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Life Arts

What domesticating does to us and how to get our from under

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My third cat story. Cats are of the same family as tigers, but tigers do not domesticate well, if at all. It takes cats one day.

It began a few years ago when my next door neighbors, my son and his family, discovered a nest of feral cats. "Feral" in this context means wild, untamed, cats that hid from people, hunted at night probably, and found more than enough food to thrive and multiply. Perhaps it was because there were so many, that my daughter-in-law found them, hidden in the many wild spots on this land. She started feeding them scraps. When she ran out of scraps she fed them catfood.

Every year during the long summer vacation they go to the Marquesas islands, 25000 miles south of us. As far south from the equator as we are north of it. Same climate, but our summer is their winter,  their summer our winter. Naturally while they were away I would feed the cats. 

 Feeding cats meant not only spreading many handfulls of catfood on the tile floor of their lanai, but seeing to it that the chickens would not eat the catfood. Chickens are much more aggressive than cats; wild chickens at least. So I learned to feed the chickens first and then quickly go to the house and feed the cats. Not always successful but the staff I carry reaches far and the chickens know and respect it.  

The first year I fed cats, now some years ago, I thought my family was burdened having to feed sixteen cats. The second day I fed the cats on top of a long table. They learned that immediately. The third day I put a cage with an open door on the end of the table, fed them at the other end. The next two or three days I spread the food closer and closer to the cage with the open door. Then, one day I put the catfood in the cage, and when there were ten cats inside the cage I closed the door. I brought the cage holding ten frantic cats to the Humane Society -- they accept wild cats but if you want to get rid of a house cat that costs you $50.- They believed me when I told them these were feral cats. They did not quite believe how I could have captured ten cats in one cage, but did not ask too many questions. Now there were only six cats here. I knew that my grandson had a favorite, I saw to it that she was not in the cage. 

But the family was not happy with only six cats when they came home. The next year there were a dozen cats again when they went away.  Among the kittens was one all black, a sort of smoky black, with green eyes. I like black cats, and that kitten allowed me to touch her. All the others were sufficiently wild that even though they knew I was their feeder, I could not touch them. And, frankly, I had no desire to touch these cats. As you know I admire tigers, but cats, although related, are not tigers. 

The little black cat grew up. She evidently liked me sufficiently to follow me on some of my walks. She still lived next door until, early this year, now grown, she moved here. I was careful not to feed her, but she made this her home.  

One day she came up on my little porch, six steps above ground level, whining. I knew by then enough cat language to know that kind of whining means "I'm hungry." It was late morning, many hours from the feeding time next door. I gave her some bread which she did not eat, then found a sardine that she did. Two or three days later I bought a bag of catfood.

At first she was hungry every other hour, but I decided twice a day was good enough next door, it would have to be enough here. Once in the morning, the second time about four in the afternoon when I go to the pond to feed the fish. The fish eat anything: bread and other leftovers, and catfood. Chickens prefer catfood over chicken food. So I had to stand guard while the black cat ate. 

About two or three weeks after she moved here, another cat from the neighbors' dozen came to join the black cat. She is also black, but has white feet and a white bib, and the black is that shiny black that people find cute. That cat learned the first day that I also feed cats here. And it was more than obvious that this cute cat ate at least twice as fast as the smokey black cat.  I had to name them; the first fatal step to the end of a friendship with animals. The first, the all smokey black with green eyes, I call Hitam, which means black. The new black cat with white feet I now call Fatso, she is getting quite plump. They are obviously in love with each other, or at least dear friends. They follow me on my daily walk, usually in front of me. They walk touching each other, side by side, both their tails up high, but making a black X: their tails cross. They often groom each other, play with each other. And they have very different personalities. Hitam is adventurous, she is gone for hours, exploring the place. Fatso hangs around here all day, she cannot miss an opportunity to eat. When I open the door early morning he (I call her he because she is so aggressive and pushy) is on the threshold, panting for the morning feeding.  This morning he had somehow been able to get on top of two storage cupboards outside, at least 8 feet high, almost under the window in front of where I was working on the computer. He was looking at me.  When I stood up he jumped to the ground. Cats do that very well. He also climbs trees. Hitam doesn't. 

Now I have learned what domestication does to the domesticator. It takes cats one day to learn that I have catfood. Now they rely on me for their very lives they tell me in no uncertain terms. I "own" them, their life is dependent on me. But I don't want to own anybody, animal, plant or human. I know perfectly well that they can catch enough lizards and other wildlife that is plentiful around here to survive, if they have to. But as long as I feed them, they don't have to make the effort. I have seen them catch a mouse or a lizard and play with them, letting them go then catch them again. But they tire of the game and let the poor mauled mouse go. Evidently catfood tastes better.

Unfortunately I seem to need to nurture needy humans, animals and plants. Definitely not to own them, but to help them,. But by feeding them they become dependent on me. Actually, plants don't because I don't give them artificial fertilizer. They do fine by themselves. I no longer feed chickens. Once that was my job, until I realized that by feeding them they multiplied beyond the ability of this land to support them. But they remain wild enough to lay eggs where we cannot find them. They multiply, require more chicken food. More expensive.

Now I am learning again that as we, humans, domesticate animals we are also doing something to ourselves. Once we control the wild the wild ceases to be wild and becomes our responsibility. 

We make ourselves slaves to ownership. As Ursula LeGuin wrote in one of her books "Owning is owing, having is hoarding." How true, how true. 

As long as I feed these cats they attach themselves to me, and I am attached to them. I am their provider. If I stopped feeding them they would disappear--at least Fatso would. I think Hitam would continue to visit and walk with me, even if she were fed next door.

I have never liked the idea of pets. An animal that sits on your lap, sleeps on my bed. When you let dogs or cats in your house they sleep on our bed; sleep on our pillows. I have never bought a pet. A few times animals have chosen to come to me, and we became friends. Two dogs came to me that way. The first I did not feed, he was fed elsewhere; he just came to visit. And he came here to die of old age. The other I fed when I ate my own meals. Sometimes I gave him from my plate. But there was a respect between us. One day He came to me after a long walk together and I am certain he told me he had to leave. He was never on a leash, I told him he was always free to go. He went.  And, many years ago, someone gave me a cat. I fed her, until she produced a dozen kittens and they all found their own food. I don't let animals in my house. There are little lizards on the walls, I cannot catch them, but I don't feed them. They eat insects, and probably tiny bits of food I spill.

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robert wolff lives on the Big Island, called Hawai'i
his website is wildwolff.com

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Thank you Robert.  Great, on point article!... by Burl Hall on Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012 at 2:28:01 AM
It has often been said that dogs have owners (huma... by Doc McCoy on Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012 at 8:35:43 AM
No, it is far from simplistic. I deliberately wrot... by robert wolff on Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012 at 11:45:28 AM
which is noted, and even appreciated.However, mone... by Doc McCoy on Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012 at 7:52:43 PM