A vice is nothing more than a virtue taken too far.
Everyone knows this but no one agrees where the line should be drawn. It raises some important questions:
When does thrift become avarice?
When does love become lust?
When does 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 a place where legions of semi-feral cats give chase to hosts of rodents.
Both cats and rodents proliferate during the warm days of summer but every fall, sensing the onset of bitter weather, they venture forth in search of better quarters.
Since my wife favors stray cats over stray mice, she feeds any cat who shows up in our yard.
First came Twiggy. She was a brown and white calico cat who arrived so thin that the name came to mind. I say she, because all calico cats are female and she being the first to show up, arrived 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 astounding amount of cat food that sifts through the big metal feeder on the 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 would spend his days crouched by the door, pressing his nose against the screen as he mournfully peered 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 begins to dwindle.
Some are snatched by coyotes.
Some fall prey to disease.
Some simply return to their original homes.
In the fall, new opportunities appear in old familiar places. There is a natural mortality of cats around grain bin sites. Grain trucks rumble to and fro, machinery is shifted about – and all of this heavy industry takes its toll on cats.
It is something our strays are remarkably attuned to. When a spot in the hierarchy opens up, even if it is 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.
“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 wasn’t Tux,” I told her the next morning.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“It was black and white alright,” I said, “but the white went 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 become a vice. I gave the skunk a car ride.
I figure if city people can share their pets with us, I could share our wildlife with them.