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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