Mount Washington can be a desolate place, especially in the winter. With a staff of six to nine members at the facility at any one time, a little feline companionship can be a very welcome diversion.
According to intern Jillian Reynolds, the tradition of keeping cats at the Mount Washington Observatory dates back to 1932, beginning with Tikky, who was initially drafted to keep the rodent population in check. Over the years, a number of other kitties followed.
By 1934, there were eight little hunters in residence, including Oompha, Blackie, Ammonuisance, Elmer, Manx and George.
The cats became a popular favorite in 1970 when one of them, Pushka, decided to steal the limelight. Channel 8 TV engineer-weather reporter Marty Engstrom, who worked at the summit from 1964 to 2002, was somewhat surprised when, oblivious to the humming of the electronics, Pushka decided to stroll straight across the desk in the middle of a weather forecast being broadcast to thousands of viewers. Overnight, she became a media sensation.
Of course, this feline welcoming party became a popular attraction, drawing the attention of seasonal visitors. A calico cat named Inga was brought up in the 1980s, and was featured on T-shirts, posters, postcards and other souvenirs.
Inga went to kitty heaven in 1999, and her duties were taken over by Nin, named after the author Anais Nin. Nin showed up as a stray at the home of one of the staff members and came to the mountain in 1995.
According to Reynolds, he soon became acclimated to the area, watching ravens and staring down foxes. His fame soon became so pronounced that he eclipsed the other mouser on the mountain, Jasper.
Nin retired in 2007 and spent his last days in the home of two New Hampshire Park Rangers. He passed on in 2009.
After Nin retired, the Conway Area Humane Society held an election for the next summit cat. There were three candidates in the race, but Marty, a black Maine coon, won with more than half of the 8,000 votes.
Marty got his name from the aforementioned Marty Engstrom. Although Engstrom has since retired to Fryeburg, his namesake still holds vigil on top of the mountain.
Over time, Marty the cat has had his share of health problems, including an infection that required the removal of 10 of his teeth. Despite that, he settled in and made the observatory his own domain.
“Marty doesn’t really do much as far as rodent control is concerned,” said Adam Gill, weather observer and IT specialist at the observatory. “We had the building upgraded a few years ago, and it’s now pretty well sealed up. We used to get a lot of mice every spring and fall, as they were looking for a warm spot, but that doesn’t happen very much anymore.”
Gill said that, like a lot of Maine coons, Marty can be a little standoffish, and definitely has his own agenda.
“He can be friendly, but only on his own terms,” he said. “Actually, he’s a pretty grumpy cat, overall. Then again, that’s not surprising, as he has visitors coming in and going out of his territory a lot of the time. He has to deal with all these people, and that makes him a little impatient.”
When the work settles down and night draws in, the observers occupy themselves with various leisure activities. Marty might deign to show up if interested, jumping on various warm laps, but always with an underlying objective.
“We’ll be playing board games, or watching TV,” Gill said. “When Marty decides to appear, for the most part, he just goes around and sees if he can scrounge some treats.”
With having full reign of the building and grounds, Marty can pick and choose wherever he feels most comfortable. Then again, true to his nature, he tends to be obstinate.
“The thing about Marty is that he really doesn’t go outside willingly,” Gill said. “We could have all of the windows and doors open during the summer, and we still have to shoo him outside. He has food locations all around the building, from which he can take his pick.
“In the warm months, he hangs out with us, but when winter comes in, he tends to retreat upstairs to the office space, where it’s somewhat warmer.”
For the time being at least, Marty considers the observatory to be his own private domain. One thing can be sure, however — as long as there are observers up on the mountain, their feline sidekicks will still be there, too, keeping them company and intimidating wild interlopers.