Country Cat: A Job Description
Feline friends work and play on the farm.
Flower patches are part of the country cat’s natural habitat.
About four thousand years ago, some Egyptian pharaoh decreed that cats should be worshiped as gods. Around the same time, the guys who grew the pharaoh’s grain and fed his ducks discovered that cats were also pretty handy for keeping down the rodent population. And with that, “country cat” became a job description.
It wasn’t long before cats conquered Europe, Asia and all the other continents. And other than an unfortunate period during the Middle Ages, when superstitious folks associated them with evil, cats have pretty much had it their own way.
Today, according to the 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey, nearly 90 million “domesticated” cats live in this country alone – or about 15 million more cats than dogs. Most of those are pampered pets that sleep on the furniture and do their business in a litter box. But that doesn’t account for an entirely separate population of country cats that live in farmyards, haystacks and woodpiles. If you figure just a half dozen or so barnyard cats on each of America’s 2.2 million farms, that adds up to somewhere around 13 million country cats.
Maybe cats were associated with witchcraft because of their habit of appearing out of thin air. Move to a new home in the country sans cat, and the first country cat that comes along will take up residence in your yard before you get the boxes unpacked. Some country cats are part gypsy, wandering from farm to farm like migrant workers in search of a day’s work and a bite to eat. Some are society’s rejects, dumped from a car at the side of a rural road. Others are half-grown kittens chased away from their mother by a dominant tom. Those born in your barn or under that old shack at the back of the property, on the other hand, are legal residents.
Unlike their urban cousins, no one really owns a country cat. Most are free agents, semi-domesticated felines that may saunter your way when food is offered, but would rather tangle with a dog than submit to being petted by a human. Country cats generally have little interest in living in your house unless it’s freezing cold outside, or unless a pregnant female decides to deliver her kittens in your closet.
Hardcore country cats are happy to live in the shed or the chicken house, or a nest deep inside a straw stack. On the farm where I grew up, about a dozen of them lived in the barn. We kept a supply of rolled oats for the milk cows in a concrete bin in that barn, and the field mice it attracted provided an all-you-can-eat buffet for any cat that chose to participate.
If you ever conduct a cat census on your farm, do it at milking time. That’s when every cat on the place will congregate in a semi-circle around you and the milk cow while you squeeze a well-aimed stream directly into each open mouth. I learned early on that cats can count, so if you want to prevent cat fights, be sure to distribute the milk evenly among all feline attendees.