Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Social Geography of Cats

Our youngest cat, Ariadne, has discovered the hummingbird feeder. Now she sits on the windowsill, staring at the flitting birds that dart in and out of her sight. Unlike one of our older cats, Aspasia, our kitten doesn't "chatter" at the birds. She simply meows her displeasure that such tasty morsels remain tantalizingly close, yet beyond her reach. As soon as I open the door, Ariadne races outside. The only problem is that the birds are too fast for her, so she hasn't caught one yet.

Thinking of moments like these, I remember how much I love watching cats play -- particularly when they don't know they're being observed. I feel that I'm peering into a secret world when I watch these independent and territorial animals negotiate public spaces. I'm fascinated to see how neighborhood cats, generally much tougher than our three lazy felines, play against the borders of our yard. One awful cat in particular, a gray male who seems to run the neighborhood, delights in frustrating our generally gentle females. He walks along the curb, tilting one side onto our yard while keeping one side onto the street. Since he's been known to spray in our garage and attack our cats we try to discourage his invasive behavior. Jenny only needs to give that gray cat a mean look and he knows to skedaddle. Yet when the humans are away, our cats must fend for themselves.

Our neighborhood teems with cats who fashion hard-fought but invisible frontiers. Jenny and I can almost never tell where these battle lines are drawn until we stop to pet a neighbor cat on an evening walk and invite another one to join us. At first the second cat will trot toward us, his tail sticking straight up with pleasure and anticipation. But then he'll stop. At first Jenny and I think that we've startled the animal. Then we'll spot both cats bristling at each other, caught up in an undeniable contest of wills. To cats, hierarchies of place must be maintained. An otherwise public venue becomes a private enclave when a dominant animal chooses to assert its power.

Working in my home office I'll look out my window and marvel at how even human borders are transformed by the social geography of cats. The tall wooden fences that separate our tiny yards become highways for cats who stalk prey, visit friends, or just want to avoid dangerous streets. Our cats view streets as walls, while I've seen our toughest cat, Artemis, take feline "road trips" via our inter-neighborhood fence-way. To her, the fence isn't a border; it's a means of conveyance. The fence illustrates how feline pathways and borders often overlap with the human built environment, but they do not necessarily adhere to human maps. Cats carry different maps in their heads.

It took months for Ariadne to muster the courage to leave the house. At first she'd hiss and scratch at anyone stupid enough to take her outside. Then, if we managed to get her to leave the house, she'd panic at the prospect of being brought back in. All in all, hers was a difficult kittenhood. But now she's older and more confident. Today, Ariadne stares at the hummingbirds and plans her assault. One day she will leap upon the fence and climb the tree where the birds roost. Right now they chirp at her mockingly, while the tougher cats menace her without mercy. But her personal geography of safe places is expanding to accommodate a growing sense of adventure. Ariadne's territory is no longer limited to our little house. She now sees a much larger world that awaits.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

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