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Cat and Mouse (Updated With Boodling)

    Routinely in the morning I head to the back porch and discover, just outside the back door, a tribute, an offering, a generous contribution to the domestic food supply: a dead mouse.

    I assume this is the handiwork of one of my cats. This is a cat's way of being part of the team. The cat is saying: Thanks for the Fancy Feast, now let me honor you with a delicious, if cold and perhaps slightly gamey, yard rodent.

    What's odd is that I can't figure out how any of my cats would have learned the behavior. They were adopted as very young kittens and, to my knowledge, never lived what Teddy Roosevelt called the strenuous life. I just don't think their Moms and Dads and Uncles and Aunts taught them how to hunt mice, much less bring the prey back home. My assumption -- and here I invite contrary thoughts -- is that they're hard-wired to take food back to headquarters and leave it for the Master Cat to appreciate. They didn't have to learn it, because it's an essential feature of catness. Or so I speculate.

   Naturally this brings up E.O. Wilson. As you know, Wilson became notorious among academics in the mid-1970s when he developed his ideas about what he called "sociobiology." His radical assertion: Some behaviors among animals, including human beings, are influenced by genetic factors, not just culture. Such assertions earned Wilson tremendous enmity on campus, and he once had a pitcher of ice water dumped on him at an academic conference.

    The argument of the academic left back then was essentially that evolution couldn't explain the things Wilson was talking about. The argument was: Evolution can't do that! The great designer of human behavior was Culture, also known as Nurture. Wilson may not have won every argument, but he restored Nature to the discussion. Today his ideas aren't considered so radical, and "sociobiology" goes by the respectable name of "evolutionary psychology." He no longer fights with the academic left as much as he does with the religious fundamentalists who think evolution can't explain the origin of species.

   What would Wilson say about the dead mouse?

    Of course it's possible that the cats are picking up these behaviors on the street, when I'm not looking. Or maybe the mice are sacrificing themselves. Or it's the squirrels that are the real killers. Obviously this calls for surveillance cameras.   

   [Afternoon Update: Here are some comments from the Boodle.

   Caleb: Cats can get overzealous about the tribute leavings too. Years ago when I lived in the country, my cat Oscar stormed in the house through an open storm door one summer afternoon. My kids were sitting down to supper, and Oscar gallopped into the dining room and jumped up and flinged a freshly killed rabbit on the table. My kids thought it was about the coolest thing they ever did see. I chased that bastard Oscar out the house with a tennis racket. Over time though I saw Oscar's feat as a gesture of solidarity and loyalty.

    k: I have a friend who lives in a very old, ummm, very "open" farmhouse and thus had a chronic mouse problem. Cats are very handy critters to have on a farm, but they are all quite different in their dealings with mouse offerings. One male cat she owned preferred to leave the dead, often bloodied, mice on the white bathmat, to the point where it became quite necessary to look before stepping out of the shower in the morning. Another cat, female I believe, preferred to line up her trophies in the kitchen, heads all oriented in the same direction, no blood. On a particularly "good" morning (for the cat), there could be half a dozen mice lined up.

    Nani: When we lived in Florida, great big possums would come onto the porch. They scared my cats, but when I tried to shoo the possums, they'd snarl, which in turn scared me. So a fella from the game commission came out and left a few of those humane traps (put food in, possum enters, door slams shut)around the place and promised to come back in the morning to take them to possumland and release them. The next morning, all of my cats were in the traps, looking quite sheepish.

    Steve: Yeah , cat owners think it cute when their cats bring home dead mice and birds, and make all sorts of excuses for them. But when the coyotes start eating the neighborhood cats[and dogs], then its awful. Gotta love those coyotes.

   Cassandra S: Once I had about seven kittens, and when I was late getting them their breakfast,they would come in the bedroom and get in the bed and start licking my face. That certainly will get one up and moving.

    Bayou Self [this is a v. funny inside-the-Boodle joke--JA]: Good lord. Now it's a bunch of cat stories. Paging Lone Mule. Lone Mule. Please pick up the white courtesy phone

     kurosawaguy: Isn't it strange, yellojkt, how much pleasure one derives from the knowledge that you are the dog's favorite? I mean, here's a beast that asks nothing more than to lie around and lick himself all day, eat, sleep, and occasionally eat some other animals droppings, and yet we are filled with pride at the thought that "Rover likes me best!" This says something about the nature of dogs, but even more about the nature of men.

   Jim Brodhead: One night my daughter's gerbil, Bruno, escaped and in the morning we found a partially eaten cat on the porch. Bruno's in jail now, doing 7 to 10 for negligent catricide.]

   [And of course there's more where that came from, and even a few comments on Nature v. Nurture. But at the risk of once again drifting on topic, let me mention an idea I heard about cats offering tribute: Perhaps they have an instinctive ability to hunt, but lack any knowledge about how to eat a mouse or a vole or whatever. They can't figure out head from tail. They're flummoxed by this strange foodstuff. They lack proper dining techniques. So they are not actually offering me the dead mouse. Instead, they're saying, "Daddy, can you cut this up for me?"--JA]

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 3, 2006; 12:46 PM ET
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