It was night-time, and my Cat (Felis catus) was banging on the front door, the sound of her claws in the metal screen a familiar rasping that told me she’d had enough of being outside. She shouldn’t have been outside in the first place: it is, I’ll admit, irresponsible of me to let her go out after dark. Long before I ever owned a cat I was as scornful as most Australians are of cat owners who let their pets stray into the night: though there are a handful of predatory mammals that are native to this continent, Australian wildlife on the whole has never had to deal with anything as efficiently lethal as a cat, and feral cats have wrought devastation upon populations of native birds and mammals. Yet as aware as I am of such concerns, they remain abstract to me, and the imploring – and, frankly, annoying – way that my cat wails and hurls herself against the door at night when she wants to go out is more than I can resist.
I justify it to myself in various ways. There are numerous cats in my neighbourhood, any of which can be seen prowling the streets after dark; could one more among their number really make such a difference? I’ve only ever seen my cat killing a mouse once, and other than that to my knowledge she’s never caught anything larger than a moth – and insects and their like are creatures whose deaths fall lightly on our conscience. She only ever goes out for a few minutes – before long she clamours to be let back in (before, inevitably, demanding to go out again a few brief moments later).
She’s only the second cat I’ve ever owned, so I can’t claim to be an expert on feline behaviour; but if I was to hazard a guess (which I do, frequently), I’d attribute her unwillingness to be outside for more than a few minutes at a time to the fact that she’s a rescue cat: I got her when she was less than a year old from the Cat Protection Society, a shelter in Melbourne which takes in many thousands of cats every year. I’m inclined to imagine that my cat was a street cat, a stray, the progeny of an illicit feline coupling (she has wonderfully luxurious fur which suggests the presence of some carefully selected ancestral genes somewhere in her lineage); when I got her she was almost too afraid to go outside at all, and would hiss at passers-by on the street. She was a cat desperately seeking shelter.
I, of course, am more than happy to provide her with that shelter. A friend’s mother once told me that rescue cats never forget that their owners have saved them, and the level of affection – clinginess, one might also call it – that my cat displays towards me puts the lie to all of the stereotypes about the aloofness of cats.
So when I heard her scratching at the door I rushed to let her in. I opened the door and there she was, looking up at me imploringly – and, by her feet, scuttling hesitantly out of the way, was a small Wolf Spider. The brown and cream stripes running lengthways across its carapace played against the dark wooden surface of the small front veranda on which it crouched. There was nothing remarkable about it – yet for some reason that I can’t quite fathom the sight of it struck me, and has stayed with me.
Initially I was simply surprised to see it: it was midwinter, a time when we expect small invertebrates to hibernate or to die off; yet there it was, this spider, still very much alive, and hunting: for what else could a Wolf Spider be doing in the middle of winter? Wolf Spiders are more active predators than most spiders, pursuing or ambushing their prey rather than relying on webs. Yet what could there be for a spider of any kind to eat and catch in Melbourne, in July, in a particularly cold and bleak winter? I wondered over the spider; I pitied it.
What lingers now, though, several weeks later, is something about the particular confluence of lives in that moment: me, poised in the doorway, the house’s warmth at my back, safe in shelter and comfort; the cat, allowed to come and go as she pleased yet aware to some degree of the haven available to her; and the spider, which appeared frightened or even panicked at the presence of two animals which existed to it on a scale that we humans can’t possibly imagine. We seldom give thought to physical space in which other animals live: most of them are dwarfed by sundry other creatures, and have to negotiate the clumsy presence of those giants daily. We seldom give thought, for that matter, to the sheer number of animals around us and beneath us, much less to the part our presence plays in their lives. In that moment at the front door I wanted nothing more than to be able to provide the spider with the same kind of shelter I was offering the cat – but of course such a thing would have been impossible. Even if I’d managed to catch the spider the act of doing so would, I’m sure, have caused it great distress.
I was getting cold. The cat was inside and had started pleading for something else, for food or for something more inscrutable and mysteriously feline. I shut the door and returned to the warmth of the heater in the house’s sitting-room, and the dull comforts of the television. Of what next became of the spider, alone in the cold night, I cannot know.
Image source from http://en.wikipedia.org