I stepped outside into the warmth of an unusually mild early March morning last week to do what I always do just before I grab my briefcase and book bag and lunch bag and head off to work. It’s nearly always dark when I leave, even as the sun gets up earlier and earlier in the late winter, so I often go about the business of feeding our cats with porch lights on and a flashlight in hand.
It has been an unwritten agreement between my wife and me that I feed our outdoor felines in the mornings as she tackles her make-up and breakfast rituals. She, on the other hand, has evening duty, most often heading out to the barn or back porch by the time I have my nose stuffed in a book or a blanket pulled up to my chin.
This winter, our cat food consumption has skyrocketed — we have considered investing heavily in Purina stock — and it’s taken no more than a few minutes with our noses pressed to our backdoor glass to figure out why: Our cats are having friends over for dinner.
Certainly, our big, old orange tabby cat, Max, is one of the culinary culprits. Normally slim in the summer, Max has swelled to Ralph Kramden-like proportions this winter as age and a general lack of interest in exercise have caught up to him. He tends to eat in increments — a morsel here, a morsel there — but by the end of the day, he has taken in some serious calories. He apparently thinks birds are now beyond his pudgy grasp, and I haven’t seen him with a mouse or shrew in his mouth for several years. Some brain activity must pulse behind that dim-witted look of his, for he’s always around come feeding time.
Max’s meal mate, Lilly, is a rough-looking little survivor. She was dumped out of a car here some years ago and decided that my porch looked more inviting than most. She is tiny and shy, and she squeaks rather than meows. Lilly doesn’t miss many meals, either, but she wasn’t eating the epic proportions that we were dispensing. Joanie and I decided surveillance was necessary…
We always knew we had a possum that raided our cat food bowls. We would flick on the light and open our back door in the process of heading to the compost pile or trash can or cabin, and there he’d be, his sardonic grin and greasy tail all part of a generally disgusting package of mismatched parts and picket fence teeth. On most nights, he’d run for the woods or under our deck, but he became more and more brazen as the months went by. I went to scooting him off the deck with a broom. “You’ll take it, and like it,” I once told him as I did my best impression of private eye Sam Spade. But now, Mr. Possum has a buddy, and if they aren’t scavenging for scraps over the hill, they are ambling by the cat dishes to see what’s left over.
The rules changed for real a month or so ago, when Joanie headed out the door with some apple peelings and discovered not the white-and-black Lilly eating, but a skunk, that was in mid-meal — Joanie even reached out for a quick pat without thinking. Like his café mates, the possums, he high-tailed it off the deck, too, at first. A few nights later, as Joanie went outside to retrieve the bowl to prevent the raids, Mr. LePew was already at the table, and instead of running, he promptly raised his tail and held his ground. It was Joanie who decided to retreat.
Ever more cautious, we decided to announce ourselves to whatever might be chowing down at the cat bowls, clomping our feet and thumping the door before heading through it. A few whiffs of the skunk’s cologne made us more wary of what might be munching in the dark, and we’d had raccoons dining in as well.
So, out to the barn our cat dishes went, and instead of us walking out the back door at feeding time, we go out a garage door, head across our basketball court, and dump our food and water in bowls we keep under the barn roof’s overhang. I did that just a few weeks ago and found, not the skunk, but a big, gray tomcat that has never bothered to register at our hotel either. He was helping himself to a meal while Max, that generous dim bulb of a host, sat not 4 feet away and watched him. The new cat has even taken to sleeping in Max’s bed, which I would certainly consider an insult, but Max apparently doesn’t care about that either. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing “Thomas” in the barn now, and I imagine he’ll be rubbing against our legs in a month or two.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear there’s a neon “Eat Here” sign near my place. I pulled in the drive early last week and surprised a flock of starlings as they were dining on our cat food, too. There were enough of them to make Alfred Hitchcock proud, and each bird took advantage of the spilled pieces from a wind-blown plate to snarf a morsel before taking off for trees.
The piece de resistance, however, came later in the week. Making my way to the barn and the cubbyhole of a tool shop I have there, I saw hoof prints in my driveway. I immediately suspected that my neighbor’s horses had been out; for some reason they enjoy grazing in my yard. I’m not miffed about the trespassing at all. Just a month or so ago, my son came by just in time to see a horse wandering around behind our barn, and one of our cats, Nelson, was playfully batting at its nose as it snapped off grass without a care in the world…
But, as it turns out, these hoof prints were not from a horse. I saw my neighbor/English student, and rider of horses, Melissa Manley, at school a few days later, and I asked her if her horses had been loose again. She said no, but her mules — Salmon and Angie — had been, and she was sorry they had run amok in my yard.
I told her I didn’t mind; the more the merrier, but I did have indisputable proof — a hoof print smashed into an aluminum pie plate we used as a cat dish — that at least one of them had helped him or herself to our cat food.
As long as they aren’t skunks, they’re welcome to it.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He will be speaking and signing at Westminster Village at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday as part of the OLLI “Big Read.” His topic will be: “Why reading is still important.”