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.
Country cats earn their keep by keeping the rodent population under control. While town cats pretend to attack squeak toys, yarn balls and human feet, country cats possess the same predatory skills as an African lion. They spend hours stalking and killing mice, rats, moles, gophers, snakes, rabbits and other assorted varmints.
Danger around every corner
The life of a country cat is fraught with danger. Cats prowling through an alfalfa field are at risk from mowing equipment. Cats out hunting can themselves become prey to coyotes, or they can fall victim to passing cars. And woe to the cat that crawls under the hood of the pickup to sleep on a warm engine block; it may suddenly find itself an unwilling part of the fan belt assembly. That, as they say, is when the fur begins to fly.
Dogs, on the other hand, don’t worry country cats much. Dogs mostly run in straight lines, while a barnyard cat exhibits all the moves of an NFL running back, employing zigs, zags and reversals to leave the eager pooch panting for air. “Looking for me, bozo? Let’s see if you can climb this tree!”
Despite a fairly high mortality rate, country cats are in no danger of becoming extinct. If each female produces a new litter of four to six kittens every six months or so, and each one lives 10 or 12 years …. well, you do the math. Planned parenthood is a population control option that’s sometimes difficult to implement. You’d have to look hard and long to find a vet willing to chase down and neuter a half-wild barnyard cat, or a farmer or rancher willing to pay the bill.
A house cat accustomed to sleeping on the couch in a climate-controlled environment and eating specially prepared food would probably have a hard time adapting to living outdoors. But could a country cat be happy living in a city?
Some years ago, my wife and I lived on an acreage beside an apple orchard outside Yakima, Washington. One day, a stray cat delivered a litter of four kittens in our woodpile. As the kittens grew, my wife began taking food out to them. While three of the four eventually wandered off, one little male with Siamese markings that my wife named ‘Chicken George’ stuck around. A friend of mine from Chicago happened to come to town on a business trip, and when he admired the kitten, we jokingly asked him if he’d like to take it home. To our surprise, he agreed, and two days later, our country cat was living a life of leisure in the city.
To our knowledge, Chicken George never regretted his career change.
Country writer and cowboy poet Jerry Schleicher lives in Parkville, Missouri.