Contemplating cats

Ferals have something to teach us about our own animal nature

Jennifer Davidson is an environmental essayist living in the Sacramento Valley

After we trapped the first three feral cats, we found them flipping and thrashing about their cages, as if currents of electricity scorched them, their bodies bent like contortionists, tearing at the wire mesh. It was easy to recognize. They thought they were going to die. And they were.

They were born in April of this year in a goliath clay pot in my parents’ paradisal backyard in Menlo Park and lived a life of wealth measured in food provided twice a day by my adoring parents, security and shelter among lush foliage, and social bonds rarely afforded to feral cats merely by the nature of their circumstances.

In June, my parents sold their home and downsized to a house without a yard. We called rescue groups across Northern California, horse stables, friends with vineyards, land and barns. Shelters, sanctuaries and foster homes all overflowed with domesticated, adoptable cats. The ferals had nowhere to go. So I convinced my parents death would become them.

I do not question my belief that death was the best option. You see, you cannot turn a feral cat that depends on humans for food loose in a strange place to fend for itself. It grows thin. Its bony body becomes a canvas for wounds and painful infections. It is reduced to a beggar and finally prey.

But I am befuddled that it wasn’t until I saw these sentient beings through my daughter’s eyes that I understood saving them was more than a viable option. I am troubled this was not immediately clear to me upon hearing of their misfortune.

Today, six feral cats and their mama live in our yard on one-third acre here in the Sacramento Valley. And yes, we had them fixed. They roam, they run through natural overgrowth with their tails whipping, they climb trees, and stalk my daughter and me. They play, they nestle together and retire to a natural cave created by woody grapevines and foliage. It is a rare form of immeasurable beauty.

It scares me to realize at one time their lives didn’t demand the same value I place on others, simply because theirs were so easy to take. It’s legal. It’s painless. It’s easy. They would have left quietly, but only because we never really heard them.

If we think about what it means before we intend to smash a spider, shoot a bird or put a feral to sleep, the world might be a different place.

Can we love them enough during this short life we have, no more than a cosmic blink of the eye, as much as we love ourselves?

I turn to Terry Tempest Williams in her essay, “Prayer Dogs.” “Love, like compassion, is not a rare fluid to be economized, but a capacity which grows by use. … To deny our own animalness is to deny our both humble and powerful place in the scheme of life. How do we wish to live, and with whom?”