I’m going to stick my neck out here and say I don’t like the idea of holding cats prisoner.
I know lots of people need to keep their cats indoors – they live by dangerous roads or they live in apartment blocks or whatever – but I always feel it’s a shame when cats can’t roam freely. Cats are evolved to snake around in shrubby undergrowth, rush at trees and scale them in 4 seconds flat, stalk lizards and mice and birds and pad about on rooves chasing squirrels. (You know the joke about cats on rooves chasing squirrels don’t you? If you don’t, contact me. It’s funny.)
I’ve known a number of “flat cats” – cats who live in apartments and can’t get out – and they’ve tended to be overweight and/or a bit neurotic. They just have this Denied-my-biological-destiny feel about them. I had a friend whose indoor cat, Lucie, spent her whole life hanging around behind the door in the hope she could one day dash out when someone came in or out, leg it down three flights of stairs and finally get a breath of fresh air in the communal garden. She was allowed on the balcony of that apartment – two floors up – and once ‘fell’ into the garden. She dropped into cotoneaster bushes and was unhurt but her owner was appalled and promptly stopped her going onto the balcony. I thought that was tragic for the cat. I’m pretty certain Lucie didn’t lose her balance at all – I think she spent a good long time looking down at that lawn and those shrubs and was filled with such a compelling desire to walk on real live soil, grass and flowerbeds that she threw herself over the rail and hurtled down to earth regardless of the risks. I think she jumped off the balcony. My instinct is that she was like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape – get free of captivity or risk death trying.
I’ve only had two cats live in my home. I wouldn’t say I’ve owned two cats, because cats aren’t ownable. They can always get up off the couch, slink out of the catflap, walk into the forest and never return. That’s not ownership. Coco, who turned up here in southern France in 2007, is not a cat who can stay indoors. Shortly after choosing this house as his home, and me as his provider, he got in a furious argument with a ginger cat and wounded his left eye. The local vet operated and put one of those plastic collars on his head and told me firmly “Keep your cat inside for two weeks.”
Frankly, it would have been easier to teach my cat algebra. For a week – day and night – he hurled himself at the doors and windows like a cat possessed. He cried all night, whinged all day, drove me mad… It was patently obvious what that cat needed. He would rush at the door, huddle by a window, rush to get out when I opened the door to leave the house. He was going crazy to get out. After a week I asked the vet for cat sedatives and when Coco spat them out in disgust I ended up taking them myself. He didn’t want to be sedated (I did), he wanted to be outside in his beloved forest, communing with the rabbits, the wild boar, the jay birds, the thyme and the long grass.
And then I cracked. I used a long belt as a lead and took him out in the forest, tethered, so I could bring him home again after an hour or so. And I’ve never seen an animal’s neurotic behaviour vanish so rapidly. Once he had access to ‘outside’ he was happy. Cats need to go outside and roam.
That was several years ago and since then, touch wood, he’s been a very happy, reasonably healthy cat. He had cystitis a couple of times and we got through that, finding a way to get more water into his diet. But it’s clear that his feline physical freedom is paramount. He’ll cuddle up on my bed at night but around 4 or 5 in the morning I’ll feel his cat paws slink down off the bed and out of the room. The catflap will sound and he’s gone. Around 7 or 8, he’ll hurtle in through the door calling for breakfast.
Coco is a cat who rarely kills mice. In summer he does bring a few into the sitting room at night and he chases them up the curtains or behind the sofa. Those who stay on the curtain rail are rescued in the morning and deposited outside. Sometimes I can save the mice behind the sofa too. But he’s a cat who has only killed one songbird in three years which I think is not too bad. He seems to understand that birds can take off vertically and that doesn’t interest him as much as lizards and mice who stay conveniently grounded. He watches the squirrels and baby squirrels by the water bowl in summer but they always keep one leg on the pine tree behind them and he knows they vanish at lightning speed if he moves a muscle. So I don’t think he’s doing any damage to the local bird and wildife here in Provence.
And the benefits to him of being a free spirit – an indoor-outdoor cat at will – are very clear. At breakfast and dinner he’ll eat a bit of meat in his supper dish and then bolt out through the catflap ready to take on the whole forest and defend his territory. He’ll lie voluptuously in the long grass in summer, lazily pawing at lavender or thyme. He’ll hide in the undergrowth and jump out at me as I pass, grabbing my feet and pretending to bite my ankles. He’ll slink around the oleanders, waiting to pounce on a lizard or a butterfly. When he comes inside, it’s because he wants to eat or wants a safe place to sleep, or a cuddle, or a nap in front of the log fire in winter. If he was unable to go outside, half of his happy cat’s life would be missing.
I know that he does run the risk of being duffed up by a feral cat, or just an uncastrated cat, in the forest. Since he’s castrated, the vet says he’s unlikely to be attacked and unlikely to fight. I hope that’s true. But even if it wasn’t, I’d find it hard to keep this part wild, part domesticated creature inside my house. He needs to go out and he wants to go out. If there’s a risk in letting him out, that’s not a great thought for me. I love this beautiful cat and I want him to be whole and healthy. But the thought of keeping him inside is worse. If he had to choose between, say, ten years of freedom and twenty years of captivity I’m pretty sure what this beautiful creature would prefer. It would be the option that came with a catflap.