Natural Elegance

The comfort-loving predator

Sometime in June, I heard Terry Gross interview biologist/polar photographer par excellence Paul Nicklen on her NPR show, Fresh Air. Among other topics related to the polar ecosystems, Nicklen recounted his adventures with a female leopard seal in the freezing waters of Antarctica. Because he photographed the seals for a National Geographic article and his photographs and the story behind them were so compelling, NatGeo made a video of them that went viral.

Because I wanted to see and learn more about his work, I then listened to his TED talk “Tales of Ice-Bound Wonderlands”

What fascinated me about Nicklen’s description of the female leopard seal trying to teach him to eat penguins is how much her behavior resembled that of female small wild cats teaching their kittens to eat rodents. This seemed logical because both species are semi-solitary and once they wean and teach their young to hunt, the young are on their own.

But how does this deeply entrenched repertoire of (mostly maternal) parental care play out in domestic cats? No doubt, many of you with in-and-outdoor cats know that, in addition to their companionship skills, these animals help control the resident rodent population in their efficient, nontoxic feline way. If you observe cats, you also know how strong their desire may be to teach these skills to others they consider part of their family too. Although I suspect that, compared to males, female cats and especially those with kittens excel at this just as they do in predation, companion cats of both sexes may display this behavior.

However, in my experience the companion cat teaching sequence is the reverse of that used by Nicklen’s seal. Typically, these cats begin by leaving gifts of tasty entrails in locations the human or new puppy can’t miss. This usually means dropping the bits and pieces right in front of the other-species student. Reports of preferred locations also include the owner’s bed pillows, door mats in heavily traveled ares, dog  beds, or cribs beside newborn human infants. When their offerings don’t achieve the desired results, some cats may try to breach the feline-human or -canine mealtime gap by placing their offerings directly on human plates or in dog feeding bowls.

If the little piles of offal disappear, apparently some cats assume their quasi-kittens have consumed them. And in the case of some canines, they very well may have. But in either case, the next logical step would be to leave a larger chunk of rodent for the non-feline student to tear apart and consume. Over time the sequence would move from pieces of rodents to dead, then wounded or exhausted prey as the skills of the recipient improve. Here again, if the cat defines “success” based on the fact that the prey disappears, the sequence will end.

But sometimes if you’re a little slow at cleaning up the body parts or like me and want to see what the cat will do next, you and your clueless puppy may be treated to the same dejected and frustrated displays Nicklen’s seal bestowed on him. The female feline who tried in vain to teach my corgi pup, Violet, to hunt would don a look that, had it appeared on the face of a person would communicate, “You’re too stupid to live.”  At that point, the amount of energy it cost her to teach the unteachable wasn’t worth the cost and she ate the mouse herself. Which is exactly how the scenario would have played out in the wild when young of solitary species get forced out as they mature.

But why not start by offering a whole mouse?  Perhaps unlike the leopard seal who feasted amid a ready supply of penguins who could afford to let one go if a slow student ignored or rejected it, it takes a fair amount of energy to catch a mouse that can vanish into the undergrowth  or tiny openings in an instant. For a hungry wild or free-roaming domestic queen with hungry young kittens to feed, the guts-to-intact-live-animal sequence offers a greater chance of survival. For a pet cat who also has a reliably filled food dish whose spay- or neuter-dulled parental instincts may not be that great to begin with, it simply may not be worth the energy.

In these situations, these variations of the basic teaching strategy persist because they work for those who use them. While we may not know specifically why at least some leopard seals, small wild cats, or companion cats use a specific strategy, we can say that all of them arise from the same core.

Thinking about this caused me once again to recall a discussion I had with an academic sociologist and psychologist about the nature of behavior. Although all of us had a strong interest in the human-animal bond, our specific interests were quite different. Theirs included topics such as shelter work, euthanasia, animal abuse, cock-fighting, hunting, poisonous snake round-ups, and slaughter, whereas I focused on the bond’s effects on animal and human health and behavior. But despite our differences, all of us had come to the same conclusion: Behaviors didn’t exist on linear spectrums with opposites at either end. They’re circular. In that realm, a sequence that begins with animal moms offering intact prey to their young first is every bit as logical and “right” as her beginning by offering a tiny pile of prey remains.

Somewhere on that continuous spectrum undoubtedly lies the variation on predatory behavior Bamboo treated me to during one of our recent rainy spells. As he’s gotten older, he’s lost interest in going outside in rainy weather except to relieve himself. That’s not a problem if the rain ends the same day it begins. But when one rainy day follows another as has been the case this summer, he begins to develop cabin fever.

One rainy night during such a prolonged rainy spell and shortly after I turned off the light and sank into a nice deep sleep, I awoke to a THAWK! followed by multiple thumps accompanied by greater and lesser scrabbling noises on the rug under my bed. As I became aware of them, so did the dogs who jumped on the bed from their pillows on the bench at the base of it. By that time my groggy brain had registered “cat, “mouse, under bed.” While I sluggishly pondered what to do about that, the dogs raced from one side of the bed to the other (including over me) as they tracked the skirmish from above. In addition to realizing that the bored cat apparently had gone down to the cellar and snagged some poor rodent to hunt in the comfort of my bedroom, I silently processed my options. A collection of expletives that rarely escape my lips accompanied the process during which all my options proved equally distasteful.

I did not want to turn on the light because I did not know what I’d find. Besides, once I did I’d be fully awake with little chance of getting back to sleep. Nor did I want to look under the bed and face a cat in full predatory mode hellbent on hanging on to his mouse in the dark or light. Even less pleasing was the thought of cleaning bits and pieces of mouse off the underside of the bed, any bedding that draped down, adjacent wall, and rug. The only option less appealing than that was scraping dried body parts off the next morning, a task I knew from experience would take much longer.

By that time, the room was quiet again so I bit the bullet and turned on the light. On the upside, I found no evidence of cat nor carnage under the bed. On the downside, the cat left a mouse head on the rug halfway between the bed and door as he silently departed. Intellectually, I tell myself he did it because, feline optimist that he is, he hopes that I or one of the dogs will eat it and forgive the intrusion. But I can’t quite squelch the possibility that he did it to remind me and the dogs who ruled the night in the little house on the hill.

Regardless of Bam’s motive though, I can say that from start to finish, his behavior represented the most biologically elegant and energy-efficient way for him to accomplish it.

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