I've been out here
for over six months now, and for the life of me I will never be able to understand the way people treat their animals here.
I understand the farming mentality. I know where beef comes from and that most of the lambs I see are destined to become chops.
This is a hunting community. It's bred in the blood here, the desire to kill animals. Little boys grow up learning how to shoot, how to track, how to stalk and how to kill elk, deer, pheasant, quail. I know that the deer grazing in our backyard are going to be prey for hunters come fall. Oregon law requires all hunters to register in a lottery, and everyone hopes to draw an elk tag.
This year my father drew a buck deer, which was a disappointment, but my uncle and his wife both drew elk. This means that Elk Camp will be on late next fall, a makeshift tent and RV city where all the men (and the women who drew elk tags) congregate for a week or so. It's as much a social event as anything else; the wives who choose to stay behind send breathtaking amounts of food - casseroles, potato dishes, steaks, snacks, you name it. It's a feast up there all the time at Elk Camp, and when the men aren't grilling steaks over the campfire they're drinking beer or liquor from the huge wet bar set up in someone's RV.
I don't have any issues with hunters. By and large, they respect their quarry and the environment. They hunt for sport, but nothing is wasted. The elk and deer and pheasant are cleaned and processed and frozen for the winter. Nothing tastes as good as a fresh rare deer tenderloin grilled on an open flame.
The first winter I came out here to visit my parents, I had a good scare. I went into the huge garage where my uncle and father keep all their "puttering stuff" to get a few cans of beer out of the fridge. Imagine my surprise to find that Dad had conveniently "forgotten" to tell me that an enormous buck deer was hanging over a bucket being drained of its blood.
But I understand all that, I really do.
What gets me, what makes me furious, is the way people out here treat domestic animals.
Most dogs here are working dogs; they are retrievers, trained to have soft mouths to bring back fallen dead birds for the hunters. Few of those dogs are truly pets. They live out most of their lives in concrete kennels, not knowing freedom except during hunting season. It upsets me to think of them out there in the wintertime - the temperatures here in the high desert are brutal during winter, and even though they have little doghouses for the nighttime I still believe that every dog has the right to a warm place by the hearth when the bitter winds blow.
But the worst are the cats. My parents live right on the Snake River by the main Oregon Trail crossing point. There's a small bridge close to the property, and people come from all over to dump unwanted cats beneath that bridge.
My mother has an incredibly soft spot for cats of all kinds, and she's taken about thirty-five or forty of them under her wing. Most of them aren't allowed inside, but she feeds them every morning and evening. Our family goes through about three fifteen pound bags of cat food a week. At feeding time it's amazing to watch them all descend on the card table out in back and the front porch where Mom keeps their bowls. Most of the cats are just this side of feral, but a few have taken a liking to people and are a lot of fun to play with. One of them even fetches.
As my parents live on several hundred acres, the cats have a lot of room to spread out, so they aren't a nuisance. They don't spray the area or even come close to the house except at the twice a day feeding times. Mom does her best to trap and spay/neuter all the ones that aren't transient, and she's spent well over a thousand dollars over the past five years to keep them healthy and fixed. Almost every single cat on the property is spayed or neutered, so there aren't even any cat fights to worry about. Fixed cats don't fight or spray, so it's a relatively peaceable kingdom. My father grumbles a bit at my mom, but it's all good-natured. I think he likes the cats a lot, too.
So maybe word's gotten out that this is a good place to dump unwanted animals. My suspicion, however, is that many people just abandon them by the bridge because it's an easy and semi-private place.
I'd noticed an unfamiliar tabby cat a couple of weeks ago while I was sunbathing out in front. She was skulking around near the bridge and I could tell she was attracted to the food bowls but was too scared to come too close. Hunger won out over fear, as it usually does, and she crept closer and closer to the kitty kibble. As she scarfed down the food (she was so starved she barely chewed it) I noticed with a sinking feeling that she was very pregnant. Her distended belly was a striking contrast to her scrawny frame; her ribs were clearly visible even from a distance. I sighed and tucked away the knowledge that she was with kitten.
Yesterday afternoon one of the neighbors from the adjoining property dropped by for an afternoon scotch and a little conversation. Mom shelled beans and I shucked some early sweet corn while Rex (the local charming lush) worked on his scotch rocks and told stories from his days as an EMT.
"Oh, hey. Lucy." Rex suddenly said. "I almost forgot to tell you. When I was walking by the bridge this morning I noticed a whole litter of kittens in a little nest by the bank."
"Oh god, not more of them," Mom sighed.
"'Fraid so," said Rex. He sipped his scotch meditatively. "What's worse is that they're all half-blind. Some goddam eye infection. I think one or two of 'em are blinded outright."
Mom sighed again and went back to shelling her limas.
This evening while Mom and I were having our usual pinot noir nightcap, just visiting and listening to the wind, we both heard a quavering, hoarse mewing sound over the rustle of the trees. "Must be that litter Rex talked about," Mom said, so we grabbed a flashlight and went out front to investigate. The mother cat had indeed brought her new litter up to the house and deposited them in the carpet lined hutch my father had fashioned to keep a few of the strays warm in wintertime. She hovered anxiously on the periphery of the circle of light while we stooped to inspect the litter.
Rex had understated the kittens' condition. The whole litter - three khaki tabbies and two beautiful snow white fluffballs - had eyes crusted entirely shut by infection. At first I could only see two of them clearly, but one of the tabbies turned toward the flashlight and I had to look away. The infection had eaten completely through his eyeballs, leaving nothing but two suppurating holes in his tiny head.
My mother started to cry. "God damn them," she wept. "How could anyone just leave a cat to have a full litter like that? These babies are so sick. If I'd gotten hold of them sooner I could have squirted them up with that triple antibiotic ointment I used on Opie last summer, but they're beyond help now." She swiped at her eyes angrily and clicked the flashlight off. "Well, there's nothing to be done. The momma cat obviously knew there was something wrong with them, and I'm sure she thought they'd be safer here in the kitty hutch. She might have even thought that we could somehow help them."
We walked back into the house, our warm wine buzz completely wrecked by the sight of such suffering. I closed the window, hoping to block out the pitiful mewing.
"We'll have to get your dad to take care of them while we're in Portland. I won't have time to run them to the vet before we leave in the morning," Mom said wearily. "I hate to take a whole litter away from a momma cat like that; she'll be sick from worry."
"Take care of them?" I questioned. "I thought you said they were beyond help..."
"They are," Mom said flatly. "He has to take them to be destroyed."
"Wait...wait...isn't there something we can do for them?" I was in tears myself by now.
"No, honey, they can't be left to suffer like this. They could also transfer whatever disease they have to the healthy cats. They'll have to be put to sleep."
We downed the rest of our wine as though it was medicine and Mom headed off to bed.
I'm sitting here fuming at the fucking ignorance and thoughtless cruelty of these damn local people. Sitting here with tears in my eyes at the waste, the pure waste of life it is to have to kill an entire litter of kittens. Little lives unled, little fluffballs blinded by disease. Thinking of how frantic the momma cat will be when my father gathers up her babies and takes them to be destroyed. How she'll pace and cry for days, because momma cats have long memories for their young. She'll be sore and swollen with milk, and she'll comb the property looking for those babies. Thinking about how awful my father will feel.
I can understand not wanting animals. I can understand bringing unwanted animals to the pound. I'm not so naive as to think that every cat is going to have a home one day, as much as I wish that were so. But to dump them like trash by the side of the road is to reserve yourself a nice toasty spot in hell as far as I'm concerned.