As a youth growing up on a farm, animals taught me some of my greatest lessons. Through them I learned to embrace the simple things of life–of taking time to run my fingers through their fur and tickling their necks, of relishing the soothing vibration of a contented cat’s purring body against my face, of holding a plastic bottle filled with warm milk in my cold hands, its weight lessening by the moment, as a baby calf sucked milk from it. Through these four-legged companions, I also learned to question life.
I talked to the animals as if they were human. I laughed at their playful antics, and sorrowed over an untimely death. Daily life on the farm necessitated that our family care for chickens, dogs, cats, cattle, and sometimes a few pigs, sheep, and horses.
The cats and dogs roamed freely about the premises, hanging out in the barns or lounging in the cool grass under the shade trees during the hot summer months. Our dogs usually shadowed the humans, racing along side the motorcycles and ATV’s as we motored to the fields. They accompanied us to feed the cows in the hay yard, walking with us as we herded the animals into the holding pen, or chasing mice flushed out of their holes by water as we changed irrigation pipes. The cats usually hung around the barns, playing and chasing each other, sometimes asking for a quick back scratch, always waiting for their treat of fresh milk flushed twice daily from the automated milking system.
One cat in particular stands out in my memory. She was a beautiful tortoiseshell feline, who like most of our female cats had litters once or twice each summer. Usually on the thin side, her loose belly skin flapped from side to side as she ran. Consistently producing back-to-back litters took its toll on her body.
One late summer afternoon I looked out the window of our house into our backyard and saw our younger dog behaving strangely, carrying something in his mouth. I investigated and upon realizing that he held a kitten, I yelled at the dog. He promptly dropped the baby and scampered off, tail between his legs. I picked up the tiny black and gray body, cradling it in my hand, its matted fur wet with saliva. I cussed at the dog even more when I saw the round hole in the baby’s belly skin. The kitten was alive, but I did not know, even with a little country doctoring, if it would survive the trauma it had just endured.
When I walked through the barn door to return the kitten to the vacant calf pen where the little family resided, the mama cat joined me from outside the barn, meowing warmly. Our two dogs trotted behind me. I showed the kitten to the cat and told her I was sorry that it had been wounded, blaming its injuries on the stupid dog. She sniffed it, made a strange muffled mew, and tried to take it from my hand.
As I approached the pen to place the kitten with its litter-mates, the sleepy face of a feral tomcat suddenly peered through the slats of the wooden fence. When the momma cat saw the tom, she sprang towards the intruder, attacking in a flurry of claws, hisses, and yowls. The tom raced off, followed closely by the dogs, who were intent on killing the stray cat.
As I went to place the kitten with the others, I’ll never forget what I saw. Tiny bodies lay in a semi-circle, lifeless, in the blood-stained straw. I stared at them, fighting the nausea that suddenly churned within me, wanting them to breathe, to spring back to life with the sheer force of my will, but the bodies remained motionless. The tom had broken each of their necks–a typical behavior for tomcats when encountering young, unattended kittens.
The mama cat returned from chasing the tom and nudged her lifeless babies, meowing softly, then she looked at me, as if asking for help. After treating the baby’s wound with antiseptic ointment, I placed the remaining kitten next to its mother. When the momma cat moved the live kitten to a different spot, I gathered the bodies of the other babies and buried them. I apologized to the dog, realizing then, that he may very well have saved the kitten’s life.
The next morning I found the lifeless body of the remaining kitten, having succumbed to its injuries. I hated that tomcat. Even though the dogs caught and killed it, I raged over the fact that the stray cat had taken something I loved. I grieved even more as I watched the mama cat mourn for her lost kittens. I learned once again that life on the farm can be tough, but as the days passed, so did my sense of grief and outrage. I let go of the difficult emotions as other kittens were born, and I enjoyed sharing their lives as they matured.
A few summers passed. Early one morning our family was awakened by a hideous din of yips, growls, and muffled barks outside of our house. My parents raced to the kitchen window. The neighbor’s dogs had cornered the same momma cat in the yard by the cement patio. One dog kept her occupied, while the other nipped her from behind. My mother yelled at the canines, who then scampered away, racing back to the neighboring farm a quarter mile away.
When I walked through the yard a few hours later on my way to the barns, my stomach sickened as I was met with tufts of cat fur scattered about the blood-stained grass. The momma cat was gone. We assumed that she had limped off to die. Luckily, her kittens were old enough that with a little help, they learned to drink milk from a dish. Dad informed the neighbors of their dog’s bad behavior. They apologized and things were left at that.
A few days later, I walked through the door into the calf barn to do the evening chores and to my surprise found the momma cat nursing her kittens. Grateful that she had returned, I bent over and gently touched her head. She meowed softly and then laid her head back on the straw as her kittens nuzzled their tiny faces against her belly. The next morning, I found the momma cat in the space between the calf and milking barns, her eyes open, an unnatural, pinched look on her face. I knew she was dead.
Knowing that if I touched her, I would likely wilt into a mass of tears, thus risking the ire of my father for crying over a cat, I fetched a pitchfork and gently positioned the tines underneath her lifeless body. As I moved her, I turned away and gagged. A sea of maggots swam from her belly cavity and a strangely sweet and rancid smell filled my nostrils. Tears filled my eyes, as rage overwhelmed me. I had never felt such strong and conflicting emotions. I wanted to kill the dogs who had done this to her, who had wounded our beloved pet to the point where it had prolonged her suffering, and then had dashed my hopes of having her around once again as a beloved part of our lives.
I carried her body away from the barn and placed the momma cat on the earth by the north field. I knelt over my little friend’s body and cried for a long time, touching her fur, relishing her softness on my fingertips, sobbing over the injustice of it all, enraged, frustrated, powerless, yet totally overwhelmed by the selfless love this mother cat had demonstrated for her babies.
For the first time, life gave me reason to question one of my family’s basic Mormon teachings. How could something deemed inferior to humans be capable of such benevolence? How could an animal show such compassion and not have a beautiful and conscious soul? Although I didn’t understand the significance of the moment, I sensed even then, that I had been given a precious gift.
In that moment, I began to glimpse that life is not as black and white as described by my community’s religious faith. The feline was not just an ignorant animal that God had given to us–in all of our superiority–to merely dominate and tolerate it, as we humans ran around doing the only important stuff in life. I had witnessed something grand and beautiful: how a mother cat’s love would compel her to return at death’s door to give her babies one last meal. I honor and thank her for that life-changing lesson.