Monday, October 15, 2007

I Wanna Be Just Like You

Two days later, we leave Ari at home and drive to Cheshire’s Victorian home. Greg is doing his best to be a good sport, but I can tell he’s not entirely enthusiastic.

“Only one,” he reminds me as we ring the doorbell. “We only have room for one more animal.”

Cheshire leads us upstairs into feral cat land. As we walk up the stairs, she warns us that, although they have learned to trust her, the cats will not transfer that trust to other humans. At least not at first.

“These kitten-cats were born feral, and they lived on their own outdoors for five months. That’s about as long as you can go and still hope for domestication,” she says.

We count back the months since they were rescued and brought to Cheshire.
“The cats were born in September?” I ask.
Cheshire nods.
“So they spent the winter outside?”
She nods again.
“How on earth did they survive?”
“I have no idea. But these are tough little animals.”

Not that you’d know it at first meeting. The four kittens launch elaborate crisis drill as soon as we enter the room. Each flies off her perch and scatters about the room, as if moving towards her appointed place of cover. The three humans move their heads back and forth quickly, trying to keep track of the lightening speed and precision movement.

“Well,” says Cheshire with a deep breath. “Here they are.”

She introduces us to the litter. Before I can say anything, Greg turns to Cheshire.
“I really think they ought to at least stay in pairs, don’t you?”
She smiles in agreement. I blink, looking for the husband who accompanied me to this house.
Greg continues. “I mean, I think it’s the right thing to do. For the cats. I wouldn’t want to separate Mouse from the only family she has.”
I remain dumbstruck. And pleased.

Cheshire quietly steps away from the room, leaving the two of us with four terrified cats. I sit down on an overturned chair.
“Two cats?” I smile.

Greg looks sheepish. “They seem so scared,” he says. “I think they need one another.”

But how do we choose? We look at each one, delightful in her own way. We can’t make this decision for them. I go downstairs and find Cheshire, reading a book of philosophy in the living room.

“We need your help,” I say. “Who would be the best choice for Mouse?”

She comes upstairs and surveys the room. “They’re all great,” she says. “But I when I hear scampering up here, I think it’s coming from Mouse and Leila Tov. I can’t confirm it, but I think they’re playmates.” She pauses. “I’m not going to lie to you, though. Leila Tov has come the least far in terms of socialization. I don’t know that she’s ever going to become really domesticated.”

That doesn’t bother me too much. Leila Tov is a mirror image of her sister: lean and black and mysterious in her reticence. I like the contrast. And hopefully we’ll have Mouse to cuddle someday. “Do you think Leila Tov will be hard to place with another family?”

“I do. I’ve had the most inquiries about Cora, and a few people have visited Mavis and Mouse. But none so far for Leila Tov.

That settles it for me. I look to Greg. “Can she be the one?”
He agrees.

Getting the two cats into a carrier is a comedy of errors for the five of us. Cheshire tries to extricate Mouse from her perch on the windowsill, but Mouse has laid root. Patiently, Cheshire tries to remove each of Mouse’s barbed claws from the screen. Her paws are enormous, with several extra thumbs on each hand. She looks like Mickey Mouse with his big, white gloves. Or, even better, like a two-handed catcher for the White Sox.

Leila Tov, who is much more graceful and lacks the extra digits, is no less of a challenge when it comes to getting her in the carrier. Each time we pour one cat in, the other escapes. By the time they are both incarcerated, the three humans are exhausted.

We shake Cheshire’s hand and promise to stay in touch. She follows us to the car with reminders about helping the cats get adjusted to their new house.

“And don’t worry if they don’t eat or use the litterbox. It could take days. When their brother was adopted, he didn’t eat or pee for over a week.”
This does not sound promising.

Greg and I drive home in anxious silence. We have made a mostly impetuous decision, and one for which we have little experience or qualification. As for the juvenile dog waiting anxiously at home, we can only hope she associates our new cargo with Cam and not the lurking feral cats in our driveway. Cheshire’s constant reminders that we could return the kitten-cats provides just enough comfort to persuade us to keep driving.

Once home, we lug the carrier into my back office, where we set up food and water, a litter box, and what we hope will be an appealing cat nest of flannel sheets and thick towels. The set-up looks very much like it did for Cam’s final hours. Maybe this will help chase away some of those residual ghosts.

The two cats have stuffed themselves into the back corner of the carrier, intertwined in fear. Their tiny dark faces point outwards, revealing only four wide green eyes. We open the carrier door and peer in. They try—unsuccessfully—to wedge themselves further back in the carrier. This is going to take a while.

Greg and I leave them alone in the room and shut the door behind us. We take Ari for a very long walk, hoping the quiet house will give the kitten-cats time to adjust. When we return an hour or two later, the cats have disappeared from carrier. I crouch under the futon. No cats. I look behind the bookcase. No cats. Chair, desk, endtable. No cats. Are they Houdinis? Can they, Harry Potter-like, disparate into thin air? I am intrigued by this idea, in spite of its obvious unlikeliness. And I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed when I find the two sisters crouched in the microscopic space created between our T.V. armoire and the far corner of the room. I look through the small wedge of space. The two dark faces turn in my direction, eyes still wide. I coo and cluck. They do not respond.

This continues for the next day or two, as Greg and I alternately pop into the room every few hours to check on the lack of progress made by the cats. On the third day, I contact Cheshire to see if she has any advice.

“You have to minimize their hiding places,” she counsels. “Make it harder for them to seek refuge completely away from you. But don’t be aggressive in approaching them, either. They should still be able to dictate the terms.”

Greg and I puzzle out how to make this work in the back room. Eventually, we decide to pull out the armoire from the corner, thereby creating a bigger space—one that, eventually, could accommodate a human appendage. We do this in quick bursts into the room—just long enough for us to remind the cats that we share this new house with them, but not long enough for Ari to realize something’s up.

Miraculously, this plan works. Although the cats, distraught that their place of residence has been compromised, retreat to the area behind the futon. On the fourth day, I see a flash of black tail scurry back as I open the door. At least they’re wandering in our absence. Around midnight on the fifth night, we hear a mad soccer match taking place downstairs. The rumbling of pouncing cats stirs Ari, who trots over to Greg’s office where she can stand, directly over the back room, with one ear cocked and her eyes as wide as the cats’. Something’s down there! She seems to say. She paws at the carpet and looks at us more intently. Hey, guys. Something’s DOWN THERE!! We tell her she has new friends but that it will be awhile before they are formally introduced. This clearly infuriates the puppy, who spends the remainder of the soccer match lying sphinx-like, following the sound with her wolfie ears and pouncing on the floor from time to time. Each time we make eye contact, she gives us a dirty look: Why on earth are we up here, when something’s playing DOWN THERE?!?! Her expression suggests something between contempt and pity. Humans clearly don’t get it.

The next day, Greg and I decide that our presence isn’t going to make a great deal of difference in the back room. And, to be honest, we’ve begun to miss our T.V. We take the pup with us: the three animals are going to have to get to know one another eventually. For the first hour or two, Ari seems to have forgotten that we have company in the room. Gradually, though, she puts two and two together: Litter box and unfamiliar food, yes that’s very interesting. Humans unnaturally interested in the wall behind the futon. Most peculiar. And what is that? That faint odor . . . it seems almost familiar to me. . . vaguely feline, I dare say. Wait. I think I’ve got it. We have new cats!

At the risk of cliché, I swear I can see a tiny compact fluorescent illuminate somewhere just above Ari’s skull. I turn to Greg.

“I think she’s figured it out.” This is both a confirmation and a warning.

A moment later, we watch with trepidation as Ari trots to the side of the futon and inserts her long snout, breathing deeply. Sure enough, that’s a cat smell. She jostles and dances, trying to get a good look. Greg and I forget about our movie and turn to the back of the couch. The two dark faces dart from us to the pup, who is now whining and yowling softly, desperate to get their attention. We’ve gone too far to turn back—the cats are going to have to meet this canine gadfly.
Forty minutes later, Ari is no closer to wooing the cats. Tired from her vocalization and constant tap dance, she retreats and lies down expectantly. She sighs heavily. We all wait. And then, a few minutes later, a clownish little face emerges from behind the futon. Mouse looks around once or twice, and her compact body follows. She steps gingerly in the direction of Ari. They both sniff the air. Ari looks restless. I say her name in a long, slow tone of warning. But it’s needless. She’s riveted to the floor, waiting to see what Mouse will do next. Mouse responds by taking a quick lap around the room, staying low and nervous on her haunches. Ari lets her explore, craning her neck owl-like to keep this new cat in view. Mouse completes the circle and returns near Ari. The two sniff the air again, then Mouse retreats underneath the futon, presumably to report back to her more reticent sister.

Over the next week, these brief encounters continue—each time prompted by the urgings of our very social dog. She has once again become our ambassador, this time an emissary representing both the human and feral world. Without her, we make little progress communicating our benevolence to these frightened, feral sisters. Somehow, though, she’s able to convey all this and more. Given how notoriously difficult it is to acclimate feral cats to a new social environment, I’m both impressed and intrigued by Ari’s success. Is it her penchant for caninaturalism? Her transcendentalism? The fact that she was semi-feral for her early months?

Of course, that last designation is mine, and I doubt many wildlife biologists would share it.
When they use the word feral, they generally mean those animals who have returned to a wild state after once being domestic. Does this include Ari? Probably not. Her unsupervised life in the shelter was more like Peter Pan’s Island of Lost Boys. I pose this notion to a small group of my science colleagues if this counts. They look skeptical. I ask how closely they guard their definitions.

My colleague, Jim Chacko, an expert in fisheries and aquaculture, admits to a certain capriciousness in scientific identification. He says this low and quietly, as if he might be excommunicated for this admission.

“I cannot say why, but people in my field have started calling all wild fish ‘feral,’” he offers.
I tell him this conjures images of rogue salmon wearing punk clothing or little goldfish throwing satchels over their shoulders and hitting the open road.

“Goldfish don’t have shoulders,” he corrects. He doesn’t deign to comment on the idea of fishy couture. “And I mean fish already in the wild.”

“So what do you call fish that were once domestic and are now wild?”
You have to hand it to ichthyologists. They’re efficient with their language, if nothing else.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Wild Lives

Nature is on the move this month, and Ari’s keeping watch. The pup has become increasingly vigilant since Cam’s death, and she spends most of her indoor time wobbling on the thin back of our sofa, where she can keep watch out our living room windows. Our couch, meanwhile, has taken on an identity of its own and looks far more like an abominable snow something than it does forest green furniture. Thick tufts of white fur undulate in the breeze, giving the appearance of underwater vegetation. Except, of course, for the annoying fact that kelp tends not to adhere to wool pants.

Our new canine vegetation has taught us an important new fact about mature huskies: they shed. A lot. So much so, in fact, that those in the know refer to this twice-annual husky molt as ‘blowing their coats.’ I wish this were merely an evocative metaphor. Instead, it’s the burdensome reality of a juvenile dog turned dandelion top. Thick balls of Ari’s undercoat float through the air in our house, eventually alighted on the carpet, the dining room table, the husband and, of course, the much-suffering sofa.

In another context, this might be whimsical or even picturesque. It might even be ecologically elegant. If, for instance, Ari were Timothy Grass (Phleum pratense) or other late-flowering flora, she’d be dispersing her seeds for germination next year. If she were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), she’d be feeding monarch butterflies and delighting children with her airborne silks. She’s not, of course.

Instead, she’s a half-husky who has inherited her father’s immensely effective insulating fur. Like her close kin the gray wolf, Ari has two coats: a thick undercoat of short hairs close to her body and coarser guard hairs on top. The undercoat keeps her body warm in temperatures as low as -75° F. Part of why this coat is so effective is because she completely replaces it twice a year. And that, of course, means that she has to lose it then, too. This makes her grumpy, and she pulls at the clumps of fur with irritation. She looks awful, and I think she knows it.

Further incensing her is the increased activity around our house. Although the pup has never been all that territorial, the increased movement of animals preparing for winter seems to concern her. She barks menacingly whenever another animal passes through our yard, regardless of whether or not that animal might be a threat. Of particular concern to her right now are three feral cats who occasionally cross our driveway on their way to some secret location. Each time they do, Ari raises her hackles, bares her teeth, and acts as if a massive invasion is immanent. Our brief morning reprieve has been interrupted by the schedule of these cats, who invariably wander down the driveway just before dawn.

Where they are returning to and how they spend their daylight hours remains a mystery to us. Like most of the animals in our area, these cats are too wily to be seen on one of our caninaturalist walks. We must resort, as Ari does, to stakeout positions near the front of the house, where we can watch the kitty debauchers slink home after a long and tawdry night of vole hunting and free love. They are wily and loose, these cats, and far too clever to let us know much about their wild lives.

We’re both surprised, then, when we see a small cat resting on the edge of the street early one morning. I stop us quietly and make the now-familiar gesture of reeling in Ari’s leash tightly around my hand, but the cat does not move. We walk closer to investigate, only to learn that the kitten—no more than a month or two old I’d guess—has become another victim to too much traffic travelling too fast on a dark country road. Trussed in a glossy black coat, she is beautiful and sleek, even lying broken in the middle of the road. Ari forgets to be fierce about this creature, who is undoubtedly the offspring of one of the pup’s new nemeses. Instead, she sniffs the kitten gingerly, then pulls back in alarm when she reaches the kitten’s fractured skull and dislocated eye. Can she tell this was an unnatural death?

Meanwhile our neighbor, Elizabeth, drives by on her way to work. Her car idles as she looks down at the cat and shakes her head sadly.

“Not another one,” she says. Her voice is full of real regret.
“Do you know this cat?” I ask. “Does she belong to anyone?”

Elizabeth shakes her head again. “I’ve seen a new feral family around here the past few days, but I haven’t been able to get close. I’m sorry.”

She apologizes—she is late to work. Otherwise, she would stay and help.

I tell her I understand. And the kitten is so small, I’m certain I can take care of its burial by myself.

“Too bad,” Elizabeth says by way of conclusion. “We’ve had a lot of these accidents lately.”

We agree. Too many.

As I watch Elizabeth’s Subaru drive down the long road, I decide I’ve had enough. Enough death, enough grieving, enough proof of the fragility and fallibility of life in our neighborhood. I turn Ari around and return to the house. Greg looks up from his morning work, surprised by the shortness of our walk and the militaristic determination of my entrance. I tell him about the kitten as I search for a copy of the week’s newspaper, which I will need to collect the broken little cat.

Wordlessly, Greg leaps from the couch and puts on his shoes. He takes my hand as we walk down the driveway and turn in the direction of the cat. We kneel down before her. She is nearly weightless; although her condition requires both of us to maneuver her onto the Business section. We fold the pages in as if the kitten were a package about to be mailed, and then we bury her in the rock wall along the side of the road.

Afterwards, Greg hugs me. He knows I am still smarting over Cam, and I get the sense he wants to allay any grief. But this time I’m not feeling grief. I pull away from him, my jaw set.

“We have to help them,” I insist.

Greg nods warily. Is this the deranged insistence of a grief-stricken pet owner? The messianic complex of someone who has been thinking about animals for too long? His expression is indulgent, as if worried he might further agitate me.

“Okay, hon,” he says slowly. “We can try to figure out something.”

“No,” I insist. “We have to help them NOW. We have to save them.”

The look on my face tells him I’m about to go home and rifle through our closet until I find tights and a cape. The look he gives me suggests clothing of the straight-jacket variety might be more appropriate. Too late: I will not be dissuaded.

I spend the rest of the morning visiting shelter and cat rescue websites. Greg and Ari take turns sighing despondently from their respective corners of the house. They are united in their apprehension over my behavior. I begin sighing too, but more out of despair concerning the current state of the domestic cat than anything else.

Eventually, though, I find an organization called Save our Strays, which places homeless cats in foster homes until they are fully socialized and can be adopted. It seems a wonderfully humane solution to the overcrowding of so many animal shelters, and their success in socializing young ferals seems like an accomplishment worth supporting.

SOS lists dozens of cats available for adoption in our area. I read the bio of each one, looking for clues about who might enculturate the most smoothly into our home. I rule out all tabbies on principle: they look too much like Cam, and I know I will spend at least our first few weeks wishing they were her. I rule out most older cats for related reasons: given Cam’s stress over Ari’s introduction, I worry that an older cat will be equally as distressed by the prospect of living with my ebullient caninaturalist. From there, my decision making becomes far more capricious, as I look for well-written descriptions and interesting cat photos. I feel like I am participating in an on-line dating service. In a way, I suppose I am.

Eventually, I email a foster cat parent named Cheshire. I decide that with a name like that, she must have a good sense of cats. Her email address is that of a local college, and I appreciate the lyricism of her descriptions. In my introductory letter, I tell her about the three of us and ask if she knows of a young cat who might enjoy living with such a family.

She writes back an hour later to tell me that she has the perfect cat for me. Her name is Mouse—a yearling cat who was recently rescued along with her three siblings. Cheshire describes Mouse as very curious, adventuresome, and busy. A real character.

I ignore Cheshire’s coded language about Mouse being “a character,” as well as her more overt warning about Mouse’s fondness for chewing paper. Instead, I take down the website address that features a picture of Mouse and visit the site at once. There, I find the image of a jester of a cat. Not quite calico, not quite tortoiseshell, Mouse wears motley. Her face is a swirl of black and brown, with a bright orange stripe rising from her nose to a point between her ears. She also has the biggest, most speckled ears I have ever seen. I am enthralled and delighted by her carnivalesque appearance. I write to Cheshire and tell her I think Mouse is beautiful. She sends me an adoption application, which I tuck away in my saved email folder. Meanwhile, I slink upstairs to the loft, where Ari is napping and Greg is studiously writing. They both look up and become instantly dubious.

“You’ve found something,” Greg says.
“Not something,” I correct. “Someone.”