A few years ago, I put a bird feeder in the back yard. I had landscaped everything to verdant idyll, making it a perfect sanctuary for my avian pals, save for the cats. But one was a scaredy-cat who had no backbone for hunting, and one was so fat from her eating disorder that she posed no threat as she and her impressive girth thundered across the yard. The birds could see her coming a mile away.
I had all sorts of birds come through: bush tits (I know. What can I do?) and northern flickers, black-capped chickadees and an amazing flock of cedar waxwings who denuded our dogwood tree of berries in one short afternoon. I loved the birds, and I loved how many different ones deigned to visit our little patch of heaven in the urban jungle.
And we had one varied thrush. I’m not sure if it was male or female, but we named her “Lucky.” I loved Lucky and she found a sort of peace in our yard after an injury hobbled her. She was there all the time, hopping around on her bum foot, picking up the seeds that the other birds dropped. She hung around for a couple weeks.
And I missed her when she got better and flew away. “I haven’t seen Lucky in a while,” I said to my husband.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” said my husband.
About a year after Lucky left, our cat came down a touch of mortal illness. It was my first real foray into matters of life and death, and though I would like to say that I dealt with it was a fair amount of maturity and grace, it didn’t feel like I did. Maybe it’s not possible to feel grown-up enough for death in any capacity.
But when the time came, we had to put our little fat cat to sleep; she had faded away, all her enormous girth shrinking to nothingness before our eyes, and after we took certain measures to ease her back to health, it became clear that no amount of IV fluids was going to pull her through. Her kidneys were shot and she was miserable.
Our friend, who is also a vet, came over to our house to help us. Lying with her on the deck one sunny February afternoon, our friend gave our kitty the shot that would stop her heart. She closed her eyes and was gone. No struggle, no fear. She was tired and she was ready.
My husband and I were overcome. She was so many things to us: our first pet together, our funny little impish menace who took great delight in tormenting the other cat. She was a big ol’ fat girl who would nap with me in the sun; she was a total hedonist, a cat of leisure.
We poured a couple of stiff glasses of wine and drank them, recounting stories about her. You know, a wake of sorts. A little kitty memorial.
“She got Lucky,” said my husband, looking slightly guilty.
I realized immediately that he didn’t mean she became an inamorata in the alley at night. I started to laugh.
I mean, you know. Of course she did. She’s a cat.
“I was her accomplice,” I said. “I reeled them in with lunch while she picked them off.”
It was pretty sad. I don’t put out the bird feeder anymore.
I took some laundry to the basement the other day. At the base of the stairs was a chunk of feathers next to the mop sink, and a few single downy puffs rolling through the piles of donations we still haven’t taken to Good Will. A starling perhaps, or a robin.
But it reminded me of the bloodthirstiness of those we call “pets.” Our two new girls, both shelter adoptees, are terribly sweet cats. But they have a real taste for adventure, and it is not hard to envision their return to feral living. They are house cats only until we see them shoot up our dogwood tree in three leaps, unsuccessfully grasping for squirrels and birds and bugs and whatever else moves. Then back in the house for a nap to rest up for the next round.
But the feathers in the basement were a reminder that if they try hard enough, eventually one of them will be successful. And that put me in mind of the book The World Without Us in which the author Alan Weisman envisions how the earth will fill the vacuum if Homo Sapiens Sapiens just blips out one day.
We will leave our mark most obviously in the plastics that we leave behind, which are always breaking apart into smaller pieces, but never biodegrading. Plastics have disintegrated into such small chunks that they are at the very base of the food chain now; there is nothing on earth that has not ingested plastic at this point.
Much of the book is existentially reassuring. Most of the earth goes back to being wild. Manhattan will become swampy marsh again, as water, with no humans to hold it back anymore, washes away the vestiges of civilization. I’m reassured by this sort of future obsolescence; if one takes a more geologic view than a historical one, given enough time the obvious scars we’ve carved upon the earth will disappear. Whatever, or whoever, is left will hopefully not know we were ever here.
But there are certain things time can’t eradicate, no matter what. One is the introduction of species we have blithely moved from one area to another. In many cases the invasive species like kudzu and English ivy will simply change the face of the environment in which they are now thriving.
Like my cats, for instance.
Wisconsin wildlife biologists Stanley Temple and John Coleman never needed to leave their home state to draw global conclusions from their field research during the early 1990s. Their subject was an open secret–a topic hushed because few will admit that about one-third of all households, nearly everywhere, harbor one of more serial killers. The villain is the purring mascot that lolled regally in Egyptian temples and does the same on our furniture, accepting our affection only when it pleases, exuding inscrutable calm whether awake or asleep…beguiling us to see to its care and feeding.
It turns out that my cat is genetically identical to the Felis silvestris, or the small wild cats of Europe and Africa. The only real difference is their willingness to tolerate me and get a free meal out of the deal.
So when the house cat was introduced to North America, it was introduced to a population of wild birds that had never met its like. They literally never knew what hit them. And as our population has grown, so has both the population of house cats (which don’t hunt enthusiastically because as our pampered pals they get a feast at home) and feral cats (who might as well take back their Latin wild cat designation, such mighty hunters are they).
Feral cats hunt to such extremes that they are responsible for billions of bird deaths a year.
In a world without us, the cats do quite well. But the birds, they’re going to have to sharpen their instincts if they are to survive the mighty Felis silvestris catus.
I’ve been reading a lot of apocalyptic books these days. Maybe it’s in the air. All the talk of climate change and earthquakes and BPA in food packaging, radiation and techno pollution in Asia and Africa, bestsellers like The Road and Far North combining into one giant miasma of apocalyptic vision. It’s not difficult after seeing the images from Katrina and the latest earthquake craze to picture a life after society; it wouldn’t take long to dissolve into primitive tribal warfare if you took people’s access to their basic needs away.
It is far harder to picture a world without the hand of humanity strangling it, but it’s that one which gives me more peace. We’ve laid a hard burden upon the earth, what with our murderous pets and our lovely-but-invasive plants, our dedication to plastic packaging and our complete unwillingness to part with our fossil fuels. It’s too heart-breaking to see the epic unkindnesses perpetrated upon each other broadcast 24 hours a day on networks that make human suffering part of a ploy for advertising and market shares or purely political smallness.
Even though we are culpable in introducing the cats to the birds in North America, which will leave a scar long after we’re gone, the birds can adapt.
We, apparently, can barely adapt to each other, much less the world around us.