By Heather MacIntosh
As a city dweller who had always dreamed of living on a farm, when I had the opportunity to move out of the city, I didn’t hesitate. With time and patience, a sweet little 43-acre farm came into my life and I took possession in November of 2016. The property was in quite a state of disarray, all of the outbuildings were falling down and the house was rather a mess, but I had high hopes and a lot of possibly insane plans to get things back in order, get a couple of horses, and a LOT of cats.
Getting to know the community involved checking out local businesses and restaurants and one of the first places I went to eat was the South Glengarry Restaurant, and one of the first things I saw there was a poster from Roy and Cher’s Rescue Farm looking for barn homes for cats. This seemed like perfect timing and I contacted Angie and asked for a passel of pussies to start the process of bringing my abandoned old post and beam barn back to life. The first opportunity was an ambitious one, seven cats being relocated from Bainsville where they were being fed by an older person who could no longer care for them. She had not been able to trap, neuter/spay and relocate them. Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La and Te came to me from the vet clinic in two batches, the boys, Re, Fa and Sol first, followed by the girls, Do, Me, La and Te, a couple of weeks later. The process of “teaching” essentially feral cats that this big barn was their new home was something I knew nothing about and I went about it with a lot of calls to Angie and Anastasia, a Roy and Cher volunteer and a lot of time on the internet! Unfortunately, these cats were far smarter and more cagey than I and Re, Fa and Sol quickly escaped from their enclosure. Thankfully, the food in the barn was enticing enough that they didn’t leave. Of course, I didn’t know this because they were hiding in my hay loft, for a LONG time. I was sure I had failed and the cats were doomed to wander lost for eternity. Well, that didn’t come to pass but what I did learn is that caring for a colony of barn cats, many of whom were feral when they arrived at the farm, is not all about cuddling and purring, in fact, when a feral cat purrs, it likely means that they are in pain, not looking for love.
Over time, all but very few of the cats that have been relocated onto the farm have become more “tame”. By this, I mean, they allow me to pet them when they are eating their morning and evening meals and some, not many, will allow me to put them in a carrier for trips to the vet. I have learned about how to trap a cat that needs a trip to the vet, how to slip medications meant for one into food that is isolated while I keep watch that the right cat gets it, and I have learned how to use a series of extra large dog cages to create a tolerable containment space for cats who are transitioning from living in an unsafe place, usually on the streets of Montreal, Ottawa or Cornwall, into being a part of a barn colony. Over time, some cats do not stay. Fa, for instance, leaves every summer and comes back every winter. The first time he left, I was sure I would never see him again, but, every year, he shows up when the wild mice and voles dry up and he’s looking for a warm place to sleep and a reliable source of food. I wish I could put a little go-pro on him and keep track of his adventures. Other cats have been lost to predators and one to a tractor injury. The life of a barn cat isn’t always easy and it isn’t nearly as safe as living in the house. And yet, the cats who come to me are not cats who would do well living in a house…trust me, I bring them in if I can trap them when they are sick, and they are miserable! And so, I do the best I can for them. They are fed, they are loved-in as much as any of them will allow, sometimes from a distance. They live in a warm hayloft far off the ground from any predators and now they have Bear, the Livestock Guardian Dog, a big Great Pyrenees puppy, who does her best to keep predators at bay. She does a good job of keeping the coyotes, fishers and other predators—including some rather vicious raccoons—out of the barn and away from the part of the property inhabited by the cats, horses and people.
As a person who has always had rather fancy hypoallergenic cats, Cornish Rex and Sphynx mostly, that never leave the house, I am learning about the joys and heartbreak of loving the cats that have been lost, abandoned, dumped and, in some cases, those that others have actively tried to kill. For instance, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern came to me from a neighbourhood in Montreal where a person was actively poisoning cats. I am learning about loving the cat that takes months to allow you to be in the same space with it while it eats. I’m learning about loving the cat with no tail, the cat with one eye, the sisters that hiss at you until you step out of their bubble. I am also learning about letting go of the need to make everything perfect and to focus in on their health and safety. Each one is named and known and each one is cherished.
I think this set out to be a “how to guide” for managing a barn colony of semi-feral and feral cats but I suppose it has turned into a story about coming to love the animals that have been dumped, ditched and considered unloveable. These cats, even the ones that hiss and hide, have taught me a lot about how to love even those that have been left by the side of the road. Our 17-year-old Cornish Rex house cat, Sophia, died in July of this year. She had had a pretty privileged life and we shed many tears when it was time to let her go after a long period of decline. And yet, as I held Re, who I had only just begun to be able to pet and talk with, after he was hit by a tractor, and the vet made it clear that he would not survive, I wept just as many tears. Under sedation and pain medication, which was required for the examination and X-Ray, I was, for the first time, able to hold him, to tell him that he was loved and cherished, and that his short life touched mine and those who are a part of MerryMac Farm.
When the inevitable question—do you have room for one or two more?—is asked, around kitten season, each year, I always try to make room for one or two more, because I know that each Re or Fa, Beatrice and Benedick is a life of value and deserves to be spared a short life of endless reproduction, running from predators and hunger.