she's friendly and mellow and likes to be carried around, petted and played with.
The six cats keep the house and gardens rodent-free (an especially urgent job as the weather gets cold and mice start looking for a cozy place to spend the winter), have full access all winter to the root cellaring porch and the garage (for further rodent control) and also provide additional warmth on our laps and beds. Besides all this is the entertainment and love value - there's simply nothing like a deeply purring cat on your lap to soothe and relax. Tea and a cat are what get me ready to face the day full of activities every morning. Often it is two or three cats at once on my lap, and maybe one on Eric and on a couple of the other boys.
The older ones who go outside keep me company in the garden. Angus walks Eli outside each morning to wait for the school bus. In winter Angus and Culpeper can often be found in the barn with the goats, sharing warmth with the animals, stretched out on a bale of hay.
Having so many obligate carnivores in the household means we feel obligated to feed a good diet (our cats tend to live to ripe old ages), but one that doesn't rely on industrial meat (readers will probably remember my argument that since 1 in every 7 cows in the US is unfit for human consumption and goes into the pet market that essentially the meat we feed our pets makes CAFO beef economically viable). Thus, we feed rabbit we raise ourselves (largely on marginal weeds and scrap greens and bread) as part of our diet, and also buy the highest quality pet food we can afford and locate. We are very careful to be sure that our cats are not songbird predators (most cats don't hunt birds, but the ones that do need to be kept inside because they can do enormous damage).
I find it impossible to imagine a life without cats. I suspect that six cats puts me already into the realm of crazy-cat-lady (even though Eric loves them just as much, there is no comparable category for guys), but I suspect they will always be a rich part of our sustainability plan ;-).
Ok, next I'll introduce the dogs, goats and oh yeah, the people ;-).
Lovely to hear about your cat clowder. I especially like Shamash's name - a law giver! I wish we had the space for me to become a crazy cat lady. We've never had more than two at a time, and are down to just one now. I'm reluctant to add another because I haven't had much luck introducing kittens to cats or cats to cats. They've ended up hating one another, and we have a pretty good thing going with our one cat at the moment - a total cupcake of a cat who's always in a good mood. Unlike some other cats we've been owned by in the past.
I'd like to hear a bit more about your rabbit operation. I know you keep them in cages in winter, but do they ever go out on pasture? We could add them here; we've got the space. But I've been reluctant to add rabbits if it means keeping them caged all the time, or buying much feed for them. Greens for feed are pretty scarce for us in winter. We have enough for our salads and a token bit of greenery each day for the poultry, but we'd be hard put to feed rabbits through the winter.
Also, how many rabbits does it take to keep your cats fed? What portion of their diet comes from meat you raise yourself? Are there other inputs or outputs to consider when mulling rabbit keeping?
This made me smile. I'd never had a cat until after I moved in with my (now) husband. His family's cat died soon after we moved in together so for his next birthday my present to him was that we went to the shelter and adopted a kitten. We suspect (with near certainty due to personality, coloring, size, etc.) that he's a cross between Russian Blue and Maine Coon.
The funny part is that our little guy almost immediately proved himself to be MY cat. He adores me and tolerates my husband, much like you described Athena's attitude toward you. Don't feel bad for my husband though--my traitorous dog took one look at him and moved me to the #2 spot in her heart. (After 5 years with me!)
Currently, my poor cat is on a month of kennel rest after breaking his femur. Wish I knew how he did that! I wouldn't put it past him to have picked a fight with a bigger animal, however. He does like to be lord of his little demesne and frequently chases off other cats.
At some point I'd love to get more cats so do you have any advice about introducing new cats into a household?
My favorite cat-acquisition story would be for our youngest cat, Apple. My oldest, Andrew, who is roughly Eli's age, was briefly alone at a nearby town's applefest, when approached by a man holding a striped tabby kitten. Andrew exclaimed over the adorableness of said kitten. The man offered to allow Andrew to hold the kitten, then as soon as the kitten was safely stowed in my little boy (sucker!) 's arms, the man sprinted away, never to be seen again. After some half hearted attempts to find a shelter or vet on a Sunday afternoon, it became clear that Apple (Fritter) was to be a permanent fixture.