As much as I love our cats, one of the tradeoffs is dealing with the other animals they kill. Periodically, my wife or I will open the front door to find lying on our concrete porch a dead bird or mouse, or leftover mangled rabbit parts, lifeless before us.
My wife cannot face such scenes, and calls me in to take care of the mess if I haven’t yet come across it myself. Otherwise I will try to handle the cleanup of any blood or entrails, and dispose of the body, before she has a chance to see it, perhaps giving her a brief report later — if even that isn’t too much for her to hear.
While I’m not freaked out by the small, dead bodies and don’t mind the task itself, still, it always brings at least some pangs of regret or sadness.
Last year I remember finding a beautiful yellow finch at the foot of the short wooden staircase outside our kitchen door that opens into the attached garage, which is accessible via cat door and serves as another location where the cats leave their kills. Holding the finch in my hands, its eyes unseeing, but body and breast both still warm and supple, an emptiness arose inside and a lump came to my throat. Only moments ago it had to have been full of life. At the same time that you know cats are only doing what’s natural, your heart sinks to see such a beautiful, feathered and fellow creature — up close and personal, but gone.
Last spring, even worse, were two bird deaths on consecutive days. On the first day I found a female cardinal that had been killed by one of the cats, lying inert on the floor of the garage next to my car. It was disquieting to wonder about the fate of the cardinal’s nestlings, wherever they were, and how far along in development they may or may not have been.
Then, the second day, a dead male cardinal on the front porch, probably the female’s mate. Just like that, in swift succession, the end of the line for this mating couple, and perhaps their offspring as well.
Afterward, as I do on occasion, I saved a few feathers from the male cardinal’s handsome red plumage, laying them on my office desk as a totem of sorts. A reminder of the living, natural world that we, too, come from and are a part of. A connection that is all too easy to forget in the fabricated world of concrete and computers we are encircled by on all sides today.
The killing field
It’s not just intact, dead bodies that present themselves to us, of course. We also find, from time to time, the shredded and bloodied remains of birds, their feathers scattered about. Or very small and partially grown, dismembered rabbits lying in our basement entryway that sits at the bottom of a flight of stairs coming down from the garage. Sometimes, just the tiny hind legs of perhaps a two-week-old baby rabbit may be all that remains. At other times, only a decapitated head and a few accompanying feathers or tufts of fur.
Because of the butchered remnants we find there from time to time, we call this three-foot-square linoleum landing at the bottom of the stairs in front of the basement door “the killing field.”
About two months ago, heading down to the basement after dark on chores to check out whether the basement catbox needed cleaning, I unexpectedly found something worse than usual. Normally, if there is a mess to be cleaned up in the killing field, all I will find is leftover body parts, feathers, or fur on the linoleum along with streaked and smeared blood. Rarely have I ever actually come upon one of our cats there in the midst of a kill in progress.
This time, however, upon flipping the stairway light on, there at the bottom in one corner of the killing field sat our long-haired female cat Miko — half-tabby and half-Siamese — appearing somewhat nonplussed, while in the opposite corner sat a full-grown, brown cottontail rabbit, unmoving but very much alive. At first glance the situation appeared to be something of a standoff, with both taking a breather before their next move.
My first instinct when I stumble on a potential kill in progress by one of our cats is to see if there is any way it might be worth trying to save the animal. If the cat has been able to get a hold of the animal much at all, and if it is a bird or rabbit, even if still alive the odds are usually very poor. Because with much of a struggle fighting back on the victim’s part, the cat will respond by biting into its neck with too much resulting nerve damage for the animal to survive. With a mouse, more of a “toy,” it depends on whether the cat has moved past the stage of playing with it or not before delivering the killing bite to the neck.
In this case, given the rabbit was large and completely full-grown, I thought perhaps Miko had gotten more than she bargained for. So after retreating upstairs to grab some gloves to prevent getting clawed, I quickly made my way back down the stairs to pick up the rabbit, then tried to carry it up into the garage and put it back outside through the cat door. As soon as I picked it up, however, it began squealing terribly and wiggled mightily in an attempt to get free.
It was then, on my way across the garage floor toward the cat door, I realized something was very wrong: the rabbit could not move its hind legs. Probably Miko had gotten the rabbit in her mouth by its neck in the yard somewhere, and from there dragged it across the driveway, through the cat door, across the garage floor, and all the way down the stairs. During which time the rabbit would have taken a beating with every galumph, as its hind legs banged against the cat door, plowed against the garage floor, and then banged down every stair.
Hoping the paralysis might be temporary, I went ahead and pushed the rabbit through the cat door as it squealed horribly all the while, whereupon the rabbit’s head unceremoniously plowed into the concrete just outside, its body collapsing in a heap. I then walked back around through the house, exited out the front door, went to the rabbit, and attempted to move it again.
This time it became all too apparent — as the rabbit squealed again and flailed while I carried it — that its hind legs were nonfunctional. But to give the rabbit every chance, I placed it under the shelter of a hedge on one side of our front yard for the night, wondering if its leg function might return overnight.
The next morning, however, I found the rabbit only 18 inches from where I had placed it, where it had managed to drag itself only that short distance with just its front legs. In the bright daylight I also noticed that its skin had been chafed and wounded where Miko had dragged it across the concrete, and probably otherwise in the struggle they must have had the previous night.
With chores and billable work to do that morning, I agonized a bit and decided to come back later. That afternoon, though, I noticed maggots had begun to populate the rabbit’s wounds, and realized its death was only a matter of time. To spare the rabbit further agony, I found a big rock to put it out of its misery with, and did the deed.
Mice running the gauntlet
Unlike rabbits and birds, which are rarely ever possible to save, my success rate with mice has been better. Mice have the saving grace of being just the right sort of easy toy for a cat to enjoy, so that they’re permitted to live long enough for the cat to have fun batting them around a while before delivering the coup de grâce. Rabbits and birds, on the other hand, are so much more vigorous in their struggles that the cat will react more aggressively to kill them quickly in most cases.
Once in a while I will walk outside onto the front porch right into the middle of a cat-and-mouse play session. The porch is surrounded on two adjacent sides by the brick walls of our house, and on a third by a low, two-foot-high, outer concrete wall. For any mouse that finds itself there, this layout forms a U-shaped cul-de-sac as it’s being pursued by one or more of our cats.
Trapped in this space with any potential escape route narrowed down or cut off by a cat, a mouse’s chances of survival are greatly reduced. I have even seen some situations where a mouse is being tag-teamed in this concrete-and-brick trap by two or three of our cats at once, in which case the mouse’s fate is almost certain doom, after perhaps being knocked silly a number of times first.
In light of the animals we regularly run across that are already dead or beyond saving, if I happen upon an event in progress like this where I can snatch the mouse away in time before a cat has delivered too hard a blow — a game in itself for me — I can sometimes save it.
If I’m able to catch a mouse before the cats have maimed or killed it, I have found the best way to keep a hold of it is inside both palms cupped together with space provided in between. At first I was concerned mice might bite my hands when caught inside them like this. Instead I found they calm right down and become quiet.
The only question after this is where to release the mouse: far enough away from the cats so they don’t immediately find it again, but close enough nearby that the mouse can quickly reorient itself within its territory and survive.
A mouse whose luck turned around
As the weather cools during the fall, the mice outdoors become more active preparing for the coming winter. Or, at least, we see more evidence of them, judging by the ones waylaid by our cats, or the chase-down events we happen onto during this time.
Last week, I walked out onto the porch one morning to discover our tortoiseshell, Ceci, poised motionless, raptly staring down at a half-grown little mouse — about an inch and a half long not counting its tail — that she had temporarily incapacitated. Lying on its back on the concrete in front of her, front legs pulled up toward its neck in a “begging” position, eyes half-closed, its abdomen panting heavily up and down, the mouse appeared to be in shock. It wasn’t clear how much life the little guy still had left in him or whether he might recover if given time to rebound from the swatting he had no doubt received. But I decided to try.
After a few attempts, I managed to pick the mouse up between thumb and forefinger, gently, without squeezing too hard, so as not to injure it any further than it might already have been. I could not clasp the mouse between my cupped palms as usual, since doing so is a brief, temporary measure good for only a minute or so while ferrying a mouse to safety for release. In this case, though, the mouse would need time to come to its senses first, if that were even to prove possible.
It so happened I was wearing a flannel shirt with a front pocket. What if I put the mouse inside? Mice, with their small bodies, especially a very small, partially grown one like this, lose heat quickly and need to be able to keep warm to survive, which is particularly important as the weather becomes colder. Next to my body in the pocket seemed like just the spot.
I dropped the mouse softly down inside it, but he ended up on his side and did not move to right himself. My hopes sank a bit at that point, but I decided to give him some time to come around, and went on about my morning routine.
About 15 or 20 minutes later, I peeked inside the pocket to check on the mouse and, somewhat encouragingly, he had now at least managed to right himself, crouching forward on all fours, even if he still seemed only half-aware. After another 15 minutes passed, I checked once again, and this time his eyes were fully open and alert. Reaching in with thumb and forefinger, I tried to lightly grasp the mouse to test his responsiveness, but was unable to budge him — his claws apparently gripping the fabric of the pocket to hold on.
Figuring that the sooner I could release him back into his territory the better, now that he seemed in possession of his faculties again, I walked outside looking for a good spot. My wife has a garden on the other side of the driveway from our front porch that provides good opportunities for shelter. I walked over to it and found a suitable area with low-growing ground cover and other vegetation that had survived the first few hard freezes of the season.
Crouching down, I reached into the shirt pocket, once again trying to grab the mouse with my fingers. He had a good, strong grip on the fabric now, though, and reacted to my tugging by burrowing further into the bottom crevice of the pocket, pushing his snout all the way into one of the corners.
Time to up the ante, I decided. Another try — this time taking hold of the mouse’s tail — did the trick. I pulled him up and out of the pocket, letting him dangle for just a few seconds while choosing a soft spot to release him for a safe landing. The concern proved unnecessary, though. Lightly dropping him to the ground, no sooner did his feet alight than he sprang a good 10 inches with one bound, disappeared into the ground cover, and was gone.
What runs through it all
What does the life of one mouse matter in the overall scheme of things? After all, mice reproduce prolifically and live only a year or two. Why take time to save the life of a single mouse among the scores of them who live, reproduce, and die every year just on our own modest plot of land in the city? Mice who are easily replaced by others born in droves to succeed them?
While the life of a single mouse may matter little to the big picture, I am sure it does not seem so to the mouse. And for some reason saving one makes a difference to me when I can.
I don’t know for sure why. It is something about the experience of it, the fun of it. The connection with life and death in a creature that is also a mammal just as we are, though a very small one.
But what is “small”? A single human life does not mean much either, when considered against the all-encompassing sphere of nature’s vast circumference. Perhaps what really matters is coming into ever closer touch and connection with what runs through it all, on any level.
Because just like any creature, one day I will be gone too, as you will, as we all will. And what runs through all of it, and all of us, is what will remain.