Authors: James Herriot
Two tiny kittens crouched by her side. “I think you’re right,” I said. “That’s a stray with her family and she’s looking for food.”
Helen put out a bowl of meat scraps and some milk on the flat top of the wall and retired to the kitchen. The mother cat did not move for a few minutes, then she advanced with the utmost caution, took up some of the food in her mouth and carried it back to her kittens.
Several times she crept down the bank, but when the kittens tried to follow her, she gave them a quick “get back” tap with her paw. We watched, fascinated, as the scraggy, half-starved creature made sure that her family had eaten before she herself took anything from the bowl. Then, when the food was finished, we quietly opened the back door. But as soon as they saw us, cat and kittens flitted away into the field. “I wonder where they came from,” Helen said. I shrugged.
“Heaven knows. There’s a lot of open country round here. They could have come from miles away. And that mother cat doesn’t look like an ordinary stray. There’s a real wild look about her.” Helen nodded.
“Yes, she looks as though she’s never been in a house, never had anything to do with people. I’ve heard of wild cats like that who live outside. Maybe she only came looking for food because of her kittens.” “I think you’re right,” I said as we returned to the kitchen. “Anyway, the poor little things have had a good feed. I don’t suppose we’ll see them again.” But I was wrong. Two days later, the trio reappeared. In the same place, peeping from the bushes, looking hungrily towards the kitchen window. Helen fed them again, the mother cat still fiercely forbidding her kittens to leave the bushes, and once more they darted away when we tried to approach them. When they came again next morning, Helen turned to me and smiled. “I think we’ve been adopted,” she said. She was right. The three of them took up residence in the log shed and after a few days the mother allowed the kittens to come down to the food bowls, shepherding them carefully all the way. They were still quite tiny, only a few weeks old. One was black and white, the other tortoiseshell. Helen fed them for a fortnight, but they remained unapproachable creatures. Then one morning, as I was about to go on my rounds, she called me into the kitchen. She pointed through the window. “What do you make of that?” I looked and saw the two kittens in their usual position under the bushes, but there was no mother cat. “That’s strange,” I said. “She’s never let them out of her sight before.” The kittens had their feed and I tried to follow them as they ran away, but I lost them in the long grass, and although I searched all over the field there was no sign of them or their mother. We never saw the mother cat again and Helen was quite upset.
“What on earth can have happened to her?” she murmured a few days later as the kittens ate their morning meal. “Could be anything,” I replied. “I’m afraid the mortality rate for wandering cats is very high. She could have been run over by a car or had some other accident. I’m afraid we’ll never know.” Helen looked again at the little creatures crouched side by side, their heads in the bowl. “Do you think she’s just abandoned them?” “Well, it’s possible. She was a maternal and caring little thing and I have a feeling she looked around till she could find a good home for them. She didn’t leave till she saw that they could fend for themselves and maybe she’s returned to her outside life now. She was a real wild one.” It remained a mystery, but one thing was sure: the kittens were installed for good. Another thing was sure: they would never be domesticated. Try as we might, we were never able to touch them, and all our attempts to wheedle them into the house were unavailing.
One wet morning, Helen and I looked out of the kitchen window at the two of them sitting on the wall, waiting for their breakfast, their fur sodden, their eyes nearly closed against the driving rain. “Poor little things,” Helen said, “I can’t bear to see them out there, wet and cold, we must get them inside.” “How? We’ve tried often enough.”
“Oh, I know, but let’s have another go. Maybe they’ll be glad to come in out of the rain.” We mashed up a dish of fresh fish, an irresistible delicacy to cats. I let them have a sniff and they were eager and hungry, then I placed the dish just inside the back door before retreating out of sight. But as we watched through the window the two of them sat motionless in the downpour, their eyes fixed on the fish, but determined not to go through the door. That, clearly, was unthinkable. “All right, you win,” I said and put the food on the wall where it was immediately devoured. I was staring at them with a feeling of defeat when Herbert Platt, one of the local dustmen, came round the corner. At the sight of him the kittens scurried away and Herbert laughed. “Ah see you’ve taken on them cats.
That’s some nice stuff they’re getting to eat.” “Yes, but they won’t come inside to get it.” He laughed again. “Aye, and they never will.
Ah’ve know”n that family o” cats for years, and all their ancestors.
I saw that mother cat when she first came, and before that she lived at awd Mrs. Caley’s over the hill and ah remember that “un’s mother before her, down at Billy Tate’s farm. Ah can go back donkey’s years with them cats.” “Gosh, is that so?” “Aye, it is, and I’ve never seen one o” that strain that would go inside a house. They’re wild, real wild.” “Ah well, thanks, Herbert, that explains a lot.” He smiled and hoisted a bin. “Ah’ll get off, then, and they can finish their breakfast.” “Well, that’s it, Helen,” I said. “Now we know.
They’re always going to be outside, but at least we can try to improve their accommodation.” The thing we called the log shed, where I had laid some straw for them to sleep, wasn’t a shed at all.
It had a roof, but was open all down one side, with widely spaced slats on the other three sides. It allowed a constant through-wind which made it a fine place for drying out the logs but horribly draughty as a dwelling. I went up the grassy slope and put up a sheet of plywood as a wind-break. Then I built up a mound of logs into a protective zariba around the straw bed and stood back, puffing slightly. “Right,” I said. “They’ll be quite cozy in there now.” Helen nodded in agreement, but she had gone one better. Behind my wind-break, she put down an open-sided box with cushions inside.
“There now, they needn’t sleep on the straw any more. They’ll be warm and comfortable in this nice box.” I rubbed my hands. “Great.
We won’t have to worry about them in bad weather. They’ll really enjoy coming in here.” From that moment the kittens boycotted the shed. They still came for their meals every day, but we never saw them anywhere near their old dwelling. “They’re just not used to it, ” Helen said. “Hmm.” I looked again at the cushioned box tucked in the centre of the encircling logs. “Either that, or they don’t like it.” We stuck it out for a few days, then, as we wondered where on earth the kittens could be sleeping, our resolve began to crack. I went up the slope and dismantled the wall of logs. Immediately the two little creatures returned. They sniffed and nosed round the box and went away again. “I’m afraid they’re not keen on your box either, ” I grunted as we watched from our vantage point. Helen looked stricken. “Silly little things. It’s perfect for them.” But after another two days during which the shed lay deserted, she went out and I saw her coming sadly down the bank, box in one hand, cushions under her arm. The kittens were back within hours, looking round the place, vastly relieved. They didn’t seem to object to the wind-break and settled happily in the straw. Our attempts to produce a feline Hilton had been a total failure. It dawned on me that they couldn’t bear to be enclosed, to have their escape routes cut off. Lying there on the open bed of straw, they could see all around them and were able to flit away between the slats at the slightest sign of danger. “Okay, my friends,” I said, ‘that’s the way you want it, but I’m going to find out something more about you.” Helen gave them some food and once they were concentrating on the food, I crept up on them and threw a fisherman’s landing net over them and after a struggle I was able to divine that the tortoiseshell was a female and the black and white a male. “Good,” said Helen, “I’ll call them Olly and Ginny.” “Why Olly?” “Don’t really know. He looks like an Olly. I like the name.” “Oh, and how about Ginny?” “Short for Ginger.
” “She’s not really ginger, she’s tortoiseshell.” “Well, she’s a bit ginger.” I left it at that. Over the next few months they grew rapidly and my veterinary mind soon reached a firm decision. I had to neuter them. And it was then that I was confronted for the first time with a problem which was to worry me for years—how to minister to the veterinary needs of animals which I was unable even to touch.
The first time, when they were half grown, it wasn’t so bad. Again I slunk up on them with my net when they were feeding and managed to bundle them into a cat cage from which they looked at me with terrified and, I imagined, accusing eyes. In the surgery, as Siegfried and I lifted them one by one from the cage and administered the intravenous anaesthetic, I was struck by the fact that although they were terror-stricken at being in an enclosed space for the first time in their lives and by being grasped and restrained by humans, they were singularly easy to handle. Many of our domesticated feline patients were fighting furies until we had lulled them to sleep, and cats, with claws as well as teeth for weapons, can inflict a fair amount of damage. However, Olly and Ginny, although they struggled frantically, made no attempt to bite, never unsheathed their claws. Siegfried put it briefly. “These little things are scared stiff, but they’re absolutely docile. I wonder how many wild cats are like this.” I felt a little strange as I carried out the operations, looking down at the small sleeping forms. These were my cats yet it was the first time I was able to touch them as I wished, examine them closely, appreciate the beauty of their fur and colourings. When they had come out of the anaesthetic, I took them home and when I released the two of them from the cage, they scampered up to their home in the log shed. As was usual following such minor operations, they showed no after effects, but they clearly had unpleasant memories of me. During the next few weeks they came close to Helen as she fed them but fled immediately at the sight of me. All my attempts to catch Ginny to remove the single little stitch in her spay incision were fruitless.
That stitch remained for ever and I realised that Herriot had been cast firmly as the villain of the piece, the character who would grab you and bundle you into a wire cage if you gave him half a chance. It soon became clear that things were going to stay that way because, as the months passed and Helen plied them with all manner of titbits and they grew into truly handsome, sleek cats, they would come arching along the wall top when she appeared at the back door, but I had only to poke my head from the door to send them streaking away out of sight. I was the chap to be avoided at all times, and this rankled with me because I have always been fond of cats and I had become particularly attached to these two. The day finally arrived when Helen was able to stroke them gently as they ate and my chagrin deepened at the sight. Usually they slept in the log shed but occasionally they disappeared to somewhere unknown and stayed away for a few days, and we used to wonder if they had abandoned us or if something had happened to them. When they reappeared, Helen would shout to me in great relief, “They’re back, Jim, they’re back!” They had become part of our lives.
Summer lengthened into autumn and when the bitter Yorkshire winter set in we marvelled at their hardiness. We used to feel terrible, looking at them from our warm kitchen as they sat out in the frost and snow, but no matter how harsh the weather, nothing would induce either of them to set foot inside the house. Warmth and comfort had no appeal to them. When the weather was fine we had a lot of fun just watching them. We could see right up into the log shed from our kitchen, and it was fascinating to observe their happy relationship.
They were such friends. Totally inseparable, they spent hours licking each other and rolling about together in gentle play and they never pushed each other out of the way when they were given their food. At nights we could see the two furry little forms curled close together in the straw. Then there was a time when we thought everything had changed forever. The cats did one of their disappearing acts and as day followed day we became more anxious.
Each morning. Helen started her day with the cry of “Olly, Ginny”
which always brought the two of them trotting down from their dwelling, but now they did not appear, and when a week passed and then two we had almost run out of hope. When we came back from our half day in Brawton, Helen ran to the kitchen and looked out. The cats knew our habits and they would always be sitting waiting for her but the empty wall stretched away and the log shed was deserted.
“Do you think they’ve gone for good, Jim?” she said. I shrugged.
“It’s beginning to look like it. You remember what old Herbert said about that family of cats. Maybe they’re nomads at heart— gone off to pastures new.” Helen’s face was doleful. “I can’t believe it.
They seemed so happy here. Oh, I hope nothing terrible has happened to them.” Sadly she began to put her shopping away and she was silent all evening. My attempts to cheer her up were half-hearted because I was wrapped in a blanket of misery myself. Strangely, it was the very next morning when I heard Helen’s usual cry, but this time it wasn’t a happy one. She ran into the sitting room. “They’re back, Jim,” she said breathlessly, “but I think they’re dying!”
“What? What do you mean?” “Oh, they look awful! They’re desperately ill—I’m sure they’re dying.” I hurried through to the kitchen with her and looked through the window. The cats were sitting there side by side on the wall a few feet away. A watery discharge ran from their eyes, which were almost closed, more fluid poured from their nostrils and saliva drooled from their mouths. Their bodies shook from a continuous sneezing and coughing. They were thin and scraggy, unrecognisable as the sleek creatures we knew so well, and their appearance was made more pitiful by their situation in the teeth of a piercing east wind which tore at their fur and made their attempts to open their eyes even more painful. Helen opened the back door.