Nature can be beautiful. Many humans fantasize about ‘going back to nature’ and living a simpler life close to the environment. But though most of these daydreams picture living in woods or on a mountain or by a lake, they usually include a warm and dry house of some sort; if food is taken from nature, then modern and manufactured tools are used to hunt, gather or grow it; illumination is supplied by generators or, more simply, lamps or candles which are nonetheless man-made. In other words, even if a person wants to go back to nature, he usually takes some items of civilization with him.
This is because along with being beautiful, nature can also be brutal, vicious and ruthless. Animals know this. The lives of those in the wilderness are spent either trying to find food or trying not to become food. Even when an abundant source of nutrition is found, it’s consumed while looking up every few seconds, wondering what that sound is, where that smell is coming from and what caused that movement in the bushes across the meadow. I’m surprised most animals don’t die of heart attacks or ulcers.
Cats strike me as leading lives punctuated by fear and worry. That’s not to say that my three cats (plus one) live in panic-rooms with doors barred, claws at the ready and a suitcase full of Fancy Feast ready for a fast escape. For the most part, they are relaxed and calm, snoozing or purring, gazing out the window at the scenery through half-closed eyes or playing with a toy with child-like enjoyment.
Yet each experiences a type of fear, or at least concern, even if it's not often.
Renn is perhaps the best example - though he is also an example of how a cat can grow to understand that he is safe. When he came to live with me, my big boy (he was a foster-cat then) was afraid of everything. A visitor would send him running under the bed. A loud noise from a car outside would have him hurtling to the top of the kitchen cabinets. And he was terrified of the roofers who were repairing the building across the walkway from my old apartment.
He began making progress even before we moved to the house, but since there, he has done very well. I’ve noticed that he is almost unaffected by noise now, being more interested than unnerved by it. When friends come by, he hurries to the bedroom when the door opens but emerges within a minute or two to enjoy attention, and even when strangers come by, he is out and investigating very soon after they depart.
Despite his increasing bravery, Renn still notices almost every sound (and in my house, there are many unexplained noises, all the time), changing his demeanour from relaxed to alert. This is fear, which can be combatted; my big boy is conquering his fears bit by bit and will live better for it.
Josie is a study in another kind of reaction. When engaged in even the most enjoyable activities, she will start, and look in the direction of a sound. With her nose in a pile of soft-food, she will stop and stare, alert, to see what she heard. She will quickly return to the matter at hand, but she is always ready to react. I have been petting her, stroking the back of her neck, which she loves, and, though she doesn’t stop purring, she will peer wide-eyed toward something that has caught her notice. I don’t know that my Chubs would do well trying to survive in the back alleys of the city or in the wilderness, but she probably wouldn’t be caught by surprise. This is wariness, rather than fear, and therefore is probably a part of her character that will never change.
Tucker, my roly poly foster-cat, is timidity itself. Any noise or sudden movement will send him scurrying away. He rarely hides, as Renn used to, but, if lying down, he will throw himself to his feet and stand ready to flee. His is a reaction that prepares him to run. Unlike Josie, Tucker won’t bother waiting to see what he’s running from. Renn’s fear was more conscious: he decided to run and hide; Tucker will take flight first and worry about whether he should have afterward. Once he understands that there is no danger, he returns, squeaking and trilling. I almost feel guilty, as if he’s thanking me for scaring away the peril, when in fact there was none.
Finally, Tungsten. My orange one’s position as top-cat in the household is based more on seniority and tenure than strength and domination - though her personality is nothing to trifle with. I’ve no idea what she had to endure before she was taken in by the Lethbridge PAW Society. She had been in good physical condition and though she seemed sad and lonely, she did not give the impression of being frightened. Yet she is the only one of my cats whom I’ve seen experience what I think are nightmares.
Tungsten was sleeping on my lap once and woke herself by crying out. Another time, she woke me at night by whimpering, then kicking with her rear legs. She was asleep, dreaming. Even her less violent dreams are anxious for her. She has woken at times and, not seeing me, called out. When I come to see what the fuss is about, she will flop down happily and purr. This is an occurrence which, thankfully, is less common than previous, and the nightmares are rare. But they happen.
She is not often frightened while awake. She rarely deigns to take notice of any event outside the house, watching through windows with condescension. The orange one knows her place is secure and that she needn’t fuss about noises, cats intruding on her lawn or visitors. Yet when she sleeps, something sometimes disturbs her, scares her. What is it? I’ll never know.
No pet-owner likes to see his animals experiencing fear or worry. Fortunately, its incidence is infrequent. When it’s a part of their characters, it’s simply a matter of showing them through routine action and words that they are safe and secure. My fear is that they won’t feel that way. But when all four are in their favourite spots, snoozing, resting or watching nothing in particular through sleepy eyes, I know that fright and worry are far away.