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Barn Cats and the Balance of Power

`CHORE'' is one of those words that has taken on a new meaning for me since we moved to this small farm in the Canadian Maritime Provinces 17 years ago.

There are times, I will agree, when I could think of other things I would rather do than my ``barn chores.'' But by the time I get to the barn to milk, I slip easily into the always-the-same-yet-ever-new routine and these ``chores'' take on a sense of satisfaction: They are a form of contact with the animal world that often leads me to reflect on the world of human affairs.

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This time of year, the barn chores move into their winter rhythm, as the days grow colder and the cows are inside more and more. When I come into the barn, all is bustle for a few moments. Cats skitter here and there, and cows shift their feet expectantly, looking forward to hay and grain.

I climb up in the mow and pitchfork down enough loose hay for a couple of milkings and then climb down to fill the mangers with dried grasses fragrant with memories of summer.

While the cows tuck into their hay, I clean out the manure gutter and put fresh bedding down, checking as I do to see which cats are in evidence and noting that both the toms are present. The dingy gray-and-white Lopsie is the boss cat, and the larger tidy tabby, named Fraidy, is a stranger who seems inclined to move in.

QUICKLY I measure out the grain for each cow into rubber buckets and put the heaviest one in front of Maggie. She gets more grain than the other two because she is milking, and a milking cow cannot get enough energy from hay alone. She shoves her nose into her bucket and tosses it expertly, so that she can get the most grain in the shortest time. I move around to her side to ready the milking stool, sit down, lean my head into her flank, and pick up the cats' basin to give them a dollop of fresh milk.

To an outsider, one who has never had the opportunity to get into the rhythm of simple tasks like barn chores, the whole process would probably seem uneventful and uninteresting - chores in the modern sense of that word. To one attuned to the fine shadings, however, there is so much of interest that it scarcely seems possible to attend to all of it at once.

A rubbery plunk, for instance, tells me that the heifer has finished her grain and given the bucket the old heave-ho. The crashing of the steer's stanchion indicates his attempt to corral the tossed bucket, in the hope that there might be some grain left. As I lean against Maggie, she shifts her position slightly so that I can get on with milking while she pursues her grain bucket.

There is milk in the cats' basin now, and I check over the attending multitude. As usual, the younger cats zoom about in excitement, while the older ones are sitting just on the other side of the manure gutter, watching the basin and swatting the occasional youngster who presumes to push in. As I set down the basin, I notice that both the tom cats are elaborately ignoring each other, and I speculate, with the interest of a foreign affairs correspondent, what the balance of power between these two might be.

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Without rising, I reach back to pick up the milk pail, set it down beneath the udder, and begin to milk in earnest. I listen contentedly as the metallic sound of the milk hitting the bottom of the bucket changes to a soft swishing sound as the bucket begins to fill. As I milk, I muse. A shift in the balance of power in the world seems to be the story of the late 20th century, and I wonder whether there is a similar shift going on in the little world of our barn cats.

UNLIKE Spots, his predecessor, Lopsie seems to hang onto power with difficulty. His white fur has gone dingy gray and developed yellow stains; his ears are more and more ragged. Unlike his predecessor, who liked to survey his domain from a perch on a beam over the cows' heads, the high places are not for Lopsie; he gets no higher than the barn sill, six inches off the floor.

Now the two toms circle each other with deference and take up their positions on opposite sides of the alley behind the cows. Fraidy is still careful in his movements, but he must outweigh Lopsie by a good bit. The handwriting, as it has been for other petty despots, is on the wall.

This is, of course, all my speculation, and I have to admit rooting for Fraidy. I speak when I meet him and have even succeeded in scratching an ear or two once or twice, but my role in the ongoing power struggle is minute: I have set things in motion by raising barn cats, but now I must allow them to work out their own destinies.

Tonight Lopsie was sitting on the sill when, to my amazement, Fraidy walked across the alley and deliberately sat down on the sill himself, ignoring Lopsie, who was separated from him by a milking stool. Lopsie gave him an if-looks-could-kill stare around the milking stool, but Fraidy was made of tougher stuff.

I finished milking the cow's front teats and reached under the udder for the back two, all the while watching the confrontation. When the steely glance failed, Lopsie drew himself up and turned his head to the side, as if to look at something across the alleyway. Keeping his head turned away from Fraidy, he slowly put out a paw and placed it on the milking stool.

There was nothing hurried in the maneuver; it had the inevitability of an amoeba putting out a pseudopod. With the same deliberate gesture, he put the other front paw on the stool and then a back paw followed, ever so slowly. His head was still turned aside. Fraidy seemed hardly aware of the action. Milking forgotten for the moment, I watched. Lopsie was now immobile, with three of his feet on the stool and the last foot still on the sill. It seemed to me that Lopsie knew that the slightest awkwardness in the next maneuver would break the spell and fur would fly.

SECONDS passed as if they were minutes. Then, amazingly, the last foot was slowly, smoothly drawn up to join its mates. Lopsie was sitting on the stool, directly in front of and above Fraidy. Only then did he turn his head until he was looking down on the larger cat. At that moment, he looked as though there was good reason why he was the dominant tom.

For several moments, it appeared that Fraidy was going to take offense. He stared at Lopsie and began to draw himself up, but after rising about halfway he stopped, turned away, and got down from the sill. Moving carefully and without looking back, he resumed his usual position across the alleyway, facing Lopsie but with head averted. I suddenly remembered that I was in the middle of milking.

As I turned again to udder and bucket, I speculated, not for the first time, on the connotation of drudgery that the term ``chores'' carries with it and how, on the contrary, my chores are always full of things to wonder at, and often are a window on the world beyond the boundaries of this farm. This evening's confrontation left me thinking that barn politics are not that different from the posturing that seems to go on between nations. Have we really come as far as we give ourselves credit for in our fascination with things human?

I stripped out the last few drops of milk from the udder into the pail and got up. The drama of chores was over for this night but is, as always, to be continued.

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