One beautiful summer day not too long ago, I was shocked by a horrifying sight – my beloved cat Fettie rolling around in a Wild Turkey nest, full body stretched out in ecstasy, with the chipped remains of 13 very large eggs all around him. I had been well aware of the nest for weeks, and with a protective gaze had been nervously watching the cows in the pasture browsing closer and closer to where Mama Turkey had chosen to build, right on the border of fenced pasture and wildflower meadow, leading up to the house on the hill.
And yet it wasn’t the thousand-pound cows crushing the delicate eggs that were a danger to the heart-melting prospect of motherhood and new babies, it was a member of my own family. So impossible did it seem that my lap-cat Fettie, so well-fed and spoiled, would end those precious wild lives, I actually spent two days thinking that he had come upon the nest already plundered, and was claiming some sort of ownership after-the-fact. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that body language does not lie. By rolling around in the remains of bone, feather and shell, the cozy nest of baby birds now gone from this world, he was showing me how pleased he was with himself – with his skill at killing, and his ability to survive, and thrive.
Something in the human heart – mine in particular – will always mourn the departure of any infant taken from Earth Community, but I also know that the predator and prey relationship is integral to this world. As a semi-carnivore living a privileged life far from the killing and butchery process, evidence of the hunt - or demise by natural means - has been a familiar sight during my sojourns in the wild. Today, I define my deep bonds to the land as Animism, based on a life-altering ecomystic experience at age eight when I was immersed in the transcendent glow of nature for an entire afternoon, to decades of ambling in the woods, or dashing there for sanctuary and healing. Interactive communion with the other-than-human has been part of my life for a very long time, and the reciprocity emanating back to me from the wild beings, elements and creatures never ceases to amaze. And never more so, then when taking on the uncomfortable, tiring, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding role, of "Tamer of Feral Cats."
A few years ago three small raccoons ambled up the hill directly toward me, making eye contact and chirping a kind of welcome that was more like a plea for help. Much to my surprise, I got directly to work picking the many burrs and sticky seed pods out of their fur. They spent the summer in proximity to the farm, being fed cat kibble, letting me gingerly pet them (to a degree), jumping on me as I was reading on the porch, occasionally coming though the door, or communicating in that frolicking charming way of raccoons all over Turtle Island. But to tame them as pets? That was never an option.
And yet, what happens at the intersection of wild/domestic when there does appear a species, like a cat, that one can tame? A free-roaming and unowned cat is as feral as any other creature, spending most of the time stalking and hunting over wide distances, marking territory, and depending on the cat, hiding out during the vulnerable daylight hours. For me, the boundary between “wild” and “tame” is fascinating to the point of obsession, as I’ve spent literally weeks interacting, observing, and questioning these kinds of relations.
For one thing, how do domesticated felines end up in the wild? Born into the wild or abandoned, a cat who lives as a wild animal is at risk of death from predators such as coyotes, and diseases such as rabies, feline leukemia and parasites. Cursing as I do “all those who discard cats,” unfortunately our unpaved country road is a good location for city dwellers burdened with pet responsibilities – a “dumping ground” as it were for cats of all stripes, ages, and various states of well-being. Our farming neighbours are not especially welcoming to cats, except for occasional hand-outs to the ones residing in drafty barns, left to survive (or not) on their own. One warm summer’s eve, I spotted a cat with grey fur wandering erratically back and forth across the road, oblivious to danger. Instantly I knew this was a newly-abandoned cat, and stopped my car to help. He or she seemed delirious, wounded, suffering from the effects of a head injury perhaps, and the closer I got the further they ran away. “Definitely not about to trust a human, not now” was the clear message I received. By the time I went home for trapping equipment and returned, the cat was already dead at the side of the road, hit by some oblivious driver.
Even more upsetting were the bags of feline remains, and the skeletons under the trees, I found one day hiking in the woods near the road past the farm. These kinds of events are hardly significant to the farmers and hunters of my region, but devastating to cat lovers. And yet, in contrast to the heartbreak are the “love stories” of four feral cats, who successfully made their way to the farm on the hill - now safely ensconced on their mats, with names, personalities, love, family, care, full bellies and medical histories.
Then, as the deep freeze of a Canadian winter sets in and the wind blows hard, the feral will finally cross an inconceivable boundary and enter the house, sometimes hiding in the basement for many weeks (or even months!) as they become accustomed to the smells and sounds of mechanical things like heaters, and human activity. Finally, after many hours of venturing into the lair with food and hesitant touch, trust is established and eye contact is made. Slowly the unremitting praise and petting has an impact, and with a few inevitable scratches and band-aids, the cat is tumbled into the carrier, taken to the veterinarian, and with the finality of surgery (spay or neuter) domestication is achieved.
Warmth, light, a steady food supply, and love are what domestication brings, and seemingly what the wild animal needs. But how can you “need” things that have been a complete unknown? Some mysterious reciprocity begins with the domestication process, changing the boundaries of what is wild and what is not. Animals have love, care and loyalty to each other it’s true, expressed in their own unique way, and yet what can human love mean to an animal? Probably nothing at first, but over time a strange and miraculous intersection occurs, that something of that love is now being expressed by the animal. Are they mirroring it back to us, or do they actually carry the seeds for deep love between species? Can this be some kind of miracle that confirms our value as a human, to awaken a rare and transformative interspecies affection? If so, and if we can extend that same love to all of Earth Community, at the very least can we take our place in the Sacred Circle, with the intent to heal and care for all beings?
What is it in the animal that allows for domestication, to be content around humans, but maybe just as content in the natural world? The urge to hunt never leaves, as with his exceptional strength, speed, sharp claws and deep bite my boy Fettie will always be a highly-skilled predator. One autumn afternoon he bolted into the field of golden corn, and by the time he arrived at the road 300 feet away, had killed a hare exactly the same size as himself. Watching him drag the poor creature home in triumph was a tragedy for me, the over-domesticated human. My compulsion to painstakingly record the kills in photographs – the turkey eggs, the hare, the hawk, the voles, the mice, the baby rabbits, the various songbirds and woodpeckers – is to perhaps make sense of a process that few have the opportunity to witness, in our modern world.
For millennia humans were not domesticated, and our hunter-gatherer societies were highly successful. Civilization and our removal from the wild may offer certain advantages, but based on climate disaster and massive change today, has become lethal to Earth Community. Looking into the eyes of another species and sharing our lives means being connected, empathic, grounded, embodied, vibrant, present, spiraling in time, sensing the mystery, and feeling wonder or awe – all aspects of our much-needed return to Ancestral Wisdom. And with our ongoing sacrifice and sorrow, perhaps all beings – human, animal, plant, element or other – can share the deeply felt dynamic of both predator and prey, taking turns over and over in the great Dance of Life.
 Layla Abdelrahim, Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness, Routledge, 2015
"Shifting Borderlands of Tame and Wild" was originally published by Unpsychology Magazine, Issue #6, "The Other-than-Human Anthology," May 2020. free download www.unpsychology.org/latest-issue/4585970771
Pegi Eyers is the author of "Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community," an award-winning book that explores strategies for intercultural competency, healing our relationships with Turtle Island First Nations, uncolonization, recovering an ecocentric worldview, rewilding, creating a sustainable future and reclaiming peaceful co-existence in Earth Community.
Stone Circle Press