- Cullman, Alabama


November 3, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Cats in the garden

In the South, cats in the garden and in the greenhouse are almost a fixture anywhere you visit. They are hunters of big game, i.e. rats, mice, snakes and other rodents.

The cats in my garden have thinned out that rodent population more than is imaginable. They often leave me gifts of these little gray carcasses on the doormat.

My cats were born here, their mother was a stray brought home by my youngest daughter several years ago. We had no intention of keeping her, of course, but somehow things didn’t work out as planned. She stayed, and of course we all got attached, how could anyone help when a kitten is so cute, cuddly and helpless?

Well, kittens, like babies, grow up and sooner or later she did what cats are good at, she bred.

There’s a huge orange tabby in our neighborhood, nobody knows who he belongs to, but I know who belongs to him, you guessed it, my three cats.

They were born in a litter of seven on a freezing night in December. We brought the mother, Callie, inside and put her in the little alcove beside the water-heater. Out of the seven, two were exactly alike, twins. Later, even the vet was confounded, thinking we were bringing in the same cat to be spayed twice.

As they got old enough to go outside, Callie turned out to be the best little feline mother I’ve ever seen. She kept her kittens together at all costs. One cold, rainy night she wouldn’t leave them when I tried to take one at a time inside. She would cry and wail, following me until the last kitten was deposited in a laundry basket for the night.

She was a wonder to watch as she taught her babies to hunt. She would bring them in a straight line from the front porch to the backyard, checking constantly to make sure no one had strayed. Then she would make sure each of them crouched quietly while waiting for a chipmunk, or until an unsuspecting bird got within range. She would demonstrate what she expected of them, maybe two or three times, then she would nudge them forward to inspect what she had brought.

We watched this happen time and again, and it mast have sunk in, because the three that were left after we found homes for four, have hunted to this day, keeping critters of all kinds out of the garden.

I named them Simon, Alvin, and Theodore. My kids couldn’t understand why I named them such “ugly” names; this was way before the latest chipmunk movie came out. After they saw the movie, they “got it”.

Alvin is the biggest one of the three orange tabbies, and one of the identical twins. He is forever getting into trouble, mainly over food, or wanting attention. He is so big that it’s difficult to keep him from bossing the other two around. But, he is the best hunter of the three.

Simon, Alvin’s twin, is exactly the opposite. Shy and timid, he hides most of the time. But at night when I bring him into the garage, after he is cradled in the crook of my arm, he purrs his heart out, tucking his head under my armpit, and thinking he is hidden there. As the twins have gotten older, they fight a lot, Alvin always wins, and Simon’s ears show his battle scars.

Theodore is the sweet one. Every day he strolls up and waits to be petted. If we’re busy, he takes his paw, hooks it around an arm or an ankle, and demands attention. He is so smart that he has learned to knock when he wants in. I thought it was someone knocking on the garage door the first time he did it, then when I opened it, he ran inside. Thinking it was just a coincidence, I dismissed the thought altogether. When it kept happening, I realized he knew what he was doing.

In the vet’s office, there is a big poster of all kinds of cats, every breed known to man, I guess. Under each type, there is a list of its ancestry and its various traits. In the center of it there is a big orange tabby. It says, and I quote, “The orange tabby is the most intelligent of the domestic breeds.”

Now, I always thought so, but having it confirmed was reassuring. This meant that knocking on doors, coming to tell me when there was a snake in the yard, and ridding the neighborhood of rats, mice, and a rabbit or two was inherent in their nature, not just a fluke.

They adore children. Once when we had a little friend who was handicapped and in a wheelchair, they stretched out within her reach for over an hour, still and patient, while she played with them and had her picture made.

When we have visitors they can automatically tell who likes them and who doesn’t. I know this because they want to turn the ones who don’t like cats into cat lovers. They can spot a cat-a-phobe a mile away, and make a beeline for them every time. They want to be loved by everyone, so they rub ankles, fling themselves onto their backs, wave their paws in the air, and shamelessly beg for love. It’s as if they are saying, “How can you resist me? I’m a big ball of irresistibility? How can you fail to love me?”

Now, I can understand people not liking cats, I really can, but they earn their keep. I’d rather have a cat any ol’ day than a mouse or a snake. I’ve seen them track a snake all over the backyard. They are easy to spot, all three following a zigzag trail across the field. I know when I spot that particular pattern that I should get the hoe.

Once they even cornered a huge snapping turtle. Mean and ugly, it was hissing back at them, and snapping it’s head every way. I didn’t even know turtles could hiss.

Theodore ran to the back door to report it, while Alvin and Simon kept a close eye on the prehistoric looking thing. They proudly escorted Danny when he took it across the field to a neighbor’s pond.

They tracked an armadillo once, too. I would never have found where it hid without them.

They are about ten years old now, and sometimes when I spot shy little Simon out by the tree-line where the woods begin, my heart catches in my throat. There are wild dogs in those woods, and I’m not sure he could out-run them anymore. But, that’s his favorite hunting spot, there where the rabbits hide. He vigilantly keeps watch, crouching there, keeping the lettuce and hosta nibblers at bay.

Every gardener needs a garden cat, to keep us safe from all the bad things. 

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