This comes as no surprise, since it says in my bio at the bottom of every post that we raise “barn cats and Christmas trees” on a farm in southern Michigan.
My friend Todd Marshall finds this a source of endless amusement; we are seldom together when he does not make some joke about it. This may be because I have widely read blog post about how to cremate a cat.
OK, so only 72 people read it. But Todd doesn’t know anyone else who ever even thought of it. And Todd has all kinds of unserious questions about our cat ranch, so it is time for some unserious answers.
Here, then, is the complete guide to cat ranching.
How to name a cat.
We have only one indoor cat with a proper name, Keturah. The rest of the cats have only the “name the family use daily,” as T.S. Eliot puts it in “the Naming of Cats.”
These are “everyday sensible names,” but most of them are unnamed. We have 12-14 feral cats who live on our property, but the ones with names are Black Cat, Momma Cat, Mister Cat and Big Sister. Otherwise you have to have a feature to get a name— like Calico Cat.
Our granddaughter Tabby has her own names for the cats. And of course every cat has his or her own private, “ineffable effable name” which only the cat knows. (You would do well to read Eliot’s poem, which is much better than this blog post.)
How to cull the herd.
Make them stay outside. Cat ranching is based on natural selection. The cats have to get through the winter without getting eaten by a predator or hit by a car. We provide a couple of bales of hay in a shed.
How to breed cats.
No special skill or knowledge is required, unless you prefer a certain color. We don’t. We have extra cow cats this year—black and whites.
How to manage the herd.
This is the hard part. But if we can catch it, we take it to the humane society and have its reproductive capabilities reversed under the “forgotten feline” program. This costs $10, which is a bargain.
How to feed the herd
Meijer has cheap bags of cat food, the cheapest we’ve found. Keturah gets the good stuff, however. She is family. We spend more on her than the entire herd, for practical and philosophical reasons that we will explore.
So now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s review the business plan and other challenges or rewards of maintaining a herd of feral cats.
First, however, please note that I am a dog person. But there is no reason I can think of to be an empty nester and have to take care of a dog.
But even though I’m not drawn to cats I get some enjoyment from looking out the kitchen window to see a well-managed herd, or at least three kittens playing king of the mountain on the windshield of our minivan.
The business plan
We raise barn cats to save money, not to make money. There may be a market for feral cats I don’t know about, and at least one I am unwilling to take seriously, but we have only two business objectives: To keep rodents from eating the wiring in our cars and to keep ground squirrels from running around in the ceiling of our rental unit.
Our sons used to try to shoot the squirrels with a .22, and this was much cheaper than buying cat food. But it never really worked. And then the winter they did over $800 damage to the wiring in our car and our renter’s truck, we started feeding the barn cats.
Enter barn cats, exit squirrels. Feeding them may cost us $300 a year, but we have not had any more problems with the wiring or noises in the walls or ceilings of our rental unit.
That’s because cats, as it turns out, are much more violent than you thought. A “kitty cam” study in Georgia found that even 30% of house cats kill two or more other animals a week. Given how little barn cats are fed I expect our herd is responsible for a great deal of carnage, as evident by the occasional tuffs of hair they leave by the back door.
Frogs, lizards, snakes, voles, squirrels, even rabbits. Cats are not as cute as you think. Really, they’re not.
It’s a bloody business, cat ranching.
But everybody has to save a buck or two.