Drama at the Cat Sanctuary: Social Cats and a Fire

For once, a long me-me-me post that may interest someone outside my immediate family…November 14 and 15 were quite a weekend.

First, Heather, Queen of the Cat Sanctuary, negotiated a successful labor strike. I am not making this up. You can see, even from this image of a half-grown kitten nonverbally expressing “How could you take Ivy’s picture first,” that Heather is a cat you don’t meet every day.

Last spring Heather gave birth to five kittens. Two of them, Tickle and Elmo, remain at the Cat Sanctuary.

“They’re six months old now,” I said. “It’s time they moved on to permanent homes. I don’t want tomcat odor in the house.”

“Their permanent home is my permanent home,” said Heather, nonverbally, “and you will let them in the house, and you will feed them, or I’ll move out. I may have been born in a house but I can revert to being totally feral any time I want to. I can live on wild squirrels…there are enough of them in the woods this year!”

So for ten days, while I searched for her and thought she might have been killed or petnapped, Heather skulked in the woods, and Ivy was able to catch one of the recent gray squirrel irruption. The only evidence of Heather’s survival I could find was a steady decline in the squirrel overpopulation problem.

On November 14, Heather came home, waking me around 2 a.m. After watching to see that Tickle and Elmo were fed too, she ate another meal and agreed to be friends again. I didn’t get back to sleep that night.

After the cat family drama, November 15 started out to be a bland, even boring, sunny autumn day. I put the trash in the wood stove as I usually do. I usually burn just one piece of wood with one bag of trash. I saved truckloads of scrap wood from construction jobs in 1993 and in 2006, and have almost half the total volume of wood left, today. On November 15 the trash (mostly used tissue) was on the damp side so I put in a larger scrap of wood than usual, a piece of a 2×4 instead of the usual skinny slat. I did not anticipate a need to watch the fire. I expected that about half of the trash bag and half of the wood would be in the stove, cold, in the morning.

If I’d stayed in the older part of the house (it has three distinct sections, old, new, and in between) I would have noticed that something different happened with that little trash fire. What happened was a chimney fire. If you keep your chimney nice and clean, chimney fires burn out harmlessly. If you let soot and creosote build up, the fire in the chimney can be hot enough to ignite wood or paper near the chimney…especially if the wall near the chimney is insulated with the pre-asbestos kind of petrochemical stuff that burns faster than paper.

On November 15 I learned that this can also happen if you inadvertently burn a scrap of wood that was once, long ago, treated with creosote. That wood burned bright and hot, drying and consuming the damp tissue, blazing straight up into the chimney.

All these years I’d never even wondered what the walls in the older part of the house were insulated with. Only when I smelled smoke, ran into the kitchen, and saw flames flickering inside the wall, did I find out…it was the bad stuff all right, and the fumes when that stuff burns are horrible.

When I was growing up in the house where I now live, everybody knew that the fire engines couldn’t pump or haul enough water to spray on a house that was not on a town water system; the county fire department wouldn’t do anything. You fought your own fire, and your neighbors’ if you didn’t want their fires to spread to your property, or you just stood about watching your house burn to the ground. I stayed in a house across the creek, and watched a poor old lady watch her home burn, when I was six years old. I helped save our house, and contain the fire after a neighbor’s house was lost, as a teenager. Even my depressive sister has some fire-fighting experience.

So I knew not to panic. The air was damp, the wood was not very dry, so despite the blaze from the insulation the fire didn’t spread fast. I had time to run in and out sloshing bottles of water on the flames, but the insulation kept blazing up again, and also I found out that I’m not tall enough to climb up on the roof from the ladder that was available. About that time a neighbor passed by. I asked him to try climbing up on the roof. He’s taller than I am, but fatter, and didn’t get onto the roof either. The fire was getting ahead of us. Well, why not call the fire department, I had said. On a lazy Sunday afternoon one of them might be willing to take a bottle of water up on to the roof.

About that time the county fire engine rolled up, and to my surprise the county fire department did take over fighting the fire. That is why the house is basically intact today. Inside, there’s a big hole in the wall between the two oldest rooms, a small hole in the ceiling, some damage to the chimney, some damage to the stove, and some further damage to the wiring I hadn’t dared to use since the 2011 cyclone anyway. The house still has an intact floor that will support seven large men, an intact roof that will support one of them, and mostly intact but unconnected electrical wiring. The neighbor and I might have put the fire out without professional help, but the damage would certainly have been worse.

I had planned to go into town and post that long reflection on sustainable organic gardening on November 15. I had wanted to stay home and enjoy the relatively warm, sunny afternoon. I had actually prayed about the matter and felt led to stay…at least a little later…when the fire started. So when it was over I was actually saying, “Thank you, God.”

Well, by then, it was time to call the cats to dinner…and where was Heather? I think she seriously considered going back to the woods. The other cats had missed her, too, and we all spent a lot of time roaming around in the woods, calling Heather. Then Heather took some time making up her mind whether she could stand the smell in the house. In the end, though, I think she took pity on us.

The sun was down; the temperature went down. I had considered myself over bronchitis, finally, on November 14. Deep breaths of chemical fumes followed by deep breaths of cold air brought the bronchitis back worse than ever.

On the whole, though, I think the Cat Sanctuary was better off than November 16 than on November 13. It may be a while before anybody can either cook or burn trash in the kitchen…but at least we do have Heather.

Little Orphan Ivy

This picture of my cat Ivy was taken when Ivy was about a year old. (Irene is sitting behind her, pointedly waiting for Ivy to finish smearing happy-cat pheromones on my hand.) Ivy looks a little more mature now, but she’s still a small, slim, very young-looking cat.


Ivy’s mother was Heather’s and Irene’s grandmother, so properly Ivy is their aunt not their sister. Ivy is, however, a few days younger.

The year the calico divas were born, poison was sprayed along the sides of Route 23, half a mile away from the Cat Sanctuary. I’m not sensitive to all herbicides; this particular one choked me up with respiratory allergy reactions. The cats didn’t have that reaction right away, but one of Ivy’s siblings died. Ivy’s mother then brought her three surviving kittens to her daughter and integrated the litters. Then Ivy’s brother, then her mother, and finally her sister died. Ivy’s mother must have eaten something poisoned. Ivy worried and grieved over her family but, luckily, her nieces accepted her as a foster sister.

As a result of this early loss Ivy is the only one of the calico divas who’s ever seemed to relate to me as a mother figure.

Her role in the cat family seems to be the communicator. Ivy is one of a small minority of cats who learn to recognize human words as well as dogs, birds, or horses do. I’ve seen her watch and listen when I offered a kitten a name that it seemed to accept, then nudge the kitten to respond to its name if the kitten didn’t remember its name later on. All kittens born after Ivy have answered to names.

When last year’s kittens were very young I took them outdoors and snapped their pictures. Gwai, the timid neurotic kitten, seemed too panicky even to sniff at the ground or stare at the camera. Ivy came out and nudged Gwai to watch her, then got in front of the camera and posed. Gwai calmed down and acted like a normal kitten, and everything ran smoothly.

Those buff eyebrow markings stand out and allow Ivy to use “facial expressions” to communicate with me. She has “looks” that mean things like “Let me show you something” or “Somebody is watching you.” If Ivy makes any mental distinction between strange humans, strange dogs, or strange deer, I don’t know how she expresses that distinction, but on general ideas like “Somebody is watching” she’s reliable.

Ivy has never been spayed. One year she had kittens. Then she bonded with a neutered male, and since then she’s spent lots of time with him and produced no kittens. Being a social cat, she enjoys baby-sitting other cats’ kittens; one year she adopted a litter, and this year she’s nursed Heather’s and Irene’s kittens.

Irene and the Manx Gene

Here’s Irene, the “big Mama” at the Cat Sanctuary, photographed when she was about a year old. She’s grown bigger, of course, but this is still what she looks like.

On some cats that soulful gaze might mean “Is it dinnertime yet?” On Irene it usually seems to mean “Why must you be so clueless?” and often appears when Heather and Ivy succeed in getting my attention first.

In some ways Irene is one of those pets who suffer by comparison. She’s smart, in some ways the smartest of the three calico divas–the one who usually stays indoors and minds the kittens. She recognizes some words, though probably not as many as Heather or Ivy. She demands less attention than Heather and Ivy demand from me, and soaks up more attention from kittens. The others rely on Irene to be the homebody. I’m fond of Irene, but, as the good, sweet, dutiful homebody in the family, she can be overlooked while Heather and Ivy have their dramas and adventures.

Because I’m fond of Irene I didn’t want to see, and wasn’t pleased to see, that she’s a carrier of the Manx gene. She has a complete tail, but not a very long one. She’s not much of a hunter or climber. I don’t let animals become obese, but Irene does put on fat much more easily than her American Shorthair and Siamese mixed relatives ever could. In winter I’ve had to limit her food rations. In summer, she’s not a fat cat at all, but her bones are wider and heavier than her sisters’, and her coat is fluffier. These are Manx traits. Irene, who shows no Siamese traits, has been with a Siamese tomcat and produced Siamese-colored kittens with stubby tails.

The Manx gene is lethal. No living cat has two copies of it. A cat who has one Manx gene and one of various other less functional genes is doomed to die young from what some call “Manx Syndrome.” Irene has had kittens, and they’ve died, although this year two of them seemed healthy until the resident raccoon turned against them. (Need I mention that we no longer have a resident raccoon?)

I believe lethal genes should be bred out, not in. I believe Manx cats should be sterilized. From time to time local busybodies have tried arguing with me about having my resident cats sterilized. I think the world needs more social cats, and welcome the Patchnose Family’s kittens. I’ve also watched Irene grieve when her own kittens died, then find consolation in mothering Heather’s kittens. So for the past year or so I’ve been telling the busybodies that if they’ll contribute the money, I’ll let Irene be spayed. This has at least silenced the busybodies.

The thing is that, although no cat enjoys having major surgery, Irene seems less likely to miss having kittens than any other mother cat I’ve known. So far as I can tell, her very favorite thing to do is to play foster mother to someone else’s viable kittens. Social cats rear kittens communally and Irene absolutely adores baby-sitting.

Heather, the Queen of the Cat Sanctuary

Since I’ve been using Morguefile cat pictures to sign off when I needed to feed some sort of graphic to the Google + monster, some people have asked whether those are my cats. They’re publicly shared photos of cats I’ve never met in real life.  I’ve posted photos of my cats on Blogspot and Persona Paper. Why not post them here, too.

This is an early picture of Heather, taken when she was about a year old. It accurately shows her evenly distributed, “heathered” mix of black, orange, and creamy white fur, and very dark amber eyes–one could almost say brown eyes. It does not show her extra toes. Heather has a big inner “thumb” toe on each forepaw, for a total of six toes per paw. The thumbs look as if they’d be opposable; they’re not. When she was young her extra, non-opposable thumbs looked as if they got in her way. By now she’s a big strong tough hunter cat.

Heather is a descendant of some cats who were rescued from an alley in Kingsport, Tennessee. Other remarkably clever and social alley cats have been found in Kingsport, some even in Humane Society shelters where their bloodlines were destroyed. Kingsport’s social cats seem to be a mixed lot. Some have semi-long hair, some show Siamese traits, and some have non-Siamese partial albinism.

Mine are the Patchnose Family, named after their short-lived ancestor from the alley, who was feral but learned to answer to the name “Patchnose.” Heather is a direct female-line descendant from Patchnose.

As a kitten Heather was the smallest and quietest in the litter. With her dark coat, she tended to fade into corners. She wasn’t even cuddly. She showed no signs of future Queenliness. Her sister Iris was by far the biggest, boldest, apparently the cleverest, the most charismatic, and the most dominant kitten, until their first winter, when Iris picked up an infection and stopped growing. When Heather, Irene, and even Ivy were adolescent cats and Iris was still a kitten for all practical purposes, Iris formed some antisocial behavior patterns and had to leave the Cat Sanctuary, and Heather stepped forward to become the Queen.

Any female cat can be called a queen in English. Most cats aren’t social enough to have social roles; people seldom characterize cats as alpha or beta personalities. My perception is that calico cats tend to have alpha personalities. Heather, Irene, and Ivy generally get along well–all three of them are divas but they respect each other, and if one of them really wants something the others usually concede it. Their social roles seem more like “hunter, homemaker, and communicator.” Still, Heather is the hunter because she’s the biggest, strongest, toughest, and in some ways the smartest sister. (She now weighs about twice what she did when that picture was taken. She’s not fat.)

For cats, control of their humans is a status symbol. (Sometimes bad behavior is a way of showing other cats what the alpha cat can get away with. Sometimes unfriendly or un-cuddly behavior toward you is a way of showing other cats that a beta cat isn’t disputing their claim to own you.) Although she wasn’t a cuddly kitten, Heather is an affectionate cat who runs to meet me when I come home. Often she keeps everyone waiting for dinner while she soaks up attention and tags me with that special happy-cat scent humans can’t consciously smell.

“You don’t think your cat likes you?” Oh, I’m sure Heather does like me, though I’m also sure she’s never confused me with either her mother or her babies. I’m also sure that a purr-and-cuddle session with the three calico divas has at least as much to do with status as it does with affection. I enjoy it, and they enjoy it, but Heather’s insistence on being stroked first and/or most often is the way we know she’s our Queen.