Saturday, November 06, 2004

Stray Cats & Field Mice

The first pet I remember was "Smoky", a stray cat. She was a grey Angora (long-haired) that showed up when I was 6 or so. After a couple of litters that didn't make it (thanks to a persistent Tom that ate them!), from her third litter my Dad rescued one little male, who eventually became my best friend, "Dusty". He was a Russian Blue - a mutt in reality, but very close in color and looks to that breed. Big, too. His Mom, "Smoky", hunted for all her food except scraps she got from us during the winter, and some dishes of milk. While raising "Dusty", she nursed him at first, then brought home live mice and showed them to him, and killed them in front of him. Later, she'd let him play with the mouse but wouldn't let the mouse get away, giving the mouse the 'coup de grace' as my Mom called it, crunching it on the back of the neck. I was nine years old when "Dusty" was born, and watched with fascination everything that happened to him, including this training he was undergoing. Yes, cats have an instinct to hunt, but to be truly good mousers, they have to be taught. "Smoky" was a very good teacher. She lived, thankfully, long enough to teach him how to get along...*

Later on, as "Dusty" began his first summer and began hunting on his own, I eventually would tag along with him into the pasture outside our yard and watch him as he hunted. It was fascinating seeing how he found mice or ground squirrels, then totally FREEZE in the long grass, not a muscle or whisker moving, or an eye blinking. A false sense of security would fool the prey, and then BAM, he would shoot out towards them like a bullet out of a gun, and they almost always didn't know what hit them. Sometimes, in turn, he would get a bit cocky after he had them, and would let them down to taunt and tease them, and they would make a break for it and give him a merry chase until he caught them again (which he usually did, but not always!) Eventually, he would crunch their necks, and then proceed to eat them. While "Dusty" was indeed a domesticated cat, and even became a housecat full-time towards the end of his life, for most of his life he spent a lot of time outdoors especially in the summer, and only came in at night to have his milk and sleep in my Mom's old doll's crib in the basement (after sitting on our laps and getting spoiled and petted, of course..!) It's strange, but I never felt it odd that my cat hunted, that he was a good mouser. In fact, I was proud of it. I haven't changed my mind on that, either. It just is the way it is in nature. "Dusty" lived until he was 18, and when I remember him and all he meant to me, from waking me up in the morning by jumping on my tummy, to sleeping on me as we layed out in the sun on a warm summer's day, it just makes perfect, organic sense.

Now that I have mice as pets, I see a whole other side, of course. I see how wonderful they are as animals and individuals, too. I can more fully understand and appreciate the mice that stood up to "Dusty" and would rear up and chatter at him as they made their last stands before being killed and eaten. They may have been small, but they had dignity...

* She ended up getting caught in traps a couple of times that townspeople had set for racoons, squirrels, and beaver along the river. The last time, she was gone a long time. She finally came home limping with one hind leg nearly amputated at the lower joint. She went into the hayloft to recuperate. My Dad would check on her and she seemed to be coming along OK, the leg was healing, but eventually, she left and we never saw her again. I guess she was too weak or had an infection, and couldn't last as the winter was setting in...

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