House cats are docile, nervous pets who are pampered and talked to in hushed baby talk voices. They are good for warming laps and napping in the sun. Barn cats, on the other hand, are murderous working animals who are stealthy and wise but pets just the same. In college, I had a house cat who quietly sneaked into an open closet and was shut up for a school day in there. I came home to a shrieking howl and opened the door to find she had ripped open a new bag of cat food with her claws and survived the wilderness of the closet for an entire three-hour class period.
I grew up with barn cats on a pig farm. These cats were true survivalists. They lived in the rafters of the barn through blizzards and thunderstorms and tornadoes. They gave birth to kittens alongside pigs and chickens. They ate scraps and killed mice and birds and bugs. Still, they found time to snuggle with my brother and sister and me under the shade of the Elm tree in the grass of our front yard when summer rolled around.
When I was growing up, we brought table scraps out to feed the cats, hollering here kitty, kitty into the wind. The cats responded in a hoard and it was best to just step back and let them fight it out amongst themselves. The sound of deep-throated growling under nom, nom, nom was often heard.
Today, my cats don’t actually live in a barn but in the potting shed. There is a heat lamp and straw and a couple large self-feeders for the dry food. Every third day or so in the winter, when the cats need to maintain some extra body fat, I open pop tab cans of wet food to supplement their diet. We drive long metal spikes into the 12 foot posts where the Bluebirds nest to keep the murderous cats at bay.
At feeding time, I walk out the laundry room door onto the back porch and at least four cats show up to escort me to the shed. The calicos run ahead looking back as if to say, “Hurry up. Come on, it’s this way.” Nurse Meow-mers our old-timer weaves expertly in figure eights between my ankles while keeping pace with my steps to avoid tripping me. Bear, our loveable but odd, neutered tom, trundles toward me and at the last moment veers off to the right leaning in with his spine and tail in a way that almost causes him to fall over.
I flip the latch on the shed door as the calicoes rush through the worn hole at the bottom of the wood plank door just big enough for an adult cat to get inside. Two feral kittens, one yellow and one black scramble up the wall and into the rafters as I step down onto the dust-covered concrete floor. I reach to my left to switch on the heat lamp for the night. The calicoes glide over one another investigating the empty cans left on the floor from the last feeding. I hear a rattle behind the dusty chicken feed can and see two beady, close-set eyes reflect the light from overhead. A sharp black nose with twitching whiskers points back at me. An opossum has joined my clowder of cats for feeding.
The cats, my resident predators, have let the enemy in. They completely ignore the intruder as I open cans one by one to the tune of “Grrrr, nom, nom, nom.” The offending opossum looks young and terrified, frozen behind the chicken feed can. I take pity on him. I leave it up to the cats to share their food or not as I latch the potting shed door for the night.