Many cats have passed through my life in Pitve in the last eleven and a half years. London life was not conducive to cats, so this has been my first chance to get to know them. They have taught me a lot.
Cats' habits, needs and idiosyncracies took some getting used to after a lifetime of dealing with dogs. Cats are very independent. Even when they have all possible home comforts, they are likely to go off in search of an alternative source of feeding, just in case of need. This can confuse the unwary into thinking a cat is homeless when it isn't.
Over the years, I and other cat lovers have fed an endless stream of strays and incomers and abandoned unwanteds. Some are taken in, others by choice or necessity find shelter in the many abandoned ruins around the village. For the independent ones, we set up 'feeding stations' in deserted corners which serve as neutral territory. The cats rarely fight over food, although the males can become belligerent when there is an attractive female around and it's time for mating. Where food is concerned, there may be a pecking order in which some eat first while others wait. This is avoided if there are enough dishes to go round. The cats are fed a variety of foodstuffs, including fresh and cooked fish or meat leftovers when available, tinned and dry cat food, and watered down milk. Fresh water is left in strategic places, especially during the hot dry summers.
In Pitve, cat lovers try to sterilize all the female cats, and sometimes the males, if at all possible. For us, the worst scenario is for kittens to be taken from their mother before they are weaned. The kittens almost invariably die in misery, while the mother suffers intolerably. Preventive action is definitely the better option. The only deterrent to the sterilizations is the expense. It is a pity their is no national or local programme to keep the cat population under control in a humane way.
Left to themselves, experienced female cats look after their young, not only feeding and cleaning them, but teaching them all they need to know in order to survive independently in a dangerous world. The mother will defend her kittens from any enemies or predators, whether other cats, rodents or airborne threats like owls.
While the kittens are very young, the mother keeps them well hidden, moving them around at intervals to different secret places, so that they can get used to changes in their environment. She teaches them to stay together in one place when she goes in search of food for them and herself. Given the chance, she teaches them eating skills, such as how to eat fish safely without choking on the bones.
As the kittens grow strong and confident enough to start venturing out a little, the mother teaches them to orientate around their environment. I was most impressed when I witnessed one cat patiently demonstrating to her kittens how to cross the road safely. When she decides that they are ready, the mother will distribute the kittens to places where she reckons they will find food. She may tolerate one kitten remaining on her patch, but if all of them stay, the chances are that the mother will move on. I have had several mother cats bring me kittens over the years. One of these mothers was a black cat who was rarely seen, and who did not seem to have a home of her own. I had only ever caught glimpses of her around the village, yet she knew exactly where to come when she needed to accommodate her offspring. She and her kitten appeared one evening after dark; she pushed the kitten forwards towards me and left, swiftly melting into the darkness. It was all over in a matter of seconds, and the kitten joined in with the resident cats to claim her share of the food.
Unlike dogs, cats tend to be solitary. They will defend their territory ferociously against rival cats, male or female. Incoming adult cats, who seem to appear from nowhere at intervals, have to defend themselves while they work out where to find food. When Artemis and Athena, two elderly cats from Zagreb, had to be left in the village due to the owner's illness, a special feeding station was set up in their garden. However, Artemis disappeared as soon as her owners left, and we thought she must have died. After all, she was a city cat with no experience of fending for herself. After several weeks, I caught sight of a black-and-brown tail disappearing into a hole in the wall of a deserted house, and realized where she was hiding out. So a special feeding station was set up nearby, and gradually she gained confidence, eventually venturing to base herself in my konoba ('wine-cellar'), where she lived comfortably until she died peacefully, - one of the few to die of natural causes.
Like dogs, cats prefer to rest or sleep surrounded by a protective ring of some sort, so many enjoy curling up in flowerpots when they are on their own.
Sometimes stretching out in a window box is a good alternative. It makes growing plants something of a trial, but then one has to prioritize and make sacrifices. Cats like to rest on higher ground, and rarely choose to sleep at ground level if they have the alternative. In my experience, my cats have only laid down on the ground when they were dying. Tragically that was often the result of poisoning, sometimes accidental, more often deliberate.
One of the objections some people have to cats is their habit of digging into flower beds to relieve themselves. Most cats, even those who live primarily outdoors, will happily use a litter tray if it is provided in a suitable place and kept clean.
Animal poisonings are a tragic fact of life not only on Hvar, but, it seems, all over Croatia. The law protecting animals has only been in force for some eight years. Many choose to ignore it. I have not yet heard of a successful prosecution of anyone for harming pets, although I have read reports of some apparently clear-cut cases of cruelty which have been brought to court by private individuals. For an animal lover, mistreating and killing pets which trust humans is unthinkable. It is normal and understandable to feel anger when it happens. But it is possible to take a broader view. The person who does not respect animals as part of our essential world is to be pitied. Acts of cruelty have to be forgiven: if not, the negativity of these acts blights the humans who have been caused emotional pain through seeing animals suffer. Compassion is taught by example.
Cats are decorative, and they have interesting characters. Some are openly affectionate, others keep their distance and accept human homage and food offerings as their due. I have learned to let cats come ot me before I pet them. They usually like to have their head stroked, even when they roll over as if they want their tummy tickled. They are companionable on their own terms, which I respect. They also perform invaluable practical tasks, hunting down rats, mice and other rodents, and even snakes, although these last are rarely seen. A village without cats would definitely be the poorer for their absence.
The 'Duetto buffo di due gatti' ('Comic duet for two cats') is a magical piece of musical fun, which always creates a stir. The video below is of a very skilful performance by two young French choristers, Hyacinthe de Moulins and Régis Mengus, recorded in 1996, but still delighting thousands via the wondrous internet. Although the duet is usually attributed to Gioacchino Rossini, apparently it was not written directly by him, but compiled from his 1816 opera 'Otello' by one Robert Lucas Pearsall using the pseudonym G. Berthold in 1825.
© Vivian Grisogono 2015