In the August issue of National Geographic, you’ll find Nick Nichols’ sure-to-be-classic photographs of lions: bruised but indomitable males, lionesses baring their fangs when threatened, lion cubs sitting atop the corpse of a zebra the way soldiers sit astride a hill they’ve conquered. But if you think about it, there are wild things that inhabit much more mundane worlds, that live out their lives not on the plains of the Serengeti, but in fenced-in backyards like mine in Brooklyn, a wilderness that’s so scaled down, so dwarfed by the buildings rising up around it that it’s hard to fathom that it exists.
The first picture above is of our male tabby cat, Max, half visible behind splashes of dried, chalky nose grease and the streaks left by his paws when he’s scratching to come inside. His eyes are expressionless, with pretty much all the emotion gone from them. What I saw in Max at that moment was not a house pet, but a kind of lion in miniature, a spookily wise, mostly unknowable creature trapped for a moment behind glass.
The second picture is, yes, of a dead wood thrush in a freezer bag. Seeing a commotion out the first floor window of our house, a flutter of wings in the grass, I rushed outside, grabbed the ginger-colored Ollie by the scruff of his neck, shook him until the bird fell from his mouth, but regretfully not out of his reach. Ollie was immediately on it again, grasping the bird tight. I yelled for my wife Janine, hoping she could help corner the fleeing animal, and cursed my son Sam for having dumped the cats he’d rescued on us, though he wasn’t around to hear me.
Ollie got not one, but two blue jays last year. The first killing; I thankfully didn’t see it, but heard it. When I got outside, there was a male, maybe it was the female, up in the tree screeching in terror as Ollie strode the yard with the dead jay in his jaws. I chased Ollie down, pulled the bird away, thought to bury it. The dirt out in back of our house is veined with tree roots, patchy grass, and ivy. I lay the surprisingly heavy jay in a deep hole I’d dug with some difficulty, with a hand rake and spoon, then covered it over, only to find the tiny grave dug up come morning.
I need to tell you things are different now. The songbirds still drop down from the hundred-year-old maple that looms over our neglected jumble of a backyard. Difference is that when they’re finished searching around for bugs or worms or whatever, they leave unscathed. It’s not that Ollie’s being kept indoors to cut down on the predation. No, he’s out there still walking a fence or hiding on our next-door neighbors’ deck—except that he’s no longer wearing a collar with a bell; he’s wearing a bib. Now every time Ollie wants to go outside, he waits at the door until either Janine or I fasten the seven-inch-wide bit of fabric around his neck. And this bit of fabric either impedes Ollie’s attacks or warns the birds away. Whatever the reasons, there have been no birds killed the whole summer long.
But as for getting these pictures published, it’s not going to happen. Dead animals in Africa, great; dead animals in America, not so great. There was one photo editor at a magazine devoted to wildlife who understood the underlying purpose of these pictures: to address the dilemma of having as pets extraordinary creatures that are prone to killing birds. But then this editor also declined to publish the pictures, stating that the magazine would have run them if only Ollie wasn’t my cat. But because he is my cat, I am complicit in his crimes.