Bay Reflections

 Vol. 10, No. 28

July 11-17, 2002

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For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Nancy Hoffman

The chipmunk hid behind the legs of the dining room table until the cat pounced, sending it toward me. I tried to scoop it up, but it scooted behind the potted plants. From her crouched position, the cat peeked up at me.

“I’m trying,” I said.

The cat circled around the plants and sent the chipmunk scurrying from cover. I worried I’d step on it or grab it too tightly. Or maybe it would bite me? I missed again.

I’ve read that cats bring animals home to teach the humans how to hunt. My cats think I have a lot to learn.

My husband and I have four cats and two dogs. We started out with just the dogs, but then we moved into a house surrounded by woods. That first winter, the field mice warmed themselves in our basement and we got a cat. The intentional cat. She didn’t catch much, but the mice seemed to fear her and stayed out of the house.

When a friend found a feral cat in the woods behind her house having one litter after another, we took one of the kittens. Two dogs, two cats. It seemed reasonable.

A few weeks later, I stumbled upon a cat and her kitten in the woods near my house. They had been abandoned and were starving. I tried to find a home for them, but there are too many cats.

So we have four cats. But I’m not a crazy cat lady. They aren’t mentioned in my will.

With a fenced yard, we tend to leave the back door open in nice weather so the pets can wander in and out. It worked fine until the cats arrived. Since then, I’ve gained serious appreciation for the expression, You look like something the cat dragged in.

A steady parade of mice, moles, voles, chipmunks, rats, rabbits, birds, frogs and snakes came into the house. Most were alive and well. The cats were bringing them home to continue my lessons. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t quite what the cats intended.

The cat tossed the mouse in the air and clunk, it hit the underside of the table. I reached for the gray, furry body, then hesitated. It sure was big for a mouse. And that tail was awfully long.

“Phil!” I yelled for my husband.

Lesson #1:
A rat is man’s work.

Another cat stared at a pile of dirty clothes on the laundry room floor, flicking his tail like a whip. I lifted up the clothes and a snake slithered across the floor.

Lesson #2A: Cats don’t stare at anything without a reason. 2B. Grab the snake before it reaches the pile of whites.

The dogs were barking at the top of the basement stairs. When I told them to settle down, the barking reached the insane level they reserve for a stranger at the door. I walked downstairs to find the cats playing catch-and-release with a sparrow.

Lesson #3: Always listen to your dogs; they can’t keep a secret.

Someone was screaming outside. I thought it was my neighbor’s children playing on their swing set, but the dogs sprinted for the door. (Review lesson #3.) Two cats had cornered a young rabbit.

Lesson #4: Rabbits scream when they are attacked. It’s a gulping wail that makes this human sick to her stomach, but it has no effect on her cats.

Cats are predators, I told myself. If it moves, they have to get it and bring it home. It’s a part of nature.

Sure, the cats sometimes injured an animal. Well, let’s be honest, I worried mostly about the rabbits and chipmunks. I’d take them to the wildlife sanctuary, pay my guilt-ridden donation and be assured they would recover. In a few days they’d be released in the surrounding woods. Nothing to get upset about.

Everything changed when the cat and I hunted that chipmunk in the dining room.

For the cat, there was no malice, no hatred, no anger — just the hunt.

I multiplied that times four. It would be endless. The cats would never catch enough, bring enough home, teach me enough.

I caught the chipmunk. It was tired but unhurt, and I released it in the woods. A domestic cat with a big belly tormenting a chipmunk in my dining room suddenly didn’t seem very natural. I drove to the pet store.

Three of the cats now wear collars with bells when they go outside. The intentional cat has been pardoned. Turns out she’s a terrible hunter.

Every evening when I come home from work, the cats gather at the door. I put on their collars and tell them, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

A soft ringing follows them. Most critters heed the warning. Other than the occasional frog or mouse, my lessons are over. I’d say those cats taught this human quite well.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly