Wild things

On the sofa, sea, or savannah, animals teach us

It crept up under the loose covers at the bottom of the bed and grabbed Jessie's toes. Jessie jolted awake, reached under the covers, and found the kitten. "What do you think you are, a shark?" she asked it. "A bed shark, I suppose?"

The kitten mewed softly and batted at Jessie's scolding finger. This furry critter was no smooth, wakeful eating machine. When he's not sleeping, he's playing.

Calling Gurgi a "bed shark" made us think of the differences among animals. It also started us thinking about how animals from very different species can be similar. The house cat you've lived with all your life is just as splendid as the tiger in the zoo or the sea otters that swim and play constantly at the aquarium. The squirrels in the backyard, the pigeons in the park, the goldfish in the bowl, and the dog that chases a ball may seem ordinary only because we're used to them. But each is astonishing in its own way.

The trick is learning to see them with fresh eyes. Each one of us can become an amateur animal behaviorist - a scientist who studies the behavior of animals. It's all a matter of watching animals carefully, patiently, and then asking ourselves why. Why is this cat rubbing up against my leg? Why does she meow? Why do kittens sneak up under the covers to bat at unsuspecting human toes?

Denver's Ocean Journey aquarium has real tigers in a habitat designed to give them lots of climbing and swimming space (tigers like to swim!). The big cats have great soft heads and beautiful eyes. But humans can't go near them, no matter how playful they seem. They are wild.

Big cats have lots in common with your cat, though. Big or small, cats can see much better than humans can in the dark. Have you noticed cats' eyes? In the daytime, the pupils of a cat's eyes (the dark part) are long narrow slits. But at night, the pupil dilates (gets big and round) to let in more light. That's because cats are actually nocturnal (nighttime) animals. Have you ever noticed that a cat's pupils dilate when it's playing hard chasing a feather or string? Why do you think that is?

"When animals are excited, their pupils dilate," says Fred Bercovitch, animal behaviorist of the San Diego Zoo. [See story on next page.] So there are different reasons for a cat's eyes to look big.

Why otters need whiskers

What about those whiskers? Cats' whiskers, you probably know already, help them find their way in the dark, too. Cats use their whiskers to feel whether they can fit through an opening, Mr. Bercovitch says. Tigers also need sensitive whiskers to get around the jungle at night.

But what about those whiskers on the sea otters at the zoo or aquarium? "We believe the whiskers of otters help them detect vibrations in the water when they are gliding," Bercovitch says. Feeling vibrations in the water could help them catch fish or warn them about predators or boats coming near. Whiskers mean different things to different animals, but they are always there for a reason.

Otters cavorting in the water can grab your attention and make you laugh. At Ocean Journey, otters Gracie and Taylor were orphaned at a young age and brought up by humans. They can never be released into the wild because they are too accustomed to human care. They do tricks - such as handing their trainer a paw so he can check it. They open their mouths for him to check their teeth. They also let him examine their pelts, so he can be sure they have no injuries.

Then Gracie and Taylor go back to chasing each other like kittens - only in the water. When they sleep, they lie on their backs and float next to each other. They keep their paws and flippers out of the water so they won't get too cold. Their trainer, Pete Davey, says that they spend a lot of the day grooming themselves, fluffing air into their thick coats. Otters don't have much blubber (fat) to insulate them from the cold. They need bubbles of air in their fur to help keep them warm.

After watching Gracie and Taylor for a long time, I went home and watched my cat, Belle, with new eyes. The otters were wonderful, but my short-haired gray cat is just as wonderful. I suddenly thought of her as my "land otter" (no, there's no such thing). It helped me appreciated her more.

A cat who comes when you ... sing

Like the sea otters, Belle spends a lot of time grooming herself. She's the cleanest cat I've ever seen. She won't go near a bathtub, but she cavorts like a little otter when it comes to playtime. She runs up on the bed and runs off again, with her pupils dilated, her hackles (a ridge of fur on her back) straight up, and her tail bushed out. She isn't angry. She's excited. Have you seen a cat do that?

When I sing, she comes to me. I've never known another cat to do that, have you? I have two other cats, Abbey and Elly, but they don't come when I sing. They like to chase toy mice. Belle doesn't. They meow a lot. Belle hardly ever speaks. But I can speak "cat." I meow back to each of them in their own way. We understand each other well enough to get along.

The beautiful tigers at the aquarium remind me of Belle. I see how much she resembles them - and how very different she is, too. I can't touch the tiger. But I can pet the little tiger in my lap. And the tiger and the cat each help me appreciate the other.

For more information: Ocean Journey website: www.oceanjourney.org or the San Diego Zoo site: www.sandiegozoo.org. 'The Tiger on Your Couch,' by Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming (William Morrow, 1992) tells what you can learn about your house cat by observing big cats.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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