barn cats

Wild Bill’s Cat Hatch

Version 2

When my friend Wild Bill was working on our farm, crafting new barn windows, we tugged on his sleeve to help us with another fix. (Yes, this story is a bit dated. Sorry.)

Martin asked Bill if he could remove a section of roof adjoining his office, and seal off the crawl space overhead. (For you new readers: in its former life, Martin’s office was a milk parlor. Also known as the “Mouse House” on this blog.)


The breezeway between the barn loft and milk parlor has probably been a critter thoroughfare for decades. But it became problematic when we renovated the Mouse House, and Martin started squatting there during the workweek.

Commonsense suggests that the attic-like space harbors raccoons, possums and the occasional barn cat. But there are days when it sounds like a pack of bears are slam-dancing overhead. (I thought Martin was exaggerating until I heard the thumping and pounding. It was disconcerting; I left quickly.)

And on occasion, something dies up there; the putrid smell of decay lingers for weeks. (If you’ve had a critter expire in the walls of your house, then you’re familiar with this odor.)

So we asked Wild Bill to fix it. But we didn’t consider the potential complications.

Bill opened the roof and spotted the narrow entry point — a ramped, inaccessible passage — barely visible with a flashlight.

That’s when Martin spoke up: “How do we know that all of the cats are out of there?”

Bill shrugged in that “what’s one less barn cat?” motion.

But Martin and I weren’t keen on entombing a barn cat — even fat, useless Felix.

We needed a feline head count, but our cats are notoriously absent when strangers are present, so Bill and his assistant left for lunch.

Then I hollered for each cat. I tracked down 4 out of 5.


Olive and Toulouse emerged as I inspected the breezeway.

Our one no-show: Mel. My favorite cat.

Wild Bill returned while Martin and I debated the odds that Mel was hiding overhead. Trapping Melbert seemed risky and we suggested abandoning the project and trying again in the spring.

Bill realized that we were cat-crazy clients, so he came up with a clever solution: he blocked off the passageway, but fashioned a hinged door.

A cat hatch.


Then he sealed up the roof again. Attached to the seemingly inaccessible hatch: a string that dangled down through a tiny hole drilled through the breezeway ceiling. A tug on the string opened the door; release the string and we could hear the hatch shut with a satisfying thump.

“If you hear a cat up there, just open the hatch,” Bill said. “Then, when they’re all accounted for, just cut the string.”


If you visit our farm, you’ll see the bright orange string. It dangles down in front of Martin’s office door… in memory of Wild Bill’s handy work.

As for Mel?

He sauntered out of the bushes, right after Bill’s car rolled down the drive.


Nocturnal Camaraderie


Editor’s note: I wrote the following a few weeks ago, pre-polar vortex. Lately, evening walks are perfunctory if performed at all. Secondly, it’s tough to locate a graphic that depicts nighttime, so please excuse this random photo. I wish our evenings were this star-laden.


It’s 8:30 on any given night. Insert winter date here.

Clad in my dirty barn jacket and muck boots, I plunge into the dark for evening animal duty: walking the dog, then feeding the horses and cats. It’s cold but not too windy, and considering the alternative — bathing grubby kids and putting them to bed — I’ve got the easy task tonight.

On this particular night there’s no moon and my route is bathed in black. But Martin and I can navigate the path blindfolded. We know the pitch of the drive, the ruts at the bend, where the mud puddles lurk. In the inky dark I sense them and skirt their edges.

Maisie is doing her dance: goading me like a sullen sheep, nipping my heels and piercing the quiet with staccato barks. Scuffing my toes, I shower her in gravel, but she’s undeterred. Only a coyote clips her short. The coyotes were once an infrequent, distant presence, a lonely howl from some far-flung ridge. But now they’re near, yipping or baying from the next field.

Mel, our elder-orange cat, jogs ahead. It is winter which means he’s the postman: neither snow, nor sleet nor rain deters him. Martin was the first to recognize the seasonal change in him: in summertime Mel looks sickly, molted and dull-coated, but in winter he’s spry and energetic. The night blots him out, but I follow the purr.

And now we’re trailed by his fat friend: Felix, the quasi-domestic/feral feline, built like Garfield with tuxedo markings. Felix darts ahead, rolling on his back to expose his impossibly fat, white belly in the scant light.

And then there are the cattle. The new herd. In the past the cattle were skittish and easily spooked. But this group, a dozen youngsters of black-and-white dairy persuasion, are conditioned to humans. They follow me, hugging the fence and mooing, as though we need a constant reminder of their existence.

It’s an impromptu, multi-species parade. I u-turn at the pine trees and the cows copy my loop, shadowing me along the divide. The cats loiter behind and I call them, worrying about the coyotes. I imagine furry, gray, sleek shapes, silently jogging in soldier fashion across the field. I’m relieved when Mel and Felix materialize, tripping me as they collapse before me.

Bathed in the barn light, I call the horses and rattle a grain bucket. Soon they appear, apparitions in the field. They amble to their stalls while the cats squat on the loft stairs, bowed over their dishes. Finally, I turn off the lights and bring back the dark. The coyotes are silent and only Maisie huffs as she run circles until we reach the house and bask in the warm glow of porch lights.