Spring-watch, Harry Potter, Wonders of the Universe and Planet Earth are some of my favourite shows to watch on television. So when John called me in from the kitchen last Sunday night as Planet Earth II was about to start, my little paws hurried across the lounge and I hopped on to my favourite end of the sofa, sniffing it furiously before turning around 3 times and adopting my front facing semi-alert crouch down posture. John said it was snow leopard night and I was looking forward to watching these magical and highly elusive creatures in their natural environments. Patterned with little black rosettes, the fur on their gorgeous smoky-grey coats is up to 5 inches thick, especially on their tails which they use to help them balance on the narrow ledges and rocky outcrops where they live. They also place their long lush tails across their mouth and nose like a muffler to shield them from the harsh winds and snow of the Himalayas. I’m not jealous!
I am always astounded at how animals manage to survive in the wild and snow leopards are no exception. The cameras followed a female and her 2 year old daughter as they used every ounce of their stealth and stamina to find shelter against the harsh climate, avoid danger and hunt for food. They feed on a variety of herbivores in their mountain range habitats and one goat can keep them going for 2 to 3 weeks. Like many wild animals, they are on the brink of extinction with an estimated 6000 left roaming their territories thanks largely to human persecution, prey loss and habitat destruction. Anyway this brave female had a fur-raising encounter with a larger male that involved a lot of growling and snarling and swiping of paws, the male making his intentions clear and the female putting him in his place while keeping her daughter safe from harm. I was on the edge of my seat during this aggressive meeting and quite frankly relieved when they all walked away unharmed. It was the total opposite to the adorable mating ritual of the Wilsons bird who desperately wanted to impress a female he spotted looking down at him from a branch. This little black bird of paradise suddenly flashed a bright green disc of feathers at the female in a courtship display that tickled my senses. I wiggled my rear-end in excitement as the bird skipped and danced in front of his girl, flaunting his emerald cape and putting his heart and soul into his performance. In case you’re wondering, he won the heart of his fair lady and did his duty to propagate the species. Ah the wonders of the universe.
When John suggested a photography trip to Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire to watch canoe racing I was a little unsure – cats, water, mmm! But never let it be said that Shad the Cat is anything other than bold and adventurous. Yes I know I’ve got my sensitive side, but this was a moment that called for the courage of my convictions, the vavavoom that lights my fire, the curiosity and tenacity of my ancestors the sabre toothed tiger. Being anywhere near the canoeists could result in the moistening of a paw or the dripping of an eyebrow but I was willing the take the risk. And anyway John would be there and he always looks after me.
The water park has a purpose-built slalom course that was constructed to host the canoe slalom events of the 2012 Summer Olympics and it cleverly creates rapids, eddies and drops through a system of pools and pumps. As we walked towards through the gates to the park, I heard the gushing of water and my whiskers tingled with the moisture in the air. The thought of the water overflowing sent shivers down my spine and as the fur on my back bristled, I look anxiously up at John who smiled serenely back at me. Providing the water was contained in one place and I was not in it, I’d be fine.
Soon my unease was replaced with excitement as I watched the canoeists hurtling through the cascades and chutes with nothing but a paddle and a dream. They seemed to be going so fast and appeared to be completely out of control, the water being far more powerful than any of them. But that didn’t stop the competitors in the Canoe Slalom British Championships that were being held there from continuing their daring water activities with gusto. Anyone being swept into that water would have a terrible job getting out so I kept a safe distance from the edge and managed to avoid getting splashed. I even evaded a giant splodge of water that hit the ground not 2 feet away from me thanks to my super swift reflexes and a warning from John to look out! To my delight, he took out a soft fluffy towel from his bag just in case my paws had got damp and I remembered why I find him such a wonderful human.
I truly believe that as a member of the felis catus species, I was genetically engineered to always choose the most efficient option and to never expend valuable energy without a beneficial purpose (usually involving food)! So when I see humans running in the London Marathon for such altruistic purposes as raising money for charity I can’t help but admire their tenacity. Now don’t judge me for not wanting to run 26 miles for someone else, not everyone has a body that suits lycra. Although saying that, not everybody in the Marathon wore lycra. Some brave souls wore far more including an elephant outfit, a rhinoceros costume and an ensemble that resembled a camel, some of my favourite animals who all need lots of support from kind humans because they are either used and abused in the tourist industry for rides or killed for various parts of their anatomy.
Participants did not only run, there were others jogging, walking, competing in wheelchairs and waddling in a Dr Who tardis. Although the enormous effort put in by the participators is undeniable, let us not forget the many wonderful supporters behind that scenes like those who sponsor to help raise money, those who clean up and those who stand on the side-lines giving out drinks and cheering. My role I decided was to keep my fur to an acceptably soft standard, curl up on John’s bag and lift my head to nod in approval from time to time as the tired but happy humans crossed the finish line. Despite the sweat pouring from their faces, there was a lot of sticky moist hugging as people finished the race and stumbled to a halt, looking for their friends and loved ones. You humans are a special bunch!
Rivalry can be seen in many species across many different habitats, like the gibbon in the forest hooting and gesturing menacingly to ensure it is not seen as weak, or the dominant guppy fish in the river that roughs up any other fish who tries to date one of his ladies. We cats are also known for being territorial and the need to defend our turf against prospective outsiders is in our genes. The desire to assert ones instincts reaches even greater heights in humans who have found ingenious ways to compete for fun, a bizarre concept amongst the rest of the animal kingdom who compete for resources or survival. One of the humans’ rituals is the racing car competition, a phenomenon that involves driving powerful noisy machines as fast as possible around a road with a flamboyance that reminds me of the male peacock fanning his tail and displaying his feathers with pride.
The British Touring Car Championship is a prime example of the enthusiasm that permeates through the racing car community and it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, the thrill of victory, the sense of achievement and the lure of the prize money that drives each competitor to win. John and I visited the track at Donington Park for the pre-season test which is designed to put the car engines through their paces and establish the order of play for the championships for the following week. The grid line-up consisted of 32 drivers preparing to do battle at Brands Hatch in cars like the Honda Civic, the Ford Focus and the Chevrolet Cruze. I hope you’re impressed with my knowledge of cars there! I guess they make modifications to the cars to change them from sensible modes of transportation to super-charged vehicles built for speed not comfort.
The track was wider than I thought it would be and the cars seemed to snake around the bends like a loud swarm of brightly coloured bees following each other in a line, looking for any opportunity to move ahead. The action was fast and furious and the place swapping was impressive with drivers using chicanes and hairpin bends to take the place of the car in front. I curled my toes at the perilous moves the drivers made to be the best in their game and was grateful for the large expanses of grass and sand and the multiple barriers between the track and the crowd.
While the cars were racing, John practiced his panning skills which involves moving the camera horizontally to capture a travelling object, emphasising that object against the other elements in the frame to elicit the feeling of motion. It was a fun day full of healthy competition and the humans behaved themselves well, smiling, shaking hands and celebrating with glasses of sweet water and strange smelling foods. Some of the children wore ear protection gear to shield their ears from the noise and I experienced a little ear muff envy on the way home so John promised me he’d get me soft pair of ear covers for my birthday in my favourite colour purple, ideal for keeping my auricles warm in the winter.
There is no creature as curious as a cat. And I have always been curious about what lies beyond the adoption pens at the National Cat Centre in Chelwood Gate. The NCC is headquarters for Cats Protection and boasts the largest cat rehoming centre in the UK looking after anything up to 200 cats and kittens at any one time and rehoming over 1000 little cherubs every year. John and I walked into the reception area excited to meet Danielle the Centre Manger for our exclusive behind the scenes tour. John had brushed my coat before we left so I looked extra silky and I puffed out my chest fur as we were greeted by a smiling Danielle who started by introducing us to Poppy. Poppy is a friendly black and white that has been in care for many months and now spends her days helping reception staff answer the phones and checking the corners for mice in the hopes of getting noticed by prospective owners as they wander through. Just off reception is a meeting room specially designated for potential owners to sit and spend time with the cat they like before deciding if things could work between them. It’s full of comfy chairs, ping pong balls and a window that lets you watch the birds land on the swaying branches of the trees outside. Danielle told us about a cat called Marmite who lived at the Centre for a long time because he had FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and I smiled to myself as I imagined him in the meeting room greeting the lady that would later adopt him.
As we moved through the double-doors into the adoption pen wing, Danielle showed us the Enrichment Room which we could not enter as 6 year old Tabitha was in there undertaking a desensitisation programme. This involves carefully exposing the cat to various situations in a controlled manner such as the sound of a vacuum cleaner, meeting a stranger or hearing a doorbell to determine which triggers cause the cat to have behavioural issues. Tabitha has been rehomed and returned 3 times because she becomes aggressive so the desensitisation programme will help her become accustomed to normal household noises in the hope that she will soon find her forever home. I had a quick word with her through the door while the humans were talking and she said she gets angry when she is rehomed because she doesn’t know anyone there and it makes her feel scared.
We strolled through the pen wing admiring the cats along the way until we reached another double-door and Danielle asked us to dip our feet in a tub of wet sponge. I was mortified, as a cat who is fastidious about keeping his paws clean, soft and dry, but it was necessary as part of the infection control procedures. So I dutifully placed each of my paws in the disinfectant goo and looked up at John who knew exactly what I wanted and fetched a paper towel to dab my tootsies dry. The next section contained the Admissions Wing where cats first arrive and the Cat Care room where newcomers get their vet checks, vaccinations and flea treatments. I shuddered at the thought and we moved on to the Isolation Wing for cats who have unfortunately been diagnosed with infectious diseases such as flu, FIV and ringworm. We were not allowed into the isolation wing for obvious reasons not least of all that we would have had to dress up in multiple layers of unattractive plastic aprons and pull-up boots which you can see being modelled by Boris. My heart went out to the cats in isolation who often spend weeks receiving veterinary treatment and wearing the cone of shame before their symptoms improve and they are well enough to be put up for adoption. We didn’t go into the maternity wing either out of respect for the feeding mums and mums-to-be who need peace and quiet while they care for their babies. We did take a look at the operating theatres and were impressed with the great facilities, especially when Danielle said that Tuesdays to Thursdays the onsite vet team perform 6 to 8 surgical procedures a day.
No trip to the NCC would be complete without talking to one of the many dedicated volunteers who give up their time to support the Centre and have essential roles to play including collecting cats, cleaning pens, making enrichment objects and raising funds. I got talking to a nice young lady who had just been sitting quietly with a nervous cat called Anya. Anya had been found in a bin and needed a dedicated volunteer to spend time with, bonding and slowly building her confidence, learning to trust humans again. I am so full of respect for this wonderful work that I gave the volunteer an extra firm head butt behind her knee and she rubbed my back in return. Marvellous!
360 View – Of the homing corridor
We came to the end of our tour and Danielle walked us back out to reception as we discussed some of the key welfare issues facing cats today. The importance of early neutering is fundamental to controlling unwanted cat populations and Danielle said that Cats Protection vaccinate kittens against disease at 8 weeks and neuter at 9 weeks to ensure healthy moggies all round. The other big concern is the lack of microchipping in cats and Danielle looked sad as she told us about the many cats who become separated from their owners and brought in to care but end up being rehomed because their owners cannot be traced. I told Danielle how worried I am about the cats and kittens that are sold cheaply or given away through online auction and sales websites. Sadly many of these animals are destined for terrible fates. But I was encouraged to hear that the Cats Protection advocacy team are working with some of the main online marketing sites to raise awareness of the plight of these animals so that improvements can be made. I saw Tabitha on my way out and told her to be brave when she goes to her next home because there are some very nice humans out there who love animals and will understand her needs if she just gave them a chance.
As I walked in, Jenny cocked her head curiously before continuing across the floor to a small set of steps. She climbed the steps and a glimpse of a smile came my way before she hopped on to a large round bed placed neatly in front of the window. I watched her turn round 3 times before sinking into the soft fibre of the brown stripy cushion and curling up for her mid-morning nap. I was intrigued to find out more about this modest moggy so I trotted merrily up to the reception desk at the National Cat Centre with John to ask a few questions and was greeted by a lovely lady with dangly earrings. I managed to contain my urge to swing at the shiny swaying objects hanging from her ears and found out that Jenny was a 14 year old tabby and white cat currently residing at the National Cat Centre in Chelwood Gate while she waits for a new forever home.
I looked around for another peek at gentle Jenny snoozing in the corner when another shiny object caught my eye. Mesmerised, I wandered involuntarily towards the brightly decorated Christmas tree intent on claiming the string of glistening baubles as mine. Thankfully John recognised the hypnotic look on my face and scooped me up before any tinsel-related incidents could occur. As we ambled through the Centre I met many other cats waiting to be re-homed, like Duke a young ginger boy who pranced in front of the viewing window and gleefully played with the toy snake suspended in his pen. It got me thinking about the life of a foster cat and I decided to find out more about their experiences.
To my delight, one cat inhabiting the pen was a fantastic fellow by the name of Marshall. As you can see his long fluffy black and white fur and handsome set of whiskers are a joy to behold. But this was not always the case. When he arrived in the pen he was covered in fleas and his previous owner had sadly done nothing to help him with his flea allergy which left him itchy from nose to paw and covered in scabs and sore bits. Now that he was safe and warm in the pen, the fosterer’s first job was to provide good food and fresh water and a dollop of flea treatment to get rid of those pesky biters. The next morning there were dead fleas all over the shelves and the bedding and even floating in the water bowl so the fosterer got the mop out again and gave everything a freshen up. Over the next couple of weeks Marshall got to meet the vet a few times and following a course of steroids and antibiotics, his dull patchy fur transformed into soft touchable goodness. He had become more outgoing and friendly since the scratching had stopped and he was so grateful about feeling better that he had started hopping on to his fosterer’s lap to say thank you.
The charity pay for any veterinary treatment required as well as the cost of food, housing, heating, medication, blankets, bowls, baskets and toys. Fosterers and other volunteers dedicate their time interacting with the cats, talking, stroking and playing as well as arranging appointments, providing transport, fund-raising, cleaning, arranging adoptions and seeking expert advice where necessary. It’s easy to care for a cat like Marshall who is relaxed and confident but it’s more challenging with a cat like Mia the tabby and white who was previously teased by children leaving her unpredictable and defensive. It takes an enormous amount of patience and understanding to care for a cat that hisses and scratches you. But every good fosterer knows that each cat is the product of what the world has made it and even the nervous or angry ones given time and space can learn to trust and show affection, even if it is in their own funny way. I show my affection to John every day with a rub and a purr and the occasional whack on the leg as he walks by. He thinks it’s annoying but I see it as quirky! Cat Protection never give up on any of the cats in their care and firmly believe that there is a home for each and every one. By the way, Mia is settling well in her pen and has calmed down considerably now that she knows no one will bother her and Marshall has found a new owner who adores him and will no doubt cater for his every need. Well done Marsh!
John is fond of all things aeronautical and used to work in the aviation industry where he spent a significant amount of time in airports. He most recently worked in airport automation (installing IT solutions for baggage handling and check-in systems) but started off his airport duties as a ramp technician, loading and unloading commercial airliners, refuelling, and waving around those little orange flags that guide the aircraft as they taxi on and off the runway. These days he tends to keep his hands clean and stick to admiring planes from a distance, although he can never resist pointing out an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747, or telling me something about planes that have recently retired or become operational. So if John ever asks you if you’ve experienced a Garuda Indonesia, a Mexicana or a China Eastern, he is referring to airlines not restaurant dishes!
Our trip to the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset was a real delight for John as it combined 2 of his passions in life – photography and aviation. The journey in the car was long but I didn’t mind because an extended nap was called for to recharge my batteries in preparation for our tour of the halls that hold the assortment of aero engines, drawings, models and military and civilian aircraft on display. The Museum is Europe’s largest naval aviation collection and stores thousands of objects including examples of the first manned kites towed behind naval vessels, to helium filled airships and modern Sea Harriers.
As I stepped in to the hanger, I looked up to see an enormous fuselage of a modern jet plane hanging from the high ceiling and on the ground was a Hawker Sea Fury – a single seat fighter bomber used by the Royal Navy in the Korean War (1950-1953). It made me think about the sadness of war and the brave individuals who defend their country’s freedom and pay with their lives. May be one day there will be no more fighting and humans will be truly humane to each other and to animals. As the Dalai Lama once said, ‘my religion is simple, my religion is kindness’. I gave a little nod of respect to the memory of all those who have felt the devastating effects of conflict and continued my adventure through the museum.
There were helicopters taking off outside and staff working meticulously on restoring custom-built engines and the curved blades of a propeller. My favourite piece was the Concorde 002, the second prototype of the Anglo-French invention which first took off in April 1969 and achieved supersonic speed on 25th March 1970. Her test career lasted 7 years and she was placed on display at the Museum in July 1976. I sat under the delta-shaped wing while the museum guide explained how the aerodynamic centre of pressure moves rearwards during the change from subsonic to supersonic flight and the implications this has for the aircraft’s balance and handling. It was fascinating but a tad too technical for a feisty feline like me so I snuck off to explore the cockpit nearby while John listened to the physics lecture. I was having a lovely time playing with the knobs and buttons when it all got a bit embarrassing. The museum staff had to fetch John because I was allegedly misbehaving. He came to pick me up rather sheepishly and we beat a hasty retreat! It wasn’t my fault I got a bit over excited given all the interesting things there were to sniff, jump on and slide down!
Shakespeare said “If music be the food of love, play on”, and they did at Jade and Paul’s reception as the DJ played a series of upbeat tunes from the 80s, 90s and 00s. Although I’m not a great fan of loud music, I enjoy the feeling of sound vibrating through my whiskers. The happy humans gyrating around the dance floor combined with the tickle in my moustache was enough to make me shimmy and shake John Travolta style . And then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window and sheepishly skulked under the buffet table for a comforting lick! I do have a reputation to think about after all.
As I prepared to wash my left ear, I smiled to myself thinking about the girlies doing their hair and makeup before the ceremony. I had sauntered into the bridesmaids room in the morning because I’m a curious cat and found myself watching in amusement as they preened, plucked and pouted in front of an enormous mirror. They reminded me of myself in the middle of a full-on grooming session, only they had more fur! Only kidding ladies, you looked lovely and made pretty pictures for the camera with your twinkling eyes and matching accessories. The colour scheme for the day was based on my favourite shade of purple and everything from the posies to the table decorations was beautifully chosen to coordinate.
When the bride walked down the aisle, everybody thought she looked resplendent in her long flowing dress with shimmering veil. She had a big smile on her face, unlike her husband-to-be Paul who looked terrified! John and I have shot a number of weddings and I’ve noticed that the girls are always giggling and the boys tend to look nervous! I have no idea why but maybe John can explain it to me one day (yes he’s been there) as I’m unlikely to find out for myself. I’ve never met the right lady and I’m far too self-involved, I mean involved in my work! As Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true “. Good luck Jade and Paul.
Hidden at the back of a garden centre in Horsham is a beautifully kept lawn bordered by fragrant honeysuckle, purple violets and pretty pink rhododendrons. As you walk around the garden, you can view a collection of wonderful birds, each with a story to tell. John and I visited Huxley’s a couple of years ago but we decided to return last weekend to see Huxley himself and support the efforts made by the staff and volunteers who care for the residents. The humans dedicate their time building trust with the birds, training and flying them, cleaning the aviaries, weeding the paths and carrying out lots more not so glamorous work required to keep the centre functioning and ensure the welfare of the birds.
In an aviary at the top of the garden is a 42 year old eagle owl called Huxley who presides over the staff and the rest of the birds with dignity. As I ambled towards him, he fixed me with his piercing gaze and sounded that uniquely soulful hoot that said he recognised me straight away. We exchanged a look of mutual understanding – two animals, wild at heart, living in a world where we relied on kind humans for our care. I wondered how Huxley had ended up in an aviary and felt grateful that he was prepared to be on display to show people how handsome he is and help educate them about the ways of owls. The birds at Huxley’s have arrived from various places. Some were injured in the wild and many of these are taken to another location away from public viewing where they are treated and rehabilitated for release back into their natural habitat. Some birds cannot be returned to the wild such as the falcons that have been illegally bred as hybrids (unnatural crosses with different species of falcons) and are not allowed to be released as they might contaminate the natural breeding stock.
Huxley – 42yrs old
Igor (another eagle owl) was found tied down in his owner’s garden being buffeted about in a rainstorm. He was obtained as a 4 month old by someone with no understanding of his needs and kept in a shed before being tethered in a garden for years with a poor diet and no opportunity to exercise. In poor physical condition and lacking the skills required to survive in the wild, Huxley’s took him in and began his journey back to health and happiness. The staff said that owl feathers are not waterproof so poor Igor must have been very cold that night he was rescued in the rain and it took 2 or 3 years for Igor to regain his trust of humans. So I was chuffed to bits when he appeared with one of the keepers sitting calmly on his arm while everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at his soft feathers and fluffy belly.
Huxley’s practice the principles of falconry with the captive birds in their care and are careful to ensure that each bird only does what it is comfortable and willing to do. This gives the birds the chance to engage in some of their natural behaviours and the opportunity for people to watch and learn. Some of the more confident birds were brought out one by one to give us a great demonstration of their flying and swooping skills. A lovely barn owl showed me how to catch the lure (an imitation of a prey animal used to entice the bird) and one of the hawks showed me a clever way to make sure no one pinches your food. It’s called mantling – a special posture that involves using the wings to shield their prey from other birds. I don’t have wings and there are no predators at home trying to steal my food, nevertheless it pays to be ready for any eventuality! As John and I said goodbye, a busy worker bee buzzed past me on his way to collect pollen from the geraniums and the kookaburra laughed haughtily as I asked John to pick me up and put me in my basket. I was one tired pussy cat.
This year’s air show was extra special because it marked the last appearance of the Vulcan in Eastbourne before its retirement. During 2015, the awesome VulcanXH558 will be completing its Farewell to Flight season before leaving the skies to become the centrepiece of a new education initiative designed to encourage the development of aviation skills in Britain. John wanted to witness the last airworthy Vulcan bomber showing off at Eastbourne so he hopped on a train while I stayed home to practice my keyboard skills. My scales are coming along nicely but it’s difficult to remember the notes in the bass clef. I’m still working on my technique which involves running up and down the keys (leaving my back paws to play the bass while my front paws tackle the treble), or sometimes sitting in front of the keys in a more traditional position (which requires less energy but tends to restrict the range of notes I can play).
Anyway, the time flew by (excuse the pun) and John returned home just as I was stretching after my late afternoon nap. He said that Eastbourne was heaving with thousands of people and the trains were apparently a ‘nightmare’. Nevertheless, he took some great pictures of the aircraft on display like the super manoeuvrable Chinook chopper and the amazing Red Arrows. He told me the series of flypasts performed by the Vulcan to mark its final year of flight were breath-taking. Apparently the turbojet Rolls Royce engines howled as the Vulcan’s nose soared through the air almost vertical during take-off before the beautiful delta style wings levelled off and the plane roared across the sky. It looked almost flat as it disappeared across the sky line which may have helped it evade capture during its operational missions.
Soon dark clouds moved across the sky and rain started to splash against the windows, while John began editing his photos and I enjoyed a high-protein dinner and an extra good licking. You don’t get a shiny fur coat like this without committing to a thorough cleansing regime! As I shut my eyes, I dreamt my coat had a camouflage pattern and I was flying through the atmosphere, diving towards the ground with a huge grin on my face and rising up above the clouds which became butterflies fluttering around me. My paw twitched in excitement as I experienced what it must be like as a bird flying free when I felt John’s gentle hand on my side which made me purr instantly and drift off into the most peaceful after dinner snooze.