Early Sunday, on Father’s Day, my daughter and I awoke to a distressing break from our normal morning routine, which typically begins with a changing of the guard at the kitchen door as our dog and our cat tentatively pass each other in opposite directions. The dog went outside as usual, but Wompus, our smallish, nine-year-old black cat, was nowhere to be seen, failing to return from his usual nocturnal rounds.
This in itself would not have been so alarming if not for the evidence of a commotion throughout our property. A jerry-rigged section of fence had been pushed over from the outside, apparently ripped from its posts; paw marks were clearly visible where the moss appeared to have been scraped at high speeds from what passes for a front lawn; and the “bee cooler” had been knocked several feet from the side of the house, the lid having slammed shut on the angry hive inside. (Yes, we have Coleman cooler filled with bees… but that’s another story.) For her part, the dog sniffed ferociously throughout the crime scene, occasionally peeing on invisible scraps of evidence, an obvious sign of unwanted canine intruders.
All this, combined with recent news of cat-killing coyotes in Seward Park, led us to immediately fear for the worst. I kept reassuring my daughter that it was too soon to jump to conclusions, that the cat would sometimes come home a little late, but that hadn’t really happened in years, and I never really believed it. I followed the dog for a while, hoping at least she might sniff out the remains, but nothing. By noon my daughter had dug a small grave for the cat’s spirit, and tearfully marked it with a stone.
When you adopt a cat from the animal shelter they make you promise to keep it indoors, sternly repeating the grim statistic that the life expectancy of outdoor cats—exposed to disease, cars, and wild animals—is fully half the 14-year average span of those that live their lives entirely indoors. Wompus was a Christmas kitty, and I honored my promise through the winter and spring, but as the sun came out during the early days of summer, so gradually did the cat. At first he just joined us in the garden, before eventually enjoying longer yard adventures on his own. But his annoying, relentless, door-side yowling, and growing proficiency as a mouser, soon earned him permanent in-and-out privileges.
We loved Wompus, and always understood that our permissiveness would likely cut his life short, but it seemed to me a reasonable quality of life trade-off. I had previously owned an indoor cat, from ages 11 through 25, a beautiful calico who proved as neurotic and bored as she was pampered and beloved. As affectionate and playful as cats can be, they are also natural born killing machines, thus locking them indoors condemns them to a life that runs counter to their very nature. I found it impossible to do this to Wompus, especially against his very loudly expressed will.
Wompus had a job—to rid my garden of rats and other rodents—and he joyfully executed his mission with brutal efficiency. On one fall morning alone, after setting the clocks back for daylight savings, we let the cat in to discover five rats laid out by the back door… an incident that came to be mythologized in our family as the “Fallback Massacre.”
And now the predator had become prey, which I told myself was a more noble death for a hunter—a circle of life kinda thing—than being crushed by a car… and far quicker than that of my childhood cat who at the ripe old age of fourteen simply stopped eating, slowly starving herself before dying in my arms, a veterinarian’s needle stuck in her leg. Nine years old—two years past the average life expectancy of an outdoor cat. But at least it was a happy, productive, cat-like nine years, we consoled ourselves.
And so depressed and wracked with guilt (I could have heeded the coyote warnings, though I don’t live all that close to the park, and we’ve heard rumors of coyotes before), I sat down at my computer to write Wompus an appropriate memorial… when in he walks through the open back door, disheveled and agitated and six hours late, but surprisingly, very much alive.
What really happened in those early morning hours we’ll never know, though the physical evidence, the cat’s sudden reluctance to head outdoors, and his renewed nervousness around our dog (who has a more than passing resemblance to a coyote) suggest that our original supposition might not be far off the mark. For now Wompus will remain indoors, at least at night, but once his PTSD wears off and his late-night demands for egress once again escalate into a struggle between life and sleep deprivation, no doubt he’ll return to his usual nocturnal routines, perhaps wiser and more wary, but with every passing year a little slower and less agile. Some might argue with my decision to let him choose life over longevity… but not my cat.
After the jump, the memorial I had planned to post in celebration of Wompus’ life and death, a poem he had inspired me to write for my daughter back in 2002: “The Little Black Cat’s Big Catch.”
The Little Black Cat’s Big Catch
©2002 by David Goldstein
By a pale yellow house, in a green garden patch,
A little black cat was stalking his catch.
He crouched in the grass. He was perfectly still.
As he patiently waited for something to kill.
And when that unfortunate something came by,
The little black cat, in the blink of an eye,
Would pounce on his prey. By the neck he would seize it,
He’d toss it, and twist it, and taunt it, and tease it,
Until that unfortunate something had died.
Then the little black cat would saunter inside,
He’d have a light snack, take a nap on the floor,
Then he’d go back outside… and he’d kill it some more.
Yes, hunting is nasty and brutish, it’s true,
But the cat is a cat, and that’s what cats do.
He hunted for beetles, for bugs and for bees,
For butterflies fluttering by on the breeze.
He hunted for mice, and for rats, and for squirrels
(With occasional swipes at little blonde girls.)
He hunted whatever might happen his way,
But the little black cat had a favorite prey.
Yes, he liked hunting bugs, and he liked hunting rats.
“But I love hunting birds!” purred the little black cat.
“You see, mice,” said the cat, “Are too easy to kill.
Once or twice might be nice, but thrice? Where’s the thrill?
And Bugs? One good swat and your fun just goes splat.
Squirrels? They climb trees… but then, so can a cat.
And the rats? Well, they’re found much to close to the ground,
Whereas birds,” he observed, “Turn you… which ways around!”
“Birds walk on the ground! Birds fly through the air!
One moment they’re here and the next they are there!
You see a bird perched by the raspberry plot,
So you leap where he is… but you land where he’s not!
You climb up a tree, and what have you found?
The birds have all gathered beneath on the ground!
So you jump to the ground, and the very same minute
You land ‘neath the tree: the birds are now in it!
A bird is a challenge that makes the pulse quicken.
And to top it all off: it tastes just like chicken!”
Yes, birds are not easy to catch, that is true,
But the cat is a cat, and that’s what cats do!
He caught bluejays and bluethroats and bluebirds and blackbirds
And lovebirds and ladybirds, songbirds and quackbirds,
And partridges, parakeets, parrots, and pigeons,
And woodcocks and wagtails and warblers and wigeons.
There wasn’t a species of bird in the garden
The little black cat had not sunk his teeth hard in.
But there was, thought the cat, one bird he’d not caught.
And the cat grew distraught when he thought that he ought.
For the bird that he sought circled high overhead
With razor sharp claws, that could slice a cat dead!
It’s wings spread like storm clouds; it’s eyes, the cats say,
Could pinpoint a whisker a mile away!
No cat ever dare try to snare such a catch,
For the mighty bald eagle was more than his match.
As the eagle soared high, the cat lay beneath,
Picking a chickadee out of his teeth,
And watching, and waiting, and wishing so hard
That the eagle might swoop down and land in his yard.
“If I’d only the chance…” the little cat mewed,
“I know I could catch him; I know what I’d do:
I’d pounce and I’d bounce and I’d swipe and I’d swat;
The feathers would fly, but the eagle would not!
I’d taunt him and tease him; he’d caw and he’d holler;
Then I’d finish him off: one last notch in my collar!”
Now, the cat told himself “Yes, I know it’s absurd
That a little black cat should chase such big a bird.
But you only live once. Well… nine lives, at best.”
So he took a deep breath, and he puffed out his chest,
And he walked through the gate, out the yard, on his quest.
Yes, that cat could be stubborn, and that is a fact,
But the cat is a cat, and that’s how cats act.
The bald eagle regally circled the city:
A dangerous place for a little black kitty,
Who foolishly followed, his eyes focused sky ways,
‘Cross freeways and throughways and parkways and highways,
He followed through hollows, up hills and down valleys,
Through backyards and frontyards and side streets and alleys.
He’d stop at a Starbucks each half-block or so,
And order a latté: “Whole milk, hold the joe.”
Then he’d run back outside, lick the foam from his face,
Turn his eyes to the sky and continue the chase.
And just when the cat felt his paws start to ache,
The bald eagle turned towards a park by the lake.
Two hundred feet up, in the crown of a tree,
In a bird’s nest the size of a small S.U.V.,
The little black cat saw the eagle set down.
So he bleary-eyed started to climb towards the crown.
Up, climbed the cat, towards the bald eagle’s nest,
But the critters he passed, they all laughed at his quest.
They snickered and sniggled and giggled with glee:
One squirrel laughed so hard… it fell out of the tree!
“Go on, laugh!” Spat the cat, as he climbed towards his quarry,
“I’ll catch that bald eagle, and then you’ll be sorry!
You’ll find out first hand, what a black cat can do;
First you’ll eat your words… and then I will eat you!”
Then he dug in his claws, without pause, without rest,
And climbed up the tree ’til he came to the nest.
He peeked in the nest, and what did it hold?
But a baby bald eagle, not quite ten weeks old!
“How cute!” thought the cat, of this pleasant surprise.
Still, an eagle’s an eagle, whatever the size.
“And she’ll make a cute snack, ’till her mama comes back.”
Laughed the cat, as he lazily launched his attack.
He pounced and he bounced and he swiped and he swatted,
He tossed it and teased it and pushed it and prod it.
But though he was fast, the eaglet was faster,
And quickly his victory turned to disaster,
For just as the cat had the bird in his paws,
She stuck out her cute—but razor-sharp—claws,
And caught unprepared, unawares, and off balance,
The cat was soon trapped in the baby bird’s talons.
The cat was embarrassed, for “Who ever heard…”
Thought the cat, “Of a cat being caught by a bird?!”
So he started to claw, and to gnaw, and to scratch,
But he couldn’t break free: he was caught by his catch!
No longer the hunter, his fortunes reversed,
The little black cat prepared for the worst.
But the bird didn’t tease him or toss him around:
She just opened her beak up — and gulped the cat down!
She let out a chirp… then a burp… then a holler,
Then coughed up a furball, some bones… and a collar.
Yes, hunting is nasty and brutish, it’s true.
But the eagle’s an eagle, and that’s what they do.
Now the green garden patch by the pale yellow house
Is a very safe place for a rat or a mouse.
The bugs in the garden now roam it in herds.
And the raspberry plot? It’s been picked clean by birds.
And alone in the grass sits the little blonde girl
Where her little black cat had once hunted for squirrels.
But the girl doesn’t swipe, and she doesn’t give chase.
She just sits there… and wipes a few tears from her face.
For although she’d occasionally drawn his attack,
She knew the cat loved her. And she loved the cat back.
And there in the garden, lonely and sad,
The little blonde girl was found by her dad.
He held out his hands, and what did he hold?
But a little black kitten, not quite ten weeks old!
It purred in her ears. It nipped at her nose.
Then pounced on a beetle it found at her toes.
They watched as it clumsily hunted its prey,
And playfully chased the girl’s sadness away.
And when the girl smiled, her dad smiled too.
For the dad, is a dad. And that’s what dads do.