Before Mother, I was never much drawn to cats. They seemed slithery and remote. I have a farm, and cats didn't appear to be useful.
I am partial to working dogs—especially border collies and Labradors—that can herd sheep, fetch sticks, hike with me, cuddle on the sofa, and swim in nearby streams. I didn't really get having an animal you couldn't herd sheep or take a walk with.
Then the rats came. They invaded my farm last summer, especially the big barns. They were fat—at first, I mistook one for a rabbit—arrogant, and fearless. The farmers told me there was nothing much to be done: Rats, naturally drawn to farms, were smart, hardy, and tough to get rid of, especially with other animals around.
They had countless holes in stone walls and rotted silos to nest in. They figured out traps. And I couldn't spread poisons around a barnyard full of sheep, donkeys, chickens, and dogs. A farmer friend suggested a barn cat. He was about to weed out his own posse, and had one in mind for me, because she was used to dogs. She was young and scrawny and got her name—Mother—from her habit of caring for kittens, whether they were hers or not.
Where I live in upstate New York, barn cats are mythic. Elusive and reclusive, they prowl barns and pastures, sleep in haylofts, and make war on rodents and snakes.
They die often and—frequently—brutally, from disease and neglect, from attacks by predators like foxes and coyotes, from target practice by kids or hunters, or from the bites of rabid raccoons. They get hit by cars or, in the worst cases, waste away from starvation and exposure. When their numbers grow—few are spayed or neutered—they often are shot. Some of the softer farmers put heat lamps in their barns or let their barn cats into basements and mudrooms on subzero nights. Most don't.
Did I need a barn cat?
Rose, my 2-year-old border collie, ran the farm and didn't like cats. And a farm needs the right balance of animals. But the rat population was booming. So, with many misgivings, I agreed to take Mother. My neighbor drove her over in a cardboard box, a stringy, mottled brown and black creature that looked the worse for wear. I had the distinct feeling that if I hadn't taken her, she wasn't headed for a shelter.
Mother was surprisingly friendly. She took to me right away; she loved to be stroked and scratched, and she purred when she saw me. She was always ravenous and seemed astounded by the cans of cat food I ferried out to her in the barn. She was also instantly businesslike, scoping out the rats and the mice the second she arrived.
I took her to the vet and had her spayed, then put a collar on her, so strangers would know she was owned.
Rose was not hospitable. The minute Mother returned from the vet and entered the pasture, the dog roared down the pasture hill to drive off this mangy intruder.
It was one of Rose's rare mistakes. Mother was not like the other animals Rose had encountered and dominated. The cat sat perfectly still until the charging border collie was about 4 inches away, and then she calmly turned and raked the dog's nose with one sharp swipe of her paw. Rose is not one to make the same mistake twice. From that point on, even when Mother was right in front of her, Rose pretended not to notice her.
Mother staked out the barn and the barnyard right away, sashaying back and forth at the pasture gate, taunting the dogs, strutting her stuff, almost daring anybody to start something. Nobody did. Certainly not my two yellow Labs, who had witnessed the trouncing of Rose.
From Mother's first day, the rodent carcasses began piling up. She left the first right by my back door—it was enormous. Daily offerings followed. This caused accompanying minor problems when my delighted, wagging Labs began bringing the corpses into the house. The pest population plummeted. I was impressed. This cat delivered.
Greeting Mother quickly became part of my morning routine. When I left a bowl of dry kibble in an empty stable, Mother was always waiting for me, purring, meowing, and circling. In the evening, I sometimes brought some tuna. I put out a de-icer bucket so that she would always have water, even on bitter cold nights. I learned one thing. As with dogs, sheep, and donkeys, food went a long way toward establishing a good relationship.
Mother seemed quite content in the barn. Unlike a dog, she had no need for or interest in sharing my life or staying by my side. Yet we had a real understanding. As winter approached, I worried about the cold even though Mother was filling out and growing a thicker coat. With a friend's help, I made her a sort of igloo in the barn loft—a cozy construction of hay bales with a fuzzy blanket underneath.
Now that the deep winter is here, I sometimes wonder if I should keep Mother in the barn or let her into the house. Every dog I've ever had would come inside. But Mother doesn't seem to care. She's happy in her space and happy to leave me in mine. She is willing to accept occasional gifts—such as cans of tuna fish or cups of warm milk—but she doesn't need my charity.
Every now and then she disappears for a day or two, and I go out to the barn anxiously, calling her name. You cannot, I realize, have it both ways. A barn cat is not really a pet. In the tradition of barn cats, she eventually reappears, and no one knows where she's been or why.
I have not seen a live rat for months now. Once in a while, when I take out the garbage or leave the dogs behind to stroll under a full moon, Mother appears at my side and strolls along with me. "Hey, Mother," I say. She never looks directly at me. She walks with her tail up, her eyes sweeping the darkness. Sometimes, I think she is keeping me company. And sometimes I get the feeling she is watching over me.