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George and Martha and the Colony of Cats

    She sat on the overturned bucket while the rest of the colony made its way to the feeder. It was a chilly morning and she hadn't really dressed for the weather, so she stuck her hands between her legs to warm her fingers. She'd been tending this group of feral cats every morning for five years now, and this was the healthiest she had ever seen them. The number of strays living in this trailer park had dropped steadily over the years; now she was able to call them all by name and could recognize whenever anything was wrong with any one of them. When she and her husband had first moved into the little blue and white trailer, the situation was different. Gradually they had noticed that there were at least a hundred homeless cats living in the park, and fights, disease, and cruelty were rampant. Unlike her, most of the neighbors saw the cats as pests, and at best, did nothing to make the situation any better. Some were openly hostile, and left poison under their decks and in their small yards. Others fed the cats, who continued to spawn darling little kittens. The kittens were often taken in as house pets. The few lucky ones had a good, indoor home for life. The others were turned out as soon as the novelty wore off, and abandoned when their families moved on.

    The woman had started out as one of the people who fed the cats. She loved it when they came running to the sound of food being scooped from the plastic container she kept under her kitchen sink, and poured into the spotless bowls she kept on her porch. She loved how many of them came to trust her and how they would purr with delight when they jumped into her soft lap for an ear scratch or tummy rub. When one of her favorites showed up one morning with a huge gash in his side, she immediately gathered him up and took him to her vet. She came home with a cat full of stitches and two weeks' worth of antibiotics, and realized that it just wasn't practical to turn him loose again. So, with her husband's consent, George joined Martha, their house cat, on the overstuffed living room sofa.

    When George and Martha decided to start a family, she realized that she needed to do something before she had a house full of kittens. She'd never had a cat spayed before. Since Martha had always been an only cat, she'd just put up with the yowling and made sure to keep the screen door latched. She spent the day of Martha's appointment worrying, and called the vet at least five times to make sure Martha was ok. Martha came home a little sleepy, but that didn't last long, and the couple noticed no difference in the cat other than her newly shaved tummy and the neat row of green stitches.

    George noticed no difference at all, and continued to pester Martha, not taking no for an answer. The hissing battles prompted the woman to take George in for his own operation the following week. From the time she put him into the carrier, George acted like a deer caught in the headlights. The normally vocal cat hadn't uttered a single word from the time the carrier door closed until they brought him home that evening. When she opened the carrier door, he bounded out and headed straight for the bedroom, where he stayed, under the bed, protesting loudly, until dinnertime. Then peace returned to the household.

    On a Sunday morning about a month later, a new cat slipped in the screen door at the woman's heels, and made her way straight to the husband's lap. She was the homeliest of the lot, a scrawny, washed out yellow tabby with scars marring her face and ears. George and Martha looked up briefly as the intruder made herself comfortable, then George noticed a place on Martha's fur that needed tending to and immediately they were both occupied in an elaborate grooming ritual. The couple looked at each other, and the husband smiled.

    They named this new cat Eleanor, and soon found that three cats were just as easy as two, not that it would have mattered. The couple would watch the trio and marvel at the difference in their personalities. The woman also watched the man, and marveled at the difference in him. He'd quickly grown from tolerance to complete devotion; really quickly, considering he "wasn't a cat person." He started a habit of calling her to come and see whenever the cats were doing something he thought was particularly endearing. Sometimes it was just a way they were cuddled. He loved how George and Martha had bonded, and made a game of pointing out similarities in their relationships. He got a lot of mileage out of Martha giving George the cold shoulder.

    An offhand remark the vet made about volume discounts when she took the tabby in for her spay made the woman laugh, at the same time forming the seed of an idea. She was a person who, when she got an idea and knew it was good, wasted no time. The next day she was on the phone to a friend at the local SPCA. After a few more calls, she knew where she could borrow live traps, who might help her fund a spay/neuter project, and where to get more information about other trap/neuter/release programs.

    Two weeks later, she was in business, and, with the help of Colonel Sanders, she had trapped three ferals the first day. It was hard, smelly work, but she kept at it and each week more and more cats sported the cropped ear that helped to identify those who had joined the ranks of the spayed and neutered. Many neighbors, watching her hoist traps in and out of her pick up, started helping her. Some donated money; others helped her trap. Her husband built feeding stations, spending long hours in his workshop perfecting the design. Scout troops and 4-Her's had joined in from time to time, and she had several fine shelters built by the vocational school's shop class. Soon the newspaper and TV station featured stories about what she was doing. From that, she had helped others start similar projects in their own neighborhoods, and conquered her fear of public speaking enough to present programs about cat welfare and humane action to her town's school children and community groups.

    In the five years since the little yellow tabby curled up in her husband's lap, 273 cats and kittens had been pulled from under trailers, brought down from tree limbs, and caught in the humane traps provided by the dog warden. The friendliest were offered for adoption, and the others were returned to their trailer park home. She'd never wavered in her belief that she was doing the right thing, even when others said she should be spending her time helping the homeless or feeding the children. She accepted the fact that everyone would like for her to take up their cause with the same enthusiasm, and that the most ardent were often those who were doing nothing themselves.

    Even people who supported animal causes were sometimes critical. Some believed that it was much more humane to have the cats destroyed, or that killing them was the only way to "get the numbers down." Others had the mistaken opinion that large numbers of outdoor cats were wiping out the songbird population, ignoring the impact of large numbers of humans. Looking at her colony of cats, with their glossy coats and sense of entitlement, no one could say that any one of them would have been better off buried in a landfill somewhere. Of course, there were still accidents, and the sad fact was that there were times she would find one of them either injured or dead by the side of the road. In a perfect world, they would all be on the back of someone's armchair, pouncing on invisible enemies behind the newspaper and purring at their success. This was not a perfect world that she offered them, but it was a better one.

    And the numbers were down. With the decline in population, people had started looking at the cats differently, especially since the cats they saw were no longer the scruffy, mangy, chewed up creatures that they once had been. There was a new feeling for the cats taking over the neighborhood - more and more were disappearing into homes to be kept strictly as house cats, and fewer and fewer were abandoned or even left outside to roam. Other animals had benefited from the changes, too, and neighbors were not afraid to speak up when a dog spent too much of his time chained to a tree, or when a rabbit was left with an empty water bowl.

    Today, as the woman watched the swirl of black and white, gray, brown and yellow, her thoughts were of the millions of other homeless creatures out there. There had been a time when she felt diminished that her success was limited to this one little town, and once, early on, she had been overwhelmed by the enormity of what she wanted to do, what she wished she could do, what she felt she had to do, and was ready to give up. Those feelings had passed, willed out of her mind by a determination that surprised her. She found a way to a balance her passion for these animals with the need to maintain some semblance of a normal life, and it was a happy compromise. She loved these creatures with all her heart, and she knew that love had made its way out into the universe, where it was becoming part of something big that would one day change the world.

    The cats, unaware of the emotion they evoked within their caretaker, continued swapping places at the feeder, each one convinced that there was a better spot somewhere and that he or she was going to be the one who found it and became Master of the Feeder. As far as they were concerned, life was good. The woman rose, picked up her bucket, and headed back to home to start breakfast.



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