Annals of Pard: The Tango

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischAnnals of Pard: The Tango
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cats are pure predators: they hunt live prey. Carrion and other stuff dogs like is of no interest to them. They abhor sweets, and despise most vegetables, though many make an exception for asparagus, or corn, and my big Leonard liked a taste of salad greens and had a passion for raw spinach. We’re told that feral cats get the greens they need from what the prey they eat ate.

Pard is about as unferal as a cat can be. He stays indoors by choice and can’t be persuaded to vary his austere, self-chosen diet of dry kibbles and tap water. But we live in an old house with a lot of holes in it. The outdoors gets in. Live prey occurs fairly often. . . And he’s a very good predator, at least up to a point. He’ll spend whole days or nights in the attic, listening, expecting. He knocks over the trash basket under the kitchen sink every morning to examine it for live content. He knows where the mice were and will be. He knows where the mouse is, and waits for it. And he gets it.

It’s at this point that his predatory purity gets muddled and his skill as a hunter ends. As well as I can figure it out, his Food Perception Zone is so extremely limited that the mouse doesn’t enter into it at all. To him the mouse is a toy, a really good toy — the best imaginable — a toy that will play with him. Oh joy! And he brings it to me.

At this point most people say instructively, “He’s teaching you to hunt.” The idea is that mama cats bring live mice to their kittens and release them in order to teach the kittens hunting skills. This may well be so, but I have trouble extrapolating it to a young neutered male. Pard knows the difference between a woman and a kitten. And anyhow I don’t think he wants to teach me hunting skills. I bring him toys and play with some of them with him. He connects toy-playing with me, so he brings his grand new toy to me to play with.

His first couple of catches were dispatched pretty quickly, I think by accident, through clumsiness. He hadn’t yet learned how not to damage the toy. Alas, he has perfected this skill.

The worst time was a month or so ago when he brought a rather large, extremely vigorous mouse to my room at about two a.m. and released it on my bed. I woke up in time to fling it wildly off in a spontaneous convulsion, which sent it running about on the floor again so Pard could chase it again. Clearly I was behaving just as I should, keeping the toy in motion — so when he found it he brought it right back onto the bed. This time I was wide awake, and made noise and light as well as wild physical upheavals. Pard was delighted.

The mouse remained in good running order for a long time. There was no way I could catch it, but there were dozens of ways Pard could, and did — and then let it go again. It went on and on. It was awful. Even when they both got out into the hall, I couldn’t shut them out of the room, because the room door is about half an inch off the floor and the mouse would have got into the room leaving the cat outside hurling himself against the door. I fled to another room with a mouseproof door and shut it and hid.

That may have impaired Pard’s motivation, because the mouse got away, and he didn’t catch it for two days, though he was on the hunt most of the time. I lay each night in dread of the midnight mouse.

He caught it, and another since then, both in the trash can under the sink (which has steep sides a mouse can’t climb, so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. He brings his mouse to my room in the dead of night, carrying it carefully, as a mother cat carries a kitten and with the same alert, head-up, trotting gait. He puts it gently down on the floor — he hasn’t put one in bed with me again, for which I am grateful. The chase then circles round under furniture, into the doorless closet, behind the drum, through the vacuum-cleaner-parts boxes, etc. Rattle rattle, pause — BANG! — long tense pause — skitter, skitter, rustle, thump — long, long pause . . . Rattle . . . rattle. . . Then at last, blessedly, silence. The final silence. Exhaustion or an over-hasty pounce has released the mouse at last.

Pard carries it up and leaves it on the floor of Charles’s study in the attic. That done, he has absolutely no further interest in it. Why Charles gets the body, only Pard knows. We’d like to see it as a thoughtful attention, but it seems rather more like the child who generously gives his friend the toy he broke — “Here! This is a present! For you!”

Knowing that there is no way he can learn Compassion any more than he can learn Cruelty, the skill I wish I could teach Pard is Quick Murder. But whatever it is — the predatory instinct inseparably interacting with the play instinct, I suppose — all he wants of a mouse is for it to go on. And the mouse resourcefully, silently, gallantly dances out its role in the fatal tango.

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Annals of Pard: The Tango — 13 Comments

  1. I have 3 cats, and am fascinated by their joint hunting dynamic. Although they dislike each other (even though two are siblings) they will instinctively triangulate when there’s a mouse. They bracket the poor prey like Navy SEALS with nightscopes.
    And woe betide the feline who fails in teamwork! Once the two siblings had a vole cornered in the driveway. My husband came home and drove in, headlights ablaze, and in the moment of distraction the rodent scurried into the bushes. The cats spent ten minutes hunting around for it and then finally, frustrated, the black cat socked the orange one good. “This is all your fault!”

  2. Your description made me laugh aloud. My cat brings me live mice, too, but is kind enough to warn me with a muffled meow. No mice on the bed so far, thank goodness!

  3. Ru Emerson had a cat who would bring her live voles in the middle of the night, flinging them into the air inside her office. The cat then expected Ru to find the critter!

    They are impressive instinctive hunters–woe to any anole that sneaks into the apartment…

  4. In her younger days, our stripy Vibrissa used to bring mice upstairs at two in the morning, and eat them by the side of our bed. Dismal squeaks and loud crunching, and tripping over abandoned stomachs and heads on the landing…

  5. Our black cat is a mighty huntress. She has just about eliminated all the rodents in our yard, and has taken to crossing the street and cleaning out the mice at our neighbor’s bird feeder. They have thanked me for this.

  6. I’ve heard an hypothesis that attempts to explain why cats “play” with their prey. The idea is that the more fear and suffering an animal is experiencing, the more adrenaline it will produce. Then when the cat finally consumes it, the cat will get a “rush” from the adrenaline which becomes addictive, so the cat learns to prolong the prey’s death to maximize the rush. I guess this also explains why they sometimes just eat the head, where the adrenaline is most concentrated. Now aren’t you glad you know about that?

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  8. My mother-and-son team, Tess Dambusa Darbyfield and Beauregard Elvis DePriest, once specialized in bringing live chipmunks in through the cat door and turning them loose. The cats never brought them to me, so I suspect they wanted the fun of chasing the little guys around indoors, or perhaps the fun of watching me chase them around in order to rescue them.
    Beau once placed a chipmunk in his “toy box,” which tells us something about his thinking. From the way I jumped when a live creature leaped out from among the toys you would have thought I wasn’t looking for a chipmunk when I found it there.

    I once watched a cat named Devil stick his head in through a cat door and place a live and uninjured mouse on the kitchen floor. It was late fall when he did this, and his person and I beleive that he was stocking his ranch for the cold weather ahead.

    The chipmunk deliveries at my house have fallen off, to my great relief. I don’t know whether my cats polished off the entire colony, or just scared them into moving away.