Tuesday 16 October 2018

Felines first, as gulls wait in food line

Vision: Cats' eyes adjust to changing light
Vision: Cats' eyes adjust to changing light

Joe Kennedy

The lady-of-the-cats with the Scottie dog had driven off in her Swiss-reg BMW, perhaps for good.

Anyway, she was gone when I returned and had been replaced by another bountiful animal-carer who gets up very early in the morning to feed her charges. Taoiseach Leo would approve.

This new cat-lady does not appear to have a dog but unusual acolytes are now in hanger-on roles. Several gulls descend to stand about as she dispenses goodies.

It is amazing to watch the gulls behave like respectful pages awaiting what may fall from the woman's hands. They do not intrude, but when cats' refectory time is done, they trot in for grains and crusts without wing-flap or pleading squawk. Much worse carry-on would be seen in Irish towns.

Semi-feral cats live here beneath hedgerows or jungle gaps between buildings. Locals feed them and if someone leaves another steps in and may be handed a tin of pate by the girl in the corner shop, as has happened to me.

There have been a number of interesting cats in my life, with animals in Ireland's countryside and townscape, while in New York I found it odd to encounter apartment cats which never got let outside - I thought this was cruel, but then these animals had never known any other life.

The cats I have owned always had lives of freedom. One moggy thought it was a dog. Another liked to sit at a table and fancied exotic fare such as smoked salmon. This was Lionel, which would pat a hollow space in a cushion as a niche resting place.

Others were blue-eyed and short-tailed and had names such as Pusillanimous and Pangur, the one with the dog complex. As a kitten it had found a surrogate mother in a spaniel which slept in a porch and whose pups had been weaned. The spaniel thought it still had a pup, the kitten, seeking sustenance, a new mother. A visiting vet, I remember, was astonished.

As Pangur grew, it regularly tried to tag along after the dog through nearby bogland, but soon became disoriented in the snipe grass, uttering pitiful cries until picked up.

Cats have leave to look at a queen, or king: "A cat may look at a king and a swain's eye has as high a reach as a lord's look," says an old proverb. TS Eliot's Jellicle Cats are "black and white, rather small, merry and bright". They have cheerful faces, bright black eyes, like to practice their airs and graces and "wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise".

WB Yeats's Black Minnaloushe also stared at the moon. The pure cold light troubled its blood. It crept through the grass "alone, important and wise and lifts to the changing moon its changing eyes". This cat was Iseult Gonne's and its pupils changed "from round to crescent, from crescent to round they ranged".

Cats' eyes auto-adjust to changing light. Their night vision is six times better than humans and their eyes glow in the dark. A light-reflecting layer sits behind the retina. There was an important invention inspired by this: an English engineer developed reflective road-studs which he called 'cat's eyes', which have saved countless lives.

Joe Kennedy reports occasionally from Spain and Portugal

Sunday Independent

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