Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The World of the Fertile Feline

The Pink Palace Persian Cattery
Perhaps it’s the scream, or maybe the infamous barbs on a male cat’s penis, but we tend to thing of cat sexuality as violent, something akin to rape. I was astounded to learn that this is not entirely accurate. I have spent my life with spayed and neutered cats. Only once did I wait long enough to see a young cat go into heat, calling, rubbing, rolling and trilling in a frenzy—I whisked her off to the vet and that was the end of that. For all behavior problems, my first question is: “Is the cat fixed?” (If its not, then I insist that we start with that.) I don’t have experience with fertile cats—but I have heard the late night screaming, the fighting and all of the violence that I always associated with feline fertility.

In my studies, I learned that the sounds may be misleading. In fact, it is almost impossible to rape a female cat. She is simply equipped with too many weapons. Yes, Toms will fight over her, but she may spurn the victor—or she may decide to copulate with all the gathered Tom cats. (Thus a single litter with many fathers.) However, the decision of when and with whom she mates it up to her discretion (and her hormones—of course.)

This week I visited a Persian cattery to view a mating. The Tom and Queen were tossed into a comfortable confinement. The event was surprisingly tender. It was only his third time, being so young and inexperienced, the breeder said it could take a couple of days before he would actually enter her. I watched for two hours as the cats engaged in elaborate foreplay. He massaged her back with his paws during sporadic rutting—no claws, just paw pads. He sniffed and licked as she rolled around, then she crouched still with her tail high in the air and he would climb all over her, squeaking as she trilled.

“Is it always like this?” I asked.

“Lots of the time. But not with that fellow over there.” She points to another caged intact Tom. “The Queens won’t mate with him. He beats up on them—so they won’t have him.”

Of course, I wasn’t there for the scream. When the male cat enters her and his barbs engage, helping him stay in position, she will scream. Biologists debate whether the scream is one of pain or pleasure—but it was clear to me that with this pair, the courtship was solicitous, affectionate and accomplished in a prolonged state of arousal.
(P.S. I didn't take pictures because I had only just met the breeder and --in a clear demonstration of my urban, protestant background--I felt somehow awkward asking permission to photograph the event. Eventually I will though.)

Harlinsdale Farms
Driving past the grazing mares and their young, I could see several cats in the road, their heads bobbing against the bright intensity of the early morning sun. Their numbers swelled as other cats gathered, approaching in a low crouched trot. Then the realization struck them that in spite of my timing, I was not Bill Harlin (the owner of this horse farm and feeder of the cats)—all of the cats scattered as I exited my van.

This is the place I have been looking for. Dozens of cats populate the barns.
I gather my equipment and sequester myself away from the barn. Then I do my best impersonation of Roger Tabor. In his field studies of urban feral cats, he approached the colony much like a new cat that is trying to gain acceptance. He sat quietly on the fringes of the community. Passive. Eyes lowered. Blinking, not staring at the cats head on—but almost acting as though he was ignoring them. Gradually, the cats would learn to ignore him and go about their business regardless of his presence. This is my goal.

I sit quietly, far from the barn. Most of the cats emerge again, and squat near a pick up truck, watching for Bill Harlin.

They are also watching me.

Bill Harlin drives a Cadillac down the long drive—and all of the cats bob and weave, rubbing against each other and jogging towards the slow moving car. Occasionally, one cat will pounce on another, initiating a tussle, and then refocusing on the car.

Weathered by age, fresh air and sunshine, this horseman dotes on his barn cats. “I’m here every morning at 8:30—seven days a week.” He distributes dry cat food from a feed bucket and splats wet food directly from the cans onto the barn floor. “This here’s our queen. She’s round about 15 years old. She’s the Queen of the whole place.” She is the matriarch of the whole colony. This is already clear. “These two are her sires. Only three Toms on the whole place, except for the occasional one that passes through. You see that,” he chuckles, pointing out the large congregation of chocolate points, “A Siamese Tom passed through awhile back—completely changed the complexion of the cats.”

The Queen and her two ‘sires’ eat on top of some ploughing equipment, while the rest of the colony eats from the floor. I can’t help but recall Roger Tabor’s observation of the feeding etiquette of his feral colonies. With two colonies he discerned a distinct matriarch—the grandmother of the group. The matriarchs of his colonies didn’t reign by might or fright, rather the other cats treated the grandmothers with gentle deference. Staying back as a grandmother approached the food that caregivers provided, just waiting a few seconds for her to find her place before they began feeding. One such Queen was very petite and aging with a mild demeanor, in another colony, the aging Queen was clearly rather crabby.

These cats are all wary of me, but they seem to take no issue with Bill Harlin. “I don’t touch them, if I reach for them with my hands, they run away.” This said as several rub against his boot. “Except for that little one. The Queen hadn’t had a litter in four years when suddenly she showed up pregnant. Just one kitten in that litter—and not another since. For some reason, this one is the tamest of the bunch.”

“There’s another group of them in the stable.”

After feeding time, I sit in the barn for two hours, watching the cats and snapping pictures. I return the next day for an hour. I will be here often studying the dynamics of this group of feral, fertile, free-wheeling cats in the hopes that my observations will help deepen my understanding of the cat.

Already I am surprised by the relationship between the Queen and one of her ‘sires’, whom I call ‘Ginger’ (obvious, I know, but there are so many cats here that giving them obvious names will help me to differentiate them.) He remains at her side constantly during the couple of times I have been to the farm. She is braver than he, but his defensive body language speaks to me of guardianship, as though he is looking out for her. I realize there is always a danger of anthropomorphizing these cats—or seeking out patterns that I want to see. I am trying to interpret without bias, but there is no way for my knowledge and expectations to be completely neutral.

In the corner, by that ploughing equipment, is a kitty playground. Old fences and feedbags, a desk and farming equipment form cat trees and tunnels, beds and hideaways. A group of young cats plays and naps together there, scampering up the fences and pouncing out of hiding places. I try to imagine how to interpret that safely and with a better aesthetic for an outdoor enclosure.
On both days, my silent observation is a bit like a using an 'I spy' book with my children, working over pages of elaborate illustrations within which you try to find predetermined objects. A sort of puzzle for the eyes. In much the same way, as I look around the cavernous, cluttered barn, suddenly the outline of a cat will materialize against the camouflage—or just the tip of an ear or the refracted light from an eye.

In this endeavor, stillness will benefit me.

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