A vice is nothing more than a virtue taken too far.
Everyone knows about this relationship between vice and virtue but few agree where the line should be drawn and it raises some important questions:
When does thrift become avarice?
Or love become lust?
Or belief become delusion?
But most important of all, when does empathy become a yard full of stray cats?
It is something my wife and I argue about. Her definition of where too many cats begins and my definition of where empathy should end is an annual squabble.
This is farm country. A region where grain bins punctuate the horizon and legions of semi-feral cats give chase to hosts of rodents.
Both cats and rodents proliferate during the warm days of summer but every autumn, sensing the onset of bitter weather, they venture forth in search of better quarters.
And my wife feeds any cat who shows up.
First came Twiggy. She was a calico cat who arrived so thin that the name came to mind and I say she, because all calico cats are female. Being the first to show up, she came when empathy was in full bloom.
Then Elvis turned up.
Then came the horde of nameless cats who scamper at the edge of our vision like shadows in the night. We only know they are there by the measure of cat food that sifts through the big metal feeder on our deck.
But then came Tux.
He was too fat, too sleek, too friendly for a barn cat. He was a city cat, who somebody tossed into a ditch. It happens all the time.
So he joined the scrum on the deck.
It is not where he felt he belonged though. He spent his days pressing his nose against the screen door and mournfully peering inside at our three house cats, who are nowhere near as generous as we are.
We could have taken him to the animal shelter but those good people have grown weary of us. One of these days they will lock their doors when they spot our truck – but they haven’t yet. I gave them a break this time – so I guess we are all learning the boundaries of empathy.
But as the seasons turn, a curious thing happens: the number of cats in our backyard dwindles.
Some are snatched by coyotes.
Others fall prey to disease.
A few simply return to their original homes.
In the fall, new opportunities appear in old familiar places. There is a natural mortality of cats on the farm. Grain trucks rumble to and fro, machinery shifts about – and all this takes a toll on cats.
It is something our strays are remarkably attuned to. When a spot in the hierarchy opens up, even miles away, they will know and scamper off to claim it. So by the first snow, we will be back down to our normal quota of yard cats.
It is just part of rural life.
It is an environment that is harshest on the city cats. Though we keep the feeder full and put down straw in sheltered places – few city cats have what it takes to make it through a Minnesota winter.
“Have you seen Tux lately?” my wife asked one morning.
“No,” I told her.
She looked out the living room window to check on the cat feeder. “I thought I saw him last night,” she said.
“I doubt you did,” I told her.
“I am sure I did,” she said.
So that night when I heard the rustle of frozen leaves and the scratch of claws on the feeder, I glanced out the window.
“It isn’t Tux,” I told her.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“It is black and white alright,” I said, “but the white goes from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail.”
I took care of it.
I know how to live trap skunks without getting sprayed and when I got him, I took the virtue of generosity to the point where it could be considered a vice. I gave the skunk a car ride.
I figure if town people can share their pets with us, I can share our wildlife with them.