Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I’ve been having a crazy time of it here for the past week and a half. When I woke up on Saturday the 16th, Little was missing. This was disastrous in itself, but made all the worse by the fact that she left behind six kittens who weren’t eating solid food yet. By late in the afternoon I had to run out to the store to buy bottles and kitten formula because the babies were starving and distraught.

The first couple of days were very distressing and exhausting. There was a learning curve with the bottles and I worried that they weren’t getting enough to eat or were getting dehydrated. And I was distressed about Little. With no body to bury there’s no easy closure. Was she locked in someone’s shed somewhere, frantically trying to get back to her babies?

Anyway, things have been gradually settling down as we get into a routine and the kittens start to eat some solid foods. I’m not making up quite as many bottles now. They’re almost five weeks old now, so I could just force the issue, but since they’ve already endured one trauma, I’ll let them continue to have the bottle a little bit still.

My main theory about what happened to Little is that an owl got her. Two mornings after she vanished, when Collin and I pulled out of the driveway at 6 am, we saw a great horned owl sweep down out of a tree towards a cat on the street, but with our car coming it flew right back up into the tree. A few days earlier I had heard an owl in the night and thought it was neat since you don’t often hear owls in town. And I had seen a strange animal dropping in the yard (with fur in it) that may have come from an owl flying over.

Little was such an awesome cat. I really miss her. I think maybe it was just her time to go though. I was going to have her spayed this fall, once the kittens were weaned (even though technically she isn’t my cat), but I couldn’t help thinking she might turn into a very depressed and miserable cat once she was fixed. Motherhood gave her life such incredible purpose. She was a fierce protector and an incredible provider. (I’ll never forget the whole episode with the mice earlier in the summer; for several weeks before she got too pregnant with this litter she was bringing multiple mice home nightly for her last litter…into the house, alive, of course.) I had a hard time picturing Little as a contented house cat.

This whole experience of living in a town overrun by unneutered cats has been eye-opening. Of course the cat issues here are a real problem, especially when you have people who put food out for the cats (like the old guy across the alley) but take no further responsibility for them, such as having them neutered or taking them to the vet when they’re injured or ill. So the food encourages a bigger population, but the crowding leads to vicious fighting and terrible injuries among the toms, and disease is the main way population is kept in check. It’s not good.

But, I’ve come to believe, neither is the unnatural lives we force our house cats to lead, particularly the strictly indoor ones. To take away their ability to reproduce (which of course is necessary if we’re to keep them as pets) takes away the primary purpose and meaning in their lives. (Imagine if most of us humans were spayed or neutered before puberty!) It robs them of a major component of their natural selves. And indoor cats are so often left alone, without the company of others of their own kind. To have had the opportunity to see a cat colony in action has been really something! The relationships and pecking orders, the fathers playing with their offspring--all of it is so beautiful to watch. It makes me sad for the house cats (Khatru) who never got to experience that. I’ll never forget when we first moved here and I let Greta outside. After a while I went looking for her and found her in the dappled shade in the backyard, lounging very amiably with two other very elderly cats. For all those years I’d deprived her of true community with her own kind (well, I guess Khatru counts for something) and finally she got to enjoy it. And sunshine--indoor cats miss out on the healthful benefits of sunshine. And getting to supplement their diet with grasses and herbs and grasshoppers and mice.

I’m now at the point of thinking it’s irresponsible to have pet cats (and it’s also irresponsible to feed feral ones). In a book I read recently, The World Without Us (Alan Weisman), the author suggested that of all the domesticated animals on earth, the cat is the only one who would be likely to survive if humans were gone. The best solution is probably to let all cats return to their wild state.

But then I think about co-evolution and how all the cats I’ve known seem to relish their association with humans. With Little I often got the feeling that she recognized us as partners in kitten-rearing, like co-parents. And it certainly was a great arrangement for her to rear her kittens in the shelter of my house and get fed delicious treats all the time.

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan talked about how perhaps corn and potatoes use humans to help propagate themselves, and the same may be true for cats. It may be a strategic move to associate themselves with humans.

I guess I don’t really know what I believe now. I used to rigidly believe the whole responsible pet ownership spiel: spay or neuter and keep the cat safely indoors. Now at least I understand the issues isn’t black and white. Yes, spayed and neutered and kept indoors makes sense for us, but we play God when we do that and I’m not sure that’s entirely right.

It has been so gratifying to witness the natural lives of cats here. I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to do that.

Besides being consumed by cat issues lately, the other thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is, of all things, autism. We’ve had a huge increase in cases of autism and vaccines are strongly suspected to be a prime cause, especially in a lot of severe cases.

But what I’m interested in now are the milder cases and the more high-functioning cases, especially those with Asperger’s syndrome. I’ll admit I know next to nothing about this. I’m just starting to focus on for the first time.

The thing that got my attention was a woman on the comment board on an alternative health website I frequent. She often participates and her comments are fascinating because she has autism. Something she said recently jolted me because it made me think maybe I have a very mild version of autism!

There are certain things that really fit. My sensitivity to sound for one thing. My relative insensitivity to pain compared to other people’s. My highly visual nature. And language--this is interesting. I’m extremely verbal and can often express myself very eloquently in one-on-one situations, but in groups of more than a few people it has often felt to me like a switch literally switches off and I can barely speak. The other time that happened (and the most dramatic time of all) was when I was in labor. I was rendered almost mute. It felt like my access to language almost shut down. Trying to find words was like swimming through some murky world.

See this is so interesting because it’s all about framing. Until now I’ve chosen to consider myself highly-sensitive, which to me has a sort of positive spin to it. To switch to a label such as autism, a disorder or syndrome gives it all a very negative spin. There’s the implication of being deficient, of something being wrong. I don’t like that concept.

One website listed all of these famous accomplished people, like Einstein, who are now suspected of having been autistic. I think that kind of labeling is detrimental. To label highly accomplished people as having a disorder; that seems off-base. They may differ from the norm, but whats to say the norm is an optimal state? The fact that these highly accomplished people accomplished what they did, doesn’t that indicate some sort of higher functioning over the “normal” people who accomplished no great things?

At the library last week I took out a book by an autistic woman, Temple Grandin. Her autism led her to some profound insights into animal behavior. It’s all so interesting. Basically she sees autistic people as being somewhere between animals and “normal” people, perceptually, cognitively, emotionally.

There’s a lot of food for thought here. Someone on the comment board on the website suggested maybe autism is some sort of evolutionary adaptation. For the profoundly autistic, I would have to say no way. But, hm, this sets me off thinking about the higher functioning cases as it pertains to our current global predicament. Maybe their ability to “see” almost more primordially or holistically is an advantage. Maybe they have really valuable gifts that will help us transition into a sustainable world. I need to spend more time exploring this. It’s awfully interesting stuff.

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