I have to warn you right from the start of this blog that it isn’t about cute cat antics or some sort of barn cat feel-good story. It is in fact a sad story. A few weeks ago, Bert, one of our two barn cats, was hit by a car out on Oleksuk road and died instantly. It was and continues to be upsetting for me. Bert and Ernie were my kittens, and I had a bond with them. But what bothers me the most was that Bert wasn’t even a year old yet. I know that outdoor cats have shorter life spans than indoor cats, and so they wouldn’t live as long but the fact that he was so young seemed grossly unfair. It has made me question the role of the barn cat on the farm, and our responsibilities as farmers.
If you have been with us on social media for a bit, you might remember when the kittens were introduced back in the fall. The idea was that they would live in the barns as a control for rodents and birds. We were lucky to get them from a person in Thunder Bay who had rescued a pregnant feral cat. It seemed obvious to us that the kittens of a feral cat would be perfect for a barn set-up. Brody built them an elevated, enclosed and heated house outfitted with their cat food and a heated water dish, as well as a cat ladder for them to access it.
They didn’t go straight to the barns, though. I started Bert and Ernie in the house with Brody and I for about a month. I wanted them to be comfortable with people so that I could handle them. I knew I would be taking them to the vet to get their shots or to be neutered, for example, and so it seemed important that they would let me pick them up. The timeframe of a month seemed to work really well. Once we moved them down to the barn into their heated enclosure, they thrived. They nuzzled with both the ewes and the rams in their pens, took the dogs in stride and tore around the barn, jumping from tarps to poles to rafters. They napped with each other on the wool bags and happily greeted us when we showed up at the barns. At night, they seemed to explore all of the outbuildings – and unfortunately, this apparently included the road.
I know there are many folks who would say that cats don’t belong outside at all. There are apparently studies (that I have not read) that show what they do to local bird population. But that is what we got them for, as having birds or mice in our barn is a problem. For example, too much bird poop landing in the water or on the sheep’s food is toxic for our sheep. Cats seemed to be nature’s solution for this problem. But now, I watch Ernie out in a field or up by the farmhouse (and the main road) and I worry.
This seems to be the perfect life for a cat like him, but would he still choose it if he knew how much shorter that life could be? I don’t know. I don’t know whether to get him a friend or two, or let him be on his own. I don’t know whether I should try to curtail his freedom by locking him into the barn at night or let him roam. I don’t know how to teach him to stay under cover or to look up when he goes out into the fields. I don’t know whether it would have been better to have him be scared of people – would this mean he is less likely to venture up to the road?
What I do know is that I want all the animals on this farm to have a good life. I really do feel that Bert did while he was with us. And I guess that will have to be enough.