Monday, 24 January 2011

Ye Banks And Braes

When our two cats arrived here, they were shy, skittish indoor cats who preferred carpet to turf. After they'd been here for two weeks, we put reflective collars on them, put their litter box in the garage, and encouraged them to spend time outdoors.

They weren't having a bit of it.

Maverick, the boy, cowered upstairs, his eyes wide and terrified. Mitzi, his female companion, was a little braver: she managed to follow me halfway down the stairs, but as soon as she heard the neighbors' poodle bark, she invariably scurried back indoors, her tail inflated to three times its volume.

Two months later, I was ready to give up on my cats. They would race outdoors, hurriedly do their business, and hot-tail it back upstairs like the hounds of hell were after them. On one hand, I felt irritated with them. What kind of cats skulk and cower and refuse to enjoy the delights of climbing trees and eating grass? Why couldn't they go outside and find hobbies like other cats? But I was partly relieved too: the last cat I had was an efficient and deadly hunter who netted a couple of birds a week and any number of rodents. Our mice and vole population might soar, but at least the birds and my carpets were safe.

Then Maverick brought home his first dead mouse. His face, as he deposited it on our welcome mat, was full of astonished satisfaction. If there'd been a thought bubble over his head, it would have read, "Get a load of what I just did! This thing must weight at least 15 grams!" Two days later, Mitzi brought in a still-wriggling vole. I didn't have my glasses on and thought it was a dead leaf. My screams sent all three of us running, and when she came back in and found it was gone, her look of indignation clearly said, "Hey, I didn't expect you to eat the whole thing!"

Ever since then, they've averaged a kill a day. Each. I thought my last cat was bad, but at least there was only one of her.

Tomorrow, is Burns Night. All over Scotland, people will be celebrating the birthday of Robert Burns by drinking whiskey, eating haggis, and reciting Burns' poetry. I don't drink whiskey or eat haggis, but with apologies to Robert Burns, I offer this ode to all the tiny creatures my Scottish cats are so hard on. It's too bad animals can't read poetry.

Ye Banks And Braes and Tiny Creatures

Ye banks and braes and roses sweet
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can your birdies chirp and tweet
And never see the danger there?

Ye’ll break my heart, ye mice and birds
That wanton through the flowery hedge;
Ye’ll come to grief, oh heed my words!
When ye nibble the seed upon the ledge.

For in that hedge, oh twitterin’ birds
Two skilled and hungry hunters walk
And never heed my angry words
As they snap the neck of the prey they stalk.

Oft hae I seen on shining floor
(That I have cleaned down on my knee)
Wee sleekit creature’s blood and gore
Abandoned there, a gift for me.

And oft hae I from my humble house
Spotted the hunters a stalkin’ their prey
And screamed to see the bird or mouse
Pulled through yon cat flap and left to stray.

So this I plead, oh tiny critters
Who creep in the thicket and sing in the trees
Stay in your holes—oh, hush your twitters—
—and keep your guts off my carpets, please.


adrienne said...

Well, your kitties are doing their job well, even if the results are a little sickening! I guess you won't be putting up any bird feeders, I mean cat feeders, in your yard.

Love the ode - a very creative way to celebrate Burns. :)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Our Kitty, Angelina, was afraid of everything and sought my wife's constant companionship for warmth and security. We used to let Angelina outside under "supervised" outings and only for a few minutes.

One time I let Angelina out, got distracted, closed and locked the door and was gone from the house for hours. When I couldn't find her after searching the house in panic, I finally remembered I had let her outside. I feared I would NEVER see her again and have a lot of explaining to do for Nancy.

But there under her favorite bush was Angelina. When she saw me she got up and trotted into the house. she had been there waiting for hours.

Angelina would never hunt... I am convinced that she was scared of mice and birds.

Helen said...

Aaah Mary - I would much rather read you than Burns any day. Thanks for the good old fashioned cack fest!
I have a picture of you with rubber gloves (the kind with the little frill around the wrist??!!) on your knees scrubbing, dramatically reciting this to your cats who are leaning against the wall, licking their paws and not paying the slightest attention to you......
Great hunters indeed!!!

Anonymous said...

Uneasy lies the head that wears the alpha-cat crown. Pity their tributes can't be chocolate instead of fresh kills!

We had a cat once who trembled at the thought of being outdoors: female, brought into the house as a 6-week kitten in autumn; by the time the weather warmed up, she was highly suspicious of any space that did not have walls. I think it's all about what they're used to.

On the other hand, our most recent cat never got the concept of "house ca." The day before he died (at 17 years and 11.5 months, wasting away from whatever finally did him in), he managed to streak outside and stagger around on the snow for a while. At least he finally was easy to catch.

Marcia said...


Big guffaw at the last line. And I heard it in my mind with a Scottish brogue!

Our cats stay indoors, traffic and such being what it is. I've been taught that once pet cats start catching birds and mice, they'll go feral and one day never return. Still, it would seem natural to me that outdoor cats will of course hunt, and certainly many do not disappear. One of ours does like to sneak out the back door on warm summer nights and roll around on the concrete driveway! We think she likes the rough feel on her back. But then she runs straight in the house again.

Vijaya said...

Lovely poem!

We keep ours indoors. I love feeding the birds and watching the bird-show ... For a while though, we lived on a horse-acre, so we let the cats out while we'd be out tending the garden. The black cat hunted, but not the older one -- I suppose we'd killed the hunting instinct or something. But he was happy to be out there.

Our two kittens have already managed to get outside through the torn screen door and my daughter is eager to let them out but our place borders the woods and I am very reluctant. No, I prefer to feed the birds and let them watch the bird show like I do, from the window.

This means we need to fix that screen before spring arrives ...

Mary Witzl said...

I've got the bird feeders so high up and out of cat-reach that I almost break my neck whenever I attach them. I've stopped throwing bread crumbs on my lawn -- it's just too cruel.

If I were really ruthless and cheap, I'd just cut out the middleman and chuck my crusts on the turf. Then I'd never need to buy cat food. In the springtime, I'll stand by the open window with a water pistol. That ought to dissuade them.

Robert -- I wish to God I had a cat like Angelina. Everything you say about her makes me go, "Awww!" She could have my companionship and security any day!

These guys started out like Angelina. Every time they went out, they slunk around, their bodies close to the ground, their eyes rolling and tails puffed out like bottle-brushes. I thought I'd never see another wounded bird or half-eaten mouse on my porch.


Helen -- You're absolutely right about my cats licking their paws and not paying me the slightest bit of attention, but I don't wear rubber gloves. Thanks to my cats, I can pick up dead things with my bare hands. I still like to know what they are first; it's icky to scoop up what you think is a used teabag only to find it's a mouse in rigor mortis.

Anne -- Our cats really aren't alpha cats -- that's what's so weird! I sometimes think they feel sorry for us; we're virtually vegetarians and they probably figure we're too stupid or lazy to find our own meat, so they'll just have to do it for us.

I love the thought of your venerable old cat going outside for one last dizzy, joyful roll in the snow!

By the way, 'cat' can be pronounced 'ca' in Scots English, so I'm leaving that word you thought was a typo, especially since I don't know how to change comment spellings (and my kids are at school).

Marcia -- Yay -- you caught my brogue intentions! (I can't really produce one in speech, but hoped I could fake it in writing.)

We're lucky in that the traffic around our house is so slow and sparse that our cats are quite safe, but I promise you that for all their hunting, they still come back inside, sit in our laps and purr. Our last cat hunted every single day; her record was four mice in a 24-hour period. At night, she sat on my lap and could hardly be dislodged. She looked so helpless and dainty, nobody believed the stories we told -- until they saw her in action.

Vijaya -- Yes, get that screen fixed! Our kitten got out last spring and managed to get herself in the family way at barely FIVE months.

I would absolutely keep our cats indoors if we were near a woods. Friends in California lost their beautiful cat to a coyote, and in some places, foxes, mountain lions, and wolves can be a problem too. We do have badgers nearby, but the risk they pose to cats is minimal.

On the few occasions we've kept Mitzi indoors, her incessant meowing --high-pitched and heart-breakingly plaintive -- has driven me half insane. But reading about your bird feeders makes me feel so wistful...

Bish Denham said...

That's a big reason we don't have cats. We like the other wildlife in our yard and neighboring woods.

There's a big Burns Night here in my little Texas town. Men in kilts and bagpipes at the church, people in tartans, the reading of the bard, food. It's quite the deal for those of Scottish decent (and I am one.)

Charles Gramlich said...

you can take the cat out of the jungle but not the jungle out of the cat.

Eryl said...

Damn, I should have come over earlier, I'd have read your poem out as Bob stabbed the Haggis. Much more interesting than that boring 'Ode'!

Blythe Woolston said...

Ok I'm going to link to this for Poetry Friday.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I love wildlife too, but I want my cats! When I'm outside and catch them stalking, I use my squirt gun. It's not very effective, but it makes me feel better.

We had a Scottish night in my hometown too: Scottish country dancing, a pipe band, old guys in kilts, plenty of Burns' poetry, and (probably) whiskey. In my family, all we did was recite Burns poetry and sing Scottish/Irish ballads, but what we lacked in variety we made up for in intensity.

Charles -- So true. Our cats acted jungle-shy for the first couple of months, but it turned out they were closet panthers. I've got the cat flap locked now. They don't come in until I've checked they're not carrying.

Eryl -- I'm impressed you go the whole nine yards! I LOVE tatties, neeps, leeks, and cranachan, but I'm squeamish about haggis. (By the way, did you ever find that recipe for fried pigs' ears?)

I'd have loved you to use my poem. I was a bit ashamed to parody Burns, but I figure a giant whose work is still loved and quoted 250 years after his death is man enough to take it.

Blythe -- This is more doggerel than poetry (or maybe catterel?), but thank you! I'm honored.

Robin said...

That is a fabulous poem! It's lucky I don't have cats. I have no objection to dead rodents, unless they're near me. I consider within a mile near me.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I know the feeling! I actually think mice and rats are cute, but I like them alive and not in my kitchen. My cats leave them half gutted, stiff in death, on the cleanest parts of the carpet.

They're SO lucky I love them.

Kim Ayres said...

Well at this rate, given them a couple of months and they'll be bringing in larger things like rats, or maybe the neighbour's poodle...

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- When our last cat took down a stoat, I saw for the first time what an asset a hunting cat could be in times of severe food shortages. If you gave me a rifle and a whole day, I couldn't find a stoat and kill it, but she did this in a flash.

God forbid there should be a famine, but if there ever is, my hunting cats will pull their weight!

Anne Spollen said...

Our two kittens touched a cold, wet window one day and looked at us as if to say, "What is this terrible condition?" They go UNDER the blankets when it snows...

I know what you mean about the hunting. I'm a "nature wimp" - I only like the pretty parts.

Falak said...

That is a fabulously funny poem! Of all the useful things your pets do this is the best:inspiring a poem Next time around you should put up an audio version of the poem in your voice so I'd not have to try and imagine how a Scottish brogue sounds :)

Falak said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary Witzl said...

AnneS -- You should see our cats' appalled expressions when the ground froze one night and they went out to do what had to be done. I dumped a big load of kitty litter out there on top of a mess of dead leaves just so their tender paws wouldn't get too cold.

I can cope with ugly things, but I hate to see animals suffering. I have to remind myself that at least they kill their own meat -- and generally always eat it.

Falak -- Thank you for those kind words, but despite my best endeavors I can't do a Scottish brogue! I still sound just like an American to Scots (but weirdly enough, a bit like a Scot to Americans). Linguistically, I seem to have reached the mid-Atlantic.