Pepper the house cat on a rare foray in the garden.

A barn cat is a feral thing. A spitting, skittish ball of fur, happy to lay in the sun but happier when you resist the urge to bend down and pet it. Or at least that’s what I imagined. Someone forgot to school our new barn cats in the quiet dignity and outright condescension of their species. So much for the barn idea. They are scratching at the doors. They are begging at the windows. They are living in the garage.

When you have a barn, you have mice. Whatever is stored therein is fair game for creatures of many sizes and shapes, but most particularly, mice. Car cables, electric wire, camping equipment….. If you have ever had a mouse jump out at you from a bag of Miracle-Gro whilst you were potting up annuals – and survived the consequent heart failure – you don’t soon forget how quiet and clever they are.

We feared the worst when we first explored the old barn, but instead found that summer had equipped us with the best of predators: barn snakes. Black snakes to be precise – at least five of them. Nary a mouse to be seen.

The barn was protected. But cooler weather soon put our symbiotic relationship into deep dormancy, resulting in a bloodless coup on the part of the mice.

Cats were called for (our housecat was currently spread a little thin by a new garage and basement to patrol) and by chance, a friend asked if I needed kittens.

My first mistake was to let my twelve-year-old accompany me. She stroked them all in turn and decided upon a calico and a gray tabby – the friendliest of the lot. I had my eye squarely on a timid Siamese point, and her shy patchwork sister who scratched me deftly, but children tend to win these little battles. I made sure she understood the limits of their world: mice, not milk; prowling, not purring; in short – Sparta not Athens. She agreed but ended her sentence with the words, “I’m going to play with them every HOUR!”

Daisy & Tiger Lily - surprisingly in the barn

Daisy & Tiger Lily – surprisingly in the barn

God help me. We set up their quarters, knowing full well that winter in a barn required a sleeping igloo and a thermostatically controlled water dish. Thankfully, the cats had never known any luxury, having been whelped and raised in a garage with no chance of seeing indoor carpet and expensive sofa scratching posts.

October is a pleasant month in the Mid-Atlantic. They explored the barn continuously, patrolling the attached potting shed and curling up in their igloo. Fairly soon, they caught a rather ancient elder of the tribe Mouse. I was relieved we we were on the right track.

Enter Polar Vortex stage left.

Ironically, the very thing that forced the last country mouse to consider his risk/safety index and head INTO the barn, was the very thing that convinced the cats to head OUT of the barn, cross the Rubicon that is our creek bridge, and make a beeline toward the house.

It was their Rubicon, not mine. I took them back repeatedly, only to find that they could jump down from under the eaves of the barn without any trouble. Should we harden our hearts and ignore their plaintive cries on a winter’s night at our bedroom window, it came with the sleep-disturbing knowledge that they could not give up and return to the comfort and safety of their barn digs.

They’re in the garage now – marking up the Subaru and sleeping on top of the furnace. Yet the space is curiously void of mouse bodies; the cats having felt so rested after a warm night and so spoiled by my daughter’s endless supply of kibble, that a nap seems the only sensible thing to do.

Guess the best laid plans of mice and men favored the mice this time.


Reprinted with the permission of The Frederick News Post.