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Willoughby: When cats are away, the mice will play

Feb 26, 2024

News News | Jul 30, 2023

Cat videos seem to top even baby videos on the internet. Their antics entertain, their eyes engage our attention, and their purring in our laps calms us when we have had a hard day. Cats in Colorado a century or more ago held a more utilitarian space for their owners — as vermin vanishers.

My grandparents in the 1920s had a Manx cat. Like most Manx, it was a large cat, without a tail, and it was a stealthy hunter. For many of us today, our cats are kept indoors, especially at night. My grandparents’ cat spent most of its time, even in winter, making the rounds of the outbuildings of their Hyman Avenue house. At that time, the house did not have indoor plumbing. They enjoyed its antics, but it was there to eliminate the mouse and rat population. Grandfather also kept cats at the Midnight Mine camp.

The Aspen Times ran an interview with a mining expert who toured mines in all the Far West states. It was about animals found below ground. He said, “Nothing tries a man’s nerves more than the glaring eyes of some unknown animal that has taken up its abode in the dark and deep underground workings of the gold and silver mines of the Far West.” Feral cats were included in his discoveries. He also was surprised to find rattlesnakes.

The Times in 1890 had a short note saying the city pound was closed. It did not explain the connection in detail, but it implied the closing exacerbated a cat problem, saying, “When the cats are away, the mice will play.”

There is little in the 1880s-’90s papers to suggest where people got their cats. There certainly were no pet stores. Since many cats lived outside, there were many feral cats. If someone wanted a cat, they could feed a feral cat, or maybe your neighbor’s cat had a litter, and your neighbor was offering kittens. There is a reference that Angus McPherson, a Brush Creek rancher, might have provided cats.

One of the more interesting cat stories from the mining era featured Leadville, one of those street-talk yarns passed around. Word was Leadville suffered from a horrible vermin problem, so cats were introduced to end it. The cats eliminated the rats, but then there was an unwanted, large, feral cat population.

The Aspen Times ran a contrary story in 1886 about Leadville’s cats. “One of the queerest of the many queer things about this here mining camp …. is that in all the length and breadth thereof there lives not a single cat.” It reported that “cats were imported by the hundreds,” but none survived.

In 1892, The Aspen Times ran a tongue-in-cheek story, an interview with Mr. E Katz of Leadville. He said he introduced cats into Leadville in 1877, as there were no cats known at that altitude, no mice or rats, either. It ended, posing the question: Were cats introduced to eliminate mice, or was it that mice were introduced for the cats?

The debate continued into the 1900s. In 1906, the Yuma Pioneer ran a piece titled, “By no Means a Catless Town.” It reported that a clerk in a Denver hotel told a visiting salesman that Leadville, because of its altitude, did not have cats; they would die in two weeks after arriving. Someone from Leadville corrected the rumor, saying, “Some cats had lived to the age of 15 years and were the size of a jack rabbit. In fact, nearly every householder has from one to three of this favorite animal.”

Enjoy your cat, but maybe you should not take it with you on a trip to Leadville.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at [email protected].

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Tim WilloughbyLegends & LegaciesCats and, in this picture, ferrets were employed to keep the rat population down.