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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Feral Pets

There are a series of posts on this blog about the cats that and dogs that I’ve had the chance to meet and know in my life. Well, more cats than dogs really, certainly of late, but in all this time, I’m surprised I never really explored the difference between what it meant to have an animal around the house as a permanent resident, as opposed to one simply passing through, so to speak. I got my first dog, quite by surprise and because someone didn’t want him, but I had already had the opportunity to visit several houses, especially those of my aunts and uncles, to have interacted with dogs a long time before I got Rex. It wasn’t all fun and games I assure you, occasionally having to sustain a scratch or near bite from an aging and moody animal not willing to put up with a toddler’s incessant curiosity, but it was an experience that I am grateful for. Being around pets from an early age has allowed me to cultivate a liking for and an understanding -- perhaps a very individual sort of understanding based wholly or largely on how you look at it -- of the animal psyche. Surely, earlier on I relied on explanations given to me by my aunts and uncles, even my parents, about the reasons for why they did or didn’t do things in a certain way. And, the information was accurate, regarding a whole host of strange behaviors that I heard about or witnessed. Surely, it’s easy to imagine that when I was four years old and asking about why some of the bigger cats or dogs would suddenly snarl at their kittens or puppies, it provided the perfect opportunity for them to validate disciplining errant children with a beating of some kind, no matter what the species. But in the last few years, I’ve been puzzling over this whole “feral” or “pet” thing in my head. I’ve referred to the cats at home as feral, implying that they exercise a level of freedom very different from some of the “pet” cats that I’ve known, the biggest difference being a pet cat would be taken to the vet for and ailment, but with our feral cats, well, if we find their little lifeless bodies somewhere, we bury them with the hope that none of the others are infected. But the amount of human contact and interaction notwithstanding, there are a few traits of the feline species that I’ve noticed, which is most likely a result of having to adapt to this new “modern world” of man. And in a sense, that could be as alarming as it is fascinating, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. 

By far the most interesting of these stories that was told to me was of a dog called Stranger, which belonged to a neighbor who was said to be an upstanding member of society, but also a very strict man. He trained the dog very well, but was also very unforgiving of its mistakes. On one occasion, he was so unforgiving that the dog fled the house and came to my grandmother’s house, which was right next door. Everyone at home recognized the dog, so they said their hellos and assumed the dog was just going on his daily rounds. When they saw him sleeping on the lawn a few hours later, they were a bit concerned, and my uncle fed him some leftovers from lunch, and took him back to his rightful owner. Was he in for the surprise of his life, because no sooner had he opened the gate to enter their compound, the neighbor bellowed something about not wanting a dog that was happy to run away, and went back in without another word. It seems that that was all the invitation my uncle needed to adopt the dog, so they brought him back to my grandmother’s place and he become our dog. This, however, isn’t the bizarre, part of Stranger’s tale. According to my uncle, one of the things Stranger was trained to do was to hunt down stray cats. If he got wind of a cat anywhere in the immediate vicinity, he would begin his hunt. After spotting his quarry, he would run it down and catch it, rather efficiently, I was told. Once he had alleviated the cat of its painful, miserable existence, he promptly dug a little hole, buried it, and would come running back to where he was resting before. And that was that, until the next hapless cat that mistakenly wandered onto our property. Needless to say, there were no cats at home during Stranger’s reign.

Now, Stranger’s behavior isn’t too out of place, and from previous experience with finding bodies of cats left mutilated by stray dogs or jackals, often in the most gruesome and contorted postures I’ve ever seen, I would have preferred a little out-of-sight-out-of-mind cleaning up a la Stranger. But the “burial” part of the hunt was trained behavior, whereas the killing of felines seems to be a trait shared by domesticated and wild canines. The worst discovery? One day, about six months ago, I was looking out the kitchen door at the bit of “jungle” that separated our house from the neighbor’s house. A couple of seconds earlier, I thought I saw a Brahminy Kite descending to ground level, not something one gets to see from such a close distance. So, I went to try and spot the bird, if it was indeed that, but in a manner that wouldn’t alarm it and cause it to take off. I spotted it about 10 yards away, and it was feeding on something. In my mind, I cursed the neighbors for still continuing to throw their trash into our compound, usually leftover bits of meat or fish, along with plastics and god-alone-knows-what. I continued to watch the bird from my vantage point, half hidden by the kitchen door, for about another minute or so. Being one to try and merge the human-being/wild-animal divide, wishful thinking if you asked me, I managed to step out from behind the door completely without startling the kite. My patience wearing thin, as my excitement was pouring out of my ears, I couldn’t help myself, but I took a step forward. Immediately, I knew I’d gone too far, because no sooner had my foot landed on the step below, the kite turned around, spotted me, and with a mighty flapping of its wings, it was off. I may have lost the bird, but I noticed that it didn’t manage to carry off whatever it had been feeding on. Curious as ever, I went to check out the kite’s meal of choice, interested only in identifying whether or not the food had come from elsewhere, courtesy of the kite, or from across the wall, courtesy of the neighbors. Also, whatever it was, I didn’t want to pick it up or move it because I was pretty sure the kite would be back. So, jolly old, excited me went into that little patch of jungle, to see what he could see. When I got to within five feet of where I had seen the kite, I reeled back in horror, being bewildered, frustrated, and physically sick all at the same time. There it was, a kitten with its head pointed upward as if it was looking into the canopy of the jackfruit tree above, its front paws facing North, its hind legs facing Southwest thanks to a snapped spinal column, with whatever was left of its insides forming a grotesque pool of blood and guts right next to it. Without thinking about it, I rushed back into the house, grabbed a shovel, and buried it where it lay.

Returning to the point I had in mind, gruesome tangents aside, there is a certain behavior that I’ve noticed with cats and potted plants. Well, not just potted plants, but plants that we in the house are trying to cultivate. From an early age, and then well into adulthood, all the cats I’ve seen in the last couple of years have been the bane of my mother’s garden. She’s an avid collector of plants, trying to slowly set up a botanical garden of her own I suspect, but there are tons of little saplings and cuttings that she keeps bringing home from time to time. Without fail, I’ve noticed the cats and kittens, no matter who their mother was, or how old they are, will jump on all of these, as well as play games that involve jumping into already well established pots containing some unique lilies and orchids, stopping only after the plants have been obliterated. Now, I can understand the kittens here in Hyderabad ruining the floral contents of the one pot I’ve managed to fill with enough soil to grow something in, because this place is, in effect, an “urban jungle”. Don’t get me wrong, there are a couple of coconut palms that tower over the house and are rather close to the structure, but expecting cats and kittens to make do with these as their outdoor playthings would be like putting a baby on the hood of a car, hoping it would entertain itself without unwittingly committing suicide. But the cats in Kerala, they have tons of space to run around, lots of little trees and overgrown bushes to play hide-and-seek in, and plenty of vantage points with excellent leaf-cover from which to ambush little birds and reptiles. In fact, the potted plants, along with the ones we tend to -- differentiating these from the ones that were planted by ancestors, now having reached gargantuan proportions and beyond everyday pruning -- form less than five percent of the land available to them for fun and frolic. Still, for reasons beyond me and my imagination, they insist on causing carnage by flattening hibiscus cuttings that have just sported a new shoot, and reducing the large leaves of some of the decorative plants to some form of sheer lace, thanks to incessant sharpening of their claws. Before you even think about suggesting a “scratching post” I warn you, my ability to tolerate idiocy has diminished greatly in the last few years. If you’re still wondering why, that’s because these cats have scratching posts that are taller than the house! So, for whatever reason, these not-so-stray cats who sleep only on the sofas and couches in the living room, don’t see it fit to sit on the floor in the kitchen, and love to be pampered and brushed are not really flora friendly. Either that, or there’s some secret “Reclaim the World” movement afoot, with every other species coming together to overthrow the human hegemony, beginning with gardens and potted plants.

If you don’t find yourself convinced in the least by this and you’re sitting there going, “A few potted plants are ruined, and this asshole thinks that cats are destroying the world?” then consider a BBC documentary that tried to get a handle on just how much pet cats impact local ecosystems. I remember my jaw dropping to the floor the first time I saw one woman produce a large baking tray, with over 40 dead critters on it. They had all fallen victim to the lady’s cat in the previous week, a cat she fed well beyond any legally healthy limit from the looks of it. Or at least, from the looks of the cats that hang around the house. Therefore, it’s pretty obvious that this hunting is not for food, or because they suddenly had a craving for hill myna. It’s the thrill of the hunt. How “human” is that? Frankly, I’m disgusted by it, and I’ve attempted to discipline cats wherever I happen to find them chasing after a beautiful butterfly, just because they think it’s funny. But they obviously manage to be on their best behavior when I’m around, which isn’t a whole lot, resorting to lying in wait for a stray Drongo or one of the plump, little Seven Sisters birds on the lower braches of the Lavender bush. Good for them. The net result, from all the hunting of “everything else” that moves, is far fewer squirrels, birds of all feathers, and even the lizards that lord over the walls, a half-inch out of our reach, now stick to peeking out from behind a picture of my great-great-grand parents. In fact, it’s been years since I saw a butterfly. Nothing is sacred with these cats, so to speak. Well, there is a mongoose on the property at my grandmother’s place, and not normally one to put up with any feline nonsense, the cats have learned the hard way to keep especially clear of her when she has a little one in tow. But on the whole, a pretty massacred ecology. I mean, the only things not on the cats’ menu are the birds that fly way overhead, as long as they stay up there. I’ve seen a curious cat or two charge Brahminy kites when they tend to spend a lot of time on the ground picking out the right twigs to make their nest. Luckily for them, the cats never followed through with the intent to attack lest they meet with a swift and halcyon end. But the point I’m making is that other than the cats, and the kites, and maybe the odd squirrel, we have nothing much else to look at. Where we once had parrots and little sunbirds aplenty during the day, only to have our own little owl quartet in the evenings, now there are cats, 24X7. It wasn’t a fun trade-in really, but such is the power of the unrelenting wave of civilization, which in the cats’ cases refers to the ability to simultaneously be civilized and wild at the same time; won’t sit on the floor, but will catch and kill a hummingbird for fun, after dinner. What was the “straw” that broke this camel’s back and made it write a post about how the world was going to end in a serious case of “Death by Feline”? The things we expect them to hunt, rats in particular, often get safe passage to and from their burrows. How many times have I watched a rat jump out and run between the cat and me. Instinctively, I flash the cat a very cross, scrunched-up-brow with a no-nonsense, What the “f@($???” only to have it returned by her eyelids pursed tightly together, head turned away from me, as if doing this would make me disappear, or at least get out of her hair. Even when we’ve trapped rats in well-placed traps from the night before, and tried to hand out a free, live meal, only a few of the cats would grab it and end up eating it. Many of the other cats would grab the rats, run down the stairs and stop. Then, you saw the cat watch as the rat scurried off. What? I swear! And the moment the rat had made good its escape do that, the idiot cat would turn around and give you this blank, yet expectant stare, as if wanting a verbal pat on the back. Maybe that’s how I learned to curse. 

The results speak for themselves, for me. So, apart from my observation of a feral cat being somewhat different yet exactly the same from a pet cat, I have attempted to establish the fact that continued contact with humans leads to displays in like behavior for both. They’ve been known to ruin a garden or two, but they’ve been proven to be handy little killers that can’t be unleashed on selective animals, using a more all-or-nothing modus operandi. Come to think of it, wasn’t there a documentary a while ago, about some seabird that was endangered, and when researchers set up cameras around a few nests to find out how the birds’ eggs were always being damaged, they discovered it was because stray cats were making a meal of the eggs? To expand the scope of my argument, for the sake of argument, or perhaps a couple of comments, I’m going to include every domesticated, non-food-source animal known to man as being party to this. Dogs are another culprit, especially in cities. Some places in the world, cities in India from personal experience, have gangs of dogs that patrol specific territories, making it unsafe for people to be up and about very late, and especially alone. These animals have gone ahead and taken on a part of the insanity that is a human civilized existence. They seem to show a disregard for nature, just like we do, clinging to the savage aspects of a life in the wild, such as killing off a rival’s offspring just so one set of parents has a better chance of passing on its genes, while simultaneously ascribing to a new order, learning to live life according to human commands. I suppose saying that none of this bodes well for any of us would just sound a little doomsday-prophet-ish, although a lot of this blog is already like that. So, I’m just going to finish by saying that there are surely many pros and cons with being either feral or a pet, but from my observations, all creatures recognize the comfort and opulence of a civilized way of life, and crave it wholeheartedly once they get a taste. It’s a scary proposition on the whole, but nowhere nearly as scary as sitting here wondering if the rose cuttings that I have rooting are safe from the amazingly polite cats that now see it fit to do their “business” while in the flower pot. God please save them all.

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