Chasing Cats and Birds: Explorations in the Suburban Wilds

by Liesel Hamilton


LYNX RUFUS

The Arizona sky exploded outside in yellows and pinks and oranges, interrupted only by the imprint of clouds and tree-like saguaro cacti as our rental car wound down streets, making its way from my grandparents’ house to the home of my mom’s childhood best friend, Sabine. As my mom drove, my sisters and I grumbled in the backseat about being forced to go to another boring dinner so my mom let us in on a little secret: Sabine’s police officer husband had a pet bobcat. When we arrived and Sabine and John asked my parents if they wanted a tour of the house, my sisters and I interrupted with a chorus of yesses, the kind of real enthusiasm that you would never expect to hear from preteens when asked that sort of question.

John and Sabine’s house was small. A ranch-style house situated among nearly identical ranch style houses in the suburbs of Tucson, Arizona. The tour didn’t take long and culminated with the question: “So, do you want to see my bobcat?” At that age, it was everything I wanted from a tour of someone’s house. Outside, the dry, dark air settled around us. I couldn’t wait to see the regal cat, strutting around in its cage, excited to see John, perhaps curious to see us. Maybe I would be able to pet him or snap a photo with him. In Myrtle Beach, a couple hours from where my family lived in central South Carolina, there was a wildlife park that housed tigers and monkeys and elephants and ligers. I had seen photos of friends of my parents, cuddling with tiger cubs in front of manicured lawns, their hands petting the animals’ soft fur, their foreheads pressed against kitten-like faces, their hands feeding the cubs warm milk. I imagined myself having a similar experience with John’s bobcat, yet as I wasn’t paying for it, a little less artificial.

I could smell the cat before I could see it. The sweltering summer air absorbed the scent of urine, which soaked into the ground under the cat like a large litter box that could never really be cleaned.

The cat wasn’t strutting around. There wasn’t really room for that. Instead, the animal was perched atop a wooden platform in the corner of the wire cage, constructed on a tiny plot of land. Wire walls and a wire roof kept the animal contained, in case it tried to climb or jump. It was probably only big enough for the animal to take ten or so steps, without having to turn around, yet it took up most of the backyard.

The cat’s eyes glittered in the dim light, but its body was smaller than I had expected. I had pictured a giant, muscled cougar growling and pacing back and forth in the cage, not the small, fuzzy feline that squatted before me, only about twice as large as the house cats I had grown up with. It’s face was also like a housecat’s, yet harder and more defined. I was disappointed; I wanted the cougar.

I tried not to let my dismay show. John was proud of his exotic animal not normally legal to possess in Arizona. Once on a police raid, John had confiscated the wild animal from someone’s home, only the creature was no longer wild—not really. It had sharp teeth and sharp claws and an unpredictable temper, yet, much like a zoo animal, it couldn’t defend itself in the wild. Thus, with nothing else to do with the animal, John obtained a permit, built a cage in his backyard, and moved the animal from one Tucson suburb to another.

I always wondered if John attempted to give the animal to a wildlife sanctuary or if his desire to keep the animal was stronger. He seemed proud of his pet—an exotic, rare creature that nobody else could possess. I tried not to think about whether or not he was just as guilty as the people he confiscated the animal from. “So, who wants to feed him?” John asked in his deep, gravelly, smoker’s voice. Over six feet tall, John loomed over my sisters and me. He was thin with sharp grey hair, a scraggly beard, and skin that was hardened and stained orange by the sun and etched with wrinkles and scars.

The cat stared at us. Even though it was small, we could tell it was dangerous. John didn’t enter the cage with the animal. He didn’t pet it. The cat wasn’t so much a pet as it was a prize — something to keep in the backyard and feed and show off at dinner parties. I pictured the sharp teeth it was hiding behind its closed mouth and the claws gripping the wood it was perched upon. My sisters and I took a step back.

“It’s perfectly safe,” John assured us. He reached out and wrapped his leathery hand around my ten year old one. “I’ll grab your hand like this and we’ll hold out the meat. He’ll smell my hands. He would never bite me.”

I contemplated the offer as I wondered what it would mean to feed the creature before me. I remember my mom saying it was a once in a lifetime offer. The spotted feline paced back and forth, anxiously awaiting his dinner. As I watched it, I wondered what I would gain from feeding the cat. Really, the only reason to do it would be to be able to say, I fed a wild animal—a bobcat—with my bare hand. But once I broke the circumstances down, explained that the cat was in someone’s cage in a tiny suburban backyard and my hand was wrapped in someone else’s, it probably wouldn’t be that impressive anyway. There was no reason to feed the feline. We returned inside to the dinner party, never visiting the bobcat again. After all the deliberation, it was John who had reached out and passed a stainless steel bowl of food through the wire cage.
bobcat (lynx rufus) standing on a rock

COLUMBA LIVIA

I stepped back, yet I was unable to avoid the pigeon that Mallory thrust into my hand, its body wrapped in her white cardigan, its neck twisting, taking in the group of five gawking teenagers who were all unsure of what to do with the wild animal they just caught.

I held the pigeon for only a couple of seconds before passing it to Harriet who was also hesitant of the animal, yet seemed more open to holding it then me. It was September in South Carolina and the weather was still warm, yet no longer the stifling ninety degree days that soak the month of August. We were fifteen, Harriet, Justin, Thomas and I; only Mallory was sixteen, one of the oldest in our grade and one of the first to receive her driver’s license.

Moments ago, the five of us had crammed into Mallory’s Mitsubishi. We had no plan—probably we would drive around, perhaps end up up at Sonic where we could sit outside on metal picnic tables and drink frozen sodas and sugary slushies while we stuffed our faces with cheeseburgers and fries. We lived in suburbia, each of us occupying houses in separate subdivisions — King’s Grant, Spring Valley, Wildwood, Acadia Lakes, Shandon—in Columbia, South Carolina, a midsize city with about half a million residents.

We left King’s Grant, having picked up Thomas from his two story brick house, passing house upon house bordered by sidewalks and palmetto trees and tall, thin loblolly pines. On the side of the road, near a clump of boxwoods, we spotted a common rock pigeon, the same bird often spotted in cities and parks and neighborhoods on every continent—except Antarctica. It walked in circles, seemingly unsure of the direction it wanted to travel. Its feathers were dappled—patches of white mixed with dark brown and maroon. Yet, they also looked ratty, ruffled and messy. In vain, the pigeon tried to climb onto a curb, flapping one wing helplessly while simultaneously attempting to hop. The five teenagers in the car came to the same conclusion: this pigeon could no longer fly.

As we were all in agreement that the bird needed our help, Mallory pulled the car over and began to follow the bird, her long blue dress fanning out behind her. The bird walked quickly in front of her, unable to use its normal method of escape: flight. With a scream, powered by fear and adrenaline, she swooped the pigeon up in the sweater, cradling its body in the fabric.

“Here.” Mallory pushed the pigeon into my unwilling palms as if presenting me with a present, yet it was one I didn’t want.

“Someone else has to hold it,” Mallory reasoned. “I have to drive.”

I squealed as the pigeon studied my face and then shoved it away from me, less delicately than Mallory had presented it to me. I was afraid of its unpredictability. It was dirty and tameless. When I watched it from afar I had contemplated helping it in an abstract way. I wanted to be a part of saving a wild animal, or more honestly, I wanted to watch my friends save a wild animal. Yet, now, sitting in Mallory’s car, my empty hands remembered the bird’s warmth.
rock dove on hand

LYNX RUFUS

On the first of November, a sharp scream slipped through my window screens and penetrated my dreams. Over and over again the sound echoed until it woke me and as the mysterious sound continued, I wondered if I was still dreaming.

It was four in the morning, the day after Halloween. As I always sleep warm, my windows were cracked open, letting in the Northern Virginian air that had already dropped to a cool forty degrees. I had moved two states north a year and a half ago to pursue a master’s degree, and one of the things I most appreciated, was the cool breezes that I could coax through my windows.

Several years earlier, I had spent a semester in Washington D.C. where I worked as an intern for the National Geographic Society. I took the subway to work every morning, helped edit and research material, and sat in on meetings. After work, I would often wander around the city before returning home—catching free concerts or popping into one of the Smithsonian museums. I pictured my return to the D.C. area the same way, even though I relocated about 45 minutes west of the city in the suburban Virginia town where I would study creative writing. I saw myself moving from South Carolina’s suburbia to the nation’s capital. Instead, I moved into a townhome with a tiny fenced-in backyard in a neighborhood that contained more than 5,000 other homes as well as walking paths and playgrounds and elementary schools and streets designed to increase the efficiency of mail delivery. I commuted to and from school four days a week and rarely ventured into the city.

When I finally awoke, I sat up and looked around, perplexed. My boyfriend rolled over next to me.

“It sounds terrible, doesn’t it?” He said, without missing a beat. Having grown up in a rural town, he wasn’t at all confused about what we heard.

“What is it?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.

“I think it’s a lynx. We used to hear them all the time in my neighborhood. It sounds like a child screaming.”

It did. It was loud and piercing like a high pitched grunt, unnervingly human-like. In order to verify, we whipped out our smart phones and googled wild animal sounds—great horned owls, lynxes, bobcats, and foxes. It was a wild cat, we decided, and since lynxes live mostly in Canada and the northeast, it had to be a bobcat.

Before peering out the window, I decided to use the bathroom. When I returned, I saw my boyfriend drawing away from the window pane.

“It’s gone,” he said.

“Did you see it?”

“Yea. I saw its shadow, sitting right there.” He pointed to row of mailboxes, eight lined up right next to each other. I squinted out the window of the second floor of my townhouse, searching the night sky made opaque by a few dull street and porch lights for a glimpse of a wild cat. Instead, I saw automobiles, sidewalks, and townhouses that looked remarkably similar to the one I currently resided in.

The next day, I told several people about my brush with the bobcat. My professor suggested that it was a Halloween prank from a neighborhood teenager. My father exclaimed, over the phone, that it was shocking a wild cat would come to into my neighborhood. But, since my move, I had seen wild animals that I had never encountered on the dozens of hikes and camping trips I had taken in my life: foxes, groundhogs, and although I never saw it, I received an email from my homeowner’s association of a black bear wandering about. Additionally, I had done some research on the elusive felines and found out that bobcats could thrive in suburbia. They are drawn to the animals we draw to our houses—squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks. They sleuth through the sewers, traveling quietly and secretly, often avoiding human sight. I always look for them perched upon branches in wild and dense forests, when really I should be studying suburbia. I supposed I wanted bobcats to be wilder than the streets of my neighborhood would allow. There is something undignified about a wild animal rooting around where humans are. It turns them into scavengers and pests. But the bobcat in my neighborhood doesn’t behave like a raccoon. It is around. I have heard it several times since that November morning. It avoids human trash and sight and contact and for this, I want to see it all the more.

COLUMBA LIVIA

“Look mom! Look!” My ten-year old brother, Max, beamed as dozens of pigeons perched on his outstretched arms and legs, pecking at the bird feed cupped in his open palms.

Minutes before, my parents had purchased birdseed from a vendor in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, a place known for its pigeons. My sisters and I watched and giggled as pigeons fluttered around my brother. As young teenagers, we were all uninterested in birds standing on our limbs. Max, however, was ecstatic to have pigeons swarm him.

There is something about visiting a big city and expecting to see pigeons. They waddle across the ground, seemingly unafraid of people, except for the child that will inevitably involve them in a chase. They thrive off the food scraps that people leave behind—bits of popcorn and pizza crusts. It seems, that pigeons belong in cities, among humans, not nesting in oak and beech and pine trees.

Rock pigeons — the city pigeons crawling all over Max — as it turns out, aren’t really a wild species. The bird that humans deem rats with wings, pests, and vermin, are really our creation, a species bred and domesticated from the wild rock dove. Humans have been domesticating the birds for more than 5,000 years, relying on them for their meat, to communicate, and even in the 1800s, for a problematic hobby: pigeon shooting. The rock dove originated in the Middle East where it nested on rocky cliffs. The useful bird was brought to Europe and from there, its existence began to further grow. In the 1600s, the bird came to the United States, where it was primarily used for food. Domestication altered the species and then, over time, the birds began to escape, adapting easily to rooftops and buildings similar to the precarious cliffs they nested on in the Middle East. Unlike most feral animals, the feral birds still look different than their wild cousins, retaining the shiny green feathers that decorate their necks. They feed off our city scraps and we fault them for it. We fault the birds that we brought and bred to live near us; we fault them for not behaving in a way that is wild, even though their behavior is a direct result of our domestication.

Venice had outlawed feeding pigeons years ago, yet when we visited St. Mark’s Square it was exempted from this ban as feeding the birds here was considered an iconic tradition. Then, in 2008, the threat of pigeons destroying the elaborate marble structures around the square was too great. The birds pecked at the marble to acquire calcium. They roosted atop fragile structures. The littered the ground with feces and feathers. The 130,000 pigeons invited to the square nearly ninety years ago to amuse tourists were evicted.

It seems as if Venice’s plan worked. There are no more news articles about pigeons destroying the city. In travelers’ photos from St. Mark’s square, to me, something looks slightly amiss. The square is clean; there are only a few pigeons pecking around. I don’t know where they went—if they moved to another city or perished or managed to live out their lives, scavenging, instead of being fed. After the banning of the birds, the news articles, the human interest in them, vanished. All I know is because of humans, pigeons existed, and then ceased to exist, in huge droves in St. Mark’s Square.

LYNX RUFUS

It was a Friday in late fall and our high school football team, the Hammond Skyhawks had just defeated our arch rival, the Heathwood Hall highlanders. Full of energy and excited for the afterparty to follow, Carl, Sally, and I piled into the back of my clunky, green sedan. We left Heathwood amidst a parade of cars, all required to use the the long, one-lane road that stretched through the swampy lowlands that surrounded Heathwood. The scent of sulfur wafted up from the pluff mud that fostered the growth of grasses and reeds and a thick coat of blackness interrupted only by headlights, surrounded our car.

Sally lounged in the backseat as Carl controlled the music from the passenger seat. At a stoplight, behind the brake lights of many cars, a creature emerged from the grasses beside us. A bobcat, followed by two kittens, walked slowly into the street. It turned, looked at my car, and looked back at its kittens. Within a few seconds it had crossed the road and disappeared into the vegetation on the other side.

“COUGAR!” Carl shouted enthusiastically, stuttering with shock over the words.

I laughed. “You mean bobcat.”

Cougars/Mountain Lions/Pumas/Panthers don’t exist on the East Coast, except a small population that lives in the Florida everglades. Cougars are considered big cats, much larger than bobcats, growing 5-9 feet tall and weighing up to 100 pounds. They are fierce and muscled and unlike bobcats, have been known to attack a hiker or two, especially if they are walking alone at dusk. Mountain Lions live alone and require vast areas of open land to traverse—land more wild than suburbia.

Carl knew we didn’t see a cougar, but in the intense excitement of the moment, the words catapulted from his mouth. He and I were shocked and excited and the word cougar carries more punch than bobcat. We saw a wild creature and his first though was cougar.

As Carl and I jabbered excitedly, Sally sat up in the backseat. “It was just a house cat,” she insisted and would insist every time we fervently recounted the story to friends. Yet, Sally wasn’t looking when the cat appeared. She didn’t see the thick body, the strong jaw, or the short stubby tail of the animal that crossed the road.

COLUMBA LIVIA

After catching the injured pigeon on the suburban streets of South Carolina, Harriet, Mallory, Thomas, Justin, and I had no idea what to do with the bird. In the age of smartphones, we googled animal hospitals and rescue organizations and found the number for the Carolina Wildlife Center.

We situated ourselves back in the car. Harriet sat in the middle of the backseat, the pigeon resting comfortably in her lap. Thomas and I sat on the opposite sides of her. I held the phone in my hand, listening to it ringing through the speaker as I waited for Carolina Wildlife Center to pick up. Thomas pulled his t-shirt over his nose, breathing in his own scent. Harriet looked over at him.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Thomas, nervous and quirky, responded that he was concerned about contracting bird flu. We all erupted in laughter.

When Carolina Wildlife Center answered, I explained our dilemma. We found an injured pigeon on the side of the road. He couldn’t fly. He needed help. The receptionist explained that it cost several hundred dollars to take in and rehab an injured animal, so they couldn’t take anything, unless we wanted to absorb the cost. We didn’t.

The woman on the phone was kind. She probably recognized the naiveté in my voice—the idealistic need to save an injured animal on the side of the road. She didn’t tell me that the Carolina Wildlife Center focuses on native animals, animals of importance, and my injured, feral, rock pigeon just wasn’t significant. Instead, she told me it was sad, but it just wasn’t possible to save every animal and then, she hung up.

And so, we continued to drive around, five teenagers with an injured pigeon and no plan.

We decided to release him, somewhere nice. We drove down the road until it turned. A metal bar on the side of the road blocked off cars from a hill that fell steeply away from asphalt. We pulled the car over. There were more trees here—pines and southern sugar maples. The ground was littered in pine straw. Mallory unwrapped the bird, opening up her sweater so it could enter the woods. The bird didn’t move. We watched it for a few minutes and finally, to force the bird to move, began to shake the sweater, gently. Eventually, the bird wandered off. We watched it go, knowing that it probably wouldn’t survive.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had probably done the bird more harm than good. We had assumed, seeing this bird, that it was a wild animal, deserving to live out the rest of its days, which were probably limited, amongst dirt and trees, not pavement. We had relocated a territorial species away from its home to a place that it couldn’t scavenge for food, and probably, with its broken wing, would never be able to leave. As I watched the bird hop along the pine straw beneath its feet, I wondered how long it would survive.

LYNX RUFUS

Our car twisted along the winding roads in the foothills of South Carolina as my family and I made out way back to our cabin at on Lake Jocassee, a large man-made lake surrounded by mountains where my family spent a week every summer. It was dark. No other cars were on the road. No lamps or streetlights illuminated the darkness. Just the headlights of our minivan cut through the blackness.

My mom navigated the night slowly, her eyes taking in the twists and turns of the road. Then, suddenly she braked and rolled down the window. The humid summer air poured into the window, meshing with the over air conditioned car. My mom’s neck craned towards the side of the road.

“There!” she pointed to the side of the road. “It’s a bobcat. Do you see it?” I squinted into the darkness. In my pre-teen naiveté, I searched for a large cat perched on a cliff, baring its teeth and growling into the night. I wanted to see its fur ruffling in the wind, its face proud and elevated. Or perhaps, I wanted to see the cat sticking its face into the rain, absorbing the droplets with grace and dignity. But, there was no cliff. There was no wind or rain, just stillness and heat and humidity that drenched the summer air. The bobcat avoided my eye as it silently wandering amidst a mass of trees, enveloped in darkness.

Looking back, the image I cast in my head is more common for a wolf than a wild cat. A wolf might survey its territory from a rock outcropping, lift up its jaw, and howl into the night. Bobcats are normally silent and elusive, only screaming during mating season. The bobcat does not want to draw attention to itself; it wants to silently stalk its prey in the dead of the night. Perhaps, had I been looking at the treeline, more aware of the bobcat’s tendencies, I would have seen it. Perhaps I spent too much time searching for the cliff, searching for the ultimate display of wildness and power, rather than searching for the animal itself. The mistake was ultimately mine; I missed the bobcat due to preconceived notions, due to misinformation.

Once at a coastal state park in South Carolina, a ranger informed me that bobcats are always around. Often, they spend their days perched in tree branches, napping and surveying the ground below.

“They see you,” he told me. “But people often overlook them.”

Now, when I wander in forests, I make sure to examine the trees. On coastal walks in South Carolina, I search the spidery branches of live oaks, festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection fern. On winter walks in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, I look for a feline nestled on the limb of oak, blending into the winter grey. I never spot one. Even when I search, the ranger’s words ring true; I don’t see the cats, but they, in all likelihood, see me.


Liesel Hamilton is the nonfiction editor of So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art. She is the co-author of Wild South Carolina, published through Hub City Press. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Fall Lines: a literary convergence, where she received the Broad River Prize for Prose, and the collaborative chapbook Poetry on the COMET.

Lynx rufus photo by donyanedomam

Columba livia photo by Oksana Lebedeva

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