Love, death and stray cats

It’s not often that I find myself on same page at Tony Abbott, Australia’s climate change denying PM.  But having exhausted the potential of their previous three word slogans, the conservative government recently moved on to a new one: “Kill the Cats”.  After this week’s events I think I could find some common cause with Tones on this theme.

I know you shouldn’t have favourites but Shyla was my favourite chicken.

She came to our place as a bundle of fluff and managed, uniquely, to survive our enthusiastic but doofus chick rearing.  She was the hen you would trip over at the chookhouse gate, where she would be pacing up and down the second the back door opened.  And then she would follow you round the garden waiting for lovely things like grapes or curlworms or weevil ridden comestibles and if none of those were forthcoming, peck your butt to see if it would make an adequate alternative.  Her response to a human approaching was to squat and jiggle in what I think translates loosely from hen as “ok, you can mount me now”.  Which was faintly disturbing, while at the same time suggested an affection of some strange kind.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was our one reliable layer, producing a daily egg all winter long.

Since she was such a useful, friendly and characterful girl, she was obviously the first choice for a midnight snack when a great big feral cat came visiting our yard in the dead of night this past week.  I don’t want to sound callous but the bloody thing could have taken Snowball the silky bantam – smaller, ancient, more visible in dim lighting, huffy around humans, laying eggs only when the weather and the tides are just right.

But no, it had to grab Shyla, the life and soul of the backyard. The Top Chook took one for the team.

Everyone’s very subdued down in the bottom of the garden now, accepting the indignity of being carried, half-asleep, from their perilous perch on the edge of the fig tree barrel, to secure lodgings in Palm Beach, the long-abandoned vernacular modernist chicken coop.

Shyla was the victim of our hubris – the one who paid the ultimate price of six years without locking the chooks up at night.

So what changed in our suburban ecosystem?  I reckon it’s the departure of the (somewhat annoying) little yappy dog next door.  The neighbours on the other side have a laconic German Shepherd who doesn’t even chase the chooks.  But the yapster would have given a cat a run for its money.  If Tony and cronies want to get rid of feral cats, it’s not red-necks with guns that will do the job.  Scientists reckon the best strategy is to restore the top predators – dingoes.  Based on anecdotal evidence – the death toll in our backyard – I reckon they’re right.

With sufficient vigilance we can protect the chooks but we can’t do much for the bandicoot that still noses its way through the veggie garden at night.  Bandicoots recognise dingoes (and dogs more generally) – they know to avoid them.  In fact, some scientists have argued that this makes dingoes – placentals, only here for 50,000 years or so – natives.  But bandicoots still haven’t figured out cats.

I’m trying to find some positives in the situation.  My latest planting of broad beans has sprouted, magically unmolested.  I could attribute this success to my lavender mulch, or to the carefully secured veggie net, or the cold weather that has probably driven the local rodent population indoors (where we live.  Gulp.)  But perhaps the feral feline took a few rats as a chaser after devouring poor Shyla.  It’s a choice, it seems, eggs or beans.  Not fair!  I want both!

It’s all very sad.  Our eight year old got it right as she sobbed herself to sleep the other night: “you know where there’s someone in your care and you can’t protect them, you feel like there’s a hole in your heart”.  Yeah, babe I do.

I’ve been thinking about another lost lovely one this week.  The twelfth anniversary of our son’s death has just passed us by.  Born, unexpectedly, with a lopsided and innovatively organised brain, he was a bonny baby boy, whose plump little body suffered many seizures and would never really do quite what he wanted.  He had a short but lovely life, that ended suddenly and surprisingly (we shouldn’t really have been surprised) before dawn on on a beautiful winter’s morning, just like these last glorious days.

For a time, during the relentless rumination that followed our sleepy newborn’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stray cats.

Stray cats crapping in our pocket sized backyard.  Stray cats with a payload of toxoplasmosis gondii, “one of the most successful parasites on Earth”.  It inhabits the bodies of around half of the world’s human population, and plenty of other warm blooded animals too, but only reproduces only inside pussycats, emerging to infect other creatures, the parasite transmitted through cysts lurking in its poo.

Recently there’s been a pop science fascination with the consequences of toxoplasmosis infection.  While (most of the many many) infected people are asymptomatic, researchers have found that rats with the parasite become risk takers.  Losing their natural fear of cats, some even become attracted to the scent of their predator (not coincidentally, the parasite’s host).  Humans with toxo, too, seems to have somewhat different personalities than those without.  This idea, that humans – philosophers and planet conquerers – might have our very selves shaped by a single celled organism, disturbs and fascinates us.

If you are unlucky enough to be infected for the first time in the early weeks of pregnancy, your baby can be born with congenital toxoplasmosis, with possible serious consequences for the child’s health.  Toxo can cause problems with vision and hearing, seizures and intellectual disability.  Which is why I found myself thinking so long and hard, a decade or so ago, about my lack of gardening gloves and the roaming neighbourhood moggies.

In the end, my ruminations about infected cat shit went nowhere, like the dwelling upon dioxins from the incinerated corpses of foot-and-mouth infected cows that filled the air that year, or my endless Googling on the chromosonal origins of pachygyria (“Come back if you have another one with the same thing” the genetic counsellor suggested.  We were floored.  Although not quite so amazed as when she asked us, the Scotsman and the Australian, if we were cousins)

Very very occasionally Tony Abbott, MP, is accidentally right: sometimes shit just happens.

How do we make sense of these things, the deaths of our beloved children and the untimely demise of our pet chickens?  How are they connected, the miraculous germination of broadbeans and the midnight movements of predators?  The passing of parasites and personality traits from rats to cats to cat lovers?  The hidden life of the soil and the secrets in our bloodstream that can elate us and destroy us, often at the very same time?

13 thoughts on “Love, death and stray cats

  1. Thank you for sharing this very personal story of grief and questioning that I know others will relate to. It must have been such a heartbreaking time for you and the pain of losing your own child cuts so very deep and stays with you.

    The questioning about the causes of conditions in your child was something I also did when my son got an intra-spinal tumour supposedly from a rare mutation. I remembered the pest control man who entered our small flat (without my knowledge) and left pesticide powder “piles” inside my kitchen cupboards while I was pregnant. I remembered the medication that the obstetrician virtually forced me to take to stop nausea because I was in hospital with uncontrollable vomiting. A few years later it was taken off the market for pregnant women (no reason given).

    I also had concerns about toxo and other animal transferred diseases when I was pregnant as I had worked in a vet clinic and was exposed to it through cleaning out cat cages. In the end I will never know why he got the tumour which they say was growing from birth, as you will never know exactly what caused your beautiful baby’s condition and death. One thing we do know though is that feral cats carry disease that harms wildlife and can harm children. For years we’ve not allowed pet dogs to roam. They must be registered and kept on a leash or inside a yard. I hope measures are taken to make a serious impact on the feral cat population. The damage has been going on for far too long!

    • I know that feeling of trying to figure out what must have happened so well. For all there are many toxic substances out there, I have come to the conclusion that these things just happen. In fact I guess random mutations are a key part of evolution. Poor lad wasn’t lucky enough to get an advantageous one! It is fascinating really how we try to control our complex universe by understanding and managing these things. Perhaps science and our access to modern medicine has led us to think that these random events shouldn’t happen. Yet our lives are awash with events we can’t control or even fully understand…

      Sorry to hear about your son’s condition – I hope modern medicine was able to do its thing, which for all its hubris and flaws, is sometimes quite marvellous.

      I do feel quite strongly that we need to do more to manage cats in Australia. They are just too dangerous! But I know lots of people love them so it is hard to imagine the appropriate regulation and management being successful… While there’s life there’s hope eh?

  2. Cats, chickens, dingoes, endangered species – I’m sure the government (or Tony, at least) hopes if they ignore things for long enough someone else will come up with a solution to fix things. Well, there are plenty of ideas out there, but since ‘environment’ is a dirty word these days, and people who act like they care about ecology are no better than students, money-grubbing researchers, “greenies” or possibly even National Party voters – i.e. people to avoid at all costs.
    As your sad story shows, roaming cats aren’t just a problem in rural and regional areas. Local councils on the whole needs to start implementing (and enforcing) much tighter rules about cat ownership.
    I’m sorry you never found out for sure the cause of your son’s uniqueness. He looks like a gorgeous boy.

    • It’s pretty interesting that Greg Hunt has picked feral cats to focus on (rather than, say, a minor issue like climate change!!?!). Could it be a sop for the shooters? The mind boggles. I totally agree, there should be much tighter regulation on cats. The rules about where you can take dogs now are mostly very tight in urban areas. Yet cats can wander the streets at night, slaying right left and centre! As is their nature, of course. Thanks for the kind words about the wee man – he was a lovely lad.

      • Greg Hunt has to toe the party line and work within the limits of his portfolio. That’s not to say I think he’s doing a good job or he couldn’t do more – a lot more – but when it comes to climate change, this government as a whole just isn’t prepared to face up to the challenge.

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