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Devoted Minnesota kitty watched out for deaf, nearly blind sheep

Oliver the cat kept Ada looking her best by grooming her when she needed it. Special to Forum Communications

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - Even though Oliver is orange and white, he's the black sheep of the family. But he can't pull the wool over his owners' eyes.

They know he's just a cat in sheep's clothing.

A half-wild tomcat, Oliver was born in a barn on the Terry and Kathy Sletto farm near Alexandria. At first he acted like other wild cats - he would take off for days and roam the countryside, appearing occasionally to let the Slettos know it was his territory, too.

Then the Slettos let a teenage friend borrow Oliver for the summer. When he came back, he began to suffer from an identity crisis.

"It's crazy," Kathy said. "Once he got back, he had no interest in the other cats."

Instead, he wanted to hang with the sheep. As they would graze, Oliver would frolic in the pasture, running underhoof or resting in their shade. He shunned his former wanderlust life and opted to stay home and shepherd.

Oliver was particularly fond of Ada, a sheep way past her prime that was deaf and almost blind.

"I think she had sheep dementia, if sheep can get that," Kathy surmised.

Feline and ovine developed a serious bond, and Oliver hardly left Ada's side. With the arrival of the cold, the chilly cat decided that Ada's wool would make a cozy blanket. So he started hopping up on her back and making his home there.

"He rode around on her back," Kathy said. "It was like an electric blanket for him to sit up there on the wool."

At first, the Slettos felt sorry for Ada. They thought Oliver was being insensitive and was taking advantage of her warm body. But then they noticed the standoffish cat appeared to have feelings for the sheep.

"He would groom her, lick her face, he was really affectionate with her," Kathy said. "It was a two-way deal there."

But the adoration tomcat and sheep had for each other was destined to end. Sadly, Oliver and Ada only had a few short months together before she left for greener pastures in the sky.

With her passing, the bereft Oliver soon resorted to his former life of tomcatting.

"He comes and goes now," Kathy lamented. "Since she died, he has been much more of a roamer. He is not interested in the flock."

Kathy, a published author who has raised wool-bearing animals for 10 years, is flummoxed.

"I have never, in all my years of having animals, seen anything like that," she said. "When she was alive, it seemed like he was looking after her."

Kathy was so touched by the bond between the cat and sheep that she wrote an essay entitled "Oliver the Shepherd." At the request of a publisher, she submitted the essay to be included in an anthology, "The Animal Anthology Project: True Tales," which was released last month. Proceeds from the book will go to animal charities.

Following is an excerpt from the essay:

"I've learned a lot about shepherding from Oliver. Watching Oliver at work reminds me to be patient, and to let things happen in their own time. Sometimes one needs to just stand back and wait for things (animals, crops, ideas) to mature. Oliver knows that, and he gives himself and others plenty of space and time and the grace to just let things evolve. He doesn't hurry and he doesn't worry. He watches. He waits. He rests. He says little. And he accepts a ride when he can get one."