Between the Rows: A "Free" Cat

Return on investment isn’t always a monetary matter.

Published online: May 27, 2018 Articles, Between the Rows
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This column appears in the June 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

Free. That was my only requirement when my wife and daughter decided they wanted to get a kitten: Just don’t pay anything for it. If there’s one thing of which there is a surplus in rural America, it’s kittens in the summertime. Every farmer and rancher who’s too cheap to get the half-feral mouse-catcher on the place spayed suddenly finds himself overrun by sweet, round-eyed, adorable fuzzballs. Cute as they are, tripping over a pack of kittens every time you walk from the house to the shop gets old in a hurry.

So I knew we could get one for free.

On an uncharacteristically cold and rainy day in early August, Jezebel came to our place. She was itty-bitty, barely a month old, but she was a friendly ball of energy my little girl immediately fell in love with. Over the next several months, Jezebel and my little girl became dang near inseparable. We’ve always had a strict no-animals-in-the-house policy, but Jezebel spent a good chunk of that summer with a less-than-enthused look on her feline face as she was lovingly but unceremoniously packed over every inch of the yard. Tough and manly as I try to be, even I found myself a little attached to Jezebel. As far as cats went, she was a pretty good one.

One day when my wife and daughter were away visiting family for a few days, I came home from work and stepped into the backyard. As I stepped out the door and onto the deck, Jezebel came bounding up the steps for some attention. With a flying leap, she face-planted spectacularly at my feet. Before the obligatory guffaw could escape my lips, I noticed that something was seriously wrong with our feline friend. Her left front leg, from the shoulder down, was, for all practical purposes, gone. It looked like the flesh had been simply peeled off, leaving little more than bone and ligament—a skeleton leg. I had never seen anything like it. I still can’t imagine how an injury like that would come about, but folks, it was gnarly.

Well, I sprayed about half a bottle of Vetericyn on what was left of Jezebel’s leg, wrapped it up in some gauze and vet wrap, and got her set up on an old blanket in the garage. As I was on the phone with my wife telling her all the gory details, I heard the faintest of cries from out by the wood pile. You guessed it—five brand-new kittens were there under the corner of the tarp, eyes shut tight and searching in vain for their mama. So, tenderly as I could, I picked them up and hauled them into the garage too.

This was unbelievable. A cat gives birth and gets her leg ripped off on the same day, and I’m left alone to decide just how compassionate I am. I discussed it over the phone with my wife, and she concluded the conversation with, “It’s up to you, honey”—literally the last thing anyone ever wants to hear. After some soul-searching, I determined that I was a softhearted fool who simply couldn’t make himself take a .22 or a shovel to his little girl’s beloved pet. So I started calling vet clinics.

The estimate from the clinic closest to my house? “Between $1,000 and $1,200, sir.” A thousand bucks!?! I had come to grips with the fact that, against everything I had thought I believed, I was going to do what I could to save the stupid cat, but even the sentimentality of a sucker like me has its limits. I eventually thought to call the place out by the livestock saleyard, and they were, if not reasonably priced, at least believably so. The next afternoon, I walked out of the Animal Health Clinic the owner of a three-legged, rabies-vaccinated, $274 dollar cat.

And you know what? It’s been worth it to me. It might not be to you, and I completely get that. I mean, it’s a cat. Watching the wonder and joy in my little girl’s eyes as she helped her nine-tenths of a cat raise that litter of kittens—whether Jezebel wanted help or not—may not have been priceless, but it was worth at least 274 of my dollars.

I have no doubt that you’ve had times (probably just yesterday) when you wonder if this farming deal is really worth it. For a smart guy like you, there are certainly easier ways to make a buck. You’re perfectly capable of making a decent living selling loveseats or owning a few Burger Kings. Surely that’s easier than fighting broken-down equipment and politicians and aching joints and Mother Nature herself for every penny. But if you’re reading this, chances are you’re not a regular smart person. Yes, the bottom line of the balance sheet is the reason for most of the decisions you make on the farm. But the decision of being on the farm is a bit deeper than that, and you know it.  

The bottomest-bottom line is this: Whether the income is monetary or sentimental, you want to get a decent return on your investment. And that doesn’t always show up on a balance sheet.