Our small, tiger-striped cat, Madeleine, hasn’t been seen for a week, and we fear the worst. In the year and a half she’s lived with us, we have come to appreciate her finer qualities, especially as compared to our cranky, disheveled senior cat, (M)Alice, who has been around forever. Madeleine was not a bright cat, but she was tidy, quirky and affectionate. She had a sweet little meow and a ready purr, and we miss her.
Living in the country as we do, Douglas and I are keenly aware of the natural world around us. The whimsies and vagaries of the changing seasons feel very immediate. The forest encroaches; we do constant battle to keep it from infiltrating the lawns and the field. But it is the animal life that we experience most dramatically.
Although we appreciate and respect the wild creatures who share our small corner of the world, our encounters with them are not always charming. We can cope with an occasional deer in the garden, the raucous crows who wake us before dawn, the extended family of turkeys blocking the driveway and the small platoons of mice nesting in the winter barn. Even the hornworms in the tomatoes — these are all manageable inconveniences. But there are other, more perilous, forces afoot, and signs that Nature is taking its sometimes-violent course all around us.
Early one morning, we found a dead skunk just outside the back door, neatly eviscerated and with its head torn off before it had even had a chance to spray. We’ve seen a hungry coyote trotting along the railroad track and heard a family of them howling in the near distance. Once, in a fresh-fallen snow, we found the clear impress of an owl’s wing under the bird feeder; a few feet away, the snow had been churned and bloodied in some frantic battle for survival.
But it is the foxes we encounter the most. We sometimes smell them when we’re out walking — a sweet, murky scent, something like a skunk but different. We hear them at night, a weird, sharp bark from the wooded hill behind the house and sometimes much closer. And it’s not unusual to find scat nearby, often on the driveway, sometimes in the grass right under the livingroom windows.
Knowing what we do, we would be justified in keeping the cats indoors all the time. Many people do just that, for reasons that include protecting the cats as well as protecting the lives of the wild birds and small rodents they so enjoy stalking.
But, like many country-dwellers, we choose to have indoor/outdoor cats. To us, it seems more natural, more humane to have them out in the world. In addition to happily following us on our neighborhood walks, rolling in the grass and dozing on the warm asphalt of the driveway, the cats make at least a small dent in the mouse population — albeit at the cost of an occasional chipmunk or chickadee, and, once, regrettably, a handsome little red-and-white weasel.
We do bring them in at dark, if they’ll come. (M)Alice is always ready, but Madeleine often balks, huddling in the grass under the aluminum boat, skittering away if we try to pick her up and even rejecting the special little treats we offer. Those nights when she just won’t succumb to our entreaties, we leave the driveway light on bright, latch open the barn door just wide enough for a small cat, send a little blessing out into the night and go to bed.
We take the same precautions when we’re away for a few days — cats out, light on, barn door propped narrowly open, food and water inside. And until last weekend, it worked. But Sunday afternoon when I pulled up the driveway after leaving Thursday evening, only (M)Alice was there to greet me. Inside the barn, the food dish had been hauled across the floor and was, uncharacteristically, completely empty. Some other animal had been in there, and Madeleine was gone without a trace.
All this week, we’ve looked for her, called her, called her again. We’ve left the light on and the barn door ajar. The older cat isn’t saying anything, but she’s been sticking close and seeking more attention than usual.
We feel miserable about losing Madeleine and we hate to think of her in fear or pain. There’s a diminishing hope in our hearts that she’ll come wandering up the driveway some afternoon as if nothing had happened. But she probably won’t, and it probably won’t change our approach to country cat-keeping.
Like all animals, even humans, our cats have a place in the natural world. We feed them, we play with them, we protect them to a certain, undefined point and we love them. And sometimes, sadly, we lose them.