If you'd ever told me that someday I'd be living with a man who could kill kittens, I'd never have believed you. But it's happened. The other day I watched my boyfriend kill a kitten. Actually, I didn't watch him. I ran away and hid behind the house.

We've just rented a place in the country, a cute little bungalow on seven acres of land. There are horses in the pasture and chickens in the barn. There are frogs in the pond and pheasants flapping their wings in the prairie grass. There were also five stray cats that, until recently, made their home on the porch of the house.

The previous tenant left food out for them, though she didn't get them proper shots or have them spayed or neutered. Four were visibly pregnant, and Paul and I told her in no uncertain terms that we wanted her to take the cats with her when she moved out. We would be spending the next month painting the house and fixing the roof before we moved in. We did not want to be responsible for stray cats and their offspring. She said she would relocate the cats. She had to come back to move a bunch of stuff out of the yard anyway--a junked car, two motorcycles, and piles of trash that she referred to as "the recycling."

But a few days later, when Paul and I showed up at the house to begin our foray into rural domesticity, the cars, motorcycles, and trash remained. And that was the least of our problems. The cats were still there, and one of them had given birth just hours earlier, leaving several tiny, helpless kittens squealing underneath the porch.

Certain bourgeois notions about compassion for animals don't have a lot of relevance to actual animals in nature.

Their eyes not yet opened, they appeared almost fetal. Their mother was indifferent. She neither attempted to feed them nor appeared to understand what was going on. The other three mothers-to-be skulked around obtusely, and the lone male cat, who, in all likelihood, bore paternal responsibility for the whole knocked-up clan, carried on with his business of rolling in the dirt.

It was an ugly scene. Then the landlords, an elderly farming couple who live four miles down the road, arrived to clean up after the previous tenant. They found a whole chicken in the refrigerator and put it outside for the starving cats. Pretty soon there was a carcass in the driveway, but the kittens remained uncared for. Strangely, the landlords, a generally kindly pair who were taking great pains to replace the showerhead and put contact paper in the kitchen drawers, seemed unfazed by the cat situation. On their way out--they couldn't stay long, as they had soybeans to plant--they promised to take the remaining pregnant cats the next day.

But the killing started sooner than that. Shortly after the landlords left, I heard a sound coming from the edge of the pasture, a high-pitched whine, perhaps the call of a small bird with a very big voice. When I approached the source of the noise, I found another minuscule kitten, screaming at the top of its barely developed lungs. It was in worse shape than the others; a bloody mass of afterbirth was attached to its stomach. Though it was no bigger than a mouse, its cries could be heard from a distance. I called the mother cat over, but she wouldn't come near. I called Paul over. He began breathing hard, handed me the brush he was using to paint the house, and told me to turn around and walk away.

I didn't ask him what he'd done, and he didn't tell me. Then, as if to appeal to my suburban sensibilities, Paul told me that we would bring the rest of the cats to the humane society in town. We managed to catch two of them and stuffed them into the trunk of my car, getting clawed and almost getting bitten in the process. We put the remaining kittens in a box, closed the trunk, and started the car. Their cries pierced through the din of the engine. By now, the humane society was closed; animals could be dropped off after hours through a small door hatch in the building's breezeway. We got the kittens and one cat in the door. The other two wrangled themselves from our arms and ran off, falling yet another notch down the food chain from farm strays to city strays.

The next day, Paul returned to the house to continue painting.

The landlords had taken the other female cat but, evidently, hadn't noticed that a second batch of newborn kittens was strewn across the loft in the barn. One had already fallen into a horse stall and died. Paul killed the others one by one. He didn't tell me how, and I didn't ask.