I grew up on a farm during a time when man’s best friend was his hunting dog. The farmers in my community did not have much use for any animal who could not be of some benefit or service. Horses, or our mule, Bess, were a big help on the farm. The cow gave the milk we drank and from that fresh butter. Chickens gave us eggs, and their lives in turn for Sunday dinner. Once a year, some of our pigs were slaughtered in a co-operative effort by neighbors in the community and the meat put up in smokehouses to feed our families during the winter.
That is why it was so unusual that my father allowed me to have a pet cat in the first place. When my three brothers and sisters and I, all of us between 6 and 11 years of age, heard the faint meow of a stray cat coming from the edge of the woods surrounding our farmhouse, we were excited and intrigued. The quick glimpse we were able to get as the wild, frightened creature made a dash from bush to bush revealed a scraggly, emaciated, and wide-eyed tabby cat.
The cat didn’t want to have any contact with us but was driven out of the woods by hunger. Each time we tried to approach him, he ran deeper into the woods, but meowed and came back towards our yard when we retreated. Armed with a bowl of milk from our kitchen, we were determined to make friends with this creature so he would let us pet him. We sat very still for a long time with the bowl a few feet away from us and waited for the cat to come to it. He would come near, but never close enough to drink or to let us touch him.
After a while, my brothers and sisters gave up, but I was determined to win this cat as my friend. I talked to him, sweetly and softly, in my child’s voice and coaxed him to come and eat. Every day, I would put out milk or water and some scraps from the table and leave it. It would be gone the next day, but the cat would never come out of the woods as long as I was watching him.
After about two weeks, I came upon the cat one day while he was eating the food I had left for him. He jumped back but returned to the menu when I stopped a few feet away and stood very still. I whispered to him, and, soon, he continued to eat. It was a long process, but, finally, I was able to pet the cat a few times and eventually to play with him and even to hold him in my lap. I was very proud because I had “tamed,” a wild kitten, and he was now my pet.
“He” turned out to be a female, and I named her Chipmunk because her coloring reminded me of these little creatures. My dad had given me a grumpy “no” when I first asked to be allowed to keep the cat. He must have been impressed with my extraordinary patience and efforts to befriend the cat, or perhaps he recognized the need of a small child for something to care for and nurture.
I spent many happy summer days petting Chipmunk and playing with her. I also learned a lot about caring for animals and what things they will and will not tolerate. Once, I thought of dressing her as I covered my dolls and made the mistake of trying a small red scarf loosely around her tail. Frightened, she took off like a balloon that suddenly lost its air and flew around the yard like a wild beast until she had shaken off the scarf.
Looking back, I realize that this little kitten had been a feral cat and would have died if not discovered and fed by my family. I have owned many pets since my first encounter with Chipmunk, but none have brought more joy and happiness into my life than this little creature born to an eight-year-old girl.