Indoors or Out? A Catfight Erupts in a Maine Home
First the good news: my kitty showed up at the back door about the time I'd given her up for lost. I'd awakened in the night to the alarming sound of a screech owl just outside my window — so it sounded, anyway — and discovered the door was ajar. This door doesn't always close tightly and my kitty, being pesky by nature, has figured out how to jiggle it open with a claw. Usually she comes home when I call her, probably on the theory that yummy food is in the offing. That night she did not. I became very distraught.
Now don't tell me a screech owl is too small to eat a cat. I've been all through this with my son Matt, who is visiting from Virginia. My kitty is diminutive and tasty-looking and the woods are full of monstrous creatures that want to eat her. A pair of foxes strolled up the driveway a while back, blithe as you please; one of them pooped outside my window. One day I swear I glimpsed a mountain lion — don't laugh, my neighbor Wally saw it too — and a few nights later I heard an unearthly noise that, when I tried to convey its full horror to my children, made me the object of much ridicule. So if a screech owl can't get the job done, there's always something worse waiting in the wings — including humans driving ferocious vehicles along the state road.
But my cat came home, and I've figured out how to block the door at night with a skateboard. I should explain at some point why we have several skateboards in the living room but our subject today is cats. Cats and other notable beasts.
My daughter — she who brought this cat home from the animal shelter and promptly skipped town — left me with firm instructions (these may actually have been her parting words) not to let the kitty outdoors. Not ever. I had no particular problem with this. Though I've never owned a cat before, I was aware in general terms that these creatures pose a real threat to native wildlife. The U. Maine Cooperative Extension Service estimates that, nationwide, domestic cats kill over a billion small animals every year, along with millions of birds. This is a problem not only for the animals in question (some of which are commonly regarded as pests) but for other, native predators, who must compete with feline interlopers for their food supply. Free-ranging cats can also transmit diseases to wild animal populations: the dismal list runs to feline leukemia, panleukopenia (feline distemper), toxoplasmosis, and an immune-deficiency virus called FIV.
In practice, my daughter's indoor-only edict proved hard to enforce. When you fall in love with a small animal you naturally want to make her happy. And my kitty so obviously loved going outdoors — first for carefully monitored frolics on the deck, then for little walks around the back yard, and finally ... but I guess you can see where this is going — that I just didn't have the heart to keep her under lock and key.
To be honest, the danger to wildlife was not my greatest concern. The array of rodents that began showing up on the doorstep did not look like an especially wholesome lot. It did grieve me to discover the kitty toying with a chipmunk. The poor animal was still alive but I wouldn't have given much for its chances of survival. (The Extension Service reports that once caught by a cat, few prey survive, usually succumbing to disease or shock even when they appear to have escaped.)
All of the above notwithstanding, my real concern was for the safety of my cat. I suppose this makes me shallow or short-sighted, but there you go. And I know I'm not alone. I had a chat with Roger at the Camden-Rockport Animal Rescue League, and he confided that, while the official guidance of the League is that cats should be kept indoors, he does not follow this policy himself.
"I had a cat once, when I lived in Appleton," he recalled, "who disappeared at about the age of twelve or thirteen. I always assumed some animal had taken her. But I can't regret it. She loved being outside, and for me it's a quality-of-life versus quantity-of-life issue."
And so we come to the emotional and ethical conundrum at the heart of the matter. We know rationally that it is bad, on various levels, to let our kitties wander in the Maine woods. But we do it anyway, out of some arguably misguided sense of love or empathy or desire to spread happiness to the four-legged members of the household. I suppose it's not the most glaring example of our general idiocy in the biospheric domain. But seems illustrative, somehow.