Monday, March 29, 2010

The Tale of a Cat

Lou Jonas
Bozeman, Mont.

In my Lone-Mountain days, in Montana, a neighbor rad the long-range weather prediction for the coming winter, and decided to spend it in Arizona. He asked me to look after his pet wildcat while he was gone. I promised to do so, thinking it would be very little trouble, and would let me get better-acquainted with wildcats, whose tracks I often saw in the timber, but seldom caught a glimpse of.

So I let the cat in the cabin once in a while to relieve her boredom, and give me a chance to psychoanalyze her. She proved to be an entertaining and friendly pet. I spent many pleasant hours relaxing, by watching Sheena prowl around the cabin and investigate every piece of furniture, every corner and "hidey-hole".

One night I felt lazy at bedtime, I left Sheena sleeping on the rug when I turned in, instead of returning her to her cage, as usual. That would have been all right if she had continued to sleep on the rug, or anywhere else, for that matter. To Sheena, night time was playtime. I was almost asleep when I sensed something whipping past my scalp. Then a set of sharp claws combed through my hair just a little too deeply for me to sleep well. That's the only night I ever slept with a blanket over my head, indoors.

Once she jumped up on my lap. The reason she got a chance to do this was that I was reading, and hadn't observed her intentions. I regarded her with a wary look, trying to fathom just what she was up to, but it's hard to brush twenty pounds of wildcat off your lap, since they have such an effective means of anchoring that they are almost irresistible, so I let her stay.

She always liked to soften cushion with her front paws before lying down. She did the same thing to my leg muscles, and I've yet to figure out how a soft cat paw can be so bruisingly hard.

The she eyed my long beard, with her head cocked first to one side, and then to the other. She must have liked it, because she smiled softly, and brushed her head against it in a loving soft of way. She patted it a little, but her claws were only partly extended, so there was very little bleeding.

She laid her head alongside mine and purred, and her beautiful white teeth closed gently over the lower part of my ear. I did some rapid calculating, trying to figure how I could disguise the loss of half an ear, in case she decided she liked the flavor. The suspense finally got to me after a long moment, and I gripped the nape of her neck, figuring I should at least try to save part of my face. She relaxed immediately, retracted her claws, and went limp. If you ever need to wrestle a tiger or lion, perhaps you should try this same hold.

I described her as gentle, with a sweet disposition. Well, she was, but remember, men, how entrancing it is to be dining with a charming, soft-voiced, liquid-eyed young lady? Imagine being out with on like that who turned into a werewolf when the waiter put a rare steak on the table! And envision her ears flattening back against her head, and her pupils narrowing, and a threatening snarl issuing from her lips. This is about the way that I was affected the first time she complained of being hungry, and I handed her a venison rib. Fortunately, she was smaller than I, and not rash enough to attack a hermit who snarled some himself, upon occasion (Maybe she just didn't like venison ribs). Should I have offered her tenderloin?

Sheena wasn't fond of dogs. Once a lost Australian shepherd came to the cabin, and poor, half-starved beast hung around for a day or so, absorbing all the grub I could rustle for him. When Sheena came near the cabin while I was feeding him, she must have become jealous, because she suddenly spit, growled and jumped all at the same time, giving the dog a solid thump in the ribs with her forepaws. The dog gave a roaring bark, apparently warning her that if she wanted trouble, that was the best way in the world to get a bellyful of it. He didn't deign to look straight at her, but continued to concentrate on making friends with me (My respect for Australian shepherds zoomed to new heights. The Aussies I had known previously had been quite timid.).

Once Sheena got loose and strayed away from home. Being domesticated, she wasn't adept at catching food for herself, and I was worried about her welfare. Next morning a neighbor half a mile away called and reported that the cat had been on his back porch. I pocketed a chunk of venison and rushed to his place. I was trailing her through the timber and talking, telling her how beautiful she was, when she recognized my voice and came running, delighted to see me, and relieved to be with her good friend again, and especially interested in the venison. Getting her home was a problem. I was skeptical about the wisdom of carrying her, so I decided to let her walk, and try to coax her along with me. We passed a neighbor's house, where the Weimaraner dog barked, and Sheena delivered a hearty wallop to my leg with both forefeet. This was probably an effort to get me to climb a tree, or to run, so we could escape what she considered our common enemy. Or she could have been rattled, and hit the closest animal she could find.

In late March, Sheena became restless, as though she had an important engagement somewhere. She escaped from her cage one night. I trailer her over the melting snow for a half mile, and then lost the trail. Since she had been traveling in a quite straight line, she must have been primed for some far traveling, with a more compatible friend driving her onward. There were plenty of mice that winter, so she had a fine chance to learn to hunt, before she starved, and I evidently had less appeal than a male bobcat.

I don't know if our paths ever crossed again, but when I see a medium-sized cat track in the timber, I can't help but wonder if Sheena was fortunate enough to escape hounds and hunters, and if perhaps she dimly remembers a human who was once a trusted friend.

Does she ever watch me as I pass by the spot where she crouches, almost completely invisible behind a small fallen limb? Does she ever have an impulse to come running up to me, only to be held back by some ancient fear?

Sheena was a good pet, but wild, and how else should a wildcat be?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Newsletter-From Virginia ,1969

Broad Run, Virginia
4 Jan, 1969


We have a crowded schedule, as usual, so will try to write four letters at a time; perhaps that way we can write to all our friends.

The job is interesting; it is nice to get paid for doing what I used to do for fun. We are making a complete inventory of the natural areas of the U.S. and its trust territories, and helping to establish criteria for a "natural area" which we hope will be acceptable to all ecologists. We are also making a list of the research which has been, and is being done on natural areas. We will establish a system for storage and retrieval of data, sometime soon.

I have a very good boss; Gene Wallen, a real go-getter, with a background in oceanography. The other scientists in the department are first raters, also; Helmut Buechner, Lee Talbot, Ray Fosberg, to name some. Lee Talbot is now in India, working on the Gir Forest, and in Ceylon afterwards. I get out in the field often, and really admire these hardwood forests. There are quite a few species of oaks, and red maple and and pignut hickory are common. There are also several species of pine, including the Table Mountain Pine, which is not very widely distributed. It was interesting to see witch hazel blooming this fall, and interesting to see the many species of ferns. We flush wild turkey occasionally, and bob white quail, white tail deer, cottontails, and gray squirrels are common. the mockingbirds, cardinals, bluejays, and titmice stay here all winter.

We're very close to apple orchard country, as well as peach and apricot country. Christmas trees aren't so plentiful as they are in the Gallatin Valley.

Most gardeners here try to get their potatoes planted by March 17, and the rest of the garden correspondingly early. There isn't much of a selection in the supermarkets now.

We had two measurable snowfalls so far; the first was a few inches, and melted soon. The second measured about 12 inches, and then a 40 miles an hour wind blew for 2 or 3 days. It seemed ironical to be more solidly snowbound in Virginia than we ever were in any of the Rocky Mountain States. We only have one drift between us and the county road, but it is about 200 yards long, and two to five feet deep. So we borrowed a microbus, and are driving out through the field. After the plentiful fall rains, I would say that the ground water supply should have been restored; last fall many springs went dry here, and there was a very poor crop of acorns, and the black walnuts were quite small, many of them unfilled.

I didn't do any hunting this fall, and we miss the supply of venison which we normally have. However, I have made friends with a lot of good hunters, so I will probably hunt next year. I intend to use the bow for deer; I should be able to get a turkey, also.

We had a husky Kirby-style 7 lb. 6 oz. boy; that completes the team. He weights about 14 now, at almost 3 months. The other kids are doing well. Kandy is in 2nd grade, and Jamie in 1st. The schools are totally integrated, and I guess they both have colored teachers. The schools do seem rather hillbillyish, so I don't mind keeping them out of school to take them to museums and the zoo, and other interesting places. This country is about like living in a history book, with so many battles having been fought nearby, and so many important people having been born here.

I'll close here, and wish you the best.

Vaya con Dios,

Director, Center for the Study of Natural Areas

Control of the Packrat

(From a school paper, written 1961)

The various species of rats included in the genus Neatoma are interesting, and some of them are quite handsome, but their business operations are usually one-sided. Their nuisance rating is high when a hunter misses his wrist watch or eye glasses, and discovers sign pointing to a "packrat", or "woodrat", as the thief.

As long as the woodrat dwells at a distance from human habitation, he is an innocuous and interesting animal. When he favors a ranch cabin with his presence, he can contaminate grain and other foods, especially if they are carelessly stored, in such containers as burlap bags. His habit of collecting such interesting objects as jewelry, silverware, and socks causes many humans to develop a definite antipathy toward him.

This rodent may be easily captured by taking advantage of his natural habits, such as his custom of traveling close to walls, and running behind objects where possible, due to his protective instinct for remaining near to cover. A length of stove-pipe laid parallel to the wall, with a size 0 or 1 steel trap set inside, is almost certain to result in a catch the first night.

Another effective location for a trap is in a flat cake pan, with rolled barley or oats completely covering the trap. The constantly-roving rat is easily caught here, also.

A different method of control is with the use of a flashlight and firearm. This can best be illustrated by relating the following anecdote.

Wes Darling is a cattle rancher in central California. On roundup one fall, he and his brother slept in the cabin which Wes maintains on his summer range. Their slumbers had been disturbed by the gnawing and rustlings of a pack rat which had his homestead under the cabin.

The second night, Wes bedded down with a flashlight and a loaded 12-gauge shotgun nearby. When the rodent entered the cabin and began its nightly investigation of the kindling pile, Wes snapped on the light and fired as he caught the rat in the beam. The rat and the charge of shot left the cabin together, boring a new hole as they went. The event was somewhat complicated by the sudden awakening of Wes' brother (who is a detective sergeant). He leaped from his bed, stumbled over the bed where Wes slept, and turned the stove over as he fell to the floor. Apart from such domestic perils, this method has more disagreable and lasting effects, if there is a woman dwelling in the building who dislikes holes in the walls of her home.

If the house is built with log walls, and replacement panes are readily available for the windows, the preceding method may be varied, as was once done on the Gros Ventres range in Wyoming. Ralph Lerocq and five other punchers were on fall roundup, and had just moved into the cabin which had been built for such use. A bushy-tailed woodrat attracted their attention through most of the night, and they decided to rid the premises of his presence. Since each carried a pistol for romantic reasons (they were no more efficient with a handgun than most other cowboys), they planned to use these to solve their rat problem. The end of a wooden apple crate was propped in such a position that it would fall and block the entrance to the rathole when the supporting stick was jerked away by means of a string, the other end of which was taken to bed by Ralph.

The "boys" retired in good spirits, having packed in enough food and drink to keep them this way. The principal actor in the scene made his entrance soon, and when assured of this by the direction of the sounds, Ralph jerked the string, and the intrepid punchers, reckless of any danger from their prey, left their beds with drawn six-shooters. They lit the lanterns and began the execution. After some near misses, the rat realized his unpopularity, and began an earnest search for exit holes. He forsook the floor in favor of the ceiling joists. Splinters flew, and shooters were more in danger than the target, because of their larger size and greater numbers.

Having found no way of leaving through the roof, the woodrat dropped to the floor once more, the jumped onto a chair and ran across the table. A full gallon can of syrup was resting there, and was centered by a .38 special slug. The eventual demise of the prey was anti-climactic. Perhaps the most important qualifications for this technique would be a fairly high intellect and a masterly skill in handgunnery.

Slowly, humanity is accepting the fact that the most efficient way to control woodrats (and all our other animal neighbors) is to use preventative measures, such as properly-constructed buildings, and vermin-proof storage. If such natural controls as gopher and bull snakes, screech and barn owls, and weasels are allowed to live in some measure of security, they are quite willing, even eager, to control rodents.

Since woodrats have proven to be adaptable to general laboratory use, and may assume great importance some day soon, it behooves mankind to act in a mature way in his "packrat" control. They may be means of conquering some vicious disease, some day very soon.