When Kathy Weigle first saw the cat in her barn, she figured, maybe even hoped, that he would move on.
She lives just off of U.S. 34, and while dwellers in the Ozarks wouldn’t call her residence the country, well, it’s in Weld County, on the outskirts just east of Greeley, and that qualifies as rural at least.
A rural lifestyle usually means a circle of fertile cats around your homestead, or maybe taking in a stray dog or two that may have been dumped by the irresponsible city folk. It may mean you have a pet cat, and you may also have the more feral barn cats designed to keep the mice in check and add a little color to the acres of mustard plains. These cats find their way. Sometimes that means finding a neighbor, even if the “neighbor” is a hike away.
Well, the cat was in Weigle’s barn more and more, and she felt bad for him. Some rural residents have learned to turn their backs a bit, out of survival more than anything, and Weigle’s learned that to some degree.
She has three stray cats, true, but if she took in all the ones who have rubbed against her leg, she would be one of those crazy cat ladies.
Still, she felt bad for this one. He’d survived a hard winter, burrowing down in the hay deep enough to keep warm through the single-digit days and negative-degree nights. He was caked in mud and wafer-thin. One of his eyes looked swollen shut. So she starting bringing him food and called him “Pirate.”
Then one day, he meowed to her, over and over, but she’d already fed him. So she sat down, and he crawled into her lap and stared purring.
“I just couldn’t turn away at that point,” she said.
Weigle looked west, to U.S. 34, while petting him and pieced it together.
On that day in Weld, on Friday the 13th in September, the water came hard and fast, changing lives. Weigle watched from her home, perched just high enough on a rise to protect her, as the swollen and raging South Platte River broke the highway into pieces, like a child eating a graham cracker. The water lapped up to her fence, but it never got closer.
What it did do, however, was swallow the homes just west of her. She guessed that this was one of her neighbor’s cats. She then looked at the cat’s muddy coat and drew an amazing conclusion.
The river must have swept away Pirate, as she called him, and spit him back out, and he must have found his way back.
Sure enough, when a neighbor whose home was destroyed saw Weigle’s photos on Facebook after a family member pointed him out, he came up to take a look at him as a break from cleaning up the devastation. The cat came running up to him. Yep, he said, that’s Elmo.
Elmo was a barn cat, but a friendly one, and the owner hadn’t seen him in a month. Although it’s hard to say what exactly happened, as Elmo was unavailable for comment, the two thought Elmo walked across ragged debris to find his way back during that month. When he did, his home was gone.
By the time the neighbor figured it out and paid Weigle a visit, she had taken Elmo to the vet, and the news wasn’t good. He had contracted what is commonly called Feline HIV. The neighbor, who didn’t want to be contacted for this story, gave her $700 for the vet bills but said he couldn’t take him back. He had other cats who fought Elmo. Elmo was old. He had a chewed ear. His eyelid was another war wound. Now he had a disease that could spread to other cats through a bite. His fighting days were over. Plus the owner was as displaced as Elmo for the moment.
Weigle keeps him in the basement now, with the door closed, and gives him regular food.
She loves him up every day. She’s had him a couple weeks, and aside from the occasional kerfuffle, like knocking over a can of his food, he does all right down there, in semi-isolation.
Even so, she can’t keep him either. She’s pushing crazy cat lady territory, and she doesn’t know how the other pets, all the stray dogs and cats who get along like the Brady Bunch, would accept a stranger, especially one with a hardscrabble fighting background.
Managing all that is hard enough, and she’s even got two horses who love to tease one of her dogs, making him bark more than he should.
So she’s hoping for a good home for him. Elmo, or Pirate, whichever, likes tummy rubs, and even the vet said he was a nice cat now.
He’s OK living the life of a fat cat, though it will take a bit to get his weight all the way back.
Weigle knows how rural folk can be. Occasionally they will turn their back on the problems that come to their doorstep, she said.
But she also remembers how they showed up, unasked, as the rains crashed down, to help their neighbors dodge as much of the flood’s wrath as they could. They moved animals and possessions and kept them when the river took everything else. She did that.
She also knows how much her neighbors have given each other since the waters receded. She’s does that, too.
Maybe there’s someone out there who has a little space for yet another victim of a flood that affected thousands.
— Staff writer Dan England covers the outdoors, entertainment and general assignment stories for The Tribune. His column runs on Tuesday. If you have an idea for a column, call (970) 392-4418 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ DanEngland.