Adjusting to Working Animals after Life with Pets
The barn on our property is a converted hatchery, complete with the old scales and measures for weighing the thousands of eggs this place must have been cranking out. It has two stories, (though the second floor looks more like a scene from Indiana Jones than Restoration Hardware- that’s a project for another day), is well insulated and has electric. So far it’s been housing my planting bits, our duck brooder, hay, the excavator and mower.. and a whole host of mice and bugs. Guess which one of these I’m least thrilled with?
We’ve been tossing around the idea of a barn cat since we moved in; G wanted a working cat that could prowl around the barn and take care of any invaders, while I was just hooked on ‘we can get another cat’. Our original plan was to rehome one from a shelter, but one day someone posted the most beautiful cat on ‘Backyard Chickens of Hunterdon County’, (which G and I are both members of. This is not a group 16-year-old me expected to be a part of, but here we are). Whinny had previously been in an apartment and her owner was moving and felt that she would be much happier in a barn.
(If you were wondering, we know that the normal spelling is Winnie- but we changed it to Whinny.. like a horse.. GET IT?!? FARM?? HORSE?!??! Yep.)
A barn you say? Funny you should mention it!
G and I both..separately… took a screenshot of this cat to send it to each other. If that’s not fate, I don’t know what is!
48 hours later the two of us are sitting in a barn, trying to coax her out from under the excavator with treats. We had already done all of our pre-Whinny tasks, including:
- Ensured that Whinny had a new litter box, warm space to sleep in that was pretty enclosed, new water and food bowls, flea collar, ID tag and of course- too many toys.
- Swept up all of the extra debris from the barn floor and put away any chemicals etc
- Found a way to lock the door at night.
This last one was the trickiest for me- how was I going to lock this baby away all night?! I was raised in a household where our pets ruled the roost. My grandmother has roast beef delivered for her dog every morning. I made a calendar of photos of Fishstick sitting at the dinner table with us. Phoebe shat on the floor every single day that we had the ducks in the house- and I ACCEPTED IT!
The idea of this cat not being a pampered pet has driven me absolutely bonkers; it feels inhumane and I just imagine this poor cat sitting at the door all day waiting for me to come home, crying out… little cat tears on her whiskers!
Obviously none of this is actually happening, but STILL.
This is when I realized it’s not the cat’s mentality I need to worry about, it’s mine.
There is a real difference between “pets” and “working animals” that us city kids just struggle with. When you have a homestead, you need to get over that real quick. I think about it every time someone tells me they think my ducks would be delicious. ‘Ok Brenda, but I’m not saying that about your damn Maine Coon so step away from the coop and put the fork down!’
The ducks were my first step in this direction. Though I first saw them as pets, which you can read about here- or ask anyone I’ve interacted within the last 6 months because it’s all I talk about (as proven by my being referred to as ‘the duck lady from New Jersey at a baby shower)- now that we’ve transitioned them outside I realize that they’re much happier in their natural(ish) environment. Ducks want to forage for worms, bob in a pool, poop like a fiend and lay eggs. That’s it! And it’s not a bad life!
I’m a bit worried about how I’ll adjust to eating duck eggs, but we have a month for me to ramp myself up to it. Heck, ducks eat duck eggs. I think I’ll be ok.
Domestication vs. Diva
We’re not going to go into the history of domestication here, (though I found a great article about it here), nor are we going to go into the ethics of all of it- there is not enough therapy in the world for me to get through writing that post- but I am finding myself falling down a (domesticated) rabbit hole of ‘what is a house cat vs a working cat?’ And my crazy really comes out when it turns into ‘who am I to decide the identity of either. What if my cats have different ambitions?!’ Yeah, that’s when we say I’ve had enough internet for one day and pour another glass of wine.
Indoor vs. Barn Cats
Honestly, is any experience complete without me having a full meltdown about power and oppression? This one included my ‘human guilt’ about having the power to decide ‘which cats are second class citizens’.
(*Edit: Garret literally facepalmed reading that) It is exhausting to be married to me.
But I’m really struggling here! I see our indoor cats (Fishstick and Phoebe) lying around eating bonbons. At the same time, I’m expecting Whinny be on the constant prowl for mice. In my mind, this just isn’t fair.
Folks tell me Whinny is the one getting a good deal because this appeals to her nature as a cat. “Animals want to be animals!” I keep hearing- but after centuries (millennia?) of domestication- how do we know that?!!
Anthropomorphism- it’s a real word. I promise!
I keep asking G the same thing, ‘Do you think she’s happy?’ and while he always assures me that she’s ‘fine’ (which.. why do people say fine? What does it even mean?!). I think there’s a larger issue here: and it has to do with me, not Whinny.
Anthropomorphism (don’t ask me to say it out loud, it sounds like I’m trying to recite the pledge of allegiance underwater) is our innate tendency to describe objects or animals by using human terms. It’s like calling your car a woman’s name or telling your dog he’s a good boy. He’s not. He’s a dog.
This is an entirely natural human act, it helps us make sense and relate to objects and animals. It also increases our empathy, which is helpful when you want to talk about conservation etc. You can read all about it here.
It’s also kind of exhausting and causes us to muddle some of the natural, instinctive processes that animals have. I’m 100% projecting my own feelings about abandonment or parenthood onto a damn cat! I’m asking if a cat is ‘happy’? What is happiness to a cat?!
Slow down, I’m not saying cat contentment isn’t a top priority- you should see our cat paradise over here!
I’m not saying we should not be supremely conscious of our animals’ wellbeing and contentment. That’s not the same as happiness. It’s not to say that animals don’t feel… More like I need to check my own ish and stop projecting.
However, this is hard when you’re moving from a pet to a work animal. Pets are treated more like ‘family’ in a very human way (refer to the earlier comment about Fishstick eating at the dinner table). Working animals just feel like they are closer to their natural selves in some way; they’re less constrained by me projecting my needs for them to cuddle and they’re just out there trying to be a cat.
Whinny makes this hard because she was a pet before coming to us. I think she’s not thrilled about her change in status. She’s currently more affectionate than Fishstick or Phoebe. Whinny is constantly rubbing on our legs and just purrs from the second we come into the barn. I have repeatedly told this to Fishstick and Phoebe in an effort for them to shape up, but for some reason, they seem to not take my threat of sending them to the barn seriously.
While Whinny does stay in the barn, she is a clear member of our tribe and is a part of our routine. G wakes up first, let’s the ducks out and then goes and feeds Whinny, while I do the reverse in the evenings. We each spend time hanging out with Whinny and have started to bring her outside a bit more: spending between 10 minutes to an hour with her so she can sniff around the garden. She has shown zero interest in doing much more than sit on the steps in the sun, which is fine with me. The one time she tried to venture towards the house, all 3 ducks decided that was the moment they wanted to investigate and scared the shit out of her. It was like watching Mean Girls. She doesn’t even go here!
(I do sing Wh-Wh-Wh Whinny and the Ducks repeatedly to the tune of Benny and the Jets if you want to go ahead and gauge how crazy my neighbors think I am)
Unlike me, who is obviously an emotional trainwreck, Whinny has been adjusting beautifully. She hangs out in the barn; is happy being, brushed and snuggled twice a day, and sees no need to go out. Her new favorite trick is to claw straw off of the hay bales and sweep it over to hide her food and litter box (I think to mask the scent), as well as drop her toys in her litter box which is considerably less fun for me. In the future, we would like to leave the barn door open for her during the day, but that’s going to take more adjustment.. and fences.
All in all, here are some key considerations when helping a barn cat adjust:
- Don’t reuse other animal’s toys, bowls or litterboxes (that’s just rude)
- Ensure that the space they’re moving into is safe, warm and has enough nooks and crannies for exploration
- Set a feeding schedule, (don’t listen to the assholes that say you shouldn’t feed your barn cat so they eat mice. Those people are dicks), which will encourage the cat to return to the barn each night
- Slowly help them adjust to being outside and the boundaries of the property. We tried this with a leash for about 62 seconds and it went as poorly as you can expect
- Allow the cat to set the pace for things like exploration
- Find a good therapist
I’d love to hear your tips or insights in navigating life with animals! Drop them in the comments below! xx