Talk about planes, trains and automobiles! John and I took 5 different modes of transport in one day on our trip to the Isle of Wight last weekend and we must have seen 5 different kinds of weather too. The day started at 6am when I hopped on to John’s chest to wake him up but the gentle back and forth of his warm hand on my head and rhythmic rise and fall of his diaphragm sent me drifting back into a sumptuous slumber. My eyes opened a while later and I jumped off the bed to find John in the kitchen making a packed lunch and the camera equipment in the hallway ready to go. It was pitch-black outside and a damp 3ºc when we got into the car for the drive to Portsmouth but John knew exactly how to make the trip go quickly by supplying me with my favourite shrimp snack balls in the car and ensuring that my ears were not subjected to any Christmas songs on the radio. I know, bah humbug!
Gradually the dark turned to gloomy grey and then burnt orange as the sun struggled to peek through the thick layer of cloud above us and we transferred from the car to our next form of transport – my first ride on a double-decker bus. We climbed the narrow winding steps to the upper deck and sat at the front where the view through the floor to ceiling glass was fascinating. The hard plastic seat was cold under my bottom and the window kept steaming up but we were higher than the top of the traffic lights and it felt like we were going to crash every time we turned a corner. I imagined I was piloting a space craft through a mysterious shadowy nebula and the shimmering red light ahead became the glow of a prototype artificial intelligence seeking information about life on earth to complete its mission. But before I could make first contact with this high-tech lifeform the bus came to a halt and we bundled out and headed towards our next style of carriage, the Wight Ryder 1.
The Portsmouth to Ryde catamaran hummed steadily across the steely sea of the Solent and by the time we arrived on the island the sun had smouldered its way through the cloud to give us sunny skies and a temperature of 5ºc. We strolled along Ryde pier past a flock of brown Brent geese bobbing up and down on the water and saw four elegant white swans flying in a perfect row along the coastline. Our bellies told us it was time for a decent breakfast so we stopped in a small local café for sustenance before the next leg of our expedition. As John finished his last mouthful of black coffee, we wrapped up warm and stepped back outside for the brisk walk to Ryde Esplanade station and a ride on the Island Line. The red Island Line coaches are old London Underground tube trains from the 1930s and were a fitting way to transport us back in time as we chugged slowly towards Havenstreet.
Havenstreet Station was originally opened in 1875 and is the focal point of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway incorporating a signal box constructed in 1926 and a water tower alongside one of the platforms that supplies the locomotives before they depart. We boarded our train and watched clouds of steam puff their way over the glossy paintwork on the meticulously restored engines as the pistons urged the machine forward and I waved to Charles Dickens who happened to be wandering up and down the platform. After a lovely ride through the Island’s unspoilt countryside I got the chance to meet Belle and Busby, two rescued donkeys who were visiting that day. A beautiful golden eagle watched us from afar and I heard a rumour that Father Christmas had just landed in his grotto and was busy handing out gifts. Eventually everyone had red noses as the freezing temperatures got through our scarves and beanies and into our bones and dark clouds wafted across the sky giving us our cue to head home. We waited frozen on the platform sheltering from the drops of rain that threatened to turn to snow until the little red train pulled up to the station for our ride back to Ryde. John spotted his opportunity for another coffee as we warmed up in the coffee shop at the end of the pier awaiting the fast-cat ferry back to the Portsmouth. The hovercraft rose effortlessly on its air cushion and glided across the sand to the open water propelled by those huge blowers and that was the last thing I remember until I saw the twinkling street lights of home.
I heard a rumour on the cat grapevine about some 8 week old clouded leopard cubs going on display to the public for the first time in an animal park that has a proven track record in conservation. And by conservation I mean active involvement in ensuring that wild animals live free in healthy habitats and stay protected from all forms of hunting and poaching. I was particularly excited about these cubs because the clouded leopard with its rapidly declining numbers is shrouded in mystery. Native to the Himalayan foothills through mainland Southeast Asia and into China, this charismatic spotted cat is among the most secretive and least understood cat species in the world. So I was curious to meet them and hoping to get a few tips on ideal napping locations and effective food acquisition techniques. So John and I took a trip to visit these clouded leopard cubs and their mum far from home in her wooded enclosure.
I surveyed her compound searching high and low for this elusive creature and wondered whether she would be happy to see a kindred spirit, albeit a smaller domesticated one. But her reputation for blending into the background was spot-on and in her natural environment the cloud-like smudges on her coat provide the ultimate camouflage in the dappled light of the forest. I remembered that she is arboreal meaning that she is adapted to living in the trees so I scanned the boughs of the foliage in her pen and there I saw a pair of eyes watching me inquisitively through a gap in the twigs. They belonged to a plump joyful clouded-leopard cub that climbed upside down along the branch it was on and descended head first like a squirrel to the ground. Another precious bundle of fluff came creeping along behind, a little more shy I thought, closely followed by the broad paws of mum looking out for her offspring. It was charming to watch the two youngsters wrestling with each other, leaping clumsily over each other and practising their vocalisations which sounded like squeaky growls and snorts. It reminded me of the innocence of my childhood before I was wise to the ways of the world and I hoped that these two would grow up strong and happy and able to contribute to the survival of this extraordinary species.
The health of clouded leopards in captivity has historically been poor due to inadequate housing, exposure to zoo visitors and proximity to resident large predators. But clouded leopard research and conservation projects have led to a better understanding of their needs and decent zoos now provide more spacious enclosures with multiple nest boxes at a variety of heights to reduce stress. While the clouded leopard cubs cavorted around, their mum showed me how she sleeps on thick branches on her belly with her paws dangling over the sides in what she calls the ‘downward dog’ position. The trick is to keep your body straight which allows for balance and ensures you don’t fall off. She also recommended food based enrichment activities which she said were fun and helped her young develop their hunting skills. So I vowed to be more cooperative next time John got my biscuit ball out or put some of my dinner on the puzzle feeder. It was soon time to depart and the zoo was keen to limit the amount of time these guys spend around humans so I wished her all the luck in the world. Perhaps these little fledglings will one day form part of a reintroduction into the wild where they can live without threat from wildlife traffickers and the exotic animal trade.
It is with a heavy heart that I share some sad news about the loss of a dear friend. A few days ago John informed me that my great buddy Tiffin was hit by a car just a few doors from where she lived and she died instantly. Her sister Muffin and our other friends Basil, Ginger and Zoukia are all in shock over this unhappy event. Tiffin was a unique combination of courage and vulnerability, beauty and strength, dignity and silliness. She spent half her time wide-eyed and scatty, the other half stealthy and agile. She slept for England and loved her food. I remember whenever I visited her house for dinner she would go around licking all the bowls clean afterwards. When her owner scattered biscuits on the patio at lunchtime she would always be the last to leave, sniffing out every single morsel.
Luckily she was found only minutes after the accident and at least we know what happened to her and had the chance to say goodbye. But it is disappointing that the person who hit her did not stop to check if she was alive and did not even move her out of the road. I understand that accidents happen and unfortunately cats don’t realise the danger that cars represent, but there is no excuse for leaving a cat lying in the middle of the road. I know my readers are compassionate people who would never hit an animal and leave it behind without blinking an eye, but not everyone is like that. Stop and check the animal people! If it’s wild call the RSPCA or take the pet to the vet for life-saving treatment and to be scanned for a microchip in the hope that the owners can be notified. Today we mourn the loss of a lovely girl whose life was cut short and to help us work through our grief, her ashes will be returned in the next few days and she will be laid to rest in her garden, the place where she was most happy.
For the final instalment of my New York adventure I’d like to share my experience of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now you might think I’m a cultured cat given that I portray myself as refined and sophisticated but I’m self-taught so my knowledge of the visual arts is limited. I’m familiar with a few famous painters like Renoir and Picasso, I’ve heard of Michelangelo and I’ve admired a poster of Le Chat Noir from 19th century Paris once in a coffee shop; but I’ve spent more time in the countryside than I have in art galleries. I felt like a child in a sweet shop as I wandered through the imposing façade of this Gothic-revival style building and stood in the entrance hall surrounded by numerous corridors leading to halls filled with sculptures, jewellery, pottery, ornaments, textiles, costumes, musical instruments and paintings spanning 5000 years and representing cultures from all over the world.
I was dawdling because there was so much to see and John had to keep chivvying me on but you know how curious cats can be and I wanted to investigate every passageway. The paintings area was split into multiple rooms dedicated to a particular artist each with a concrete bench in the centre of each room. When I hopped on to a bench I noticed that many of the tourists were looking at me and taking pictures as though they’d never seen a cultured cat at an art gallery before. I’m sure John thought I was spending time mesmerised by serenity of Claude Monet’s Waterlily Pond or captivated by the work of Gustave Courbet and his portrayals of people and scenes from the 1800s but really I was posing for the cameras! Anyway, the sight of Van Gogh’s abstract portraits and still-life pictures had given me a wibbly-wobbly feeling that I didn’t enjoy so it was time to explore the Halls of Arms and Armour which displayed weapons and protective military clothing from the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece, Dynastic Egypt and the Americas. My fur prickled as my eyes caught the stare of a dark shadow behind an enclosed metal helmet that formed part of a suit of armour worn by Henry VIII of England. I don’t know how people moved let alone fought for their lives wearing heavy layers of chainmail and steel plates from head to toe. There are more comfortable ways of looking stately and formidable I’m sure.
The Egyptian pharaohs had the right idea with their hand-woven linen robes embroidered with bold patterns and head-dresses adorned with feathers and jewels. The pharaohs such as King Narmer or Queen Nefertiti were the most powerful person in their kingdom, head of government and high priest or priestess often worshipped in a temple such as the Temple of Dendur. The Temple of Dendur was built during the reign of Augustus who ruled Egypt from 30BC to 14AD and was situated on the West bank of the River Nile in Ancient Nubia before it was dismantled and transported piece by piece to the United States at a cost of around 9.5 million dollars before finally being installed at the Met in 1978. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis and the gods Harpocrates and Osiris and is engraved with hieroglyphs, images of the sun, the outspread wings of Horus the sky god and scenes of kings holding sceptres and the ankh. Head held high, I strode regally between two enormous columns decorated with carvings of papyrus and lotus plants into a large chamber surrounded by a reflecting pool. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the still silvery water and looked up to see a vision of myself wearing a golden crown and a brightly beaded girdle waving majestically to my adoring crowd. I would call on them to devote themselves to the miracle of nature, to the earth and all its complex forms of plant and animal life, and to support the development of wildlife sanctuaries across the lands. Cats from every species would be free to meander through the lands and crowds would stop to gaze in awe at their furry beauty. All cats would become a symbol of grace and poise and Shad the Cat’s silhouette would be deified in inscriptions on the sandstone walls. What a wonderful world this would be!
Docked in the Hudson River as the centrepiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the aircraft carrier Intrepid stands as a witness to the atrocities and friendships that have been borne out of war. More than 50,000 men have served on board since its launch in 1943 surviving kamikaze attacks and missile strikes as it continued on its mission to defend its honour and provide a safe haven for its occupants during World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. I wonder what life was like at sea during conflict and whether they would have liked a cat on board to help control the mouse population and give them something furry and warm to snuggle at night. Perhaps that’s a question best answered by someone who was there, like one of the US Navy veterans who volunteer at the Museum educating visitors on how the ship was run and speaking about their personal experiences. I got talking with one of them who stood proudly in the Squadron Ready Room wearing his USS Intrepid bomber jacket and cap with his rank insignia and service stripes on his arm. He let me take the helm on the navigation bridge and showed me the chart tables, radar consoles and communications equipment. As I sat on the comfortable slightly torn tan leather chair in front of the radar scopes and plotting boards, I imagined the burden of responsibility held by the Captain the moment that red phone rang with the orders to engage the enemy.
One floor down is the flight deck which exhibits a collection of lovingly restored aircraft, propeller driven jets that supported US ground troops in Vietnam and helicopters that recovered the NASA astronauts in the 1960s. I strolled along the deck under the pale blue sky admiring the different shapes and abilities of the flying machines before me when a sleek dark lean machine caught my eye. It was the A-12 Blackbird and reminded me of myself, jet black, powerfully built and formidable. Don’t laugh! I might be more generously proportioned and a lot less intimidating, but I’m just as glossy and appealing to the eye. Shape-wise I’m probably more akin to the H-19 Chickasaw chopper with its chunky dark blue body, soft rounded nose and nifty foldaway blades. Many of the planes had menacing names like the delta wing Skyhawk, the Crusader, Sea Cobra and Fighting Falcon. I noticed several were named after my own kind like the Cougar, the Tiger and the F-14 Tom Cat which was the fighter jet featured in the movie Top Gun.
The hangar deck displays some of the technology and hardware that supported the ship before it was decommissioned in 1974 and chronicles its history as well as telling the human story through archival footage. My attention was drawn by the sound of a human in distress and I looked up to see historic videotape of a crew member being interviewed, weeping as he spoke of the horrors he had witnessed during a battle. As I walked away I looked behind me and noticed that the people watching the video screen with sorrow in their eyes were from many different countries. It filled me with hope for humanity to think that if different races could be united in their sadness, perhaps they can face other challenges together towards a goal of peace. Cats like peace and I’m lucky to have lots of it at home, apart from when the cat from down the road trespasses in my garden and we have fisticuffs under the kitchen door much to John’s displeasure. The gap under the door is one inch wide so the only thing that gets damaged is our pride as we smack each other’s paws in territorial defiance of each other. It’s ridiculous really and I soon grow weary, amble back to my food bowl to check for leftovers and curl up on my favourite bed, gathering my strength for the next skirmish. By the way, in answer to my earlier question, the veteran told me he would have loved a cat a board but it probably wouldn’t have been fair to the cat. So he now has a cat at home who sounds like she’s as happy and spoilt as I am.
My New York adventure has taken me to the jungle, the Jurassic period and the top of a skyscraper. Now I would feel like I was boldly going where no cat had gone before as John and I made our way across the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise. We walked through a dark entrance to the sound of real-life conversations between mission control and the Enterprise pilots during their flight tests and through a shadowy corridor decorated with eerily lit signs stating “Houston is go for take-off”, “Nothing endures but change” and “All engines running, we have lift-off”. The corridor led to a large chamber and I emerged cautiously, looking intently around expecting to see an astronaut hopping along the floor in a puffy white space-suit or a green eight-tentacled alien creeping out from behind one of the concrete pillars in the centre of this mystical space. I started to imagine a planet of cats that each lived in a house with a garden and had all their meals and entertainment provided by miniature purple people.
I started to wonder if such a place existed on the other side of the moon when I looked up and saw the vast white-tiled silhouette of the space shuttle Enterprise suspended directly above me. The engines, rocket boosters and fuel tank had been removed leaving the orbiter section which would have housed the orbital manoeuvring systems, science lab and sleeping areas for the astronauts. The Space Shuttle Enterprise was named after a fictional star-ship on John’s favourite TV series Star Trek (he’ll grumble at me for telling you that!). Unveiled in 1976, it was the first NASA orbiter and paved the way for the space shuttle program by performing test flights and acting as a prototype. There were stairs at the far end of the room that led to an elevated platform for a better view of the space-craft where I could picture the crews’ faces pressed against those tiny windows as they orbited the earth and experienced the intense vibrations that would represent the different stages of launch. All around the room were displays of flight instruments, photos, films and other original artefacts depicting the design of the space shuttle, as well as an orbital Soyuz space capsule designed by the Soviet space programme. I was flabbergasted to read on the information board that this small spherical space at around 2½ metres in diameter was the habitat module which carried equipment and cargo and even housed a toilet. It is just large enough to accommodate 3 people as long as they don’t want to lie down!
Now to the bottom of the briny deep in Submarine Growler, the only American guided missile submarine that is open to the public. When John suggested we get on board, I agreed but only because I thought he’d say no! I was worried about fitting my ample frame through the restrictive hatches or lost in its endless parallel corridors that all looked the same. But I had made a commitment and I’m not one to take that lightly so with my ears swivelling madly I lifted my nose in the air and strode up the bouncing metal staircase to the entrance hatch on the hull. With a secret sigh I climbed down the steep steps into this metal casket and imagined the bulkheads bending and creaking as the captain ordered the boat into a deep dive. We moved through various compartments including the aft torpedo room, the attack centre, the galley and crew’s mess. The Growler’s two periscopes were located in the centre of the control room and the cramped crew quarters were packed with small bunks from floor to ceiling.
It must have been hard for the sailors on board to have no contact with the outside world for months at a time, not to mention climbing all those ladders between decks which must have been exhausting. With so many doorways to get through, John and I soon got into a rhythm with John sashaying through each hatch sideways (his narrower aspect) and ducking so as not to hit his head while I developed a rather graceful leap over the high ledge at each access point only slipping once on a grease patch (which wasn’t my fault). As I headed up the almost vertical steps to the exit hatch and felt the fresh sea air rippling past my whiskers, I spared a thought for those who fought and died in submarines just like this one. It’s a piece of history and history should never be forgotten.
Every year in the UK many people celebrate the gunpowder plot of 1605 when Catholic conspirators including Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I in protest at the way Catholics were treated by the authorities. The plot was foiled and the rebels were caught but the events continue to be commemorated on 5th November with bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. I’m not sure whether this is to commend Fawkes’ efforts to do away with the government, to celebrate his failure, or simply an excuse for people to set fire to things and make a whole lot of noise. Either way, it’s an intriguing human tradition full of contradictions as are many of your rituals. On the one hand bonfire night is a sociable affair that can bring together families, friends and strangers with the common purpose of getting to know each other and enjoying the festivities. On the other hand people have serious accidents as a result of fireworks and I’ve heard about some deliberate acts of cruelty to animals at this time.
I don’t mind sitting on my favourite window ledge watching the pyrotechnics flashing and banging in the sky as peoples’ money goes up in smoke! However not all cats are like me and this is a frightening and dangerous time for many pets that are scared and confused by the unnatural sights and thunderous sounds of fireworks. So please keep your pets in at night, stick to public firework displays that are safer and kinder to your neighbours rather than buying your own, and if you attend a bonfire don’t forget to protect the wild animals that make their home in the kindling having no idea that it will be set ablaze. If you enjoy being part of the celebrations, have fun and stay safe. If you don’t, hang in there, it’ll soon be over!