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.

I've taken up a lot of space recounting this story. I keep thinking that I could make it shorter, that I could spare the details about the landlords being farmers and the humane society being closed and Paul and me almost being bitten. For narrative purposes, I should simply hone in on the moral crisis that comes from living with someone who is capable, albeit reluctantly, of killing kittens.

But it's not possible to omit the details. That's because each detail is an integral piece of a puzzle that I'm quickly learning cannot be satisfactorily resolved by humans. The ethics of rural life are not always in line with the ethics of urban and suburban life. As a person who has recently moved from a major urban area to a largely rural area, I am beginning to see that certain bourgeois notions about compassion for animals don't have a lot of relevance to actual animals in nature.

One of my closest friends is a passionate cat lover who has spent most of her life in California and New York. When I made the mistake of mentioning the stray cats to her, I received an earful of logical, responsible, knowledgeable advice that, unfortunately, was utterly useless given Paul and my particular situation. "You absolutely must have those cats spayed," my friend barked at me, the scorn in her voice rising to almost frightening proportions. "Paul might be the kind of guy who thinks nature takes care of itself, but it is unconscionable to keep even barn cats without seeking proper veterinary care."

This conversation took place before any kitten killing occurred; at that point, all we had on our hands were five stray cats. My friend's adamance was confined to the fact that we hadn't immediately rushed them to the vet. When I hung up the phone, I felt terribly guilty, yet I was angry at her provincial fanaticism.

Of course I realize pets must be spayed and neutered. Of course I would never deprive my own animal of veterinary services. But the cats weren't mine, and it would be impossible to let them have their kittens, find homes for their kittens, and then spay them. Around here, stray cats are as abundant as deer. As Paul said, we may have gotten rid of these particular cats, but we'll have more.

Though I don't intend to raise the topic with my friend again, I wonder if she'd put Paul's actions in the category of "nature taking care of itself." I hope not. In this case, nature didn't take care of itself, and Paul had enough empathy for the kittens' suffering--and enough understanding of their doomed prognosis--that he put aside his guilt, fought back the heebie-jeebies, and did what needed to be done. It was an action I never could have taken, both because I wouldn't have had the courage and because it probably wouldn't have occurred to me that sometimes ending an animal's suffering is an individual's responsibility, not the responsibility of the humane society or a veterinarian.

My city friend said, "It is unconscionable to keep even barn cats without seeking proper veterinary care." This was before any kitten killing occurred.

Paul, a native of this rural setting, comes from a world where people and animals form a partnership. We need cows for meat and milk, dogs for protection and herding, and cats for mouse control. I come from a world where animals are pets. In the big city, the cat is the soul mate in an otherwise lonely apartment. The dog is, too often, an extension of human vanity. When these animals have litters and fail to care for them, we take them to the pound and pretend they're not going to be euthanized. On the farm, animals are put to death by the people who love them.

When our landlord took the cat, he told me not to ask him what he did with it. I've gotten good at not asking. When he asked me what happened at the humane society, I lied and told him that all the cats made it inside the building. If I'd told him what really happened, that two cats got loose near the highway and probably got run over by 18-wheel trucks, he'd probably disapprove of me as much as my friend would disapprove of Paul if she knew that he'd killed the kittens.

For his part, Paul doesn't understand how New Yorkers can ignore homeless people on the streets. I've probably walked past countless people on city streets who are in as bad a shape as those newborn kittens. I rarely batted an eye.

It's remarkable how our notions of brutality are governed by our landscapes. Can someone who considers herself an animal rights supporter live a rural life and still abide by her conscience? Can an urban dweller ever truly understand what kindness to animals means?

Halfway through writing this essay, I returned to our new house to feed the remaining cat, the one we need to catch mice and the one I will have neutered once we get settled. As Paul had predicted, there was yet another cat on the porch, a female calico with a sweet temper and unusual markings. If she starts looking pregnant, her days are numbered. As I watched her gobble up the discount cat food I'd brought (it was probably the first time she'd tasted actual pet food), I told her that she'd better pray for a barren womb.

I guess I could always ship her off to New York, where a few of her kittens might find homes, minus their claws and their familiar country sunshine, in various cramped apartments around the city. But more likely, they'd be put to sleep. Their fate among the animal lovers of the urban elite would be no different from their fate among the animals lovers of the farming community. The only difference is that I would feel less guilty. And that's not much help to the animals.

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