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Getting Patty - and subsequently her five kittens - was an act of optimism for the Schlecht family after a run of bad luck with barn cats. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

With barn cats, as with farming, optimism is needed

On my first visit to my then-boyfriend's farm, some of the main things I remember are cats.

There were cats at the barn, and cats on the steps. Cats that followed a person around, and cats that were a bit standoffish.

That was about 12 years ago. In that time, I've married the then-boyfriend, had two kids and moved to the farm. And the number of cats around here dwindled to nothing.

It's not that the cats weren't cared for. With kitchen scraps, cat food and whatever mice they could catch, they were well fed. They also were well loved, with my daughter, my nieces and others providing plenty of cuddles.

But no amount of food or love could prevent predators from intruding on their little kitty paradise in the barn. We suspect coyotes got some of them, after we spotted the sneaky animals in the yard on more than one occasion. Raccoons also may have played a part.

In any case, the cats were gone.

Two years ago, we acquired a number of barn cats from other farms — a few adults and a few kittens. We tried to put them in the barn every night to keep them safe. But, like many old barns, it's not secure, and those little buggers would slip out as soon as we were out of sight.

And soon, we were back to no cats again.

Last year, we took a kitty break. We couldn't bear to tell our little girls any more cats had disappeared. So, for 2017, we were just a dog family.

But the cries for kittens wouldn't stop. When a neighbor offered to bring us a pregnant 1-year-old cat, we decided to take a chance.

We kept Patty locked up at all times for the first week, hoping that she'd get used to us by the time she had the kittens and stick around when we gave her freedom. She began to run toward us when she heard us coming, rubbing up against us and purring. She even proved her worth as a hunter, downing a lone bird that flew into the garage in a matter of minutes.

But the night after we celebrated the one-week mark with Patty, she slipped out of the large, outdoor kennel we had fixed up for her. And I again had to tell two cat-loving little girls that their kitty was gone.

By some stroke of luck — or because she really has come to love us already — she came back the next afternoon. She'd made friends with our dog and was hanging around the kennel, waiting to be put back in.

That night, Patty gave birth to five kittens in a variety of colors. So far we've named an orange kitten "Sunshine," a gray "Smokey," and a black and white "Oreo." Two striped kittens remain nameless until we can tell them apart. Patty's a good mama, too, purring and cuddling her babies and keeping their little tummies full.

And with that, we're a cat family again. We're contemplating turning an old chicken coop into a little enclosure in which we can gather cats and lock them up at night, the success of which remains to be seen.

For us, I guess having barn cats is a lot like farming and ranching. There are no guarantees that it'll work out. We keep trying, looking for new ways to make it work, knowing all the time it might not. But what is life without optimism? With any luck, this is the start of a long, successful stretch of barn cat stewardship.

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