Otto, our cat, lost a tooth in a fight with Lionel, a neighbor's cat that often strays through our back yard. The two cats have had ongoing tensions.
Otto had already had a tough week. The previous Saturday, when we let him outside into the unseasonably warm sun, he had murder in his eyes. He sat on our back deck for a few hours glowering. We figured he was waiting for Lionel, another gray cat, although long haired, that lives a few houses away and has become Otto’s arch enemy. Otto’s not much of a roamer, and tends to stay in a couple of spots in the yard of the house we’re renting, or under the deck. Lionel, however, is everywhere. We constantly see him making his way up the neighbors’ walk across the street, hoping fences, climbing trees in the neighborhood, and traipsing through our yard – an act that outrages our own gray cat. A few times we’ve awakened to find our cat in the sill above our headboard, puffed up and yowling with anger at Lionel sitting in the tree just outside the window. After a few hours on Saturday, we heard the inevitable cat fight on our deck. Otto had his teeth at Lionel’s throat and Lionel had his on the top of Otto’s head. Every paw and claw was clenched onto an adversary, and the two cats were rolling in a fist-tight ball of gray, fuzzy outrage. A silvery fog of fur filled the air. We kicked and hosed the cats apart and dragged Otto inside as Lionel retreated to his own house. Later that afternoon, when we returned to our deck, we found a fang from one of the cats. We worried that we’d have to tell Lionel’s owners that their cat had lost a tooth, but, upon opening Otto’s mouth, found that the tooth was his – his lower left canine had probably gotten caught in the chain collar that Lionel wears. The broken tooth didn’t seem to be paining him, and he didn’t have any other injuries of note, so we accepted that, after 12 years, Otto’s grin wouldn’t be quite as sweet. We gave thanks that he didn’t have any more serious or expensive injuries and hoped the same was true of Lionel.
We always knew letting Otto outside was a risk, even when we lived in Connecticut. When we moved to Colorado, we knew that those risks increased, especially at night, dawn, and dusk. Otto clearly knew that too, and when we lived in a park with him, he spent most of his time on the screened-in porch, and curtailed his time outside. On his first venture into the yard, he found a big pile of bear poop, and that convince him that the Colorado woods didn’t have much in common with the Connecticut gardens where he spent many of his days back East. Even after our move into the heart of Boulder, Otto showed much more caution on leaving the house, and would sniff around the door and the deck before heading into the yard. He often changed his mind and came back inside, which was fine with us. But even though Otto doesn’t go out too much anymore and never travels far from the door, he lives for his time outside. I’m sure he would say it is the best part of his life – digging holes, eating grass, rolling in the dirt, sitting for hours on a sunny porch rail, or sleeping under a bush. He would paw and claw the door, meowing and looking over his shoulder at us to convince us to open it. When he came in, he would be puffed up and chatty, holding his head and tail high as he made his way to his dinner bowl. In Connecticut, where he often spent the day outside while we were at work, he would run up the driveway from the backyard gardens to great us and roll on the walk to wait for us to unload the car and then make his way inside with us. In the decade we’ve been letting him out, the worst thing that had happened to him were catfights that had left his pretty gray ears with a couple of nicks, and two battles that required stitches.
Friday evening we had plans to meet a friend for dinner and to see another friend’s son play a jazz show at a local used clothing store – Boulder has some unusual music venues. It was still light out when we were getting ready to leave, Otto was at the door pawing and begging to go out. We told him no – it would be dark by the time we came home – and pulled him from the door, but he’s persistent when he really wants to get some sun and grass and, against our better judgement, we relented. We rode our bikes downtown, and came home around 10:30. As we pulled off the sidewalk onto our street, we saw a dog trotting up a side street by our house. It was very dark, and we could see the dog carrying something – Carolyn though it was a blanket. I thought it looked like a purse. I turned up the street the canine was heading up to investigate, just as Carolyn shouted “It’s a coyote, and he’s got someone’s pet!”
I charged my bike right at the yote shouting “Otto!” at the top of my lungs, not because I thought it was our cat – it looked black rather than gray – but because I realized he was out and at risk. The coyote dropped its prey, I leapt onto the lawn, landing on my knees next to the motionless pile of fur as my bike crash into the curb. The coyote, which was big by Boulder standards, raced up the street and vanished. As I got to the small animal, I could see the small white patch in the center of Otto’s chest, and shouted back to Carolyn that it was Otto. He was contorted and completely still.
I was sure he was dead and started crying and petting him and cursing myself for giving into his perstering to go outside. Although the entire event lasted a few seconds, I had time to wonder whether it was better to see your pet killed by the jaws of a predator, or to search through the night and following weeks, but never find him.
But Otto was still warm and, as I stroked him, I felt him breath, although just barely. I scooped him up and yelled to Carolyn to find an all-night vet. I carried Otto to our yard, figuring he was going to die in my arms, but I saw his eyes open and saw that, at least for the moment, he was still with us. I put Otto in the back of the car, and we headed to Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center a couple miles away. Otto’s neck was soaked – Carolyn tried to find a wound bleeding on him, but couldn’t. As we drove, Otto raised his head and I thought, “at least his neck’s not broken.” He had a look of total shock on his face – like he didn’t know where he was.
Carolyn carried him into the hospital, and in the light, we saw he had a badly broken left, front leg. Both the radius and the ulna were sticking through his skin and the bottom of his leg and paw hung backwards like they were about to fall off. The young woman who had met us a the front desk just commented that it looks like he hurt his paw and carried him through a door to the back of the hospital. Carolyn and I embraced, then sat down with our grief and guilt, preparing ourselves to hear that there was nothing that could be done for him.
After they x-rayed him, however, they came to tell us that, aside from his broken leg, some air that had escaped from his lungs into his chest cavity in his struggle, and another missing tooth – this one his upper right canine – he was OK. The moisture we felt around his neck was coyote saliva. There were two small cuts from the yote’s teeth, one above Otto’s right eye and one behind his left ear. Our best guess is that he somehow protected his neck and throat with his leg, and the coyote failed to break his spine or puncture his jugular. Otto’s size – he’s grown to nearly 15 pounds – probably worked in his favor as well. The coyote couldn’t run well with such a big cat in his mouth.
Otto spent the weekend at the vet’s and we worried that he might lose his paw. The staff at Alpenglow were terrific throughout, and managed to clean the wound up well. They kept Otto in a plexiglass cubicle the size of a large dog carrier that they pumped with oxygen. Saturday, in the middle of the night, barely 24 hours after the attack, Otto managed to wiggle through one of the vents in his cage, despite his IVs and bandaged leg. The vets found him just as he was making his getaway. They had a laugh and took it as a positive sign.
On Monday, he had surgery and they were able to put his leg back together with a “external fixative” – a flexible tube screwed to his broken bones and then filled with a cement to make it rigid when they had the bones set the way they wanted them. The screws and splinting device will all come off when his leg is healed. We really can’t say enough about how well Otto was treated at Alpenglow – they were caring and focused and allowed us to visit at all hours for as long as we wanted. I’m sure they strive to make everyone feel their pet is special, but they showed genuine concern and affinity for Otto. Perhaps that’s because of how unusual his case was – one of the emergency vets told us that in his 13 years at the clinic, he had never seen a cat survive a large predator attack. Usually they just vanish. Otto’s surgeon said he had treated one cat that survived a mountain lion attack, but with far more serious injuries than the gray dude’s.
Domestic cats are the most popular pet in America, numbering some 80 million. There are 400 million domestic cats worldwide. We tend to feel we are either parents or partners to our cats, but in reality they don’t think of us as serving either of those roles. Cats were the last species humans domesticated. They can’t be herded, and won’t run in a pack. According to Jake Page, author of Do Cats Hear With Their Feet?: Where Cats Come From, What We Know About Them, And What They Think About Us (published by HarperCollins and Smithsonian Books), our house cats are really just shrunken versions of their big cousins – lions, jaguars, leopards. No matter whether they stay indoors or not, they hold the same place in the food chain that they have always had. They’re designed to eat nothing but meat, and set up to kill it themselves. We’ve been thankful that Otto’s a lazy and incompetent hunter, but in our Connecticut house he managed to catch and kill a few mice and, during his time outside, nabbed a couple of birds. He embarrassed us last summer by torturing a chipmunk to death in a friend’s backyard. As horrible as it was to see him in a predators mouth, there are certainly plenty of people who would see it as karma. And, as opposed to the coyote that certainly intended to eat him, Otto’s a trophy hunter – killing his prey, then showing it off to us, but never attempting to devour it. His canned food and kibble more than satisfies his need for food, but not his hunger to kill.
Otto’s also more than aware that being a part of the food chain means as he’s prey as well as a predator, and he’s generally shown great caution outside. Nonetheless, we’ve chosen to indulge him with time outside the captivity of our home and, in so doing, are risking not only his life, but his impact on other wildlife. The wild predators that make their way into the city do so because we provide them with food – our garbage, our picnic scraps, and our pets. In Boulder, along with the coyotes that have become quite a problem in certain neighborhoods this year, we also get foxes, raptors, and, on very rare occasions, a bear or mountain lion. One cougar was darted in a tree on the University of Colorado campus a few blocks away from our house last year. The lion was tranquilized and relocated, but by drawing wildlife to our cities and suburbs, we doom a certain number of them to death from traffic, other animals, and wildlife managers who feel they must destroy them for public safety.
We’ll be faced with another challenge when Otto’s recuperation is over – curtailing his time outside. But it’s important to realize that we’re doing that for selfish reasons. We want to keep his company as long as we can, and so will do what it takes to prolong his life (inlcuding, at least in this instance, spending more on his health care than on our own). He, however, would certainly choose to confront the risks the outdoors pose to him to reap the rewards he instinctively hungers for and has grown accustomed to.
All told, Otto’s convalescence will last about 16 weeks. We’ll spend much of that time pounding the pavement for some more freelance jobs to pay for his care.