About twelve years ago, I went over to my parents house to visit them. I said hi to my mom when I got to their house. She was hanging out in the back yard, something that she did a lot during the summer, gardening and trying to feed the various animals that happened to come around during the warmer months. She replied and then refocused her attention on what seemed to be four or five kittens that were milling around.
I went into the living room, sat down beside my dad, and started talking with him. After the usual how are you doings and small talk we got round to taking about the kittens. He was a little bothered by them and wasn’t getting any of the same joy that my mom was. His concern was not about now, they were fine and my mom was doing a good job feeding them. Their mother was always close by and it was a healthy family for all intents and purposed. The litter had remained the same size from the first sighting a few months before meaning that there was plenty of food and sufficient shelter to stop predators from getting at them.
My dad was concerned about the winter because it can be brutally cold and domestic short hair tabby cats are not very well equipped to deal with sustained below zero temperatures. Nature is indifferent and cruel, so whatever has food and shelter will live and whatever is lacking either will die. He wasn’t much of an animal lover, but he didn’t dislike or hate them either. He was more of an animal tolerater, accepting that they are living being and there their experience of life has many of the same characteristic as the life experiences that human being have to deal with. Whatever else they may go through, it was clear to him that they experienced moments of contentment or satisfaction and the counter part experience of pain and the need for something.
There were five kittens, he knew this because my mom had named them. And to him, these were going to be the best moments in the lives of four of them. From this moment forward, their lives would only ever be this good, or worse. The remaining one would make it though the winter and live to enjoy this peak experience next year.
“Son, it’s a lot of suffering that doesn’t need to happen.”
This was a stinging contrast to the joy I noticed with my mom a few minutes before. There didn’t seem to be any connection to the sight of the playing kittens and the conjured image of frozen kitten corpses that winter would inevitably cause. I started to feel a little sick about it.
“We’re going to trap them and bring them to the humane society. They are taking the food that your mom is giving them, so they’ll find their way into the cages.”
This made me feel a little better. I have no idea what their future would be like when they ended up in a shelter, they were, after all, feral cats. Their parents were feral and with the exception of their minor contact with my mom, they regarded human beings with near absolute suspicion and kept their distance. Cats are killing machines that are simply not acting on this killer instinct when they pretend to be tame while playing the role of “pet.” But when they do not learn these domesticated behaviors when they are young, it is probably not going to happen. Of the five kittens, only one of them had journeyed close enough to my mom for her to gently touch it. The rest of them acted like wild cats and made sure to keep enough distance to book it if they needed to.
“She thinks she can tame them, and that might make them more adoptable.” This was said with a level of optimism that was eclipsed by the near certainty that he would soon be taking my mom to the emergency room to get stitched-up and rabies shots after the kittens made it clear that they belonged to no one and that they would let her continue to feed them so long as she stayed far enough away.
We chatted about work, news and the usual subject before I went out to see my mom and find out about her plan.
I found her in the mud room. It’s a small room, with three doors. There is a door into the kitchen, which I closed behind me. The other two doors lead outside. The one leading to the front yard was closed, while the one leading to a small porch with four or five steps to the back was open. I glanced out and saw my mom with a bowl of soft cat food that she was placing down on the ground near where I could see five kittens and a fully grown cat. As the kittens would come close to the bowl, my mom would pick it up, move closer to the steps and put it down again. We made eye contact and I understood what she was doing. Saying nothing, I continued to watch and she moved the bowl 6 or 7 more times, slowly making her way onto the porch.
“I only need one, the rest will follow.”
I instantly had her shared vision. The animal shelter has a lot more success finding homes for friendly lovable animal. By getting one to warm-up to her, the rest would follow and when they ended up at the shelter they would be adopted out to good homes and enjoy an easy life. Very simple, both a good idea and a solid plan to make sure my dads concerns would be addressed.
One of the kittens was more curious and risk taking than the rest. They were the target for the initial domestication and would then relate the message to the rest of them that it was all good.
The kitten jumped up on to the porch, ate a little and didn’t run away when my mom picked up the bowl can put it down inside the room. It followed, and when reached the bowl it sat down and began to eat. All good, and this was the moment it would become a pet. It had walked past my mom to reach the food, ignoring her and me. As it ate mindlessly my mom made eye contact with me right before she gently closed the door. And that was it, the kitten was domesticated. This was evident from the fact that it just kept eating. This was going to be so much easier than anticipated.
And it was domesticated for about 5 seconds. At this point we learned a very valuable lesson about wild animals that you would think two adults wouldn’t have to learn.
The kitten looked at me, then back towards my mom. This was the instant it became obvious that it did not share the same assessment of the situation as doctor Dolittle and her idiot son. It wasn’t a pet. The wildness switch in its brain had not been switched to off. In fact, it had suddenly been dialed-up as it realized that it could no longer see the outside let alone leave at will. It started running, but with no where to go it started running faster. This didn’t open any doors, although it did open my moms eyes. It wasn’t just the metaphoric eye opening that marks the obliteration of a piece ignorance, it was the actual physical eye opening that marks an unconscious need to bring in more sensory information because what was coming in is not sufficient to make sense of what was going on.
The kitten was now running as fast as it could, but with nowhere to go, it is running everywhere, all at once. It isn’t paying a moment of heed to me or my mom other than the brief moments when it is running over us as it does laps of the small room. Faster and faster, going higher and higher up the walls as it tries to spin its way towards freedom. Maybe it saw the light from the windows as the way out, maybe it is the inertia and centrifugal force, whatever the reason, the kitten was running along the walls about two or three feet off of the floor as though it has never been taught to obey the laws of gravity.
For what seemed like minutes it ran and I stood there slack jawed and dumb. When my eyes met my moms again there was a series of thoughts exchanged in the silent and certain way only a mother can relate to her child. In order they were “what the fuck,” then “this is not how it works,” leading to “this might be how it works,” to “this is how it works,” closing in on “how do we stop this,” ending with “the door caused this, maybe the door can stop it.”
The door opens and the kitten launches itself out like a bullet, flying over the porch and the steps before touching down on the grass on its way past its siblings and out of sight. It’s moving so fast that the other kittens move in slow motion as they react to the blur it leave as shots past them. Whatever had been going though their heads about where it had gone was quickly answered with “past us” in hurry. It was the bravest one so its sudden reappearance was the spark that lite a fire of absolute terror that seemed to explode the back yard into a chaotic frenzy of supercritical “save yourself” panic.
Then it was over. The back yard was empty. Everything was silent. The moment of insane action had faded into this short-lived one of complete calm and near serenity. As the seconds passed, it became obvious to my mom and me that something was going to need to be said because we had both witnessed something for the first time in our lives that had never been imagined by either one of us. No, not two grown adults doing something remarkably stupid with an absolutely predictable outcome. Well, not just that. We had also witnessed in a matter of seconds how cats work, how nature works, and how domestication does NOT work.
I cannot remember who spoke first or what exactly was said but I do remember my brain flashing back to the “as God is my witness….” scene of the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati when Arthur Carlson they gave out turkeys.
My dad had heard the noise and came out to see what was going on and when we explained what we had learned he just kind of nodded and went back to the living room to watch TV. I didn’t stay for dinner, and left a few minutes later a changed man. No matter what else has happened in my life since then, any time I see a stray cat and feel the need to pet it, I always make sure to never stand between it and its fasted path to safety. The only thing that saved my mom and me from getting viciously attacked was the kittens relatively young age. It had not yet figured out just how useful its claws and teeth were at prompting other creatures to stay away and to never corner it. It had been, up until that point, successful at running away without having to attack, which was the only reason why my mom and I did not have to go to the hospital. That was it. It was dumb luck which, when accompanying dumb action, is the only way things will work out okay.
A few weeks later the kittens and their mother were trapped and brought to the humane society.
In the spring of the following year, my mom stopped feeding the animals in the back yard. It was a pretty brutal and long winter that year. This, when paired with the experience that triggered her to realize that wild kittens are wild animals, gave her the insight that in the long run it was better for everything if there wasn’t any easy to get food. It meant fewer wild animals that she was powerless to domesticate.