Saturday, December 24, 2016

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

[Sorry for the incoherence in my last post. I may try to clean it up -- or not. This is turning into a more difficult week for me than I anticipated. Suspect it may have something to do with medications... or maybe incipient dementia. ;-0]

Oh Christmas Tree...

Christmas Eve has always been an anticipatory annual event for me. Somewhere (I don't know where) there are pictures of me taken when I was an infant and toddler beside what now seem like spectacular Christmas trees in Iowa and California. I have strong memories of Christmas trees from my childhood, putting them up, decorating them, and piling their bases with Christmas presents every year no matter where we lived, no matter what. There were some years we were very poor and Christmas might have been lean and spare, but I wouldn't have known it. In fact, it didn't occur to me until I was an adult that part of my childhood was spent in relatively dire poverty.

In those days, late 40s and early 50s, it was much more difficult for a single mother to simply get by -- let alone make a living - than it is today. Nevertheless, child poverty rates today probably match or exceed what they were back then. And nevertheless, parents (single or no) still do whatever they can to make the Holiday season as nice as they can for the children.

And so, here we come upon another Christmas Eve. I'm old and I'm ill, though surprisingly chipper about it all. Why be a Gloomy Gus, eh? I'm not particularly chipper about the looming catastrophe under a new King-Emperor, but there's not a lot I can do about it, is there? Que sera, sera and all that.

I think I've mentioned that we keep a Christmas tree up all year long in honor of Ms Ché's mother who loved Christmas more than any other holiday, in part because she gave birth to her daughter (Ms Ché) on Christmas Eve, and she named her Mary (among several other names she was given, along with several more she chose for herself.)

We got a new Christmas tree this year. The one one we'd been using had become rather ratty over the years (it's at least thirty, maybe forty years old) and it seemed appropriate this year to set up a new one. It's sweet and small, decorated with both new and old baubles, some of them dating back to our childhoods and it is filled with memories on every branch. Unfortunately, one of the Gift Cats (so we call them) delivered by a neighbor back in May (or was it April?) decided he liked the lower branch ornaments (the older ones included) and took to knocking them off the tree and chasing them around the house. He only broke one, but still.

The Gift Cats, huh. They're adorable but they get the crazy sometimes, the way cats do, and they go wild around the house, getting into everything, making a mess, and yes sometimes breaking things.

They're both black. One, the smaller and leaner one, called Ashe, has become a "watcher." He's joined members of the feral colony outside to protect the colony and the property from the intrusion of alien cats. He's very aggressive if he spots a stranger, whether feline or any other species, including the delivery men who have been stopping by practically every day with gifts. He runs right up to them when they cross onto the property and he challenges them: "Who are you? What are you doing here?" We laugh, but he's actually the only one who does it. The other watchers will patrol the property line, or they sit in the sun waiting and watching for feline intruders. When they spot one, they will issue threats and challenges, usually running the intruders off. But every now and then, one gets through the cordon. Over the years, a few of the interlopers have integrated into the colony. But most aren't accepted.

Cat politics in feral colonies is not unlike that of lion prides. Cats are very social creatures, not the solitary animals that they are reputed to be. Their societies are built on kinships. Female cats run the societies. Males "service" them. I don't mean just sexually. All of our feral cats (a couple of exceptions who have escaped going to the vet) are neutered. All of the alpha and sub-alpha males are neutered, so their sexual service to the queen catta and her daughters is nil, but the alphas and sub-alphas still perform their duties to protect the colony.

One of them, the oldest, we call Bruiser. He's a big gray tabby with only one good eye. He apparently lost the other one in a fight with an interloper. He's the prime Alpha, and everyone defers to him. He doesn't actually do a great deal any more, as he's getting old and can't see all that well. He stations himself where he can take in as much of the property as he can under the circumstances, though, and he keeps watch throughout the day.

His chief sub-alpha we call Baby. He was quite sickly when he was born (to a female who we were unable to trap). Ms Ché nursed him back to health, and as soon as he was able, he took up a role supporting Bruiser's efforts to keep the colony safe from the neighbors' unaltered males.

Whereas Bruiser used to get into serious fights with stranger-cats, Baby never did. He would stalk them strategically, ultimately driving them off the property. We would watch him work, amazed at his skill at cornering the interlopers and forcing them beyond the property line without raising his voice and without any physically attacking them at all. It is a wonder to behold.

A secondary sub-alpha -- who wants to be the alpha male -- is called Larry. (As in the Clash of the Clans skeleton, the bad disobedient one). He came here as a disheveled and nearly starved interloper. A skeleton of a juvenile cat. We suspect he was abandoned by whoever he lived with. It's not unusual in this area for people to have cats and leave them behind when they move (that's how the colony began), or to bring them to this area and abandon them to fend for themselves. Some make it, most don't. If the coyotes don't get them, they're likely to starve to death or get run over.

Larry arrived one day, looking sick and skinny and he could barely walk, he was so bad off. Ms Ché nursed him back to health the way she does, and took him in to the vet for vaccinations and neutering. Well, when he came back, we discovered that they had initially done surgery as if he were a female, poor thing, and... oops! He was not amused, and it took quite a while for him to recover. He still walks as if his abdomen hurts. Nevertheless, when he recovered, he decided he was part of the colony and began asserting himself as an alpha against Bruiser. They got into many fights with one another, both of them wounded in their rivalry. Ms Ché treated their wounds as a neutral party, and she told them to stop it. Eventually they did, though they haven't made total peace with one another. Bruiser tends to watch for intruders from the front; Larry patrols the back, and he challenges and sometimes fights with any intruders he comes across. I think the fact that he patrols his own section of the property is what keeps him out of conflict with Bruiser.

When the Gift Cats came along, we didn't know what would happen. As it happens, the smaller but more aggressive one (Ashe) decided he would take on patrol duty, and at first he attached himself to Larry as a kind of assistant. Larry was not amused, but he tolerated this black juvenile following him around -- until he didn't. One day he swatted Ashe hard and gave him the stink eye. Ashe backed away.

I don't know how it happened, but somehow Bruiser decided to take on Ashe as his assistant. They will sit together watching sometimes for hours, but Ashe also patrols -- which Bruiser no longer does -- and Ashe boldly confronts anyone who comes on the property unauthorized, whether it is neighbors, delivery people, or other animals. I've seen him run off dogs. He will not allow any strange cat on the front of the property. And any person he sees headed toward the house he challenges. He's so proud of himself, too. He demands praise, not just from us but from the rest of the colony as well. He's made several buddies among the ferals, and when the elders die off as they will, he and his buddies expect to take over.

I go on about cats because they've been an important part of our lives. Both Ms Ché and I have had cats since we were children, and since we don't have kids of our own, cats have been kind of substitute offspring. Ms Ché said that when she would come here (to our place in New Mexico) when we were still living in California, she felt "cat-lonely" and so it was only natural that she would adopt and take care of the feral colony that had actually started at a neighbor's place. Sometimes she thinks that was a mistake. There are typically between 16 and 20 cats in the colony -- population has been very stable for years -- and they require a lot of attention, not to mention food enough for an army.

Ferals are reputed to be grand bird killers, but the ones here are not. First, they don't roam far from the property (after all, it's where the Food Lady lives) and second we rarely count more than five or six bird kills on the property per year. They're proud of their hunting skills, of course. But the birds (we have many) are wise, too. The ones the cats get are occasional doves (maybe twice a year) and more frequent sparrows, some of which are nestlings that fall or are pushed out of the nest. The other birds are almost never  found among the carcasses of birds the cats have caught. I've seen them stalk grackles and road runners, both of which seem to just laugh at the cats -- and I'm sure they would attack them if they felt threatened at all.

Also, too, the cats keep the property completely free of rodents. (Sorry Not-Even, A Mouse). The only wildlife they seem unable -- or unwilling -- to control are the skunks which remain an occasional but persistent problem in this area.

So Christmas is partly for us together, partly for Ms Ché's birthday, partly for Ms. Ché's mother, partly for the cats. This year, we have more gifts to share with one another, the cats, and our friends and neighbors, just because why not? We'll have a Christmas Eve dinner here at home, then go out tomorrow for Christmas with friends. It's an annual ritual and tradition now.

Despite my foreboding about the intentions and madness of Our Rulers, there are some things we have no intention of giving up, come what may.

Merry Christmas to all... And to all a Good Night.

Gift cats, Ashe (top), Tubby (bottom) asleep on Christmas Eve

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