She sauntered into our yard about a month ago, this young orange tabby with a white bib. Her gaze passed over me as if she did not see me at all, as if I was part of the patio furniture where I was sitting. When our eyes finally did meet, I still saw no recognition that I was a human or animate or alive or anything at all. It was eerie—being so unseen, unrecognized—her complete disinterest in me. Even the deer and wild turkeys I meet see me, and seem wary and apprehensive when they do. They recognize me as something apart from my surroundings, something to pay attention to, keep an eye on. But not this kitty.
Until she mistook me for food. I’d dropped a couple pieces of lunchmeat on the patio for her, which she gobbled up. But when I held my hand out to her after that, which must have still smelled of meat, she slowly moved toward the smell. She sniffed at my fingers, and then took a bite. Not hard enough to break skin, but hard enough for me to draw back and for her to skitter away.
Later as I was sitting there reading, and apparently wriggling my bare toes, she approached again, stealthily. She saw my toes as prey—not connected to something larger. Then she pounced and bit, harder this time. I cried out. She dashed off again.
Since then I’ve been putting food out when I see her in the yard. She now seems to “see” me as a food source, rather than as food. She won’t eat until I’ve put the food down and move away. If I stay in the yard, she keeps an anxious eye on me, and if I try to approach she darts off. Sometimes she’ll even stand by the door where I go to bring out food, as if waiting for her food source to fulfill its mission.
But she’s still a wild thing, with wild behavior.
We’ve watched her run full tilt at trees and dash up and down the trunks as fast as she can. One tree after another as she makes her way up the hill. For no apparent purpose but for the pure pleasure it brings, it seems. Once when my husband was pruning our plum tree, she dashed up its trunk and then wriggled like a worm through its tight branches.
At wild cat at play in a wild world.
I’ve watched her stalking birds at our birdbath. At first she tried to get them while standing beneath the bath and reaching up. Now she’s learned to take a running leap at them, flying up over the birdbath stretched out like superman, her back legs trailing in the water while her front feet try to grab the bird. She’s yet to catch any while I’ve watched. But we’ve seen her more than once climb up the hill toward the tall grass with a large furry creature in her mouth.
Now that she recognizes us a food source, she hangs out here more often, sometimes grabbing a drink from the pool or the water-can we keep full for her. Sometimes she drinks from the birdbath. She’s found a favorite padded patio chair with a pillow where she likes to snooze. Although a narrow wall will do just as well.
Sometimes we don’t see her for days.
When we do, I don’t try to tame her. I want her to stay wild and independent. But I also want her to see our home as a safe haven from the predators who see her as food—the coyotes and foxes and mountain lions that live beyond our fence. She’s small enough to squeeze through. They aren’t. And I want to augment her diet during the lean times to keep her healthy but not dependent upon us for her meals.
She reminds me—even more than the deer and coyotes and other wild things that live nearby do—that there’s an entirely different way of being in the world and perceiving it that’s unlike anything we humans could ever experience. Insects, birds, bats, orcas and others species each inhabit separate and distinct slivers of reality known only to them. There’s a word for that—umwelt.
We tend to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom, especially our pets, remaking them in our own minds in our own images. But what they are and the world as they experience it is so extraordinary and other-worldly as to make our own pale in comparison. More on this and the umwelt next time.