Tuesday, October 09, 2012

RIP, Jean Craighead George

I never had the honor of meeting Jean Craighead George, the well-known naturalist and writer, although we corresponded briefly after she published her book, The Cats of Roxville Station. She was a strong advocate of animal rescue, having raised hundreds of animals throughout her life.

Years ago, I was given a copy of her book, How to Talk to Your Cat. A slim volume, it is filled with anecdotes and scientific information not only about communication among cats and between cats and humans, but also about communication in the animal, bird and insect world.

The most striking story in the book – and one of my favorites – is about a cat named Danny, who belonged to Mrs. George’s friend. Here it is:

The cat Danny was not fed for the two days that my friend Joan Gordon was delayed out of town. He had a door through which he could come and go to his hunting grounds, where he often caught mice, and Joan was not overly concerned about him. He was, after all, a cat, capable and independent, the perfect predator. Joan had left him on his own before.

As she came up the path to the house, she smiled to hear Danny meowing his chirruping welcome. Eagerly she opened the door.

“Hello, Danny, old fellow. I’m glad to see you. Hello.” The hefty, ruddy tabby cat looked right at her face and chirruped again. His fur was pressed lightly to his body, his whiskers were bowed forward, his pupils were dilated with pleasure, his tail was held straight up like a flag pole, and he danced on his toes: an altogether exuberant greeting, perhaps best translated as “Hello, hello, hello, hello.”

But something amiss caught Joan’s attention. A kitchen chair had been knocked over, by Danny no doubt, and one leg had jammed his door closed. The cat had not eaten after all.

With great concern Joan dropped her coat and suitcase, opened a can of food, and put it on the floor.

But Danny did not eat.

Hungry as he must have been, he ran to Joan and repeated the redundant greeting. Next he rubbed Joan’s ankles with his head, then with his flank, and then snaked his tail over her shins, all the while purring. He arched his back toward her hand, asking to be petted. She obliged and then again urged food on him.

Danny ignored the food and went on with his cat talk. He rose on his hind legs and arched his shoulders and neck toward Joan’s hand, asking more forcefully this time to be petted again. When Joan stroked him, he purred like a motorcycle. Finally Danny turned to the food, only to take one bite and return to repeat the entire exuberant, sensual, deeply felt, and minutes-long “Welcome-home” routine again.

Joan called me that night, incredulous. Danny, she now knew, put her before a can of food.

Here is Mrs. George’s biography, from her website. Here is a tribute to her that ran in the New York Times.

Rest in peace, Mrs. George. Thank you for sharing your love of animals, and your knowledge of them – gathered over almost a century – with us.