Sunday, March 18, 2012

Living The Big Sky Life: From Scaredy Cat to Wild Cat

Like every politician, Newt Gingrich is all about getting his name out there any way he can, even if his name happens to be inadvertently attached to some scaredy-cat desperately trying to scratch and claw his way into the House.  

Gingrich’s political ambitions aside, I can say with certainty that his existence played absolutely no role in my young daughter’s decision to name her cat “Newt” in 1990 because she had no clue Gingrich even existed. Like many pet owners, my daughter chose to name her cat after something that had meaning for her, and in Newt’s case, she wanted to name him after the sole surviving young girl nicknamed “Newt” in the movie “Aliens”. Little did we know at the time, however, that Newt’s survival instinct would also be triggered by traumatic necessity to parallel that of his on-screen namesake.

In an unforgiving landscape subject to the cyclical whims of the seasons, creatures of the wild do whatever they instinctively need to do to survive. And sadly, not all of them do.

When it came to survival of the fittest for the animal kingdom of the Flathead Valley, it was obvious that the harsh winters were always the most challenging for the animals that don’t hibernate during the deep freeze. Keeping warm enough to stay alive and finding enough to eat just to keep warm went hand in hand, or perhaps it was more like hand to mouth.

It wasn’t unusual for us to see deer roaming through our fields of frosty tundra during the winter in search of a morsel. If the deer couldn’t find enough edible vegetation underneath the snow covered ground, they’d invariably make their way to the shallow flower beds around our ranch house where a delicate feast of flowering bulbs could often be found laying dormant not far below the surface. And I learned the hard way that foraging deer made for a pathetic springtime crocus bloom, but by the time I figured that out, the deer had long moved on to nibbling to a nub any tender shoots that could be found sprouting on the saplings we’d been foolish enough to leave unprotected after planting the previous fall. The deer reminded me of rabbits in a cabbage patch, doing what comes naturally, and it was impossible to get upset. It was simply incumbent upon us to plan better.

Although Chef didn’t dare insist that Newt prove he was a real cat by hunting down his own food, Newt certainly knew by this point that every day in Montana would see him in the fight for his life. It was in his eyes, and rightfully so. And it was especially so when Chef would lock the cats out of the house at night (in accordance with principle #1 of his non-negotiable animal doctrine), right about the time the hungry wolf packs could be heard howling while on the hunt along the fringes of our backyard.
Newt on the lookout

As predictable as the sunrise in the morning was the appearance of both cats at the porch clamoring to be let in with the sunlight for a proper feeding. Inky preferred to enter from the front door in the kitchen, but Newt always went for the back door. Probably because he’d come in from the back fields since he seemed to alternate spending his nights between the neighboring hay barn of Sam and Mary Ellen and the storage attic in Peyton’s garage.

The back door of our ranch house had the look of a one-piece dutch door – solid wood on the bottom, and a large rectangular glass window securely set into the upper half with a ledge-like rim. Somewhere along the line, Newt figured the best way to announce his arrival every morning was to leap up and throw the full force of his body against the bottom of the door with a loud thud, lodge his front claws into the window’s bottom ledge, and pull his face up to the glass so that he could scan the open living room and kitchen/dining area. As soon as his eyes would lock onto anyone within viewing range, he would drop down and wait for the door to open.   

Some mornings, it was just too much not to have fun at Newt’s expense. And every once in a while, the second we’d hear his unmistakable thud against the door, we’d hide giggling behind a cabinet and peek around the corner just enough to watch him swivel his head back and forth in the window as his alert green eyes scouted the room for movement, and someone to let him in for breakfast. He could hold onto that ledge for an impressively long time, I might add.

One Saturday afternoon, Newt surprised us all by coming home unexpectedly. Monty and Denise were visiting from Helena at the time, and as we sat around the living room socializing, along came Newt with the standard, yet startling, BAM! at the door. Monty sprung to attention as if a bomb had dropped and quickly looked around exclaiming, “What was that?!” And then his eyes locked onto Newt who was staring at him through the door’s window. To my great amusement, Monty freaked a little, but that was nothing compared to his “Hantavirus!” reaction after I walked over to the door and casually let Newt into the house.  

As wonderful as the neighboring hay barn could be, Newt’s favorite place to hang seemed to be the storage attic up in Peyton’s garage. On the surface, this was no big deal, however, Peyton had just as many acres as we did and a cat of her own to patrol it. Newt ultimately became aggressively territorial with Peyton’s cat, and when Peyton would try to scare him off, he would spit and hiss hostilely at Peyton like wild cat. Peyton was petrified of him.

After a serious territorial altercation with Peyton’s cat, Newt developed an abscess on his neck that required medical treatment. In order to take him to the vet, my daughter and I had to go into Peyton’s garage to collect him from the attic. Peyton came out to “help” but was too scared to really do anything except stand there and watch. When Newt heard my daughter (his master) call out to him, he came to the ledge and crouched. He looked at my daughter and meowed, then he turned to look at Peyton who recoiled with fear and panic when Newt hissed at her venomously. As my daughter began to make the climb to grab her cat, Peyton begged her to get down, afraid that the cat would rip her to shreds. I told Peyton not to worry. The cat would never hurt her. The closer my daughter got to Newt, the louder he meowed at her, and the louder he hissed at Peyton. Back and forth it went until, much to Peyton’s dismay, she reached up and scooped him off the ledge. Peyton’s jaw dropped when the cat calmly settled into my daughter’s arms for the long walk home.
Newt lost a great deal of his socialization skills while living in Montana. Isolation can do that. Just ask the Unabomber, although it might be easier to just ask me. Newt exhausted the last of his nine lives right about the time my daughter and I took to the “pray for me, I drive 93” highway for the last time. I may have considered myself lucky to escape Montana with my life, but poor Newt wasn’t so fortunate. 

In spite of everything, Newt never abandoned us, Newt never let us down. His dedication and generous contribution to our household was unquestionable, and let it be said that we never, ever found a mouse in our house.

In loving memory of Newt, 1990-1997 

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King