Friday, September 28, 2012

Living the Wildlife

I grew up with the usual assortment of cats and dogs.  There was even a pet skunk. Yet, I wasn’t enthused about acquiring pets once I moved out on my own. I didn’t want the responsibility, and, for a few years, I successfully avoided it. Cats, however, found me. More precisely, my first cats were a gift from my sister. She was an animal lover who took in a stray cat one month before it gave birth. I found myself with two of the kittens. One of them, a Sylvester look-alike named Succotash, was with me for the next 20 years.

This parallels the broader human experience. In a general way, cats found us. While there are specific breeds of domestic cats (Persians, Himalayans, Siamese, etc.) the common domestic cat is indistinguishable morphologically from the African wildcat pictured below. It is true that domestic cats come in a riot of colors whereas all African and European wildcats are tabbies, but tabby is the most common color pattern for domestic cats, too. While often (not universally) regarded as separate species, they really aren’t. Domestic cats and wildcats can and do interbreed, and (in the case of tabbies) there is no way to tell the difference between them. A wildcat raised from a kitten will be a domestic cat. This indicates that domestication was the cat’s idea. Whenever domestication is our idea, there are quick and dramatic morphological changes as we bend the animal to our purposes by selective breeding. It seems that sometime prior to 5000 years ago – possibly 10,000 years ago – when the grain stores of newly agricultural humans started to attract rodents, cats showed up at the door to exploit them (and us). They never left.

The two cats who presently tolerate me in their home are Maxi and Mini. They inherited me from my parents 11 years ago. The cats are 13 years old. Mini is the big one. She is a waddling 20-pounder who loves being a housecat; she sometimes goes outside onto the grass for short periods, but rarely travels more than 20 feet from the house and always keeps the back door in sight. She never spends the night outside. Maxi, her littermate, is a trim 9-pounder; he loves the outdoors and prefers to spend the night outside except in the coldest of weather. Sometimes he disappears for up to three days, but then comes home hungry and tired. When Maxi does come in for the night, he demands to go out at the crack of dawn, even in a blizzard. Ignoring him doesn’t work. He will fuss nonstop for hours, so I lose less sleep by stumbling out of bed and letting him out than by not doing so. 

Maxi, as you might imagine, brings home a variety of presents ranging from birds to rabbits, often alive. More than once I have heard him at the door and opened it without looking, only to have him bring a gift inside. Once he deposited a chipmunk at my feet and went back out the door. The chipmunk scrambled off and was in my house for a week before I finally caught him and put him outside. Mini is not so ambitious. Yet, last week, when I left the slider door open for a few minutes, she came marching inside carrying a mole. It must have been a very slow mole. This is the reason I don’t install a cat door. I don’t intentionally share my home with just any critter, and I don’t doubt a cat door would invite visitors.

Some animals have gotten inside even without one. On one occasion, a pair of raccoons jimmied a screen off an open window, entered the house, went to the kitchen, opened the cabinets, found a bag of dry cat food, dumped it into a pot of water in the sink, and chowed down. That is where I found them when I came home. They weren’t neat about it either. Another time I came home at night and detected some movement out of the corner of my eye. For several minutes I couldn’t locate it. Then I spotted the source. An owl was perched atop a curtain rod. He must have come down the chimney. In a (possibly rare) moment of intelligence, I remembered that this was a nocturnal creature, so I turned on all the internal lights, opened the door, and jumped up and down in front of the owl. Eventually he became annoyed with my antics and flew out the open door into the darkness. I’ve had a bear get into my garbage and a deer go swimming in the pool, though (fortunately) neither came inside.

All of which reminds me that I need to stop at the supermarket and buy cat food, an act which demonstrates clearly who has domesticated whom.

African Wildcat


  1. Sounds to me like your home would have made a great topic for an episode of our old childhood TV favorite, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" with Marlin Perkins!

    Give Mini the Nobel Prize for Puddy Tat Wisdom cause she knows not to trek far from "her" back door perchance the neighborhood mutt espies her. At the right time, I'll betcha you can catch sight of physics equasions floating above her noble little noggin as she works the problem of moving her plumpness x yard length x dog speed/anger. Workin' it, she's aware that if you aren't nearby, there's no one to open the door and "Open Sesame!" is an exercise in futility.

    The cool Daddy-O, Maxi, is the typical Tom cat that's movin' and groovin' checking out where the action is--namely, checking out the lounging perch of Pussy Galore's window sill.

    Your suburban zoo reminds me of an event in my childhood that you might understand. Living in an old, Victorian home, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning with a parched throat. Staggering from my bedroom, I made my way through the house and down the narrow service hallway to the kitchen. While still in a half-sleep funk, I stood at the sink quenching my thrist and studied moonglow across the yard. Suddenly, my feet felt the full heft weight, fur and claws of a creature. Like a bolt of electricity shocking me awake, I realized my cat, Boo Boo, was outside and this "ain't" her! Although the house was definitely haunted, I didn't consider ghosts felt like a 15 lb turkey atop my foot with fork-tine claws clutching my calf. Scared stiff, I slowly lowered my head to catch a glimpse of the "thing" on my bare feet. There, captured in the moonlight, not to mention emblazoned into my terrorized brain, were two beady, reddish glowing eyes, a mouthful of fine, sharp teeth that delivered the obviously P O'd snarling, hissing attitude of a huge gopher rat. (He had no right to be angry 'cause I wasn't sitting on his foot--he was sitting on mine!!) In disgruntled slo-mo & as if he was angry that I interrupted him, he sauntered under the table for refuge. In response, I ran screaming (a/k/a banshee) through the house to the bathroom wherein I bathed my entire body, scrubbing my feet and legs raw dousing them with anything I could find--from alcohol to Comet Cleanser.

    Thoughts of the Black Plague ran rampant in this child's mind for days!! The thought of an icky, nasty, germy vermin was more than I could stand. It ranked right up there with the time a bat flew from the chimney of my bedroom!! And that, gave me terrible nightmares of Dracula for months! After all, I gained my Dracula & vampire expertise from my avid participation in the "lectures" provided by Hammer horror films aired every Saturday on TV!

    Waking everyone on the house, my Uncle checked the kitchen, but the vermin had vamoosed. Never leaving food out, who knows what aroma caught the attention of his gopher rat olfactory. His entrance and exit was never found. However, I understand they can fit through the most impossible crevices and old, Victorian homes are full of nooks and crannies.

    Concerned that my cat, Boo Boo, might confront this King Kong sized vermin and lose the fight, we (Boo Boo and I) spent days searching the dark corners of each room. Amazingly, my cat caught scent (RETCH!) of the beast which brought out her intensity to hunt. You could call it a "rat and cat noir thriller."

    1. We share our homes with more creatures than we generally acknowledge. I left out stories of squirrels, mice, and a gopher... and that's just from the Class Mammalia. As for littler critters, I actually deliberately set Daddy Longlegs (harvestmen, not Pholcids -- the nickname is used for both) loose in the house because they eat other bugs and don't spin webs.

  2. Well its a well known fact that all writers must have cats, it helps with the imagination. H.P. Lovecraft loved his cats and even put them into his stories. His short story, "The Cats of Ulthar" is all about why you never ever kill a cat. And his surreal saga "Dream Quest of the Unknown Kadath" has whole sequences with cats flying to the moon. This is where all cats go when they disappear for a while. Our cat Hobbes (named after the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" acts more like Calvin than his namesake. He's a feisty little tabby, but he keeps me company when i work from home.

    1. You have a point. They turn up in most full length Heinlein novels, including one titled The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Then for those who like their kitties big, there are invisible lions in James H. Schmitz' The Lion Game and the conquest-loving tiger-like Kzin of the Kzin Wars series edited by Larry Niven. Leaving scifi aside, for no real reason other than humanizing the aging detective (with an age-inappropriate girlfriend) in Jack Ketchum's The Lost, a crime novel of sorts, the detective takes in a stray cat, whose point of view is included.

  3. For all his wildness the African Wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, doesn't mix well with Felis catus. Where they share the same farm yards in Africa the Wildcat soon has to move away from the agressiveness of the common house cat.
    No so the African wild he is a whole other story.

    1. That doesn't surprise me. Domestic cats can be very territorial.

      As for the wild dog, I suspect that's a story I'm better off learning second hand, so I'll take your word for it.

  4. Yes, I think that is best.