Thursday, 9 August 2007


This post is about Phaea, though it won't be one of those "taken from us on this day" dirges, which I can't bear. Though she has long been buried under the bird table (it's where she'd want to be), I still miss her, so I celebrate her relatively short life by giving her star position at the head of this page.

We brought two cats to Northumberland, a blond bombshell called Humphrey (if he'd been born more recently he would have been christened Boris), and the much younger Phaea, officially my younger son's cat. On arrival at the farm where we'd bought a cottage we discovered a large colony of feral cats in residence. Humphrey hated them and, though he tried to stay out of their way, there were scuffles and spats; Phaea, on the other hand, was more successful at staying away from them (no masculine ego? though both were neutered Humph did rather retain his tomcat pride).

When Humphrey first looked frail we weren't too concerned - he had a pin in his hip after a road accident and we'd been told it would probably lead to arthritis. And although he lost weight, he continued to eat well, hunt with enthusiasm and duff Fifi up when she crossed the line (what line? who knew? Humph had an emphatic personality, as I was reminded whenever I tried to tackle the knots in his fur).
But within a year our neighbour's elderly cat had died and an unconfirmed (post mortems are expensive) diagnosis of FIV was suggested. And then one morning we found Humphrey in a state of collapse and rushed off to the vet's. Since he was suffering from acute kidney failure the kindest thing was to put him to sleep; I held his paw until he died and it was very peaceful. We buried him in the garden: I always think a house isn't really a home until you've buried a much-loved pet in the garden. Anyway, it was pretty apparent that his decline was very much the same as the neighbour's cat and that it was probably the result of FIV. After that we dropped some pretty broad hints about the farm cats - who disappeared at an alarming rate, to be replaced by skinny and unhealthy kittens - but to no avail.

It was probably too by then anyway. When a couple of years later Phaea started to ail we had the test done and she was confirmed FIV+. We kept her going pretty well despite and, for several years, I was much more concerned that she would get stuck down a rabbit hole than about her being sick. I used to watch her from the kitchen window, battling down the path carrying a rabbit as big as herself, and retiring under the car to devour it. An hour or so later, Madam Fifi would re-emerge, just ever-so-slightly rounder and immensely sleepy, and a quick under-the-car investigation would show that no more than the scut remained. Phaea, meantime, would retire to her snug place upstairs until bedtime, when she would go out again to wreak havoc among the rats in the grainstore.

She was the sweetest-natured cat I have ever encountered unless, of course, you were a small furry animal, in which case I guess she looked a bit like the avenging angel. Her outdoor pursuits were the essence of her existence -
I don't think she spent more than a handful of nights indoors in her entire life. We've never had a catflap, but she quickly learnt to let us know that she wanted to come in, by tapping imperiously on the window with a single claw. She drove our dog to distraction chasing his paws, but they adored each other and slept in a heap. Once ill she developed breath odour that emanated from the deepest pits of hell and her sore mouth meant that she drooled constantly, but her hunting continued unabated - perhaps she drowned the mice? She died during the last foot-and-mouth epidemic, when I couldn't get back to the farm and both sons had left home, which upset my poor husband dreadfully. It saddens me that I wasn't there to hold her paw.

I suppose what really prompts me to write about this is that it is only now, 13 years after we came to live here, that the farm has been sold and the new owners have rounded up the feral cats (or as many as could be caught so far) and had them neutered. In the meantime any number of them have died, since FIV+ cats are susceptible to infection. And there wouldn't be as many as there are now if the tom from the farm up the road hadn't come and impregnated successive generations. The cats were constantly complained of, blamed for ailments amongst the sheep and cursed for being ineffectual in dealing with vermin, but nothing was ever done, ensuring that FIV has remained endemic in this population, as it is in the wider area. Yet if all domestic cats were neutered (which would also decrease their wandering) and feral cats routinely dealt with, it would largely die out in an area as rural as this. I find it immensely difficult to be judgmental about others (except in the privacy of my family where we compete for the hat-and-cloak of bad taste and cynicism) but I like to think that, had the farm been my responsibility, I would have assumed that that included the cats and their welfare and Done Something.

I don't keep cats any more.


mutterings and meanderings said...

A sad tale. I didn't realise she was no longer here.

My mum's cat died just over a year and a half ago. She adores cats but refuses to have another one.

GeraniumCat said...

It took me a long time to see that there was an upside to being catless but the birdtable is now (mostly) a cat-free zone and the regulars are remarkably confident, despite the comings and goings of the dogs.

It's nice to talk to a cat from time to time, though. There's no substitute for purring.