I noticed the cats at Hatteras Island right away. I was on a morning run, heading east along N.C. Highway 12 just as the sun started to come up. They sat at Burrus Market, scattered in miniature groups like a sociologist had separated them by rank.
There were calicos and black ones and gray ones and white ones. They were four-legged and furry, and they were staring at me. A few crouched under a red truck; a few sat on the truck bed. Odd, I thought.
I ran on.
Later that morning, I was having breakfast with a group of locals at Sonny’s Waterfront Restaurant. Allen Burrus, the owner of the grocery, joined us. “What’s up with all those cats?” I asked him.
Oh, the cats, he said. The cats.
He pointed to a woman a few tables over. “She feeds them every morning,” he says. “They all line up and face east, because that’s the direction she comes from.”
Turns out, those cats have been facing east for about seven years, as long as Laura Young has been hauling cat food to the market in her truck. Some people gather on the porch at the market and watch the gang enjoy their food. Sometimes, they beg customers for more treats.
Burrus has them figured out. A few of them have six toes. He explains they got to Hatteras on a ghost ship a few hundred years ago. When locals were looting the ship, they found a six-toed cat and brought him ashore. Now there are more six-toed cats. They roam the fishing docks at Hatteras.
Seven years ago, Burrus and Young decided to neuter and spay the animals so there wouldn’t be too many extra toes around the island.
His favorite is the six-toed critter with the green, oval eyes and fur like a Jackson Pollock painting. “I like it because it’s clean,” he says. “It’s multicolored. It’s got brown, yellow, and white on her. I just call it, ‘Hey, come here, cat,’ and she comes to me. She has a personality.”
When the cats eat, they split up into their groups, like what I saw on my morning run. There’s a hierarchy that must be followed, Burrus says. “There’s one that’s the boss, the one that eats first.”
The yellow cat is the most dominant. And then three or four are on a rung just below him. And three or four below that group, and so on. The cat with the really long hair, they never let eat between groups. The order must remain.
“They might be some that are kin so that’s why they stick together more than the others,” Burrus says.
When the cats finish eating, they lounge on Burrus’s Ford. They know it doesn’t move until the afternoon. Then they disappear, maybe to the fish docks for a snack.
But by the next morning, there they are again, waiting for the sun to rise, facing east, patiently waiting for their human to deliver their meal.
57196 Kohler Drive
Hatteras, NC 27943