January 05, 2003|Fred Dickey, Fred Dickey last wrote for the Los Angeles Times Magazine about the closing of Levi Strauss' U.S. plants.
He was an uninvited visitor: standoffish, gluttonous and ill-groomed. He treated our curious little dog behind the glass door with suspicion, then indifference. Even so, the scrawny ground squirrel was welcome because he had a journeyman's work ethic and vacuumed up the birdseed we occasionally spilled, and he made us feel good, because he obviously needed a decent meal. Maybe he wasn't very smart, however, because he liked to sun himself in the morning atop the spa cover. More than once I thought, "Dude, do you really think that's a good idea?" But, hey, he was the squirrel, not me.
Apparently it was a lousy idea because yesterday morning I looked outside and saw a gray-brown lump lying in the middle of the yard with fur-ends waving softly in the breeze. I hoped it wasn't him (or her). But when I walked up to inspect, the face was unmistakable: almond-oval eyes shut, mouth slack and showing brown teeth that had proved to be not sharp enough or long enough. Its body was raked open. I went to the garage for a shovel, scooped the body up carefully and gently tossed it into the junipers, feeling a bit disrespectful, but knowing the remains could at least feed the tiny creatures concealed there. Then I tried to figure out what had happened as I put the shovel away. It couldn't have been a coyote, hawk or owl, because those hunters carry their kills away to eat. I knew what it was--the only animal that consistently kills for the hell of it, and does it very well. It was a cat. And I'm not talking about a skinny, skittish feral mouser that hungrily hangs around garbage cans, but one far more numerous--a neighborhood house cat.
I know the little squirrel had an eventual obligation to the food chain, but I don't think it should have been discharged by being ripped apart by a well-fed cat amusing itself as it would with a ball of yarn.
Before you gasp and protectively embrace your purring kitty, let me say I have no hatred for cats. They're just doing their DNA thing. The problem is, far too many of them are prowling around because we humans have put our thumb on the scale. Once, in a talk with the bear-management ranger at Yosemite, I asked how many bears there were in the valley. He said about 30. I asked him how many there would have been before the people invasion. He said three or four.
Thus it is with cats. Our neighborhoods are overrun with those stalking little darlings from next door. Dogs are only a contemptible nuisance to them, and the occasional wandering coyote doesn't dent their numbers. Every day you see them bebopping along, out for a good time, looking for a score. They kill because it's in their genes, and because they have Friskies in their tummies, they take only a curious nibble before moving on. They put a feline spin on the Casanova complex--it's all in the chase.
Naturalists tell us that, more than any other cause, roaming tabbies are the scourge of the little creatures that struggle to survive around and beneath us: birds, squirrels, lizards, baby skunks and possums, and many others unnamed. The annual toll is in the millions. No one can make an exact count of cats' victims, but the next time you see a mourning dove lying in a pile of feathers, you might rule out suicide as a cause.
Tonight, when your manipulative fur ball piteously begs at the back door to get out, think about telling him he just became an indoor cat and he should learn to deal with it, or at least put a small bell on his collar so that little guys like our squirrel might have a running chance. If you don't, when Punkin returns from his or her nocturnal forage and sits contentedly licking those soft paws, you might give thought to what it is that's being licked off.