Reasonable instinct

In a certain neighborhood a stray dog kept appearing. She was so shy that no one could get near her, only close enough to observe that she looked hungry. People began putting out food and water, but she wouldn't approach the handout until the human went into a house. Then she ate ravenously and vanished. About four of the neighbors kept the dog fed, but no one could make her acquaintance. Obviously she had had reasons to have a poor opinion of human beings.

This remote-control situation went on for many days, people trying to make friends, the dog not trusting. One morning a woman opened her door and found a small puppy, perhaps three or four weeks old, on her doormat. Of course she took the little thing in, gave it warm milk, decided to keep it. Strangely, the neighborhood talk that day was about four people, each of whom found a doorstep puppy and kept it. The dog they had fed was never seen again. Had she been testing the neighborhood's capacity for caring?

It wasn't difficult for me to believe this story because I'd had a similar experience with a cat who moved into our barn. I fed her when I fed the other animals. Soon there were three kittens in a nest of hay. Their mother had become accustomed to me and was a good affectionate tabby, and after the kittens were old enough to stagger around and try to play they were friendly, too.

So far as I know the mother cat never wandered far from the barn, which is quite a distance from the house. But one day I saw her coming across the meadow between house and barn; she was carrying something. It was one of her kittens and of course it knew what to do to help its mother. It tucked up its back legs to keep them from dragging. The cat deposited the kitten on our back porch and returned to the barn. Soon she brought kitten No. 2 and then the third. After having discarded the responsibility of motherhood she went away. I was delighted with the kittens, and the people who had foundling puppies were delighted with their rewards. I don't know why the cat selected my barn in the first place, but some instinct seemed to have led her correctly.

I knew a dog named Duke, a Labrador retriever, and Duke was such an animal lover that in some mysterious way deer and rabbits and squirrels knew that he would never harm them. When Duke and his master went walking the little wild rabbits hopped along with them. Every day Duke's owner took scraps of lettuce and carrots to a certain place in the brush and left them for the wildlife, so of course the rabbits were glad to hop along with the man and his dog. But that doesn't explain their lack of fear or Duke's kindly attitude.

One day they came across a doe and fawn. Duke looked at them and the doe looked at him. Then she took her fawn a few steps away, settled it down behind a bush, and approached Duke. Duke stepped slowly toward her. They walked to within a foot of each other, stood, and stared in a friendly fashion. The doe went back to her fawn and Duke resumed his walk with his rabbit friends.

It fascinates me when animals of different kinds become friends, especially the combination of tame and wild. I knew a cat who adopted and raised a baby rabbit, but that could be attributed to strong maternal instincts because her own kitten had died. I knew a dog who had a coyote friend, and they played together like two dogs or two coyotes. The untamed coyote would wait in a clearing in the hills for the dog to come out and play.

I am acquainted with a cow who wants to be a deer and refuses to mingle with the other cattle. She goes off in the brush with a small herd of deer and is the first to start running when she sees a human out looking for her.

Instinct is a great gift that creatures have and, though some people believe that animals are incapable of reasoning, we have watched, many times, what appeared to be the results of reason. At any rate, I have arrived at the reasonable conclusion that we humans have a lot to learn.

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