BECOMING FERAL: CATS IN TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY RURAL SONOMA COUNTY
October 4, 2002, e-mail to fellow dog agility enthusiasts
Hi there, friends,
Rusten and I have been in a catless relation to the world since the death five years ago of twenty-one-year-old, former-feral-cat-turned-couch-mistress, Moses, but no more. A bone-thin, feral, gray tabby female had a litter of four near the barn this spring and then, sadly, got run over by a car on Mill Creek Road. We had been supplementing her food for a while by then, and we adopted her five-week-old kittens for the proud job of barn cats. Our cars parked by the old barn regularly became home to enterprising mice, who seemed to be building thriving murine communities in the warm engine compartments. Plastic wrapping on the cars' electrical wires must have provided needed trace nutrients; in any case, the rodents had a relish for munching colorful synthetics. We hoped for a little predator control assistance from felines.
All four kittens are flourishing and still very much feral. One of the little black guys (now known to be a male and bearing the name of all-black-clad Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) will let me pick him up and stroke him, but the others are satisfied with service from humans in the form of food and water. They otherwise much prefer the company of each other and a barn full of rodents. Spike, the tame one—also the runt of the litter—might find himself a traveling house cat in Santa Cruz come winter quarter, if he will agree to the transition. And if I can get Cayenne to agree to share her couch with a feline. . . . Right now she alternates between terror of cats (instilled by her godhuman's cat, Sugar) and considering them lunch.
When they were about six months old, we trapped the kittens, one at a time, with the help of Forgotten Felines in Sonoma County, and got them sterilized and vaccinated for rabies and distemper. The agreement with Forgotten Felines if they help with trap and release is that the humans promise to feed the feral cats for the duration of their lives—expected to be about eight to nine years, compared with one to two years for a feral cat not fed regularly by humans and fifteen to twenty years for a well-cared-for pet who comes indoors regularly at night. Word from the cooperating vet and the farm feed store that rents the traps is that there are probably thousands of supplemented, sterilized feral cats in Sonoma County. Insisting on our using the traps, the vet would not let us bring the cats to him in a regular cat crate because of a history of serious scratch and bite wounds from feral cats in getting them ready for surgery.
Our hope is that the cats will have a fine life keeping the rodents in check so that we can park by the barn again without providing warm, low-cost, tract housing in our air ducts for reproducing mice. Our felines are also supposed to keep further feral cats from settling in nearby. I hope they understand this contract! Meanwhile, bearing names from the Buffy and Dark Angel TV series, they are fat, sassy, and beautiful. Come up soon and check out Spike (black male), Giles (black male), Willow (dark gray tabby female), and Max (light gray tabby female). You will notice that one of the striped tabbies bears the name of bar code-marked Max from Dark Angel.
We'd change Willow's name if you could come up with another bar code-marked TV character. Any ideas?
Landmate Susan Caudill and Rusten decided that our cats have undergone the defining experience of alien abduction—lifted out of one's home without warning by strange-looking giants of unknown origin, held in dark isolation for a period, brought to a chrome- and light-filled medical facility and subjected to penetration with needles and forced reproductive alterations, returned to one's original location and released as if nothing had happened, and expected to carry on until the next abduction at some unknown future time.
As beings who have undergone surgery and vaccination and therefore been interpellated into the modern biopolitical state, these cats have earned names to go with their historical identities and subject status. Just think, when else and where else in hominid-feline cohistories would the offspring of a dead feral cat
1. be taken up by a household of overeducated, scientifically trained, middle-aged war resisters;
2. be aided by an animal welfare volunteer organization with a quasi-wilderness ideology and a soft spot for animal-rights speak;
3. become the recipient of the donated time and services of a vet trained at a post-Civil War, land grant, science based university and his technical staff;
4. be caught with a trap-and-release technology designed to get rid of vermin without the moral blot of killing them (the same technology designed to relocate wildlife in national parks and such);
5. receive serums tied to the history of immunology and to Pasteur in particular;
6. be fed MaxCat specially formulated kitten food certified by a national standards organization and regulated by food-labeling laws;
7. be named for a teenage vampire killer and genetically engineered characters on U.S. television;
8. and still have the status of wild animals?
Is this what Muir meant? In wilderness is our hope . . .
Much love, Donna p.s.: a philosophical postscript
Interpellation is taken from French post-structuralist, Marxist, philosopher Louis Althusser's theory for how subjects are constituted from concrete individuals by being "hailed" through ideology into their subject positions in the modern state. Early in the twentieth century, the French rescued the word from obsolescence (before 1700 in English and French, to interpellate had meant "to interrupt or break in on speech") to refer to calling on a minister in the legislative chamber to explain the policies of the ruling government. Today, through our ideologically loaded narratives of their lives, animals "hail" us animal people to account for the regimes in which they and we must live. We "hail" them into our constructs of nature and culture, with major consequences of life and death, health and illness, longevity and extinction. We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. In that is our hope . . .
p.p.s.: an update from December 2006
Life-table statistics have a way of coming true with a vengeance, and the category called ""feral" has a way of making claims on those fated to live and die there. Always the most tame and the first to enjoy morning scratch and ankle-twining sessions with provident humans at the food bowl, Spike was run over by a car when he was two years old. We were lucky a neighbor found his body in a drainage ditch and asked if he was ours. We found Willow dead one morning with her front leg torn off, presumably by a raccoon from the crowd of animals whom we did not intend to provision but who had their own ideas about resources and power. Raiding the cats' food arrangements with aplomb, Steller's jays by day and raccoons by night engaged in what can only be called an arms race with us and the felines, as we tested various organisms' (including our own) abilities to solve lock-and-key problems in a practice that would have made the fathers of comparative psychology proud. Our loyalty seemed due the cats and not the jays and raccoons, because we had produced the food competition and invited—really engineered—the cats into semidependence on us.
Giles and Max are still alive in December 2006, but they have each sustained serious abdominal and leg wounds from fights, from which they have healed, though not completely. They are burdened with tapeworms and probably other parasites; we can see the dried tape segments near their anuses. Their lives are palpably fragile. They are not pets; they do not get the care of a middle-class pet. They and we have rituals of expectation and affectionate touch enacted on a daily basis. Waiting for us from safe lookouts, or for our landmate Susan when Rusten and I are in Santa Cruz, the cats take dust baths in the gravel with enthusiasm when we appear, progressing to twining their bodies around hominid ankles and soliciting food and grooming in communicative gestures familiar to all cat people. Max's belly wound from this summer is still draining. Giles's rear leg seems healed from last year's long rip and subsequent circulatory insufficiency and persistent ulceration. They are wild enough that the process of getting them to a vet would probably have caused them worse injuries. And then what? Can cats raised feral become traveling, middle-class, academic pets in two different territories, one urban and one rural? What obligations ensue from the experience of entangled lives once touch has been initiated?
Their fur is shiny and eyes bright. Their high-end kibble diet is scientifically formulated and is probably why they can resist infection so well. The lamb protein in that diet is derived from industrial sheep-raising and slaughtering systems that should not exist, and the rice is hardly full of multispecies justice and well-being either, as anyone living off the water politics of California agribusiness knows. Meanwhile, we affluent humans won't buy and eat that particular (cheap) meat for ourselves, and we try to buy organic grains from sustainable agroecological farms. Who is fooling whom? Or is my wry indigestion a prick to trying to do better as companion species, individually and collectively, even while committed to permanent reexamination about what is better? The cats hunt avidly, and they still play with each other, even with their life scars. I don't care when I see Steller's jay feathers littering their hunting grounds; those avian populations are not threatened by domestic cats around here. I do remember the statistics of songbird kills by even well-provisioned pet cats in many places—enough to destabilize populations and add to the threat to already threatened species. I wish I knew the score in my region, but I do not. Would I kill our feral cats if I learned they were a problem for the local quail or other birds?
As for the contract we put out on rodents (I will leave unexamined the implicit category of vermin that fuels my unstably funny tone), our cats seem more into ranching than predator control. I am convinced they only crop surplus adolescent male rodents and carefully husband the pregnant females, finding them nice nests in our cars' innards. At least, the barn's various rodent populations seem to thrive in their presence. Would I know if our dusky-footed wood rat or deer mice populations were in trouble? Does provisioning feral cats carry obligations to follow through on questions of species diversity and ecological balances in microregions?
Nothing about the multispecies relationships I am sketching is emotionally, operationally, intellectually, or ethically simple for the people or clearly good or bad for the other critters. Everything about these specific, situated relationships is shaped from inside middle-class, rural or suburban, animal welfare- and rights-inflected, techno-scientific cultures. One thing seems clear to me after four years of living out—and imposing—face-to-face mutually opportunistic and affectionate relationships with critters who are no more and no less alien presences on this land than my human household and who would otherwise have died four years ago outside our ken: becoming feral demands—and invites—becoming worldly just as much as any other species entanglements do. "Feral" is another name for contingent "becoming with" for all the actors.
BECOMING EDUCATED: TEACHING U.S. HISTORY IN A COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN SONOMA COUNTY
What do feral cats have to do with community college students, besides having numbers assigned to them for tracking purposes and being required to get vaccinations? The short answer is that both classes of beings are "educated" through their intra-actions within historically situated technology. When Species Meet is about the entanglements of beings in technoculture that work through reciprocal inductions to shape companion species. Certain domestic animals have played the starring roles in this book, but it should be clear by now that many categories of beings, including technological assemblages and college students, count as ""species" enmeshed in the practice of learning how to be worldly, how to respond, how to practice respect. In the spring of 2006, Evan Selinger, a science and technology studies colleague from philosophy, asked me to participate in a book he was coediting that posed a series of five questions to various scholars generously classed as philosophers.1 The little essay below is adapted from my reply to one of Selinger's questions, namely, "If the history of ideas were to be narrated in such a way as to emphasize technological issues, how would that narrative differ from traditional accounts?"
"Ideas" are themselves technologies for pursuing inquiries. It's not just that ideas are embedded in practices; they are technical practices of situated kinds. That said, there is another way to approach this question. Several years ago I took a freshman course on American history offered at night at our local community college in Healdsburg, California, in order to add to the enrollment figures so that the instructor, my husband, Rusten Hogness, could give me an F and thus have the freedom to give better grades to the real students, since the History Department insisted on grading to a strict curve. Among other pursuits, Rusten is a software engineer who then was working at a little Hewlett-Packard branch office with fellow engineer friends. They all took the course for failing grades too, so that Rusten and his students could forget the curve and concentrate on learning. A couple years before, Rusten had taken this course himself from our housemate and friend, Jaye Miller, so that he could take an F and free up the curve for Jaye's students. It was easy to sign up for community college courses without supplying complete transcripts from previous education and without leaving much of a trail into further education or professional paths.
Without giving away our identities or purposes to the other students, who were of varying ages and experiences, all of us rogue enrollees actually worked pretty hard and joined in discussions all the time. Rusten taught the whole course through the history of technology, focusing on things such as the shoe lasts, guns, surgeries, and potted meat of the Civil War; the railroads, ranches, and mines of the Rocky Mountain West; the calorimeters of food science in land grant colleges and their relation to labor struggles; and P. T. Barnum's populist testing of the mental acumen of visitors to his displays (were they a hoax? were they real? I seem to recall that to be a famous philosophical query). Throughout the class, a wide-ranging set of questions in philosophy, politics, and cultural history came together to think better about possible shapes of science and technology. The idea that technology is relational practice that shapes living and dying was not an abstraction but a vivid presence. The history of a nation, as well as the history of ideas, had the shape of technology. Old and important books such as Sigfried Giedion's 1947 Mechanization Takes Command and Lewis Mumford's 1934 Technics and Civilization helped us through the course's conventional required textbook. The real students, as well as the faux failures, loved the course and knew a great deal more about "the history of ideas," including things like information and thermodynamics, as well as work, land rights, war, and justice, at the end of the term than at the beginning.
Rusten loves to teach, and he is fiercely committed to democratic scientific and technical competence and literacy. He has always taught with as much of a hands-on approach as possible and with a bright eye on the history of popular science and struggles for a more democratic society. We met in the 1970s in the History of Science Department at Johns Hopkins, where he was a graduate student studying nineteenth-century French and American popular science, among other things. He was also teaching the natural sciences and mathematics, as well as history and social studies, at the Baltimore Experimental High School. There, he constantly had his students hanging out in labs, hospitals, factories, and technology museums, and he taught politics, history, science, and technology as an integral part of Baltimore's story as an industrial port city with a fraught racial, sexual, and class history. He turned our kitchen into a chemistry lab, literally, and persuaded the students to think about industrial chemistry as well as the science and technology of cooking as a way to nurture both the pleasure of the science and a better sense of how divisions of labor and status work in science and technology.
Years before, Rusten, a war resister and pacifist in the Vietnam era, had done two years of alternative service in the Muslim southern Philippines, teaching mathematics and philosophy in a little fisheries college to students who were mostly dead a few years later from the repression of both separatist and revolutionary movements by the U.S.-supported regime in Manila. Questions about technologies of globalization and of "antiterrorism" are indelibly written onto his optic tectum and in intimate contact with whatever signals are working their way through the cerebrum.
Rusten's paternal grandfather, Thorfin Hogness, had headed the physical chemistry division of the Manhattan Project and then participated in civilian scientists' struggles over the control of nuclear science and technology after the war. Perhaps as a result, most of Rusten's siblings and cousins are directly engaged in their working lives and their community presence in "the history of ideas from a technological perspective" and vice versa. I tell this family story to foreground the knot of public and intimate worlds tying together what we call technology and what we might mean by philosophical perspectives. I am not sure if this way of approaching the question is traditional or not; it depends on what tradition one focuses on. But I am sure that I learned more U.S. history and more history of philosophy, as well as history of technology, in the one course in my life that I failed than in a great pile of those others marked with A's.
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