Our next-door neighbor has a peculiar compulsion to feed cats. Not just her own cats, but any cat that simply happens along. Early every morning, she rattles and bangs around her back door, opening cans of cat food, then doling it out in tasty displays for the feline clientele. Then, she carols ''kitty, kitty, '' and every vagrant cat in the neighborhood rushes in for a snack. There is no discrimination in who gets served, and usually eight or ten are on hand for a meal.
I have kept a fascinated and furtive eye on this operation for several years and can only think my neighbor is running an underground railway for runaway cats, because there is a constant turnover of customers. Sometimes yellow cats form the bulk of the diners; another day the customers seem to be mostly black and white; another time the plain, gray, alley variety seems to dominate. Anyway , the diners keep coming and going like humans at a fast-food restaurant.
Now, I like and respect cats, especially when they stay over on my neighbor's side of the fence. On our side we feed itinerant birds, and some cats can become confused and mistake these birds as a part of the menu. Unfortunately, the newcoming diners are not always aware of the dividing line between our properties and are apt to stray into my bird sanctuary. So I have devised a scheme that teaches intruders respect for property - missiles. Not weapons, just flying objects that are designed to frighten cats, not hurt them.
These might be called seasonal missiles. In early spring, I use green plums for ammunition, later green walnuts, or after a rain, dirt clods. The launching pad is my right arm, and I have developed an uncanny skill at lobbing a projectile to within three feet of an off-base cat. The aim is to scare - not to hit. Every time I notice a cat skulking about the yard, I leap out on our deck, grab whatever ammunition I have lined up on the railing, and fire a volley in the vicinity of the skulker. The result is quite electric. The startled victim usually jumps in the air and scurries back over the fence to friendlier confines.
This is a continual educational process because of the turnover of students. Each new diner has to be taught what is off limits, and this pastime certainly improves my agility and keeps my throwing arm in shape.
The other morning I noticed a newcomer to the festive board trotting along inside our fence. He was scrawny and blotchy, or if you are a cat lover we would say, lean and calico-colored. This cat had every color in his coat, none dominant. When I spied this interloper, I immediately dashed to my battle station, armed myself with dried peaches, the current ammunition, and let fly. It was a beautiful shot with just the proper trajectory, and hit the fence with a loud thud, immediately above the victim.
Instead of being intimidated, the calico cat strolled casually over, sniffed the shriveled peach, and then - catlike - began to play with it. This was like having an enemy toss a hand grenade back, so I lobbed another peach against the fence. This time the cat saw it coming, and as it bounced to the ground, he immediatley pounced on it. I threw another and yet another, and the calico cat was having a delightful time chasing missiles here and there. In the intervals between throws, he would look happily skyward and wait for a new toy to drop out of the blue.
This was too much. I gave up and made an orderly retreat. The cat finally got tired of waiting for flying objects and also departed, but the next day he was back, and it seemed to me he was scanning the sky. Again I dashed out on the deck, flexed my arm, and started firing salvos in his general direction. The cat scrambled delightedly about, pouncing on the missiles as they hit the ground. Again I retreated.
We have repeated our encounters many times in the past several weeks. I was beginning to feel like Captain Ahab, until I realized that this cat was certainly no feline Moby Dick. There was no evil in him; only the spirit of fun and frivolity. He makes the most of the simple pleasures and willingly turns the other cheek. I know that one day he will weary of the menu next door, and of chasing airborne missiles, and will continue on his journey. Oddly, I am going to miss him and his happy ways.