We all know that some people are not on our wavelength, that we don’t ‘click’ instantly. We also talk about a clash of personalities. The same terms apply to animals. Over several years of living with various animals and observing each of them individually, I could clearly see the differences in personalities between different creatures of the same kind. I will start with today’s extraordinary news about a female spider called Kim. Scientists at Manchester University trained Kim, the jumping spider, to leap on command, or what I would rather call ‘a polite request’. There was no reward incentive and the study of Kim’s jumps has a serious scientific purpose. Researchers are hoping to analyse the pictures of Kim’s jumps (they used a sophisticated camera and high-resolution micro CT scan that is a form of X-ray) to record, monitor and analyse Kim’s movement and behaviour. It would be used to build micro-robots that would mimic the jumping of the spider, and be used in pest control on crops. My point here is that of the four female spiders bought from the pet shop, only Kim understood the request, and good-naturedly obliged. Of course, she is a Star, and should be made an Honorary member of the research team. And I am only half-joking.
I wrote in one blog about a frog in my garden, only one of many there, who after being rescued from a deep container, started following me into the kitchen, and every day would sit under the table, quietly observing the humans’ goings on. When one evening I closed the garden door without checking if he had gone back to the garden, he found me in another room along the hall and jumped into my lap alerting me to that fact. He even insisted that I open the back door to the garden, rather than the front door which was nearer. He also liked to sit by my side when I worked in the garden, an enchanting companion, and greatly appreciated.
The baby hedgehog that I rescued in winter with a bad lung infection, who I carried around in a shawl attached to my chest to maintain the uniform temperature of his body and to give him the comfort of listening to my heartbeat, bonded with me (and I with him) in an unprecedented manner. After three months of this treatment plus a series of antibiotics, he recovered sufficiently to be able to walk around the house, and he became diurnal to keep me company, and slept at night. He was vocal and communicated with me in a clearly understood way, and also through telepathy. His long-term memory was impressive and often took me by surprise. It never happened with any other hedgehog, and I had saved many, nor with any other animals, and so I know that I wasn’t hallucinating.
Where I live there, are many cats, and as I have many birds living in my wildlife garden, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to help a feral cat that came starving one bad winter. But using a mixture of kindness and massive pampering, when spring came he learned in three weeks that the birds must not be touched. It took much longer for him to properly settle in and for me to be able to gently stroke him, but he became a wonderful, affectionate friend and we were all heart-broken when 12 years later Freddie passed away, at the age (vet’s estimate) of sixteen. A good few years before he became old, I noticed that he befriended a shy old cat who would peep from behind a bush but would not come close. Freddie would roll on the ground inviting me to stroke him in full view of his new friend. It was obvious he was showing his friend that I was a good sort and could be trusted. Finally, the cat would come in and Freddie would not only share his supper with the guest, but later on, when it became obvious that the cat was poorly, he would push the plate towards him, insisting that he would eat something. I knew that the cat lived with my elderly woman neighbour who told me that the cat was receiving vet treatment and wasn’t expected to live long. For some reason, perhaps mainly Freddie’s affection and his compassion, the cat stayed with us in a comfy armchair for most of the day. When one day he disappeared, Freddie was obviously upset. When I called the woman, she told me in an icy voice that she had him put down. She could not understand that both Freddie and I would want at least to say goodby, and my being upset confirmed her conviction that I was mad. Her parting remark was: ‘Really, it was only a cat…’
After new rules of rubbish collection came into force, we all noticed unwelcome visitors, rats, appearing around the bins and gardens. We were not spared a visit, and one rat in particular was so aggressive that I had to call the pest control people after he made a hole the size of an orange in the door to the kitchen. It took five weeks to get rid of him, and it was not a day too soon. A few years later another rat arrived and I expected the worse, but this one was a completely different character. He destroyed nothing, acknowledged us in an amiable way when passing on the landing or when strolling around the house, and we called him Ratatouille. He stayed happily all winter but in the spring left by an open window, no doubt to find a mate. He is remembered fondly. I now fully understand Beatrix Potter having a friendly rat staying at her cottage, that she wrote about; there is still a hole in the wooden floor on the landing covered by a rug, that thousands of visitors can see. Chris Packham also mentioned once that he let a rat or two ‘use’ the attic of his cottage. It is all down to the way the ‘guests’ behave, and so personality wins over notoriety every time.
I have mentioned previously how generations of queen bumblebees slept every year over the winter months behind my dresser, then they would depart in the spring, only to come back to the kitchen if the weather became too chilly for a few days. Each year, when the bumblebee was finally able to stay outside, on seeing me coming out into the garden, she would fly towards me and buzz around my head in a friendly greeting. This welcome would be proffered only for a few days, after that she would be far too busy building a nest in one of the flower beds by the kitchen. It is for her and other insects that I planted many winter and early spring-flowering plants.
And now I must write about a relatively recent encounter. About two years ago a black and white cat came to my garden. He was obviously very young, and knowing the trouble my wild birds had with other cats, I was not very happy, and I didn’t want to encourage him in any way. Unfortunately, the cat spotted my husband’s soft nature where animals are concerned, and would make a beeline for him. While we named the cat Felix, he named my husband Patsy, on account of his grovelling on the floor to stroke his offered tummy, and allowing his protegé to take bits of food from his plate and his fingers, while sitting on his lap. I certainly would not be allowed to do this. A few months passed with me being more and more concerned with Felix’s visits when one day he brought with him his mother and the nightmare started. I had to guard my birds, and chase the mother from her favourite spot by the bird table, watching them with intent. Of course, this would also discourage the birds from eating, and I was not happy. This became urgent when Fenella killed a young robin in our full view. About this time my husband had to go away, and I was left with two unruly cats; I had to think fast. Would the method used successfully with the feral cat Freddie work here too?
I ordered the best gourmet cat food, pulled out a set of beautiful china bowls and set the ‘table’ on a colourful mat. Additionally, there would be prawns, salmon and turkey. Upstairs, in the study, two armchairs were lined with two thick and velour-soft blankets. I also bought a few toys stuffed with catnip. Felix responded enthusiastically to the thrice daily feast as he had never tasted soft food before, only the cheapest dry pellets. Fenella was reluctant to come in since she well-remembered the chasing and chastising, but was finally persuaded to try the food she could smell on Felix. Being much older, she had more to catch up on this fine dining and once she started, she would eat as if the end of the world was coming tomorrow. We never looked back. As I write this, the birds are allowed to feed, take food to their fledglings, and then when they are ready to leave the nests, bring them to the garden without fear. Both cats understand my request that they don’t touch the birds or stay in the garden at all. On normal days they sleep in the armchairs or stroll in other gardens but not in mine. They are free to come and go as they please, and their home is not here, but as they are exceptionally intelligent they understand and keep to the deal agreed.
When someone works full-time but wants the company of a cat regardless, it isn’t right that the bird population is decimated by the millions, just to satisfy our needs. When my husband came back he was astonished to see how relaxed and calm they had become, no doubt because they now live without the guilty conscience of doing something that the person they love was disapproving of so strongly. Their coats are luxurious and as shiny as if they were sprayed in clear high-gloss lacquer. They are both very affectionate, and I oblige with all the tummy rubbing that is requested. There is moon-walking from Felix, and his speciality, sleeping tummy up in gay abandon, is well documented. Happiness all round.
This is only a small selection of many interesting characters that I was lucky to meet, and I can only conclude again and again, that the behaviour of animals living with us reflects to a greater degree our own.