The Cat Door Doubled As a Desert-Critter Door

The small, crude opening in the front door of the cabin was just what Grouch needed to make the transition from her litter box in our city apartment to the outside desert. The cabin had no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing; we, too, had adjustments to make.

A talk with the former tenant revealed that the cat door wasn't only for cats.

Bob said it had been his habit each evening to make a large bowl of popcorn on the wood stove to eat while he read a book in the narrow light of a kerosene lamp. One night, a small, disembodied black hand reached into the bowl at the same time he did. He hollered and leaped up, startling the large raccoon that had been enticed inside by the scent of the hot-buttered treat. Once Bob saw that the hand was attached to an ordinary earth creature, and not to some horror out of a science- fiction novel, he was intrigued.

The raccoon reached into the bowl again. Soon they were companionably sharing the popcorn. It became a nightly ritual.

After an absence of some weeks, the raccoon returned with two offspring and quickly taught them the etiquette of taking turns at the popcorn bowl. Bob warned us to expect them.

Grouch reluctantly spent brief periods outside, as necessary. The raccoons came one hot night when we had the front door wide open. We put down a bowl of dog food for them just inside the door. They seemed satisfied with the offering and ate politely. We were surprised when, later, in the yard, the mother chased off her nearly grown offspring with cuffs and angry growls. When the cubs returned alone on subsequent nights, we surmised that the mama had gone off to start a new family. Shortly after, a third young raccoon joined the two. We assigned them arbitrary genders and named them Agnes, Harry, and Spot.

When the cool weather came, we kept the door shut and placed their bowl directly under the cat door. They would peer in, one at a time, then reach with a hand for food. I complained to my husband that with only their faces and hands visible I couldn't tell which was which. "Of course you can," Jim said. "That's Agnes. She always reaches with her right hand. Now, that's Harry. He's left-handed." I wondered what would be different about Spot. I laughed, for Spot was both ambidextrous and greedy! He stuffed his cheeks till they bulged, then filled both hands again before withdrawing to give Agnes another turn.

Grouch began watching for them each evening, hunkered down behind the door. When she spotted them, her eyes sparkled and she danced from paw to paw, gathering herself up to pounce. Agnes's was usually the first face to appear, and she never took offense when Grouch slapped her nose. She simply withdrew her face and reached blindly for the bowl. Whap, whap, whap! Grouch always slapped her hand exactly three times before gleefully running away, satisfied with the game until the next night.

Grouch learned to hunt, but, being essentially an indoor cat, she did her hunting in my kitchen. She took her first mouse, and all thereafter, to Jim, for she thrived on his lavish praise. To my delight, my kitchen was soon free of mice. But after a time, I saw signs of them again. I couldn't understand it, with such a good mouser in the house. The mystery was solved when I spied Grouch coming in through the cat door with a live field mouse in her mouth, which she took straight to the kitchen and released. She was restocking her game preserve!

AND she didn't stop at just bringing in mice. One day, holding it exactly in the middle, she wrestled a furiously writhing four-foot snake through the little door. She dropped it at Jim's feet and awaited his approval. The blur of brown looked like a rattlesnake. Jim crashed backward out of his chair trying to get away from it; the indignant snake slithered under the kitchen dresser. Jim moved the dresser carefully with a broomstick and discovered the creature was a harmless bullsnake. With his heart still racing, he picked up the snake with one hand and the cat with the other and tossed them both out the back door.

There seemed to be no end to the wildlife that found its way through the cat door. One night, after we were in bed, our old poodle-terrier, who until then had accepted with grace all desert guests (invited or not), woofed a challenge. I heard a hiss like that from a spray can, then silence. Next, the click of the dog's toenails on the wood floor as he approached our room. "What's the matter, sweetie?" I asked. My breath caught, and I gagged. Skunk!

With the last of the water in the pail, and a rag, I wiped off the dog and as much of the spray from the floor as I could. We had no tomato juice (claimed to be the best antidote to skunk smell) and were too many miles from town to beg or buy any. We put the dog outside and spent the remainder of the night with bandannas over our noses and mouths trying, in vain, to sleep. At first light, we went down to the river to bathe the dog and haul more water to scrub the floor.

Though I cherish our time on the desert, and the traffic through the cat door was mostly a source of delight, I think I would have to classify that little door as a mixed blessing.

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