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Monday, August 30, 2010

Taming The Mother

Although I've found myself moving around India for the better part of the last decade, it isn't until recently that I've learned to pay attention to the reality of life around me. One of the aspects of this "reality" has been the interesting phenomenon of interacting with stray cats. Of course, they are everywhere, just like "stray" anythings if you think about it, but their curious personality makes each and every cat that I've come across as different as the people you see on the street everyday. They are all finite, well-rounded characters with their pet peeves and idiosyncrasies. But, that's just the way they are, I guess.

So, I've been -- or I should more accurately say -- my roommate and I have been trying to encourage the cats that "hang about" to come inside and "make themselves at home." There were a couple of pregnant females that we were hoping would come inside and give birth. The thinking went that the kittens, now being born indoors, would take more easily to us being around, eventually being comfortable enough to be petted and pampered. This didn't end up happening, but one of the females did happen to let her kittens explore the insides of the house long enough for them to be comfortable with us feeding them. When I say "feeding" I'm referring of course to our pseudo-scientifically proven formula for nutritional success, a bowl of milk and any leftover packet of snack food that you can find lying around with some crumbs still in them. That was it. Crumbs and milk. And it was OK. How you may ask. Well, you see, the landlord, who lives right upstairs, happens to like cats too. Apparently it's a liking he developed from his father, who was fond of cats himself, and never sat down for a meal before feeding the cats and kittens first. All of this happened about two months ago. Things have progressed a lot since then; the kittens are comfortable enough to be around us, and confident enough to let us know that they're hungry and demand to be fed. So cute. We've even named them, "Patches" and "Whitey".

Yet, it's been all kittens until now. The mother, for whatever reason, is still very much a run-before-he-sees-you kind of a cat. She takes off the moment she senses your presence, and whenever the kittens are resting inside she'll call them outside to where she is so that she can feed them. Come to think of it, there have been mornings when I've inadvertently beaten my phone alarm and woken up at 05:30, only to find all of them resting peacefully together, like a scene from one of those posters you see in a local Indian barber shop. You know, things like a cute little kitten, all furry and fuzzy with a nice little bow around its neck playfully pawing at a glass bowl, which houses a naturally perturbed looking goldfish, which leads your wandering eye to the little caption at the bottom that reads something pretty obscure like, "Where there's a will there's a way." What? Yes, my reaction exactly, every time I come across one of those. In an Indian barbershop, no less. But, I digress. So, long story short, I've been trying to get a nice shot of the female, the mother to Patches and Whitey, the two kittens who now "room" with us. She, however, is way to shy to even begin to consider being camera shy, so immediately I was at an impasse. Until early last week, I guess it was, when I happened to see her nervously observe as I was giving the kittens their lunch. I had noticed for some time before this that she used to come around the same time that I was feeding the Patches and Whitey, but as hungry as she may have been, she was too afraid to approach the food with me standing anywhere within eye-shot. So, I made it a habit to feed the kittens outside, so that the mother could eat a little as well. I figured whatever she ate would eventually get to the kittens in the form of her milk.

The only way I could try and get a picture of her was to have it so that Patches, Whitey and she were close enough to the side door. This would mean that I could leave the side door open, with only the outer-grille-door thingy closed so that it would simulate me being behind a closed door. However, I could still stick my hands through the gaps, large enough to allow the passage of a small digital camera and my other, stabilizing hand through another gap, undetected, most importantly, to be able to take at least an average photograph. Luckily for me location-wise, I had been feeding them regularly at this spot, so it wasn't like I had to make a suspicious change in the physical feeding arrangements on this day. This first shot that you see shows the female in the background through the grille that's a low-tech, somewhat effective security feature found in most Indian homes. This picture is a result of clumsy me trying to hurriedly stick my hands out while holding a camera, only to be met by stiff, metallic resistance. The female turned around, and I tried to take an all-or-nothing shot, just in case she got a whiff of me and bolted for good. Or, at least till the end of lunch. But maybe she was really hungry this time around, and she went right back to "chowing down".

For no easily apparent reason, Patches and Whitey were mucking about in the landlord's downstairs garden and doing irreparable damage to some plant or the other. They didn't show anywhere near as much interest as their mother, who was practically wolfing down the food, was showing. I, however, couldn't allow myself to get distracted by the kittens' shenanigans and turned back to look at the mother. But alas, my nefarious plot to photograph her on the sly had been sniffed out!

What stern indignation! If looks could kill, my God! But she wasn't about to get violent or anything. She's too inherently nice for that, I believe, because I've seen the way some of the other, bigger females have bullied her. Still, that look of I-don't-know-how-but-I'm-going-to-get-you-back is kind of hard to look at for long. Looking at it almost makes you want to avert your gaze to that spot on the floor just in front of your toes, when you realize that you were wrong and waves of accountability come washing over you. From this point on, she continued to eat, yet, but she would always take a mouthful, and then look up at me and chew. Again a mouthful. Again some staring down while masticating. I was in no position to point out that looking up at me and chewing was just making a mess of the landlord's side passage that leads to yet another way into his house. Not at all. Just then, I couldn't tell, but in-between my trying to take as many pictures as I could so that I could get rid of the ones that I didn't want later on, I managed to capture this pose. I don't know what you call it, but I'll tell you what I think it should be captioned in just a second.

"I love the smell of whup-ass in the morning!" That's what I think this picture should be called. Well, either that or "I'm going to kick your butt, you pansy!" For just a fraction of a moment there, she took a step towards me, and I panicked. Here was a cat that would normally run away if she heard me, but now she was coming towards me? The fact that she was licking her lips didn't seem to make me feel any better. That could easily be interpreted as, "First, I'm going to kick your ass, and then I'm going to finish this lunch." Luckily, for all involved -- cat, kittens, me, camera, and my precious hands -- she gave me this long, dirty look, which I'm sure was an extended cat curse word, finished up, and left with the kittens in tow.

Since that time, although she hasn't yet worked up the courage to approach me, she doesn't always run away when she sees me. For reasons that I cannot fathom, she seems to give me this "Hey look! It's a jackass on two legs!" stare when she looks at me now. There have been occasions when she's hissed at me, much to my and the kittens' confusion. But, so far, no sentiments hurt, no foul, blah blah blah. I'm pretty sure she trusts us with looking after the kittens, but I wouldn't be too surprised if she had her doubts. Hey, my own mother doesn't trust me, so I can't blame this cat at all. Still, I can't help but wonder about two things. First, how long would it take to when the female will be comfortable enough to be around us and allow us to pet her? Was she too old to trust another human being? Too scarred, perhaps? Or was she just not interested in making that effort because there wasn't a whole lot to gain except wanton caressing when she least expected it? And second, why was this so important to us? What was that pleasure that we gained by being able to have cats come when we called and entertain us by playing with a ball of wool or string, instead of watching them exist in their environment and taking in the beauty of their graceful lives in the new "urban wilderness"? What makes it necessary for us to complete the I-feed-you-you-play-with-me cycle of a relationship that we share with a few domesticated animals? It made me wonder. But, at the very least, I'm sure the female didn't mind the wondering at all, seeing as to how it kept me busy enough to not bother her anymore. Lesson for the day: Live and let live. Because, if you think about it, if the roles were reversed, the discomfort of being petted at times when you least expect it can only be described as imagining a rough, "Security Check" guard at the airport rushing into your bedroom and frisking you from head to toe when you least expect it. Or worse, when you're asleep. Oh no! Even worse? Imagine waking up to find that you've been stripped naked and "The Authorities" -- all with white, rubber gloves on -- are about to begin conducting their 'cavity search' of you. Aliens probing? They're only "aliens" because you don't know them yet. ;)

But seriously, there's still hope yet with this female, "the mother". I notice how she first glares at me before relaxing a little, when the kittens are rubbing up against my feet. Maybe she thinks I'm hurting them, or that's just a knee-jerk reaction or something. Yet, the fact that she relaxes seems to indicate to me that she is, perhaps, slowly learning to trust me. Still, it's trust at a safe distance, and I can totally understand that. It's alright. I don't need to try and bait her so that I can pet her and get her all upset. You don't want to be dealing with an annoyed mother, no matter what the species. ;)
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