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Cat call 

By Wednesday morning of the Great Winter Storm, with schools still closed and 47 damp mittens scattered about the house and Greg Fishel predicting slippery roads into perpetuity, I was ready for a rant.

So I made a cup of tea and looked through the newspapers. There was a feature story on a new "laughter meditation" class. Ha! Like that'll help. And an article about how they're trying to make classroom trailers warmer in winter months. Great, now our children will go to school in giant toasters. And a piece about how the Baptist State Convention has more or less gotten in bed with the Southern Baptist Convention, which holds that the Bible is "without error" and that anyone who says different is bound for brimstone. It's like Annie Dillard said: "What a pity that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians."

Good stuff, but not quite right. I paged on and there it was, buried in the state news: "Surry County teen hurt in tiger attack."

Perfect. Fabulous. Exhibit A in sorry senselessness. I know that big cats and other wild animals are kept as pets all over the world, and that people are mauled and killed by them from India to Brazil, but the stories that trickle out of the American South seem to have an especially sordid bent. Maybe it's because there's so much pathos in the image of a 400-pound Bengal tiger chained to the side of a doublewide. Maybe it's because these stories invariably take place in the roughest backwoods patch of packed dirt and hookworm this side of Yoknapatawpha County. Places like Lowgap, North Carolina, in Surry County, or CutNShoot, Texas, whose population turned out a few years ago to hunt down an escaped tiger. Or even, for that matter, Chapel Hill, where I recall somebody kept--what was it? A cougar, I think--in a downtown neighborhood. I don't know what it is, but there's something in the Southern psyche that's just got to have itself a wild animal.

This latest attack comes less than a year after Surry County failed to enact a proposed ordinance banning exotic pets, 41 days after a Wilkes County boy was dragged under a loose piece of fence and mauled by his aunt's pet Bengal tiger. The fence had been left unrepaired because the family dog liked to crawl under and play with the tiger. The boy and the cat were likewise on friendly terms, and the attack surprised everyone. "I don't know why the tiger did that and I'm not sure if anyone knows," the county attorney told the local newspaper.

And who paid the price for these tragedies? The people who put wild animals in a backyard cage near young children? No'bubba. The animals paid, both of them killed on the spot, and three more tigers besides, who happened to be on the premises when the Surry County girl was mauled. All of them gunned down, essentially, for being what they were.

So I rant. Not only for hurt children and dead tigers and all the incontrovertible reasons why it should be illegal to own wild animals. Not just for the endless anecdotes about stampeding elephants driven mad by life on an ankle chain, the circus animals tortured into submission, the "pet" bobcats shot dead when they finally snap and take out the family dog. Not just because the black market in big cats and other wild animals trades in the billions of dollars, surpassed only by drugs and weapons. Not just because North Carolina has not one miserable statewide regulation, much less a ban, on the ownership of these animals.

I rant, also, for Hodge.

Hodge lived in my friend Nancy's backyard. She lived at the end of a dirt road, in a house covered top to bottom with asphalt shingles and festooned with about 1,000 bottle caps. Nancy's family kept chickens and a bald tomcat named Ezra and a husky-mix that stared blue-eyed from its cage in the front yard. It was the sort of place where you could play hard and get dirty and nobody would care. Nancy's mother was a large, fond, cheerfully neglectful woman who watched a lot of daytime TV.

I knew nothing about Hodge until one day when Nancy and I were playing in some vines behind the house. Hanging upside-down, I heard a low, throaty noise that made the back of my neck tingle. "That's just Hodge," Nancy said. "He's my uncle's leopard." She led me over to a pen in whose center a plywood tree house had been built between two trees. A pair of yellow eyes glowed from the black opening.

By that point in my life I'd owned or otherwise been acquainted with a variety of dogs, cats and horses. And like a lot of young girls I imagined vast currents of affection running between me and all animals. You could see it in their eyes--love that crossed species lines, a warm and fuzzy world of inter-genus love. Watching Hodge watching me, there was no such current. Just a cold appraising look, his eyes stealing light from some hidden source. His growl, his eyes, seemed to break everything down into its elemental forms: Carnivora, Primate; predator, prey. From the depths of my brainstem came the order to run away; instead, instead I asked Nancy, "Can you make him come out?"

"No," she said. "He won't come if you call him. He's stubborn. We love him, though. My mom feeds him chopped up horses. She gets it in bags."

Hodge's real name, I found out, was Hadji, and Nancy's uncle Mike had brought him to their house when he lost his job and had to take construction work up in West Virginia. The cat kept mostly to himself, partial only to Nancy's mother, who would throw him a live chicken every so often to quiet him down. "I don't watch that part," Nancy said.

Over time, Hodge became accustomed to our playing, and he would come out of his tree house to lie in the dirt or pace the sides of his cage. His silver pelt, beneath the dust, was intricately dappled. Once, when Nancy wasn't home, I went back to see Hodge in his pen. He was dozing on the top of his tree house, belly-up, eyes closed, unaware of being watched. Almost imperceptibly he registered my presence. I badly wanted the cat to like me, and spoke softly to him, but it was no use. I was just one more hairless, upright creature, without so much as a chicken to throw him. His eyes shone with hate.

This, no doubt, is where the animal rights argument ought to come in, and I can't deny I'm drawn to it. The arguments against fur farms, the meat industry, medical research on animals are all compelling, and I am convinced, with every photograph of a tortured lab monkey or veal calf, that an uncharted frontier of spiritual evolution still awaits our species.

The trouble with big cats, or circus bears or the elephant giving rides down at the county fair, is that the plea for their lives doesn't always fit neatly into the logic of the animal rights movement. At the center of that logic is that animals have a right to avoidance of suffering, and this point is illustrated by an abundance of testimonials, pictures and video footage: electrocuted chinchillas, drowning beavers, cattle panicking in the slaughter house. Yet--and there are horrifying exceptions to this rule--big cats, such as the one that killed the Surry County girl, often lead decent or even pampered lives. Many big cat owners let their animals sleep in the same bed with them, and claim profound emotional bonds. They point out that their pets live longer, healthier lives in captivity than they would in their native habitat. Even Hodge had plenty of food and shelter, and protection from enemies.

Hodge's problem wasn't that he was hungry or cold or in pain. It was that he wasn't allowed to be what he was. It was that, living in a caged solitude, he was denied the blazing consciousness of his species. In human language, we would say, somewhat ineptly, that Hodge was unhappy.

Of course, once you replace avoidance of suffering with right to happiness the problems branch out and multiply. What is happiness, for an animal? Is it the same for a chocolate lab and an African elephant? Can we apply Maslov, Fromm, Marlin Perkins? Was Montecore, the beloved white tiger who dragged Las Vegas performer Roy Horn off the stage by his throat, a happy cat? In the wild, Hodge likely would have suffered, frequently and for long stretches. Yet I've no doubt he would have forsaken, in a heartbeat, his bagged horse meat for the jungle. An elephant on the savannah must struggle all her life for food and water, migrating great distances, protecting her young--paradise compared with marching in formation behind a troupe of clowns.

If we ever do right by wild animals, it will be because of stories like the one out of Surry County. It will be, in other words, for our protection and benefit, not theirs. The bottom rungs on any ladder of enlightenment are the rungs of empathy, the ability to relate to another's pain, joy, confusion, wonder. The argument against fur farms remains viable because the agony of the gassed chinchilla is not beyond our ken, no matter the distance between us and a mink. How can we parse out the definition of happiness for a Bengal tiger when we have trouble knowing what it means for, much less bestowing it on, our own kind? When we would pay for happiness, as the poet Amy Lowell wrote, "in coins of dripping blood."

"I don't know why the tiger did that and I'm not sure if anyone knows," the Wilkes County attorney told the papers. The abyss is deep, and dark as a leopard's pelt.

The Wilkes County boy didn't make it; he suffered severe lacerations of the head, chest, arms and legs, and was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The dead tiger was taken to a diagnostic lab, where the lab manager said the animal had been healthy and well-nourished.

The Surry County girl is recovering, and little is known about the circumstances of her attack. Evidently she had been standing inside the tiger's cages, taking pictures. Television crew looking for an interview with the family was met, instead, with the business end of a shotgun.

As for Hodge, he finally went away. Nancy's uncle got married, found a job and took the cat with him. Within a year or so the marriage and the job had dissolved, and soon after that Hodge died. I heard the news from Nancy's mother, who was outside hanging laundry when I came over. "That ol' leopard, he was some mess, wasn't he?" she said affectionately. "I used to throw him a chicken sometimes, to hush him up." She paused. "We're all torn up about it, is the truth. Hodge made everybody happy." EndBlock

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