Monday 6 June 2011

On living rough with cats

Ivan and Penny in the Summer Palace
We're all familiar with the image of an urban rough sleeper with his mongrel on a string. Rough sleepers commonly have dogs, and it's easy to understand why. A familiar animal - an animal which offers some affection, some uncritical regard, and, at night, some warmth - has to help a person cope with the extremely tough life a rough sleeper has to cope with.

But you don't typically see rough sleepers with cats. Cats are different from dogs; they are much more self sufficient: specialist individual predators, able to feed themselves adequately in most British landscapes. A closely related species is even native. Cats don't, in fact, need us. When they choose to live with us it's from choice. That choice is certainly based on some simple pragmatic considerations. If we have the resources we can provide regular palatable food. If we have homes, we can provide comfort and warmth - which cats love - and a degree of security. We also, if we have homes, provide stability of place - a fixed base, a hub for a hunting ground. Cats do like a familiar hunting ground.

Cats are different from us - so different that any attempt to think ourselves imaginatively into their minds is at best uncertain. Do they feel affection, bonding, identification with us? To some extent it seems that they do. It certainly comforts me to believe that my cats love me. And their behaviour does suggest this.

Ivan regularly comes up to me and writhes on his back inviting me to tickle his tummy. Penny is cuddled up to me as I type this, and often chooses to sit close to me. When I walk through the woods both of them usually come with me, and often when I leave the wood now they follow - something which is becoming problematic. Today, Penny twice followed me all the way to the farm - mainly, I think, to hunt rabbits on the hilltop. At night, both sleep on (and Ivan frequently in) my bed. Of course, part of this is warmth. Now, at lunchtime on the 5th of June, close to mid day and close to mid summer, I'm wearing six layers of clothing (including two wool jerseys and a jacket with a fleece lining). I'm wearing a hat and gloves. I'm cold.

The cats have, of course, fur coats. Penny has an exceptionally soft, thick one. And, today when the wind is in the east, I'm sure there are warmer places in the wood than this. So I don't believe that it is just - or even mainly - for warmth that the cats stay with me.

But that is the point. Home for us, now, is this rough platform in the wood, sheltered from the rain by a tarpaulin, from the wind not at all. It isn't comfortable. It isn't warm. It is in a fixed place - one I own, one I cannot be evicted from. And that fixed place is in a wonderful hunting environment for small predators. There are mice and voles aplenty, and one of them (I think Ivan, but I'm not yet sure) has started to bring home rabbits. It's also (although I doubt the cats can know this) a very safe place for them. The nearest road is half a mile away. There are no traps or snares or poisons on my land. And I am able to feed them - on food they like - regularly and reliably. Finally, there's no competition here, except from the badgers. While several of my co-conspirators have dogs, none have cats. I haven't seen or heard another cat since we arrived here.

But the question is, will they stay? Why should they? All around my land are hunting territories equally good, in which they could easily find themselves courie holes equally comfortable. Indeed, neighbouring territories have more rabbits - there are none locally here. As they increasingly follow me further from the croft they are seeing these potentially better territories. Hunting rabbits is not only clearly more fun than hunting other prey, the rabbits are also clearly more palatable. Rabbits which are brought home are always partially eaten, whereas mice are often left intact. As they catch more rabbits, they're less dependent on me for palatable food.

There's a problem in that. Between the wood where we live and the hilltop with its rabbits is my hay meadow. For me, it's a glorious place; for the cats it's huge and hard to cross. They can't see over the grass, so it's hard to navigate. They can cross it using a curious bounding run which rather resembles dolphins at play - leaping out of the grass high enough to get a glimpse of the horizon. But that's clearly strenuous. The meadow is also clearly - especially when a kite flies over fast and low, as one did this afternoon - a very scary place. Consequently they both prefer to have me with them when they cross the meadow, and will sit on the fenceposts and call until I escort them.

So I am anxious about them leaving. I fear that they may find a place closer to the rabbit warren which is (at least) as comfortable for as the Summer Palace. It would be a big deal for me; I have lost or abandoned so much else in my life, they're pretty important. I need to get a more secure and comfortable home for myself before winter, because in bad weather the Summer Palace is pretty tough; but far more than that I need to provide them with a more secure and comfortable home.

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