(First published in The Dominion Post, January 6.)
My wife found it lying in the garden by the compost bin. It was hard to see, its mottled breast feathers providing perfect camouflage in the undergrowth.
It was a Californian quail, one of two that we’d become accustomed to seeing around the place. Sadly, nature hadn’t disguised it well enough to save it from one of the neighbourhood cats.
It could only have been a cat that killed it. As far as I’m aware, healthy quail are not in the habit of spontaneously lying down and dying.
Besides, the cats around our place have previous form. Two summers ago, our garden became home to another pair of quail. They were welcome visitors and we did our best to make them feel at home.
Mr and Mrs Quail produced seven chicks. We were proud of our quail family and felt like proxy parents. But then the inevitable happened.
I found the bodies of two quail chicks lying on the lawn. Of the rest of the family, there was no sign.
After several days, the adult birds reappeared by themselves. We assumed that cats had got all the chicks.
They would have killed out of instinct, not necessity. The cats we see are well-fed and don’t need juvenile quail to supplement their diet.
Prior to this I’d harboured no ill-feeling toward cats. We don’t own one, but our section is treated as common ground by all the neighbours’ cats and we constantly see them around.
One took to lurking under the concealing foliage of a weeping Japanese maple, from where it would ambush any bird that came within striking distance. A pile of feathers on the lawn would tell the story.
I could tolerate that. One blackbird less, when our garden is overpopulated with them anyway, didn’t bother me. But the quail chicks were a different story.
At that point I began to have some sympathy for Gareth Morgan’s campaign for controls on domestic cats. But he’s got it only half right, because cats can be a pest for other reasons besides their blood lust.
We often encounter cat excrement in the garden. It’s not only foul-smelling, but potentially dangerous because it can transmit the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis.
My resent-o-meter was cranked up a further couple of notches recently when a cat started making itself comfortable at night on an outside settee. It left evidence of its sleepovers in the form of ineradicable stains on the cushions.
All this has left me feeling slightly jaundiced toward cats when previously I had no feelings about them one way or another. But what do you do? Cats are unique among domestic pets in that they defy normal means of control.
Unlike dogs, they are impervious to human commands. Paradoxically, we require dogs to be chained or otherwise confined, while cats enjoy licence to roam at will. Why the double standard?
One solution would be for cats to be kept in cages or hutches, like rabbits, but you can imagine the outcry that would provoke. Cats are one of those red-button issues – like 1080 and fluoridation – that reduce otherwise rational people to a state of borderline hysteria.
In any case I have to admit that, even with my hostile feelings toward the cats that kill our quail and soil our cushions, the dogs in our neighbourhood irritate me even more. And this from a dog lover.
Our neighbours’ dogs don’t have to come on to our property to drive me mad, and they never run loose. They just yap. And yap. And yap.
Some noises you can put up with. A lawnmower or chainsaw somewhere in the neighbourhood is acceptable because it’s serving a purpose, and you know it’s going to stop when the job’s finished.
No, the noises that set people’s teeth on edge are those that are avoidable, like boy-racers, Harley-Davidsons and yapping dogs.
These noises are a public nuisance and an invasion of privacy. But the yapping dogs in my neighbourhood pose a conundrum almost as vexing as that of how to control cats.
The conundrum is this. I like my neighbours and have a good relationship with them. They are exemplary in every respect but one.
The thing I’ve never worked out is how to tell them, without jeopardising neighbourhood harmony, that their dogs drive me mad.
I did once try shouting at the owner of one spectacularly noisy dog whose barking was disturbing the Sunday afternoon tranquillity. It was pitifully ineffective. The owner couldn’t hear me because of the noise his dog was making.
Footnote: If part of this column seems familiar, it's because a couple of paragraphs originally appeared in a column written for the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.