Wednesday, July 13, 2005

One Little Shred of Humanity Left

I don't expect this entry to get much attention and probably even fewer comments but, as is true of about half the BLOGS I write, this one is for ventilation. Yes, the kind required for blowing some fresh air over my nostrils but also in the sense of ranting about a topic that just drives me up the wall. The subject in question is pet abandonment.

A little background may shed some light on the murky waters that are this crime. I have an office in a "professional office complex." It borders some woods, an area that stretches about 100 yards deep behind our building and a half-mile or so down the parkway, moving west. The wooded area and a 8 foot chainlink fence separates our complex from Highway 59 which runs on higher ground behind my clinic.

After I moved in the office, some 6 or 7 years back, I would get occasional, early morning (I get to the office between 4:30 and 5:00) glimpses of feral cats. These hearty buggers have, I assume, been living in those woods long before I got here. They are the most feral animals one can imagine: avoiding all human contact at any cost. Undoubtedly this is a learned response, sensing - as only animals can - that humans are not to be trusted. They know, perhaps firsthand, the capabilities and tendencies of our species.

It is a useful survival trait. For, if they were to be tame, they would dare to approach cars, moving or not, to beg for a handout. They would, if they were so naive, be crushed in the parking lot or on the street or, if they are lucky, just have someone throw rocks (or anything else handy) at them. Being the intelligent creatures there are, they have learned and they learned quickly. They scurry back into the woods and safety. I have been here for some years now and I see their ghostly images in the predawn hours. I can sometimes see then observing me from the safety of their woods, eyes reflecting the fading morning streetlights or in the headlights of my car. They know that potential evil and even death lurks out on the pavement.

I think, often, about where they once might have been. In the lap of their former owner or curling, figure eight-style, between their owners' legs while they are at the sink or opening up a can of wet cat food. Perhaps, they once purred in contentment, that motorboat purr that signals sheer contentment. Maybe once, they actually kneaded their claws into a rug (or some soft furniture) as I understand this is how they display ultimate feline bliss. But, for these cats, the days or purring and curling up in a warm lap are long over. Now, they run with the speed only a "flight-or-fight" adrenalin rush can fuel.

Last winter, I started feeding them. I couldn't stand, as an old man with all the sentiment that entails, to see their starvation-ravaged frames skulking about in search of the birds (that had long since flown further south) or rodents (who were hibernating), the staples of their usual scant diet. I would place a bowl of cheap, dry cat chow and a bowl of water at woods' edge in the pre-dawn hours. It would be completely gone a mere hour or two later. It cost me about 10 dollars every couple weeks; the reimbursement to my heart paid in full, many times over.

I have heard the arguments against this behavior. "You'll only allow them to bred more cats!" "You're not doing them any favors; they'll stop hunting." And the laughable, "You'll make them tame." My brain initially agreed with the naysayers. But, fortunately, in retrospect, my heart had a stronger voice.

A few cups of dry cat food a day is certainly not going to change their miserable existence. They are only a salve to the heart of someone who has seen too many animals killed on roadsides everywhere. Maybe, my heart tells me, if they have a regular - if meager - source of food, they will not be forced progressively nearer the roads, desperately trying to avoid starvation in the leaner times. My heart always wins the argument.

The first of the admonishments mentioned above, though, has come true. One of the female strays did have a litter of kittens this spring. I saw them, following their mother one early morning, as she showed them where the "emergency rations" were placed. The kittens, a marvel of evolution and strength of breed, were beautiful, typically-curious and playful kittens. That was in March and, while I don't see them chasing their mom much any longer - their time as adolescent cats give them leave to hunt alone now - I do know they are all still alive. I saw them all, for the first time in weeks, last Saturday morning, playing and chasing each other at the edge of the woods. Kittens are kittens, wild or domesticated.

Their mother, who is about as domesticated as she will ever be, does greet me most mornings. She keeps a distance of about 20 feet but she lets me know she is there and that it is time to serve breakfast, her only sure meal of the day. She watches, at a safe and unwavering distance - she is and never will be, tame - and sits. I trudge up to the woods, a plastic drink cup full of Purina, and exhange greetings. When I turn and walk back to my office, I glance back over my shoulder and she, incessantly cautious, approaches the food. I smile and I go back to the work of the day.

Sometimes, I am amazed at their strength and will to live. With the southern summer, comes fleas, ticks, biting flies, fireants and other plagues on the animals of the wild. But, somehow, they manage to survive. I know several generations of these ferals have died. A couple years back, there was an orange tabby who, I presume, was one of the earlier generations. He was truly a splendid specimen. I am guessing about 12 pounds and with an impressive bearing. I have to assume he was the patriarch of the clan for his time. I don't see him anymore. I also haven't seen his sidekick, a smaller male, a white tabby, either. I don't think of those two much anymore as I suspect they died from the elements or were killed on the highway in a lean time of distance foraging.

At least for now, "my" mom and her kittens live. I am realistic enough to know that they probably will not all last through the brutal summer and, certainly not through the more brutal winter. But, for their time, they will take what life gives them and, even if they could, probably not complain.

While I try and avoid it, sometimes I let myself think of the original owners of these animals. The ones who originally took the parents (more likely the grandparents or great grandparents) of these animals home as kittens and gave them a home. They fed them, petted them, maybe even took them to the vet for shots and the like. I wonder, when I am calm enough, what changes occur that allows abandonment of their pet - any pet? When there are so many - admittedly strained to capacity and beyond these days - facilities willing to take in unwanted pets, what goes through someone's mind when they leave a pet to the wilds or the side of the road? When animal shelters go so far as to place cages outside their buildings for anonymous, no-questions-asked nighttime drop-off of unwanted pets, what can these individuals be thinking? Do they actually have that capacity? What mind can rationalize this? The more I dwell on the subject, the more cynical I feel. So I don't allow it often.

Please, before you fire off your missives of censure and castigation for the audacity and superficiality of one who dares complain about the plight of dumb animals when people are suffering worse fates elsewhere in the world, I understand your prioritization and your point. The thoughtlessness and cruelty of mankind knows no bounds. Clearly, it is not species-specific. People, certainly, do come first in our thoughts and our concerns. Starvation of people is worse than starvation of animals. Yes, my $10 every couple of weeks could (at least, according to the commercials) feed a starving child somewhere in the world. Yes, yes, I do understand, more than I might have led you to think. Many may think, but polite enough not to write it, what a piteous, misdirected, and egocentric - yes, even eccentric - old man I am. After the recent "Live 8" concert, I realize this sort of writing is merely a flyspeck on the enlarging blot of humanity's indifference. Truly, there is no need to waste your time telling me that which I
already know.

Perhaps, it is all interrelated. If we don't give a care for the millions of refugees dying around the world of starvation, abandonment, and displacement, why should we even spend a few minutes of thought about stupid pets? Well, maybe we shouldn't. If we don't do anything about starving people, we shouldn't expect any concern whatsoever for lesser creatures. And, sadly, I really don't.

However, I will do what I can for the unfortunate orphans in my woods. Nature will, as nature always cruelly does, take care of the rest. Despite the inevitable I will not begrudge myself this simple, selfish and very personal pleasure. In a world where indifference and callousness grows exponentially everyday, I will enjoy to my own minuscule stand against apathy. It is a reminder that life will find a way, even in the face of - and in usually in spite of - humanity.

For more information about helping save feral cats, see this site.

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