Herding Those Cats

by Jim Cleveland (from Grinning Through Apocalypse)

 

It's like herding cats, they say, implying that it is a frustratingly difficult challenge.

 

Indeed, the feline mind is individualistic and responds poorly to both pushing or pulling,yet it must have been that very challenge that motivated my great grandfather, who turned the herding of cats into a lucrative profession, for awhile anyway. He was always up for a difficult challenge.

 

Of course this was in the old country, and in a time where people lived quite differently than they do today.

 

Villages across the windy and cold countryside were invariably poor, the families scrapping for food among a few root crops and the mice of the field.

 

In time, however, as garbage dumps in the villages grew larger, they attracted many more mice, and they soon grew into rats. And so the villagers were able to turn their refuse piles into a source of food, meat, protein. Soon every man in the villages were commonly seen with long rat-killing pipes strapped to their waist and legs. The clubs became known as 'ratatouilles' or rat tools and they were quite effective against pudgy rodents sated with beet and turnip greens and defecation.  Later, a stew-like dish became known as ratatouille as well.

 

This food chain worked well for a few years and the diet of the villagers was improved. But soon, wild and resourceful predators showed up -- fierce cats who began to harvest the rodents and drive the villagers, with their swinging cudgels, from the feeding fields.

 

In truth, these ferocious, sharp-clawed cats were the embittered ancestors of a time when the village did have a few house cats as pets. But when the people began eating the cats, there was panic and only a few cats managed to escape into the wilds, where they began breeding on their own and living, no doubt, embittered lives.

 

And now these cats had returned, direly threatening the rat food supply. The villages first tried withholding the garbage, but to no avail. The rats soon dug underground and made elaborate tunnels to evade the cats, riddling the landscape with a subterranean culture that the villages soon began to call Rodentia. Cats began to invade the villages and break into dwellings in search of rodents that might be harbored, and even secretly bred, by the citizens.

 

Into this war scene stepped my great grandfather, a successful businessman and the inventor of the spray bottle, which had pumped new vigor into seltzer water sales from coast to coast. He saw both a business opportunity and a way to refute the folk legend about cat herding difficulties. If he could actually herd cats successfully, and replicate the system in any village, then his fortune would be made.

 

The village of Buttchiques was the first to contract with my esteemed ancestor, and soon he arrived to address city hall flanked by a team of workers in leather body suits and armed with a belt of seltzer spray bottles, containing a variety of attack liquids. They wore heavy boots with spikes protruding from the toes.

 

An elaborate geographical and architectural plan was hatched and on the prescribed day of attack, a solid line of human operatives in full leather, spray bottles at the ready began marching down off the hills surrounding the villages, a wave of cats reluctantly going before them, angry but giving ground readily to the barrage of spritzer bottles.

 

Down across the garbage land they ran, the spraying mass of humanity pressing them on steadily, crunching their boots through the mushy pile and spurting water spray as their vanguard. Cats hated water and my great grandfather knew how to make the most of it.

 

Into the village they ran, past all the securely locked doors and windows, scrambling across the cobblestone streets in a screeching, meowing mass of aqua-induced discontent.

 

There was a park full of trees on the waterfront, but they provided no refuge. Some in the squalling cat mass tried to climb the trunks or leap onto the low-lying limbs but my great grandfather was way ahead of them. Armed men were stationed in the trees and fiercely sprayed down the cats, which fell back into the mass, and it roiled raucously on toward the water.

 

But driving hundreds of wild cats into the water was, of course not realistic, and not part of this splendid plan. A brick wall some 500 feet long had been constructed there on the coastline and the cats were driven straight into it, eventually to the center where a wide portal, a tunnel in the wall, was the only means of escape.

 

And so the cats ran headlong through the portal and into the dark tunnel that led outside and starkly to the ocean cliff. There they crashed in huge numbers off the cliff and onto the unforgiving rocks below. Many cats perished. Those few that survived were washed out to sea or else battled down favorable currents to an island several miles away.

 

The operation was a triumph and my great grandfather had launched a service business for the entire country. It would be coupled with a big upturn in seltzer bottle sales, and all was well. The high protein rat diet was restored while providing a productive means of waste disposal.  It was a win-win.

 

My ancestor was deemed a 'catter' and that was how those in the new cat herding profession would be known. The wall in Buttchiques was known, historically, as the Catter Wall. Others would follow up and down the country. When there was no rocky coastline to send the spritzer-driven felines, huge pits were constructed on the other side, where the fleeing cats would fall into electrified water pits. Their shocking conclusions would provide yet another protein source for the village. My great grandfather would parlay this new technology into yet another successful business in electrical cattle prods.

 

But then it all changed. Somehow a contaminant was introduced to the food supply. While the rats seemed unaffected, a horrible plague swept across Buttchiques and other villages. A mysterious ailment was killing people and yet the rodent food supply was unaffected -- very perverse.  How could this be?

 

Finally, the villagers had mostly died, but a few over 50 bedraggled survivors made their way down the coastline, and were soon seeking refuge on a small island just off the coast, to where they could wade. Perhaps being off the shore would be some protection against the ravaging disease.

 

Alas, they were met strongly at the beach by a herd of wild cats. There they were, ferocious survivors of my great grandfather's elaborate panacea to the village they had imperiled. Whether the creatures  consciously hated the humans is a matter of speculation, but they had no intention to share the island and were at the ready with fangs and claws and bristling back hairs.

 

The desperate and unarmed surviving humans would be no match for the wild cats, for sure, and so they tried a gesture of feigned friendship. Some had brought along dead rats and now they offered them to the cats that were commanding the shoreline. It seemed that the gesture of friendship might actually work, but in the short term, the cats ate the bounty and still disdained the humans and drove them back into the shallow water to take their case elsewhere, back to the mainland.

 

Soon, however, all of the cats died of the plague. The humans were huddled on the mainland beach in a cluster of shacks and they found a new diet there, of crabs and fish and shrimp. They developed a new way of living and of eating.

 

One day, they sent a pair of men back to the island, only to find all of the cats dead and gone. The area was littered with rotting corpses and skeletons. What could possibly have killed them? The surviving humans were wondering what it was that they couldn't see. It had to be a curse of some kind. Why? Because curses  could not be seen. No one had ever seen one. They were not material. It had to be a curse.

 

They had actually tried to help the island cats, having sacrificed the rat protein they had taken to eat along the trail to placate them, and perhaps make them more docile. Whatever had befallen the cats, at least they were not to blame.  In fact, they could have co-existed with the cats, the humans thought now, unless they would sometime be needed again for the food supply. Anyway, they inherited the island.

 

Above all, the humans knew now that they must be constantly vigil that future garbage piles not be contaminated with whatever it was that contaminated the one in their old village. As the village grew again, one of its top priorities was to build a large fence around its garbage dump so that this unknown menace might be kept out and not poison their rodent food supply.

 

While they could not realistically build a new rat population unless there was food, my great grandfather was able to help again, by selling the village electrified fencing. In the morning, it became a gratifying ritual for villagers to walk the fence and collect a variety of already partially cooked and hair seared carcasses -- a ready source of protein without endangering the village's garbage resources, which were only being used as a lure now, and not open to some contaminant as it would be on unfenced property.

 

And then my great grandfather intervened again. Now retired and an Extinguished Fellow at the Global Critter Institute, he had long taken an interest in Buttchiques, that being the location of his breakout fame. It was to his lament that the deserted village and his vine-enshrouded Catter Wall were all that was left of this once redeemed village.

 

Together with other professors, he now visited the survivors of Buttchiques downstream, on a small island they now called Catskills, commemorating the mass die-off of the felines there. The people were told now that new scientific findings were indicating that the garbage pile itself would be inherently contaminated, with an invisible curse upon it.  It was now speculated that the Great Source above had made this so in order that man be implored to bury or burn this kind of refuse and not have such dumps sully the beautiful landscape of the Divine Creation.

 

Science now also indicated that the rats were polluted by the curse of the garbage and spread that curse, which erupted in disease, to all of the village. That explained why people who had not been to the garbage dump at all took ill and died with the others. The curse used the rats in a kind of ironic vengeance, a blessing of protein wrapped into a killing curse that they brought into the homes. Such irony.

 

Soon, the new village was burying its garbage and killing all rats and mice on sight, while enjoying a new seafood diet that made everyone more healthy. It was discovered that cats are strongly attracted to a seafood diet and so a few wild survivors began to hang around, beg for food and become domesticated. And so, eventually, most homes had a loving cat and they had seafood feasts in the evenings together with the family. Kids played with the fish-sated felines and all was well.

 

Meantime, my great granddad parlayed new knowledge into yet another new business. He turned fish scraps into cat food and sold it in cans. For the labor required, he was able to send a ship to Ireland, where the potato famine had made many destitute. These workers were carried across the sea to establish new villages and work in the cat food plant.

 

Soon, they were to be known as the Meow Micks, immigrant workers launching  this new business which would bring additional investment into the area. Later, this slang name became an actual brand name for the company, as did Nien Lives, named after the island of Nien, where the resurrected human village first found life when the cats had all mysteriously died after being driven from the old village and colonizing there.

 

My great granddad also had his famous Catter Wall monument removed from the old village site and transported brick by brick to the island. To entertain visitors to the island, he soon installed pegs into the wall and founded a lucrative new business. He combined the walls and pegs with a harness operation on a wire and turned it into a successful amusement feature, soon marketing it to theme parks across the world as a challenging climbing experience with either triumph at the top or an exhilarating swing at the finish.

 

By now, of course, the catter business was completely gone. There was no reason to herd cats any more and they mostly lived in separate households, having humans to feed and clean up after them for all of their lives.

 

Lacking both cats and rats as food sources, the villagers built fishing craft and set sail to harvest more and more seafood, which had become the diet staple, and a source of food for the pet cats as well.

 

My great granddad, very aged by now, still had the savvy to develop another business in his last years, powerfully strong fishing nets developed from catgut, a product of the Critter Institute laboratories. This required some inter-breeding among known cat species in order that the gut itself be exceptionally strong. These cats were named fittingly after my great granddad, whose name was Alexander Lee, but referred to by all of his friends as simply Al Lee.

 

In time, the famous Al Lee cats, as they were known, were recognized as the most rugged and hearty breed one could own. Their gut strength was extraordinary.

 

In Mr. Lee's golden years, research was being concentrated on reducing cat food costs by setting up a system wherein they eat human garbage. Rats, naturally attracted to garbage, would be electrocuted by hidden implants inside the garbage piles and their carcasses would provide ever more food for the cats. The cats would be nurtured on garbage and dead rodents at hardly any cost at all, except for the electrical charges from my great grandfather's utility company, which had grown out of the electrical cattle prod business.

 

It seemed to be a  good plan. Mice consume waste and become rats wherein they are executed by electrical charges embedded within the heap, in order become placid food for mild-mannered domesticated house cats who could simply be  free to forage. They wouldn't have to be fed nearly as much canned food any more and the one-two electro-cat strategy would keep communities clean from the cursed garbage.

 

But times had changed. People now feared garbage piles as inherently contaminated and cursed and believed that the rodents  carried that curse out to the people, and they might get sick and die as had their ancestors in the plague years. Society began to burn garbage in big smoking incinerators where the poison was pushed up into the sky. Or they dumped it at sea so that it could dissolve in water. Rats were despised now, and killed at every opportunity in an effort at total eradication. And cats, whom people agreed had a lovely appearance and a comforting presence, invariably dined on commercial products at varying levels of quality in a tiered market. With the knowledge that their cat food sales would also be cannibalized, the idea was dropped. Garbage food was simply out of style.

 

How times had changed on that day that Mr. Lee passed peacefully during his afternoon nap,  a pedigreed and very fat Al Lee cat snuggling in his lap and one of his signature spritzer bottles by the chair.

 

The cat had inexplicably taken to getting into the kitchen garbage pail for scraps and Mr. Lee had resorted to spraying water in his face to discourage the behavior. He had worried that the cat might pick up a germ. There was this very new concept that tiny, invisible curses called 'germs' were everywhere around us, little teeny bits of unseen near nothing that would make us sick.  It seemed far-fetched, but still possible.

 

My great grandfather had seen many changes during his lifetime, from a young and wild catter subduing the feline population to the developer and nurturer of a new wave of domestic felines named for him that now served the pet needs of countless citizens of his country. Where once he worked to destroy these animals he had come to breed and feed them and furnish them to captive and captivated households nationwide.

 

In the end, it was a victory for the cat kingdom, which no longer had to forage in garbage to eat, but were still free for recreational grazing as they wished. The docile and doting humans were responsible almost completely for their upkeep.

 

People even laugh these days that you can't herd cats. They're going to do what they want. Hahaha.

 

But I have read the family history and I know better. And I learned a few lessons as well.

 

My company now has access to seven African countries where my team of operatives fly into controlled zones and corral lions and other wild cats for the zoo trade. They use a new generation of electrical prod and fencing technology, excellent catgut netting and spritzer-delivered cat food laced with sleep inducing chemicals. Cats are herded to a wall constructed of compacted catnip.  An animalistic version of Ambien is simultaneously sprayed from planes overhead. Within an hour, my company can load up a dozen or more cats and we fly them to zoos all across the country.

 

It's not only possible to herd cats but under the right circumstances it can be profitable as well.