Cat’s tale

[The NYTimes runs a section called the Menagerie in its blog-opinion pages – The Opinionator. This section mostly deals with people and their interactions with animals. They do have a side-panel which asks people to write in with their tales of interactions with animals. I wrote a piece, got it edited by Indhukka and sent it along. Two months later, they managed to read it, and were kind enough to respond with encouraging words, but since they’ve far too many Cats (and dogs) posts coming in, they regret that it can’t be posted. If I can write on any other animals I’ve interacted with, they’d be willing to consider. But my interactions with species of other kinds is pretty limited. So…posting the piece here for the record.]

One of my favorite things to do in the evenings, before the mosquitoes move in, is to stand at my house’s compound wall and watch the world go by. The wall stands at a comfortable 4 feet, perfect for standing with my elbows resting on it. Sitting on the wall, next to me, would be the Cat. She would sit there, tail wrapped around her legs watching everything that happened outside, full of relaxed alertness.

A typical Bangalore evening – tired grown-ups returning from work with their backpacks and lunch bags, children carrying bats and stumps heading back from cricket, arguing over results of their matches. The garden in front of the house would have been watered and Ashy Prinias going tweep-tweep would beat the heat by playing in tiny puddles leftover on larger leaves. Cows walking home, calves in tow, bells jingling at their throats; some lingering to let loose a volley of excrement, or to feed on vegetable peels or fruits left for them at street corners by the neighbors. Milkmen would follow on scooters and mopeds, urging the slower ones on with a tongue-clacking or a backslapping.

Stray dogs would hurry by, their heads down, intent on their destinations. Pets would be walked, straining at their leashes, never having been trained to heel or walk with their owners. The Cat would show special interest in four-legged creatures, sizing them up for any future encounters, encounters that were mostly about sitting 30 feet away and conducting staring wars over rights to pass the road. Cows were off-limits, but they weren’t encountered as often as the dogs. Dogs, however, were assessed for potential staring opponents based on size, attitude, and length of leash in the case of pets.

It would be a quiet 15 to 20 minutes spent in absolute silence interrupted occasionally with an off-hand comment from me – “You can totally take that dog!” She would respond with a measured, non-committal “meow”.

***
I moved back from Seattle to Bangalore four years back to be with my parents. Around this time, I noticed a cat sleeping on the neighbor’s window chajja (a concrete eave projecting from the wall). The neighbor’s house being at a lower level because of the road’s inclination, the cat was reachable by hand. I found her surprisingly friendly, willing to be scratched on the chin and head.

Stray cats in the city are usually shy and wary of people. They don’t survive to be adults without a fair degree of wariness when it comes to people, vehicles and stray dogs. And most stray cats are also female. Every area has just one alpha-male that marks its territory religiously, fights intruders and ensures that of new litters only the females, if any, survive. Traffic and stray dogs do their bit in keeping the numbers within limits.

I started giving her diluted milk in a coconut shell. Pretty soon she had a designated bowl in the porch and a designated cup to measure milk for her. There were specific times when she was fed, but she would sit at the door keeping a constant flow of “meows” well before her feeding time. Our appearance with the milk cup would set off a triumphant, drawn-out, high-pitched meow that would stretch to eternity, as she ran to her bowl. She started reciprocating our gestures by bringing along her kills – almost always rats and mice, thriving thanks to Bangalore’s semi-functional garbage management.

A month or two later we realized that she was pregnant and was asking for milk, and hunting, more often. Not having any experience with cats we just went with the human approach and gave her more milk. One fine day she barged into the house with a wail loud enough to bring the neighbors running to our doorstep. A litter of three was delivered on the DVD player kept under the TV, supervised with watchful eyes by a neighbor who claimed to be a cat expert. A few days later they were moved to the TV’s empty box, which I moved outside to the porch. The kittens grew up big enough to open their eyes and explore the world outside, still shy of the big humans who were always trying to pick them up.

One night we woke up to cats screaming in the porch. We switched on the lights and went out to see the cat on high alert, her tail bushed out, and blood on the walls. The alpha male had attacked and left behind a dead kitten, and the other two were left cowering inside the box with fear. Next day the Cat left with her surviving two kittens. Pretty soon she was returning regularly as if there were no kittens to care for. People are known to pick up kittens to keep mice and rats under control since adult cats don’t lend themselves to domestication as well. It isn’t unusual to see a cat fooling around in a traditional grocery store. We hoped for the best.

A couple more such incidents later, despite the cat finding secret places to deliver her litter, I decided to get in touch with a local animal shelter – CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action). It was the only shelter in Bangalore to have a cattery and deal with cats. In a City where stray dogs are considered a menace and make it to the front pages of newspapers every time an incident of an attack on a child or adult happens, cats rarely register on the radar, even with shelters.

I was advised to borrow a cat carrier and bring the cat in. I drove 22 Kms through the gridlocked city and brought home the carrier. The next morning I moved her milk bowl into the carrier and trapped her inside. I roped in an enterprising cousin and we set out on the long drive to the shelter with a wailing and restless cat in the backseat. There was a wait at a railway crossing for a train to pass, and another wait for a truck to unload a beam near a flyover construction. We eventually reached the place and I handed over the cat. “Is she friendly, does she bite?” the guy at the counter asked. Not willing to take any chance on her behavior when caged, I did not commit to an answer. She thankfully stayed docile as he reached into the carrier, pulled her out holding her by the neck and put her in a cage.

We saw her again a week later. They drove her back and dropped her off at our house. She was much thinner; she had been pregnant when I took her to the shelter and the spaying had involved an abortion. She became withdrawn, stopped asking for milk and didn’t seem to be hunting either. Her fur had ripped off near a paw, she had stopped grooming and spent most of her time sleeping. I called up the shelter in panic and was advised to give it a few more days.

A week later, as all hope was draining away and being replaced with guilt, she came to the door meowing. With a tinge of hope that I refused to entertain, I filled her usual cup with milk and water, and brought it to the door. A familiar cry of triumph rang out as she sighted her usual cup and ran with me to her bowl.

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