Me, cats again, more cats

I saw something when I was a girl that disturbed me greatly. I was in our front yard, on my way to a neighbor’s house, looking for a good time, a game of Rummy or Cootie or Uncle Wiggily. I stopped to wait for a car to pass. Meanwhile, across the street, a dog was chasing a cat. I hadn’t seen the dog before, but it was a beautiful white and brown Pointer. When I was a child, dog breeds for a hundred was my jeopardy category.

 

The chase was on, full speed, much barking, considerable commotion. The cat ran alongside the road for a minute or so. Then it turned, streaked my way, the dog close behind. The cat got faster. The car hit and killed the dog.

 

I went crying to my mother. When my father got home that night, I told him what I’d seen, my clear and terrible sense that the cat had planned it just the way it happened. He asked me why I thought that. The cat had run alongside the road first, I said, and only crossed when the car was close. The cat had stopped running the minute the car hit the dog. It had come into our yard, sat unconcernedly on our sidewalk, cleaning its face with its paw. It looked at me afterwards, I said. It gave me a look.

 

My case was not a strong one. Dad attacked at my weakest point: the look. A cat can look at a king. Doesn’t mean it knows he’s royalty.

 

My father and I had a long-running argument on the subject of animals and their brains. I grew up surrounded by cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, turtles, rats and a snake named Melpotamus Jones. I believed, based on my own observations, that some of these animals, the dogs and cats, at least, could think.

 

My father was a behavioral psychologist. (Another child might have realized that this was his area of expertise and she was just a six-year-old, seven-year-old, eight-year-old child, but that’s not the kind of child I was.) He believed animals acted in response to changes in their environment. Through conditioning and reinforcement, he believed animals could learn. But he did not believe they could think. Or at least he felt it was a hypothesis not proven, which was his way of not believing. He was always cautioning me against the sins of anthropomorphism.

 

But it now seems to me that the refusal to anthropomorphize is not the value-neutral stance that it appears to be. You can demand that something be proved or you can demand that it be disproved; either choice has implications.

 

Weeks later I saw that same cat behave in that same way. On this occasion, its timing was off – the car braked; the dog, a mix of various Terriers, made it safely across the street. They were both still running when I last saw them.

Me, monarch butterflies

October 31, the orange and black.

One day last week, two monarch butterflies flew through our yard and so we knew the monarchs had arrived.  My friend Joan is visiting us just now, all the way from Cardiff, and we migrated over to Natural Bridges State Park today to stand on the viewing stage, speaking with our quiet, butterfly voices, and watching the air fluttering with wings.  We made two trips, one in the morning when many of the butterflies were still dangling like grapes from the branches of trees and one, on the recommendation of the Natural Bridges docent, in the afternoon when she promised that the temperature would be up and the monarchs aloft.  It was actually colder in the afternoon and no more wing-filled than the morning, but still well worth the trip, to see all the butterflies in the air wherever there was sunshine and clustered in their hanging cities in the shade.

It seemed like a scene of abundance, more than last year or the year before, but still, I’m assured, many less than the old days, back before we broke the climate.  The peak should come around Thanksgiving.

This annual round trip from the Rockies takes four generations, with the lifespan very unevenly distributed throughout.  The butterflies that overwinter in Santa Cruz live for seven to eight months, much of that in a state of developmental dormancy known as diapause.  The next generation, hatched on the way back to the mountains, lasts less than two months, and spends their whole lives journeying to a place they won’t live to see.  Or so I understand from the park docent.  Nature is unkind and unfair.  I love her to pieces, but still it must be said.

The docent showed us a butterfly she’d picked up off the deck.  His head was gone – eaten by a rodent when he was still too cold to fly away, she speculated – but his body was still alive and moving, so that was disturbing.  Who was it who said that no one can think too long about the food chain without going mad?

I thought instead about the survival of the group and about the death of the individual and some of these thoughts were sad, but mostly it was very beautiful to stand on the viewing deck and look up into the trees where, in great and dripping bunches, it looked as if the leaves themselves were breathing.

 

Me, Monkey

I have, as I always do, let the weeds begin to grow on my blog. This is me, vowing to you to do better. I will keep that vow. At least for a little while.

I can think of very few occasions on which I have actually been frightened by a non-human animal. In fact, I can only bring only one to mind. Several years ago, my daughter and I took a trip to Sarawak and spent a night in a National Park near Kuching. Signs on the way into and around the park warned us – Beware Naughty Monkeys – which made me think the monkeys would be mischievous, possibly in delightful and photogenic ways. We had come, at least in part, to see the shy proboscis monkeys, and we did see several of those, though far away, hidden in the trees.
The other monkeys, the naughty monkeys, we saw from much closer up. As we were taking our luggage into the dorm, a troop descended from the trees and surrounded us. A large male moved toward me at some speed, screaming furiously. I have learned on this and many other occasions, that I am not a fast thinker or a fast actor. When surprised, I freeze, which is sometimes a good thing to do and sometimes not. Even as he was charging, I expected him to turn aside at the last minute. He did not. I saw that he was furiously erect, in both meanings of that word.
He grabbed for my arm, though it turned out to be my toilet kit that he wanted. Snatching it from me, he took it back up into the tree where he opened it, took out each item, bit it, and threw it angrily to the ground as it turned out to be, I’m guessing here, of course, less delicious than he’d hoped. The whole time he continued to scream and display. The rest of the troop kept a ring around us, silent, but menacing.
The alpha monkey came down from the tree and charged me again, but another tourist, a large man I didn’t know, moved between us with an admirable, though possibly misguided conviction. It worked. The monkeys moved on to other tourists and I was able to retrieve my personal items, all now with tooth marks, but mostly still useful. My daughter and I took a long hike, had a nice dinner, and laid our sleeping bags out on the bunk beds where, once the lights were out, we were immediately aware that we shared the room with Rodents of Unusual Size. But that’s another story.

my beast, bug, and bird blog

A few days ago, while walking along the cliffs here in Santa Cruz, I saw a great blue heron.  It’s not my first heron here – two years ago I often saw one in the state park at Lighthouse Field – and I maybe saw this same one on the cliffs a month or so ago, or perhaps it was another of the same size.  But I don’t see them often and I never see more than one at a time.

I stopped because to continue would have been to pass so close as to make it fly and other people on the sidewalk behind me also came to a stop.  Soon there were six of us standing together looking at the heron.  It watched us back.

I wonder what about the bird made us stop.  It was beautiful, but most birds are beautiful, even the pigeons have such pleasing shapes and iridescent colors, and we wouldn’t have stopped for pigeons.  I suppose it must have been the size, this very large bird, and maybe also something in the regal bearing.  Eventually it chose to fly, suspicious of us in spite of ourselves, and we said to each other what a beautiful bird it was, and continued with our walking, our jogging, our solitary jaunts along the cliffs.

I’m turning this blog for a bit to the subject of such animal encounters, mine, but not only mine; I hope to have others weighing in — if I’m lucky and people love me enough, many others.  I am calling this the beast, bug, and bird blog.  On the beast, bug, and bird blog, this is post #1.  — Karen Fowler