“Transit cat grabs attention, mice”

(By Fay Tolley, originally published in the Tri-City Herald on July 9, 1989)

Ben’s a “fat cat,” she is.

And the crew at the Ben-Franklin Transit bus maintenance shop hopes she maintains her well-rounded figure.

The short-haired feline, dubbed Ben since she domesticated the workplace nearly three years ago, is a champion mouser and occasional snake snatcher, her custodians bragged Monday.

So the 22 maintenance workers who keep the system’s 53 buses in running order don’t have to worry about any unwanted varmints.

Don’t get the idea Ben’s day is all work, partsman Dick Cournyer said, stroking her mottled gray and orange hair.

Quite the contrary.

She’s a natural attention-grabber for young children who tour the transit complex and she is not above stretching out in an air-conditioned office for an afternoon snooze, he said. She even had a bit part in the transit system’s education video that is shown in area schools.

Ben was left behind when a litter of wild kittens in the old Pasco bus headquarters scattered during the moving process to the new facility at the Richland Y in October 1986, said maintenance manager Pete Toolson.

Someone put out a saucer of milk, and Cournyer remembers finding the small bundle of kitten fuzz asleep on a lunchroom cushion. He put it into the toolroom for the night.

It was logical to name the kitten Ben, some Ben-Franklin Transit workers decided.

Ben ate well on dry catfood, lunch scraps, mice and the random young snake snatched in the bus yard and grew into a leggy, green-eyed cat, a she-cat.

“When we realized he was a she, we called her Bernice and took up a collection from the staff to have her fixed at the spay-neuter clinic,” Toolson recounted.

A new name of Ben-It was adopted to reflect her neutered state, but the name soon was reduced back to Ben, Cournyer said.

She has free run of the large maintenance grounds, where she routinely prowls for mice and small bull snakes, then brings [them] into the shop to play with and devour, he said.

“I’ve watched her take mice right up to the general manager’s office and show him she’s doing her job,” he said, laughing.

When her belly is full, Ben often clambers into one of the buses for an afternoon snooze. That has prompted the drivers to check to make sure she’s safely off before they begin to drive their day’s route.

Ben is sensitive to the sound that signals a bus is being moved and is careful to keep out of the way, Cournyer said.

In the transit system’s video teaching youngsters how to ride the bus, Ben has a small part, pictured atop the tool room desk pawing at the computer.

But it’s when the tours of school children arrive that Ben really turns mellow, Cournyer said. With their pets and strokes, the cat goes limp.

“She’s the highlight of the kids’ tours,” Toolson said. “When they see Ben, they don’t give a darn about the buses.”

However, she routinely appears impassive about any fuss, he added.

Ben jumped down from Cournyer’s lap, mosied to a bowl of milk, lazily licked her fur coat clean, then headed outside to hunt.

“She’s just doing her job,” Cournyer said. “That’s why she’s one fat cat.”

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