We lost one of our cats recently. Mr. Allnut (named for Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen) asked to go out at about 4 one morning a few weeks ago, and I let him go. He never came back, and a week or so later, a neighbor confirmed Mr. Allnut’s fate—met, we all agreed, at the business end of a coyote.
We live in central Austin, but a very steep and heavily wooded ten-acre draw cuts through our quiet neighborhood. The terrain is so treacherous it’s hard to explore, even with the permission of the friendly neighbor who owns it, which means it’s easy to forget that the nightlife is literally quite wild in our back yard. We used to hear the coyotes occasionally years ago when sirens sounded at dusk or dawn, but they’ve apparently learned to sing under their breath. They’re still here.
I loved Mr. Allnut. He looked like a stuffed animal, with his regular markings and crossed blue eyes, and he behaved like one too: he suffered being cuddled and cooed over with a resigned limpness and clawless stoicism. And I still miss his sister Adelaide, and Spike with the light bulb at the end of her tail, and Kerbey and Skitter and Widget. They were cats of regular habits who just disappeared over the course of the years. I learn a lot a lot slower than the coyotes and must finally acknowledge that we always live in the midst of predators.
Apparently a lot of us are deluded into thinking that large predators are restricted to “wilder” places than cities and suburbs. One multiyear study in Chicago surprised the wildlife biologist conducting it; he found that the city’s coyote population was much larger than expected and that urban coyotes lived longer and are much more active at night than their rural siblings. They live not just in green spaces but also in apartment districts and industrial parks. Because they learn very quickly to avoid traps, it’s hard to get an accurate number, but the author of the Chicago study thought there could be up to 2,000 coyotes there—a much denser population than would cover a rural area of equal size. It’s likely that this study applies to most major metropolitan cities, including, of course, Austin. (In fact, former Madroño Ranch resident Melissa Gaskill wrote a piece on the city’s coyotes for the Austin Chronicle back in 2008, and coincidentally a story headlined “Tensions Over Coyote Trapping Split Austin Neighborhood” ran just this morning in the Austin American Statesman.)
Predator. It’s a compelling word, derived from the Latin meaning to plunder or to rob, so to call something a predator is to freight it with moral judgment. As far as I can tell (which isn’t far because I lost the magnifying glass to our edition of the compact Oxford English Dictionary), the word referred only to human behavior until it made a zoological leap in 1907. I wonder if that leap helped give steam to the notion in land management circles that rubbing out entire species was not only a reasonable stratagem but a righteous crusade. Predators rob and steal and, therefore, must be punished. Destroyed.
The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale project is the longest continuous study of the predator-prey system in the world, spanning more than fifty years of observation on this frigid island on the Michigan side of Lake Superior. The scientists involved have concluded that to designate wolves simply as dangerous nuisances to be eradicated is to miss the hard and necessary work they do; the apex predators are vital to their complex ecosystems, despite the fear they inspire and the losses they cause. In other words, as Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay “Thinking Like A Mountain”: “too much safety” from wolves, and presumably other apex predators, “seems to yield only danger in the long run.” Because we often don’t take into account the needs of the mountain or all the other participants in a predator-prey cycle, we ranchers or hunters or businessmen end up poking ourselves (or our grandchildren) in the eye. The length of the Isle Royale study has brought academic rigor and complexity to Leopold’s beautiful musings, and has showed the scientists how much they still have to learn: “Navigating that complexity without hubris will be a great challenge.”
So you can probably connect the dots so far: despite the loss of Mr. Allnut and his compadres, I can’t entirely condemn the responsible coyote, who was just doing his job. He’s also probably eaten many, many rats and provided other services I don’t know about. A righteous campaign for coyote extinction would be understandable but could also be very ill-advised.
Now I’m going to make a crabwise move. At about the same time Mr. Allnut disappeared, we lost our beloved ranch cat Callie. Despite the fact that she was mostly white like Mr. Allnut, she managed for the eight or nine years she lived at Madroño to stay clear of coyotes, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, hawks, eagles, owls, and the occasional mountain lion. She was also immensely talkative and sociable, always accompanying us to visit the chickens and occasionally eating out of the feed buckets right alongside them. I frequently scrambled her an egg, a privilege she just as frequently lost each time I found her counter-surfing yet again. She spent many, many hours on my lap, drooling and kneading, shedding and purring. She was a good mouser and all-around excellent creature.
After she was diagnosed with skin cancer on her nose and ears, ranch manager Robert Can-This-Really-Be-In-My-Job-Description Selement smeared the affected parts with sunblock as often as possible, but of course she licked it right off. The cancer began quite literally to eat her nose and upper lip. We balanced our distress at her appearance with her comfort as long as we could bear. She’s now buried by the shed, near her empty food bowl, her grave awaiting a marker as colorful and lively as she was. It’s very hard not to think of cancer as another kind of predator, not to think: Eradicate. Kill. That’s what predators deserve.
In her thought-provoking Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag examines the language we use to describe some diseases and the use of disease as metaphor in non-medical arenas. A three-time cancer patient herself (she died of leukemia in 2004), she wanted to release cancer patients from the invisible but real shackles language slaps on them. Cancer, in her view, is “in the service of a simplistic view of the world that can turn paranoid,” encouraging radically reductive thinking and action. She particularly objects to the images of war, pollution, military or alien invasion, and genocide that cluster around cancer as a metaphor because they inevitably become confused with the individual cancer patient who becomes a loser by dying, a toxic dump site by being diagnosed, an invaded country, a helpless victim of ruthless overlords. Having cancer is a complex issue in and of itself without having to bear the burdensome, accusatory implications of the metaphors surrounding it.
As a language nerd, I wonder how to name to my own metastatic cancer because my words shape the choices I make in treatment and the rest of my life. While I can see why declaring war on cancer seems appropriate, I’ve come to find the analogy misleading at best, self-eradicating at worst. This cancer is as integrally a part of me as the coyote in my back yard, as the wolves, as any predator is a part of its distinctive ecosystem. Like a coyote, my cancer quickly learns to avoid the traps we set for it. While I don’t want to be eaten, I also don’t want to declare war on myself. Perhaps we’ll find some intimate connection we don’t know about yet between the loss of apex predators and the rise of cancer. Perhaps cancer provides some kind of service in this world of ours that has been so rapidly rearranged in the last century, when we began to use the word “predator” to describe non-human behavior and then went to war. Perhaps we need a new metaphor that allows us to live consciously and respectfully and curiously with the world around us and within us, navigating that complexity without hubris—and without metaphors of violence and condemnation.