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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Return of Big Smoky

I was awakened this morning by the repeated, anxious-sounding vocalizations of my cat Otis.  All three of my cats have a surprising repertoire of sounds, most of them not even remotely resembling the classic kitty “meow.”  This morning Otis was in full song, throwing out churrs, soft yowls and things that can only be described as somewhat squeaky grunts.  It was a familiar pattern, but one that I listened to with some disbelief since, in my mind, Otis had no reason to be making it.  He is a persistent little guy though, and when he came to the window right next to the bed and continued his vocal alarm I finally relented and looked outside.  What I saw made the words, “No way!” escape involuntarily from my mouth.

The sounds Otis was making have always been associated with his seeing another cat outside.  More specifically, he makes the sounds when he sees a cat that is waiting to be fed.  Otis’s own story is intimately tied to a group of lost feline souls that were abandoned when a senior citizen cat hoarder that lived in the alley behind us was taken away to live in a retirement home.  The story is filled with pain and tragedy, but is interspersed with occasional happy endings.  I will tell it some day, but for now you need only know that after the cat hoarder left, my wife and I awoke to a yard filled with 16 cats.  We spent the next four years trying to correct the wrong that had been done to these animals.  At the end of those four years, many of the cats had been captured and adopted out to loving homes, some had been killed by cars, some were trapped and euthanized due to disease and some simply disappeared.  The only cat that remained was a huge tom that we call Big Smoky.  He is the toughest cat I have ever met, but this has had the unfortunate consequence of simply prolonging his suffering.

Otis arrived in our yard before the cat hoarder was taken away.  We thought he was simply a neighbor’s cat that was wandering through until we got a good look at how thin and sickly he was.  We started to feed and attempt to tame him.  He responded slowly, and we were finally able to touch him after 5 months of constantly building his trust.  It was because of the food supply that we were leaving out for Otis that the 16 cats converged on our yard after the hoarder was gone.  Otis had just moved inside with us when the convergence occurred, and it was then that we first began to hear him make the vocalizations I heard this morning.  It was also when we learned that Otis will not stop vocalizing until we take care of the cats that he sees outside.  We have risen from bed many hours earlier than planned countless times in the past four years to feed the hungry at Otis’s insistence.  Before this morning, it had been more than a month since we last heard him use his “hungry cat alarm call.”

As I mentioned, Big Smoky is the last of the cats that came from the hoarders house.  He is not the only cat from the group that was too wary to enter a trap, but he is the only one of the trap-shy cats that has not died from illness or injury or simply disappeared.  He has shown up in our yard with countless injuries- large infected wounds, most likely caused by fights with another tom.  He has also frequently become ill with horrible respiratory infections, apparent tooth infections and severe gastrointestinal issues.  A truly feral cat, his whole life is spent in confusion and suffering interspersed with the occasional free meal.  About five weeks ago he had come to eat.  He was extremely thin and sickly.  Diarrhea ran freely from his anus and was caked on his legs and tail.  His eyes were slightly glazed and he appeared to be a shell of his usual self.  He ate his fill and then disappeared.  As the weeks passed with no sign of him, we hoped for his sake that he would finally be at peace.

Last night I put into words what my wife and I had been thinking for at least two weeks.  “Well,” I said, “I think we have seen the last of Big Smoky.”  It was said with some sadness, but mostly with relief.  I really do believe that Smoky’s life is nothing short of nightmarish.  He is a domestic animal trapped in the shadows by his own fear.  He is terrified of humans, but he can’t survive without their help.  It breaks my heart to see his constant pain, and I only wish that I could humanely end his suffering.

So when I looked out the window this morning and exclaimed, “No way!” it was with a mix of incredulity and sadness.  I am in awe of Big Smoky’s continued survival, but I am in anguish over his continued suffering.  The only comfort I can offer him for now is a full stomach.  The fact that he survived during his five-week absence tells me that our house is not the only one Smoky is visiting for a free meal.  I hope that when the day comes that he is finally too injured or too ill to run away he will be in a place that either I or another caring individual can find him.  It is the fault of humans that Smoky’s life has been so full of pain and suffering.  At the very least, we owe it to him to ensure that he doesn’t suffer even one minute longer than he has to.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cache Prize

As I sat in my car at a red light this morning I watched two crows searching for food on the sidewalk.  It had been raining fairly hard for some time, and the pavement had been rinsed clean of most of the kind of tidbits that crows can find on drier days.  One of the crows turned and walked through a short hedgerow and resumed his search in the parking lot of a nearby Burger King.  The second crow followed slowly behind, but stopped next to one of the hedges.  He seemed slightly nervous, and he glanced in my direction more than once as if he was well aware that my eyes were on him.  He also looked at his companion who was now halfway across the parking lot poking his beak half-heartedly at something in a puddle.

After standing next to the bush for about 15 seconds, the wary crow poked his bill in among the branches and pulled out a beakful of dried leaves.  He poked his bill in again, and again extracted a small pile of leaves.  He went in a third time, and this time when he drew back he had a large wad of what looked like compacted hamburger bun in his beak.  The light turned green at this point, so I was not able to see whether or not the crow slunk off and ditched his companion to enjoy his secret hoard in peace.  As I drove away though, I wondered what other treasures this crow had hidden in the area.  I also wondered if his companion was at that very moment pulling out his own cached treat from a hiding spot on the other side of the parking lot.  Crows have so many secrets…

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hope Floats

I have an image burned indelibly into my memory.  I see eleven small, black-and-white bodies moving in unison out to sea.  They are moving away from a line of smiling humans holding empty boxes.  On their left, another group of smiling humans, some of them holding cameras, watches them go.  There is much joy in the watching, but also much sadness, for there is a lingering memory of many other feathered beings whose lives ended before they were able to make this journey home.  Today, it is much easier not to dwell in that place of sadness.
The eleven swimming birds disappearing into the distance represented more than simply a handful of Common Murres returned to the wild.  They were a testament to the willingness of a large group of people to sacrifice their time, money, sleep and comfort to help other living creatures that were in distress.  They were living illustrations of the ability of humans to extend their compassion beyond themselves, beyond their acquaintances and even beyond their own species.  At a time when compassion seems increasingly hard to come by, the selfless actions performed by so many people in assisting these birds provide proof that compassion is still alive and well in our world.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

While walking along the Edmonds waterfront today I noticed a Western Gull resting on top of a light pole along one of the marina docks.  Most of the gulls in the marina are used to being in close proximity to humans.  They usually don't get nervous unless a person stops and focuses their attention on them.  Since I was on a walkway up above the docks, the light pole put the gull nearly at my eye level.  I did my best not to look directly at him as I walked by because I didn't want to disturb him from his rest.  Just as I passed him though, in my peripheral vision I saw him shift position.  I continued on and looked back only when I felt I had put enough distance between myself and the bird that he would not be made uncomfortable.

When I looked back, the gull was standing on one leg on top of the light.  This is not an unusual posture for gulls, but as he tried to put his other foot down, it clearly caused him pain.  He tipped forward off of the light and extended his wings to arrest his fall.  He made a soft, one-point landing on a nearby dock and then began to hobble in my direction, alternating between good foot and bad.  I knew he wasn't interested in me as I was above him and he never once looked in my direction, but he was moving with a purpose and he had piqued my curiosity.  As I continued to watch, the gull walked up to one of the water spigots on the dock that are there for the boaters to use.  I noticed that the spigot was dripping.  Clearly, the gull had noticed this long before I did.

I couldn't help but smile as the gull stuck his beak under the faucet and began to catch the fresh water droplets that were leaking out at about one second intervals.  Occasionally he glanced up at me with a droplet hanging from his bill, and then he returned to drinking.  After snapping a few photographs to commemorate the moment, I walked on, leaving the still drinking gull to finish quenching his thirst.  I hoped that his foot would soon heal, and that he would enjoy sipping from leaky faucets for many years to come.