Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Street-Smart Homebody

This morning while I drank my usual cup of coffee, Kitty sat next to me curled up as close as she could be. Happy to be settled in for a few quiet moments, I was unseated when Griz suddenly growled and raced for the door. It wasn't too surprising to let Griz out: he loves to check out his territory. But as I saw him rush to the south, I caught sight of a large animal heading toward the hillside. I grabbed the binoculars and was surprised to see a very large coyote. The scene---with Kitty at my side and Griz chasing off, what I believe was a large male coyote, reminded me of an essay I'd written about Kitty a number of years ago.


I thought Kitty was dead. She usually travels in and out of the house as freely as a teenager, especially in the spring when cold weather recedes: comes home for sleep and food. Every now and then she cuddles up close. But yesterday she didn’t climb the screen to knock on the door.

Kitty’s been with us for three years. She came out of a mean and wild barn litter. I didn’t particularly want a cat at the time, but I did want to obliterate the mice that had found a sneak hole into my house. A young friend sealed the deal when he offered a mouser out of his latest litter. When I arrived to pick her up, he had on welding gloves in order to remove her from the box. I thought, “What have I done? Adopted an attack cat?”

A beautiful long white coat with shadings of gray and brown covered her small frightened body. We named her “Shadow,” but that never stuck. Maybe the consonants were too soft; maybe the wild in her didn’t want such a personal touch. Kitty hid for two days in our house. At the end of the second day she warily walked down the stairs on what looked like a reconnaissance mission. We gave her a wide berth. Slowly she ate, meowed, asked to go out, and finally let a hand caress her soft coat. Now, she insists on a brushing before she eats, morning and night, long and slow, over and over again. Some winter evenings she’ll come to sit in my lap right on top of my crossword puzzle as if we’d bonded somewhere along the way.
Last night as we sat down to dinner, my husband looked out the window to the south. He noticed two creatures walking carefully across the meadow. “Are those foxes or are those coyotes?” Studying them, but unsure, I said, “I don’t know.” The muted light of dusk made it hard to sort out the shape of the tail and the shape of the head.

He grabbed the binoculars and followed the two heading away from the river and turning north. Most animals that go down to the river come back up and head due west back into the hills. “Why are they headed north? What are they after?” I wondered out loud.

“Those are coyotes; healthy looking ones, too. Wonder what they’ve been doing around here in the daylight? They’ve sure been thick at night.”
Lying in bed at night we often hear the coyotes’ chorus across the way in the hills. They yowl, yelp, and bark. Just like a baby’s cry the coyotes communicate different intents in their chorus. The “howl” marks their territory. A “yelp” is a sign of play. And a “bark” is a parent’s command to their offspring. Most nights I hear them staking out their territory.

After watching them trot on north, I register my concern with Pete, “I hope they don’t think Kitty’s in the neighborhood. I think she’s too smart for them anyway, but I worry too. Coyotes are opportunistic predators and I know they are characteristically evasive. I just hope Kitty’s survived three years here for good reason---she knows the neighborhood.

Cat lovers who visit often ask if we let Kitty out. I’m surprised by the question. We’ve always let out our cats believing that’s where they’re meant to be. This winter on NPR, I heard a writer refer to the out of doors as the “daily newspaper for dogs” and I think the same is true for Kitty---it’s her required reading.
Every day she slips out the side door into her neighborhood, replete with smells, comings and goings, sunshine, brisk air, green grass to roll in, and soft garden spots to rest in. Peacefully she sits, eyes purveying her place, taking the pulse on the natural world she lives in when she’s not curled up on her favorite chair. As she ventures she may sit on large boulder in the shady garden under the old cottonwoods listening to the birds, spying the fox that live under the old chicken house, following mice in the new grass, or looking for anyone unfamiliar to her neighborhood.

When she hadn’t knocked on the door in twenty-fours, I began to look for walking to and from the barn. I scouted out for her in the matted down grass. I looked for any sign of a fight: a wounded Kitty, a bleeding Kitty, or even a dead Kitty. The predators could have won last night. Should I have held her captive in the house? What was I thinking, that she had special powers over these sly cat hunting neighborhood gangs? I wondered if she slipped up, if the opportunistic coyotes surrounded her and she couldn’t walk her way out of it. Guilt settled in.
I tried to forget about her absence. I hung on to her stable history of surviving her time outdoors. I found a cleaning project to do so I wouldn’t think about my guilt and the “what ifs.”

Late the next afternoon, I wandered downstairs after sorting through some old storage. On the rug at the foot of the stairs Kitty rolled playfully as though the neighborhood party just happened to last all night. No need to worry. Her carefree look reminded me of my own teenagers’ reactions to my worry over their midnight escapades. “What’s the big deal, Mom? Geez, you worry too much.”

“I thought you’d be happy to see here,” Pete says.

“Where did she come from?” I ask in happy disbelief.

“I don’t know. She was just waiting at the door when I came home. She seems to be all right. No signs of a fight. She’s just too smart I guess.”

Thankfully, safe and unhurt, she’d outfoxed her predators and wound her way back home again: Kitty, my street-smart homebody.

*Previously published in Cats and Kittens July 2006

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