Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Toby's conservation lesson

I had a strange experience this past weekend. It involved my cat, Toby, and offers us an important conservation lesson. He was a stray that I captured in Stratford in 2007 and ended up keeping after he became attached to me during his stay in quarantine. All of the cats you get should be strays (though you should probably not capture them yourselves). I do not know his age, though I think he is somewhere around 5 or 6 years old. He stays indoors at all times unless he is in a cage on the porch to enjoy a warm day or when being carried. One of his thrills is taking a trip into the garage, and since it is not climate-controlled, it feels like he is "outside" to some degree.

Not long after being captured, when he was young and still in quarantine; as you can see he was already willful

That feeling became even more realistic for him late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Toby came back in from the garage carrying a large House Mouse that he promptly deposited on the floor as a gift. Cats nearly always love their owners, and this sort of thing is actually a sign of affection. Perhaps he was thinking of Valentine's Day. What was even more thoughtful of him was keeping it alive, as it was did not appear to have any major injuries and quickly scurried away after a moment of shock upon hitting the carpet. It ran out of the den, down the hallway, and into the living room. Its whereabouts were unknown as it could be there or elsewhere. This was going to be a problem, and after closing off as much of the house as possible, it was time to assemble a hunting party.

My father, the very excited Toby, and I prepared to track it and somehow snatch it without making too much of a mess. It could have been sufficiently injured to render it immobile soon, or potentially have minor wounds infected by Toby's saliva. Apart from the fact a mouse running around the house is not my idea of an acceptable state of living, there was a good chance it could die somewhere, making this an even more unpleasant problem. First, the humans moved around what they could - rugs, cushions, small pieces of furniture, and so forth. I put sneakers on, because it is always a good idea to have the proper footwear in weird situations such as this, while my dad got some gloves to grab it if we had the chance, albeit unlikely.

I have been around many cats in many situations my entire life, but this was a unique and surprising experience. Toby turned from a cat into something like a hunting dog. He was not in just in “cat wants to kill mouse” mode; he instantly knew methods of how to track his prey, and even more amazingly, how to work with his hunting companions. He is particularly insolent and willful at times, though obviously very intelligent having survived on his own as a stray for a long time. This changed despite his superior abilities as he acknowledged me as having rank on him in the hunting party, once again like a hunting dog.

He started by going to the beginning of the trail, sniffing and inspecting where he dropped the mouse, following its path to near where it was “lost”. He looked over the area and looped back to the start of the path, going through much of the room in the process, around and under furniture. He was briefly puzzled, taking a moment to lay down on his side in a strange posture, considering what to do. He was pondering what had happened to it and also watching us move things around, keeping a close eye if we flushed it out. At my command, he would get up and go back to the start, and examine any areas I told him to.

Here he is bit older, again somewhere he should not be

Suddenly, he became interested in getting under the largest couch in the living room. I knew immediately he was really on to something rather than simply searching. I even asked him if he found the mouse and he responded back by meowing very quickly and assertively, the only time he had spoken during the ordeal thus far. Unfortunately for him, the bottom of the couch nearly reaches the floor, and he could not squeeze under it beyond his shoulders. While we were on one end my dad was on the other, and Toby suddenly frantically ran around the other side towards him.

As I processed what he was doing, the mouse ran out – Toby was right. In a flash, it bolted across the carpet up the hallway, with Toby a foot behind it, grabbing for it as best he could. It went into the kitchen and hugged the base of the wall, able to use the overhang of the cabinets to its advantage to help block Toby. When Toby hit the kitchen floor he slid a little, and that combined with the mouse’s ingenuity allowed it to somehow avoid the predator as it turned the corner and leaped off a step into a room behind the kitchen. Toby jumped into the room fast enough to pin it under a large reclining chair and ottoman. It was now stuck in this room and under this chair. As the humans moved all nearby objects and furniture, ensuring it would be trapped on this “island”, Toby circled the chair and examined how best to get under it. That would once again be a difficult task. At one point, the mouse felt bold, edging out, but Toby nearly slashed it as it dove back to its temporary refuge.

The prey, courtesy of Wikipedia

Now it was time for a plan. If we moved the chair it would obviously come out, but then Toby would either have to kill it there (not exactly a desirable option) or it would make a dash for the huge couch in the corner of the room, which would be exceptionally difficult to move and impossible to get under. During this discussion, I located the mouse sitting by one of the chair legs. Toby kept trying to get at it, reaching for it and ultimately scaring it out. It pinned itself against the wall and froze. Because it did not move and he had not seen it come out, Toby did not know it was there despite me pointing it out to him. Animals never seem to understand pointing. This mighty predator is very susceptible to the freezing tactic, just as many raptors are. However, he figured it out quickly enough, backing off it and moving behind it (on the same side as my dad) for the leaping kill. The problem was this left me all alone to defend it from going across the room to the dreaded couch.

It made another run, and despite the fact I was right in front of it with essentially no reaction time, I somehow threw my foot out as fast as possible and pinned it. My father came around, picked it up, and tossed it out the door. Good thing I put those sneakers on, huh? I do not know how I was able to secure it or how I was able to do so without squashing it. If I had tried to grab it, I would have been too late. The mouse scurried away once it was outside, and poor Toby was left somewhat unsatisfied. It was still obviously one of the best nights of his life. Even with all of those details, it is very difficult to impart how skilled he was at all aspects of this hunt.

They may be cute, sweet, and a lot of fun, but cats are natural killers. It is in their blood. Whether they are feral or belong to a caring family, all outdoor cats will hunt and kill birds and mammals. The most conservative estimates by the American Bird Conservancy have cats killing upwards of 532 million birds each year in the United States. It is may well be over 1 billion. That sort of total does not need any further comment. It is a sobering problem with no easy solution, but we can all do our part by adopting stray cats and ensuring everyone keeps the family pet in the house. I once read a study that said indoor cats live around eight times as long as those who are allowed outside. It is better for everyone if our lovable but invasive predatory mammals stick to the occasional House Mouse who sneaks indoors.

Say, that House Mouse is yet another invasive species...ugh!


  1. Scott,
    Neat story. Against all odds, the mouse escaped the house alive -thanks to you. I would bet that it will try to make it's way back in again though.
    I once had neighbors whose pet python escaped unseen inside the house. A short time later they discovered a shed python skin in one of the rooms, so they knew it was still hiding somewhere inside. Since the house was for sale at the time, they asked the real estate agent what they should do. The agent said not to mention anything about the situation and to hope for the best. Neither the snake nor another snakeskin ever showed up again, so everyone involved got lucky. I would not have wanted to sleep in that house had I known that a python was loose somewhere inside.

  2. Thanks, Charlie! I can't believe they ever went to sleep with it in the house, let alone did that.