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Death of a Cat


NASHVILLE — I first saw it in bits — two paws here, the tip of a tail there — on grainy, black-and-white images taken by our backyard trail camera. Normally that device captures only the wild animals you’d expect to find in a first-ring suburb: opossums, mainly, but also rabbits and raccoons and rat snakes, sometimes an owl, now and then a fox. I once saw a bobcat slink across our street, but it’s never shown up in the trail-cam photos. My heart lifted when I first saw a clearly feline haunch in one of the pictures, but the scale was all wrong for a bobcat. It was just an ordinary house cat, prowling in my backyard.

Soon the cat was showing up in the daytime, too, apparently drawn by the leftover bits of lunches left around the construction site two doors down from our house. He was a ragged, battle-scarred tom, thin but not emaciated, with one eye that didn’t open all the way. A feral cat, not someone’s cherished pet.

As we passed my husband’s car in the driveway one morning, my skittish rescue dog darted away from the tires, spooked by something under the car. I squatted down for a look. The feral cat hissed at me.

Let me just say it, flat out: If I owned a gun, I swear I would have shot that cat. I would have chased that hissing cat out from under the car without a thought and shot it as it fled.

I wish you could see all the baby birds in our yard. Baby towhees and robins, baby redbirds and bluebirds. Two broods of house finches and two broods of house wrens. One morning, an ungainly fledgling crow sat nearby and rustled its feathers, yelling for food like a giant nestling. A fuzzy screech owl chick spent an entire day staring wide-eyed at me from a tree near our back deck while its mother dozed beside it.

Credit…Margaret Renkl
Credit…Margaret Renkl

We’ve had baby downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers, baby white-breasted nuthatches and northern flickers. All summer long, they have been taking their wobbly maiden flights from branch to fence post, from cherry laurel to holly hedge. They try to land on the birdbath and miss altogether. They fly to the ground to catch an insect and then can’t figure out how to take off again.

Our bug-averse neighbors poison every crawling or flying thing in sight, but my husband and I have spent the last 25 years trying to make a haven here for wildlife, including the insects that pollinate flowers and feed reptiles and birds. Maybe you can picture these adorable baby birds and this flowering, insect-friendly yard. If so, you might forgive me for losing my mind a bit when the feral cat showed up.

I was thinking of the first nest the bluebirds built this spring, the one in which not a single baby survived. I was thinking of the gravid broadhead skink who would lie on our stoop every afternoon, warming her egg-swollen body in the sun. She disappeared one day to lay her eggs and guard her nest, I assumed, but now I wasn’t sure. I was thinking of the chipmunk who lives in a tunnel under our stoop and of the little screech owl, its feet holding down some small prey, its eyes glowing in the infrared light of our trail camera.

The more I thought about those vulnerable creatures, already crowded out by construction and starved out by insecticides, the angrier I got at the feral tom. In truth, I would never kill a cat, but I can surely hate one with a murderous rage. A person who has spent a quarter-century trying to create an oasis for wildlife can go a little mad when a cat shows up in the photos on her trail camera.

ImageA screech owl chick and its parent in the author’s back yard.
Credit…Margaret Renkl

Cats are domestic animals that don’t belong outdoors. In the natural world, including my own backyard, animals kill one another every day, but there is ample scientific evidence that predation by cats is not part of any natural order. “House cats have a two- to 10-times larger impact on wildlife than wild predators,” Roland Kays, a zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, told CNN earlier this year.

The effect is even more devastating with feral cats, descendants of house cats that are not socialized to human beings: In Australia, feral cats have already been the driving force in the extinction of 22 species. From an ecological standpoint, the domestic cat, whether feral or a free-range pet, is an invasive species, every year killing billions of birds and mammals already imperiled by habitat loss, pesticides and climate change.

The morning after I didn’t kill the feral cat, a child from the neighborhood came to get me, hoping I could help a sick cat she’d found in her family’s driveway. A few weeks earlier, this child had taken an infant deer mouse out of her dog’s mouth, and I had kept it alive overnight, long enough to drive it safely to Walden’s Puddle, a wildlife rescue organization. There it would be raised with other baby mice and then set free to fulfill its own role in the natural cycle of things. My young friend was hoping for another miracle.

There would be no second miracle. When we got to her house, the embattled tomcat was lying in the driveway, his limbs twitching, his eyes unseeing, his hindquarters resting in a pool of urine. From time to time his neck would arch, and his mouth would pull back in a grimace. Our feral cat was in agony. Our feral cat was dying, and his suffering broke my heart.

Later, when Animal Control picked up his body, we learned that the cat had been poisoned. Most likely a neighbor had set out rat poison, and the cat had caught and eaten the dying rodent.

Cats are killers, but they are not apex predators. In this neighborhood, there are coyotes, great horned owls, at least one camera-shy bobcat. Any one of them could handily kill a cat, but our feral cat didn’t lose his life to a hungry owl or coyote or bobcat. He died because a human being was too squeamish to set the kind of trap that leaves behind a corpse. There are mousetraps that kill quickly and painlessly, and those traps don’t weaponize the mouse, turning it into a poison-delivery system for predators, but such traps do require people to face what they are doing: taking the life of another creature.

For weeks I have been trying to understand my own tears in the presence of a dying cat I did not love. It’s hard not to feel connected to a living thing in a state of suffering. In “Death of a Pig,” E.B. White writes, “He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.” I understand that essay now.

In the weeks since the tomcat’s terrible death, I have thought a lot about the danger outdoor cats pose to the natural world and also about the danger the natural world poses to cats. Most of all I have been thinking about the way human beings, the deadliest predators of all, keep finding new ways to destroy everything that sustains the planet that sustains us. A hungry animal cannot be faulted for killing to eat. A feral cat — like a house cat allowed to roam outdoors — is not an evil creature. Like the poisoned mouse and the poisoned insects and all the other animals crowded out by development, it is simply a creature that has been failed by human beings.

My young neighbor came to me for help. At 10, she was sure that someone my age would know what to do about a dying cat. I did not know what to do, and I couldn’t tell her that the true miracle would not have been the saving of a doomed cat’s life. I couldn’t tell her that the true miracle will never come until human beings have finally learned to live a better way: in concert with the natural world, and not in domination.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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