Tuesday, November 05, 2013


Alan Beck, a pioneer zoologist who moved his attention from wolves in the wild to dog packs in the city, was very helpful in re-defining the way we classify dogs.  Unfortunately, the definitions haven’t really caught on.  To most people there are two kinds of dogs:  owned and stray.  Wild dogs, pariah dogs, dogs that belong to other dogs (one of the most interesting arrangements), family pet dogs, working dogs, confined dogs, abused dogs -- these go beyond Beck’s categories but each deserves some thought.  They are DIFFERENT.  Only a few aspects of categorizing are in the control of the dogs.  Their roles as mirrors, receivers, and interactors with humans are the determinant ones.  But the same person can love his dog more than his wife -- and hate dogs that raid his garbage so much that he (usually "he") will set lethal traps -- and he will happily attend brutal dog fights -- all the while introducing his children to sentimental tales of heroic dogs.  These guys tend not to be very self-aware or reflective people -- their brains are simply reacting and not necessarily attending to reality.

When it comes to cats, the situation is even worse.  Both cats and dogs are “interstitial.”  That is, they can fit themselves into the waste spaces between human households as well as occupying domestic settings and finding survival in the wild.  If there is a source of food and shelter, they will thrive in it -- until something destroys them.  I’m thinking all this stuff while I lie in bed this morning, hearing both gunfire somewhere close (it’s still bird hunting season and there are grouse on the airfield blocks away as well as geese on the lake), and my two fat cats purring on the electric blanket beside me.

Cats have about the same successful predator design as a komodo dragon: binocular vision, big ears that twist, a nose constantly moistened to pick up airborne molecular clues as well as an auxiliary sensor.  Cats (along with snakes and a few other mammals) have a magnificent organ called the vomeronasal organ, most oftenly known as the Jacobson's Organ. It is located inside the mouth, just behind the front teeth, and connects to the nasal cavity. Opening his mouth slightly enables the Jacobson's Organ to open up the ducts connecting to the nasal cavity. The appearance of the cat as he brings air into the Jacobson's Organ has sometimes been likened to a "smile," other times to a grimace.”  Retractable claws are good, except when humans amputate them for the sake of upholstery.  Their muscles can spring suddenly, can sustain a tight crouch suitable for still hunting, and can stretch out in total relaxation.  They can go without food and water for a long time (they originally evolved in the desert) and can take a remarkable amount of abuse and still live.

Which is lucky, since there is a certain kind of person who hates and fears cats, considering them “sneaky” and -- more worrisome -- to have the worst aspects of female.  I won’t list them.  But at the other extreme there are people who react to “cute” and consider them human babies.  This is their other successful strategy: being soft, about the size of a human infant, sounding like a crying infant, purring (human babies should learn to do this!), using a litter box (ditto). 

“Working cats” are meant to kill rodents.  This can make them vectors, but they were certainly welcome on ships.  (I suppose as long as they didn’t kill parrots.)  They can be friendly to other animals, sleeping on the backs of race horses (and the fronts of sailors in hammocks) and so on.

Last summer a calico feral cat I’d seen for a couple of years began to hang around my back workshop.  (To get rid of feral animals or interstitial animals, it is necessary to remove habitat or make it impermeable.  Same with insects.  Some people feel it’s the same with humans, who can also be feral or interstitial.)  It’s a pretty cat and didn’t make trouble.  But along came another female, a tuxedo cat, who wanted the same space.  This building has a loft with a ladder.  The trouble with it is that the kittens can’t always handle the ladder and I’ve found their bodies totally decomposed to a splotch of fur under boards where they have managed to crawl when hurt by falling.  This ladder now removed.  I don't think I stranded any kittens up there.

The two queens fought my two fat pet dowagers and did them grievous harm.  I ordered a live trap, but then Patches began to bring her kittens born elsewhere, and one was a runt so small that I thought the spring-loaded trap would kill it.  I did trap some cat early on, but with a lot of thrashing and screaming, it managed to escape.  No clues as to identity -- I only heard it -- but the black tuxedo queen was not seen after that.

I began to feed the calico, calling her “Patches,” and thinking she would tame down.  She didn’t.  Caspar, the huge spayed female from across the street who thinks she owns this house, watched carefully but made  no trouble.  There were three kittens: one I call the Tiny Mite is hungry enough that I’ve managed to touch him once.  It was like touching smoke.  These are very thickly furred cats.  His buddy, the biggest kitten, is white with caramel patches and the most curious and athletic of the bunch.  He has big ears with pointed tufts on the ends, almond eyes (a lot of cats here are like this), and a big tail with a curl on the end.  The third kitten is a calico, therefore female, and the most spooky. 

The Tiny Mite had a hurt front leg for a while, but it healed.  Now it is Spooky who has a front foot that is broken at the joint.  She’s not healing very fast but seems healthy and travels around on three legs.  A BIG caramel and white cat has begun to butt in on the feeding program.  Caspar, stepping in, did her best to put hurt on him, a whirligig of wailing, but it just made him slightly more cautious.  I take him to be the father cat.  So you see that by now I’ve woven a web of narrative, personality, naming, and emotional involvement that complicates everything.  They are nearly grown cats.  When I used to go into the yard, little as they were, they'd streak for the loft of the workshop where they sat in a row looking over the edge at me.  If I went up the ladder, they threatened to jump, which may be how front legs get hurt.

We’ve talked about this at town council.  The toughest among us, at least those who don’t simply shoot stray cats, can’t help putting out scraps.  But we’re aware that people who don’t spay their pets will bring kittens to town and turn them loose, imagining that this is a community of former farm wives who feed all animals and will provide homes.   They forget about the retired farmers who love to watch birds at their feeders and who despise cats.

If I succeed in closing all access to my back building, maybe even tearing it down, then the cats will be displaced, probably to their burrow under the shed, but they will still come back and sit under my kitchen window with imploring eyes:  Patches, Big Boy, Spooky, and the Tiny Mite.  The Inside Dowagers will not care.  Caspar will guard his territory.  Game of Thrones.  This could get out of hand.  

I once helped a woman feed feral cats in a very classy Hollywood neighborhood.  Two skunks joined the cats.  That neighborhood had a rather different sociology, but the forces were similar.  


Anonymous said...

I happened upon your blog while looking for help for our family concerning an adult child with extreme negativity and anger issues. While looking up more about adults with defiant disorder I saw this feral cats blog and had to comment because feral cats are not one of my favorite things as they appear to be one of yours. :) My problem is with people who don't properly care for their animals and the animals become a problem for others. I have cat poop in a sandy area under my grandchildrens swingset. My dog picks up fleas from these creatures who invade my spaces on cold winter nights and we have to listen to their escapades while they mate in the middle of the night reproducing more problems. . . I am glad that the eagle has found its way back from near extinction in my hometown because perhaps they will help take care of the newest "problems" I will unforunately see running away from my yard in the next couple of months. . . Just sayin' . . .

Anonymous said...