Annals of Pard: The Saga of the Mice, Continued

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischAnnals of Pard: The Saga of the Mice, Continued

by Ursula K. Le Guin

We were reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginning of Spring aloud before dinner last night when Pard came trotting through the living room in an uncharacteristically feral way: body low to the ground, tail down, head poised, eyes all black pupil. And sure enough, a small mouse in his mouth. He put it down, let it go, recaught it, and trotted on back to the kitchen, the tiny black tail hanging out of his mouth. We went on grimly with Penelope. After a while Pard came back, mouseless, and looking clueless. He wandered off, and we decided, or hoped, he’d lost the mouse.

Pigeons Passing?

Pigeons Passing?

Just as we were about to do the dishes he reappeared with it. It was now distinctly less active, but still alive. Pard was confused, troubled, and purposeless, as he always is when he has caught a mouse: totally possessed by the instinctive command to hunt, to catch, to bring the catch to the family as trophy or toy or food, but lacking any instinct or instruction as to how to follow through to the kill.

A cat with a mouse — the cliché example of cruelty. I want to say clearly that I do not believe any animal is capable of being cruel. Cruelty implies consciousness of another’s pain and the intent to cause it. Cruelty is a human speciality, which human beings continue to practice, and perfect, and institutionalize. Though we seldom boast about it. We prefer to disown it, calling it “inhumanity,” ascribing it to animals. We don’t want to admit the innocence of the animals, which reveals our guilt.

It’s possible that I could have caught the mouse and taken it outside to spare it some suffering. (Charles couldn’t, because after an operation a little while ago he’s forbidden to stoop down.) I didn’t even try. To do it, I’d have to be highly motivated, and I’m not. I feel neither guilty or ashamed of that, only unhappy about the whole situation.

I’ve never been able to come between a cat and its prey. When I was twelve or so our tomcat caught a sparrow on the lawn. Two of my brothers and my father were there. All three shouted at the cat, tried to get the bird away from it, and succeeded, in a cloud of feathers and confusion. I recall clearly, because I was clearly aware of my own feelings at the time, my refusal to join the shouting and scolding and scrambling. I disapproved. I thought the matter was between the bird and the cat and we had no business interfering with it. This may appear very coldblooded, and perhaps it is. There are certain other matters of life and death towards which I have a similarly instant, absolute, imperative response, — it is right to do this, or it is wrong to do this — which is not affected by personal preference or tenderness, has nothing to do with the reasonings of conscience, and cannot be justified by the arguments of ordinary morality. But neither can it be shaken by them.

Our feeble solution to Pard and the mouse’s problem was to shut them into the kitchen, leaving them to work it out in their own way. (And the dishes to be done in the morning.) What the mouse needed was to find the hole he’d come in by. Pard’s box is in the kitchen porch and his water bowl on the kitchen floor, so Pard had all he needed. Plus his problem.

And minus us. He is a very human-dependent cat. He’s almost always unobtrusively nearby. Fits of flying about at eye level, wreaking sudden havoc on bedspreads, galloping madly up flights of stairs, and bouncing backwards stiff-legged and humpbacked with enormous tail and glaring eyes down the hall ahead of you for no reason occur now and then, but mostly he’s just quietly somewhere near one or the other of us. Keeping an eye on us, or sleeping. (Right now he’s conked out on his beloved Moebius scarf right next to the Time Machine, about 18 inches from my right elbow.) Nights he almost always spends on my bed around the vicinity of my knees.

So I knew I’d miss him last night and he’d miss me. And we did. I got up to pee at around 2 a.m. and could just hear him weeping softly down in the kitchen. All the way home from the Humane Society in the carrier, he meowowed and yowled lustily, but since then he’s never raised his voice. Even when shut by mistake in the basement, he just stands at the door and cries, softly, meew? till somebody happens to hear him.

I steeled my heart, went back to bed, and felt bad till 3:30.

In the morning getting dressed I heard meew? again, so I dressed fast, hurried down, and opened the kitchen door. There was Pard, still puzzled, still anxious, but tail in the air to greet me and breakfast.

There was no mouse.

These chapters of the saga almost always end now in mystery. An unhappy mystery.

A result, maybe, of the only partly worked out relationship between two immensely different ways of being, the human and the feline. Wild cat and wild mouse have a clear, highly developed, well understood connection — predator and prey. But Pard’s and his ancestors’ relationship with human beings has interfered with his instincts, confusing that fierce clarity, half-taming it, leaving him and his prey in an unsatisfactory, unhappy place.

People and dogs have been shaping each other’s character and behavior for thirty thousand years. People and cats have been working at transforming each other for only a tenth that long. We’re still in the early stages. Maybe that’s why it’s so interesting.

#

Oh, but I forgot the weird part! After I’d hurried downstairs this morning, as I got to the kitchen door, I saw a triangle of white on the floor under it, a piece of paper. A message had been shoved under the door.

I stood and stared at it.

Was it going to say “Please let me out” in Cat?

I picked it up and saw a friend’s telephone number scribbled in pencil. The scrap of paper had fallen off the telephone table in the kitchen hall. Pard was still saying meew? very politely behind the door. So I opened it. And we had our reunion.

–UKL

21 Jan 2015

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Annals of Pard: The Saga of the Mice, Continued — 9 Comments

  1. When my previous cat went from being a city cat to a country cat, and thus very much more outdoors, he became a proud and able hunter. Like Pard, however, he was uncertain what to do with his prey once he had caught it.

    So, when he brought me a dead mouse, I praised him and thanked him politely and put the dead mouse in his food dish. He looked at me as though I had lost my mind, scooped it out, batted it around a bit and then sat, looking at the mouse, then looking at me. I put it back in his food dish.

    He looked very puzzled, but I saw him sniff and tentatively lick and nibble the mouse. Then I left him to it.

    You may have good reason not to wish Pard to eat his kills. But if you are looking to supply the missing bit that instinct lacks (as we provide food for our pets, and they are not driven to hunt by hunger), I offer what worked for me.

    My cat would still occasionally share trophies of which he was especially proud (the bat, and the flying squirrel) or where he had more than he could eat (half of a rabbit). But he did understand that hunting was for eating. Apparently some cats need to be shown this, to know.

  2. We have three cats. One of them is a ferocious hunter. For a period of time she was leaving a vole a day, on the front doorstep. In each case the right foreleg, only, was eaten. The rest was, apparently, for us. I would praise her, and my husband would pick it up with a garden trowel and toss it into the underbrush. The next day, an identical vole. I theorized that the cat was smart enough to recycle — she was fetching back yesterday’s rodent. So one day I marked the vole. I used a blue Sharpie, and put a blue dot upon one (of the three remaining) tiny pink paws before the shovel disposal. The next day, there was a vole on the front step. It was a new vole.

  3. What a lovely account of the puzzles that interspecies communication presents to everyone involved. I confess to being just the tiniest bit disappointed that the little white-paper triangle was not a note from the mouse, but perhaps that’s the difference between fact and fiction. — Eileen

  4. I am afraid that (at least some of the non-human) animals can be cruel in the worst sense of the word: purposedly inflicting pain simply for the joy of it. However, I guess this is more common in the intraspecies aggression than in the predator-prey interaction. An aggressive individual may spread its genes more effectively by terrorizing local competitors, for example – even though in the long run this may be devastative for the local population, and thus also for the agressor’s precious locally spread genes, so that there are also clear evolutionary “reasons” for limiting such a behaviour – and deriving pleasure from inflicting pain on rivals may be an evolutionary “tool” for that. It is harder to find good evolutionary “reasons” for terrorizing prey by predators, especially when the difference in size and strength is as huge as in the cat-mouse example. Yet, it seems possible that also in some predator-prey interactions cruelty may well “pay off”.

    It is nice to believe otherwise but one day the “animal innocent of cruelty” belief may share the fate of the sentimental “noble savage” or Cartesian “animal machine” illusions.

  5. By the way, I have heard that domesticated cats are much more destructive for the wild birds, squirrels, rodents etc. populations than their feral counterparts. Not only because there so many of them but also because they are well-fed and thus can afford to spend lots of energy and time hunting for pleasure. (Hunting mice in the house – that is another story.)

  6. Edit: “squirrels, rodents” –> “rodents”
    (squirrels ARE rodents, just as mice, of course).

  7. Cats are predators, and they joined us for that purpose. Of course we do take our dogs hunting too, but they first joined us for scavenging, and while we benefit from (modified) wolf hunting technique in our sheepdogs and some remnant of hunting behaviour in our hunting breeds, most dogs are happily scavengers left at a permanent puppy stage – with very little wolf left.

    As you say, cats joined us much later, after agriculture came about. While feline domestication is at an earlier stage, it also follows a different path. As we discovered granaries, we discovered new enemies: As hunters we only competed with the other predators, but now the prey species threatened our resources. Cats offered a solution. They did not come to be petted or for the plate of warm milk or food scaps: They came because our homes offered plenty of prey – and we welcomed them for the same purpose.

    A hundred years ago, that was still the main purpose of cats in a household, although, inevitably, we also bonded with them as companions. Most cats were working cats long after most dogs had changed their job status to “pet”.

    If a wild cat has plenty of resources, it will still hunt to play. It makes sense – perfecting your prey-handling technique is always worth while, because when prey is NOT plentiful, that extra practice might be all there is between survival and death.

    I am not sure that the hunting instincts of domestic cats has degraded at all. They might get less training in their youth – so a lack of education rather than genetic disposition. If Pard fails to kill most of the time, I think it might really be because he does not need to consider the mouse as food as long as he is full. At the farms of my childhood, the cats were fed, but never too much: A hungry cat does better work.

    You can’t blame the cat, of course. Evolution made them pure predators, and they do what they evolved to do. You can – and definitely should – limit their access to prey, since many of our wild species are in decline while pet density follows human density and keeps increasing. But since Pard is an indoor cat, you already do this. I sympathise completely with your feelings in the mouse situation: Yes, it is unpleasant to watch, but it is also something so basically natural that interfering seems out of place in the situation. If we cannot accept it, we should not associate ourselves with predators.

    You can change the odds in favour of the prey, of course. Some of our very good friends in Seattle are bird watchers AND cat owners, and they found some very ingenious ways of cat-proofing their garden. For instance, they put chicken wire around their shrubs and bushes, to make them less suited as cat ambush sites. For their own cat, they made a chicken-wire fenced patio area, so he can walk in and out, but cannot hunt freely. He will still attempt to pounce those birds that are brave enough to venture inside the fence. Because – he is a cat.

  8. I am addicted to the Annals of Pard, because UKLG has the rare gift of writing about cats affectionately but not sentimentally.

  9. Cats. Mice. Baby birds. People. Me.

    Everyone who loves cats and critters probably experiences one or many moments in which we make our own sense on these relationship issues. I would think each of us makes peace in different ways, and I appreciate our differences. For me, my sense is that I participate as one human within generations who have engaged with cats, and so we changed their instincts and destinies as a result of what we/I have done. I have a sense of responsibility in the play that goes on, that I am a character in it, too. I place the collar of bells about Basie’s neck, thinking with my human brain of those baby birds soon to be all about as Spring emerges, and I play my part because I entered the scene as her human. Basie is rather talented (silly prideful me), so she compensates for as many bells as I can attach, and catches a few anyway. I could trap her unhappily indoors, but then am I being cruel? It feels so. Rather, I know she’ll bring anything she catches to me, and I’ll have time to save it. Which I do, because I am a part of the play, having done my part to change the nature of wild cats to domesticated ones. Yet I can’t erase the critter’s experience of being pounced upon and bit. But they scurry or flutter off, and it appears they will recover. Perhaps wiser, to escape the unbelled neighbor’s cat – or so I console myself. And so it goes, making sense, making sense, as best we can. Everyone to their own peace in the matter, and I am grateful we are all different in our compassions.