Mel

Cat People

I’ve always considered myself a horse and dog person.

Not a cat person. Or a kid person, either.

Yet we have 3 kids and 5 cats.

Better than 5 kids and 3 cats, I guess.

Still, Maisie ranks above the cat population. So do the horses. (Please, don’t ask me to rank the kids.)

I could have lived a cat-free existence, were it not for the farm. With a barn and grain and sloppy horses, they are a necessity.

But I didn’t feel much affection or affinity for them until Mel and Frog came around. They changed my views.

Many years ago, after Old Kitty — an ancient, skeletal feline conveyance — finally keeled over, Martin and I realized that our supply was running low. With only Drippy, a lazy, drooling cat, we contacted a crazy cat lady and agreed to take two kittens.

We selected Tippy, a tiger-tabby with a tail dipped generously in White-Out. For color contrast, we chose his scrawny littermate named “Cool,” a Creamsicle orange-and-vanilla kitten with runny eyes.

Frog was an afterthought — a spare heir — scooped up last minute.

It was fall 2004. I’ll never forget, because my father had just been diagnosed with dementia. And I was emotionally wrung out…. hence my willingness to deposit a third kitten into our cardboard box.

Frog, Tippy and Mel (formerly “Cool”), two years later

Fast forward a few years. Tippy, unfortunately, disappeared around 2007; I believe he fell victim to local wildlife. (All three cats display a visceral aversion to cars, but roam to hunt.)

For more than a decade, Frog lived a relatively normal existence, even as our cat colony grew. She proved a top mouser and all was harmonious until a young upstart — Toulouse — rose in the ranks, and toppled the monarchy.

Mel (formerly Cool) gave Toulouse little thought. But the black panther intimidated Frog and last year, she was driven into exile. Her condition declined and she might’ve perished had she not snuck back into the kingdom.

The solution? Frog lives underground, in 5-foot-deep hole in the paddock: all that remains of the old outhouse. It sounds undignified but the dwelling suits her. It’s heavily-fortified by horse fencing, wire mesh and hot-wire. Coyote proof. And the broken wood cover allows her entry and protection from the weather. She is quite content and is the only feline who dispatches with mice on command.

As for Mel? Most of the time, he lives up to his “mellow” moniker, but he also reminds me of our old dog, Corrie.

While Maisie is the typical hardwired, workaholic Border Collie, she isn’t as nutty about walks as her predecessor. When Martin and I bought our first house — an old Victorian in Rockville with floor-to-ceiling windows — Corrie would stare us down after work. We’d collapse on the couch to veg out and Corrie would gaze fixedly through the wavy glass, her eyes boring into us, saying, “Hey! You’re not going to sit there, are you? After being gone all day? Hey! Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up….

It was impossible to ignore.

Mel has inherited Corrie’s commitment to the daily perambulation. He’s always enjoyed walking and will abandon food for a stroll, but as he’s matured, he has become more insistent about the daily routine. There are evenings when Maisie is snoozing in bed, while Mel sits at attention by the mudroom door…. staring. Waiting to walk.

In a calendar year, I’d wager that he misses 15 walks, tops. He more consistent than the postal service.

On these winter evenings, as we walk up the drive bathed in moonlight, or stumble along in the dark, Maisie jogs ahead, bouncing and barking. Meanwhile, Mel trots reliably behind us, pausing to purr and hurl himself into the grass for a roll. We are so accustomed to him, it’s odd when he’s missing.

Maisie is now 11 years old and Mel and Frog are 13. I hate to say that they are slowing down, but the signs are there. Nowadays, as we head home in the dark, I pause to call Mel to catch up. He’s not a cellar-dweller like his sister, the spare heir. And I don’t want him to become coyote bait.

I wait for him to catch up.

I guess that makes me a cat person.

With Drippy, Mel and Corrie, 2005

 

A cat and kid person.

Hadley and Drippy, 2009

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.)

Anyway…

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.

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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.

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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.”

Brilliant.

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.

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Frog Report

What happens when you want to get rid of a family pet?

You ditch the dog (or cat) and tell the kids, “We sent him to live on a farm, in the country.”

That’s fine… unless you already live on a farm.

What then?

Well, you try to foist your beast onto someone else’s farm.

That was my plan for Toulouse, our bully barn cat.

Toulouse is a 2010 model, acquired in a package deal with his sister, Olive. As I recall, we got those kittens around Halloween; Toulouse was coal-black like a panther, and Olive bore orange stripes.

Both have proven to be avid hunters, but Toulouse is a true hitman. Year ago, when voles invaded the yard, Toulouse dismantled their tunnels and devoted two straight days to rodent eradication.

Toulouse: “be the vole, be the vole…”

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Unfortunately, this summer, our black panther added Frog to his list of prey.

(Frog was also adopted as a kitten with her brother, 11 years ago. She was named by the cat lady’s daughter, who desperately wanted a pet frog. The name stuck. The kid called her brother “Cool,” but we opted for “Mel” instead.)

Pictured: Frog & Mel, wrestling on the deck, 10 years ago.

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Our cat colony has existed harmoniously until a few months ago, when Toulouse turned on Frog. After repeated beat-downs, Frog disappeared from the scene. She simply vanished.

And Toulouse moved along to beating up Mel.

That’s when I announced: Toulouse has gotta go. I posted a Facebook plea and a few folks stepped up to take him. But they lived nearby and I worried that he might be hit by a car while hiking home again.

Life got busy and project “panther placement” was shelved. I didn’t have time to deal with feline relations.

But now I have an update:

Frog has returned! She floats between our property and the neighbors’, and has staked out the back pasture and the culvert beneath the driveway — territory less traveled by the black panther. She still visits our barn to eat, but only when Toulouse is out hunting.

So for the time being, the cats — Mel & Frog, Toulouse & Olive, and odd-ball Felix appear to be coexisting.

And I’ve turned my attention to evicting another barn dweller:

Oh Possum 2.0.

Here we go again

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