About a month ago, our dog Didot announced the arrival of the ribbon snake by barking over its coiled body with an almost metronomic regularity. Didot’s commitment to maintaining a steady pace of barking appeared to be in conflict with his desire to attack the snake; occasionally he would break from his stubby legged stance long enough to paw at the creature, who would respond by unspooling upward high enough to provide an elegant pedestal for its own oppositional threat display; a tiny mouth stretched open to reveal a split stiletto of a tongue. The snake’s vulnerability moved me. Before I’d ever owned a dog, I’d owned a ribbon snake, a long-ago gift from my soon-to-be husband. I was well aware that ribbon snakes pose no threat to dog or man, but there was no convincing Didot. I tried coaxing the snake onto a stick, so I could move it out of the yard. The snake wouldn’t budge. I dragged the dog away.
That night I complained to my husband about the uselessness of barking at a snake. My husband saw Didot’s barking as perfectly useful; Didot was alerting our pack to a potential danger. I was the one out of sync.
A few weeks ago, a doe started circling our fenced yard. Our dogs adore the doe. Didot’s brother Bembo is particularly fond of her. Doe and dog share the same coloring—tawny bodies, black noses—but there the resemblance ends. Bembo has comically long, floppy ears.
The dogs have a special bark for the doe. They throw themselves against the fence and bark for her with abject adulation. The doe appears to enjoy the fuss; she tiptoes back and forth before them along the neighbor’s side of the fence for maximal exposure.
A week ago, Didot spotted her fawn. Up until that point, the doe had been the most magnificent transcendent creature the dogs had ever seen. But something about the fawn—the white spots?—the fresh scent?—compelled those nosy, noisy dogs to admire it in reverent silence.
The new life keeps coming. The other day, we heard sounds of distress from a tangle of ivy. Didot, always the first to spot a newcomer, dashed over to discover a bitty bird caught in the vines. He sniffed at it and nuzzled it until finally it dropped out of the ivy and onto the pavement. The bird seemed a little uncertain of its purchase on the ground, and hopped a few times, inexpertly. As Didot approached it again, I heard warning chirps from multiple points. A scarlet cardinal was chirping from the shrubbery uphill from us, a female was chirping from the neighbor’s fence, and then two more female cardinals flew over from neighboring oaks to add to the chorus of concern. I chimed in, “Didot, leave it!” I worried the adult cardinals would want nothing to do with the baby bird if it carried dog scent. I worried the baby bird would get a romantic notion that all big stupid mammals were family. I grabbed our ambassador by his collar and starting pulling him toward the exit. I’d almost gotten him to the gate when Didot’s brother Bembo bounded over to greet the baby bird. While Didot had approached the bird with subtlety and genuine tenderness, Bembo’s approach was more rough-and-tumble. After many ignored commands, “Leave it, leave it,” and futile chirps, I finally managed to drag both brothers out of the yard and away from the baby cardinal.
It wasn’t until I’d gotten us all in the house that I considered the location of the true threat to the baby bird—our cat. If the cat had been out in the yard with us as the little cardinal plopped out of the ivy…he would have shred it to feathers. But as it happened, the cat had been snoozing in the corner on a dog bed throughout the whole incident.
I tried to coax the cat into wanting to stay inside that day. I changed his litter box. I pet him. I brushed him. I hauled cardboard boxes up from the basement, placing them at inviting angles throughout the house. I presented the cat with an old basket he used to curl up in from back in the days when he was a skinny kitty, perhaps a quarter of his current size and the name Smidge was not ironic.
When it was time for me to take the garbage out, the cat raced me to the front door and sat there expectantly, eager to go outside and play, possibly kill. I hauled him upstairs and re-introduced him to wonders of the attic as a stay-cation destination, then dashed outside with the garbage bag. As I looked around the yard to see if the baby bird was still hopping around on the ground, I was aware of the presence of the adult cardinals, who remained positioned in a semi-circle all along the perimeter. I didn’t see the baby, but figured the adults still considered him in need of monitoring. As I made eye contact with these watchful birds, I felt like I owed it to them to continue to contain the cat inside the house.
What to do with a rescue cat? The cat had been homeless, so I gave him a home. Hungry, so I gave him food. Thwarted, so I gave him access to my yard. Oh…that’s just one version of the story. We adopted the cat because we wanted a mouse killer. He hasn’t disappointed in the mouse-killing department. But he didn’t stop killing once the mice were gone. Should we have expected otherwise? Killers will be killers.
I kept the cat inside all that day, and all that night. When he woke me at two am, as is his habit, I sprayed him with a squirt gun, something I should have done years ago to defend my right to a night’s sleep, but did that night to earn a few more hours of respite for the baby cardinal.
By the next day, we needed relative silence in the house so that my son could conduct some online tutoring; he couldn’t conduct calculus lessons punctuated by a cat meowing by the door. I checked the back yard. The cardinals were no longer on patrol. I saw no sign of the baby bird. Either the baby bird was dead already, or it had learned to fly. I let the cat out.
For all I know, the little cardinal is still alive. And so is the fawn. And the doe. And the ribbon snake. The dogs and I are about to make another trip out to yard. We’ll see who shows up.