By Pat Rothchild
I haven’t had much access to embodied horses for well over a year now while I have been dealing with health issues. Several bands have populated my dreamscapes though. I feel/sense them as closely connected as any ordinary-reality horses I’ve lived and worked with. Their teachings have morphed into a guiding light through a long, dark isolation. That’s not to say that I always interpret their signals appropriately.
On the ordinary-reality plane, a couple of cats have tended my mind-body-spirit through this protracted ordeal (black mold among other things). They’ve been my constant companions and wellness coaches. Like horses, they are superb at bypassing human beliefs so they can effectively lead us out of our traps. They work differently than horses, but they accomplish similar stuff. They, like horses, are generous teachers and healers.
I’ve spent a good deal of this downtime reconfiguring my understanding of human psychology. A thirty-seven-year career as a psychotherapist has tangled some of what I thought I knew. My first professional mentor was a Jungian. She had taken her early training from Jung himself, in Austria, as Hitler rose to power. I was thinking about what she told me that time was like – as Trump made his inexorable march to the Oval. It seemed like we were bearing witness to a re-do on the contemporary political front. So, I spent about half my awake-time thinking about politics, and half thinking about what makes the human psyche impervious to reason.
And then… raccoons
I had been feeding a family of raccoons a single can of cat food nightly since December, when late one night, they broke into the house though the cat door. I had been engaged in an internet discussion with a group of extraordinary horsewomen/writers. After the depth of isolation, the discussion felt like a lifeline, especially with the holidays in full swing. We were all online that night, so the talk was lively. I was thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to get to know them and, if truth be told, being known by them. I was excruciatingly lonely for human connections.
Rustling in the kitchen rousted me out from under the covers. I saw the mom raccoon from down the hall. I yelled at her to leave. She scurried toward the cat door. As I rounded a corner, I saw her four young cubs huddled next to the door. They were frozen. Mom tried to get them moving. When they didn’t, she turned on me. I fixated on the cubs’ fear. I did not want to be the person I was in that moment.
I took a breath. When I exhaled, tears crested my cheeks, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that you had babies. I’ll give you another can of cat food at night out front until the tourists come back, if you and yours stay out of the house.” The mom and babes stared at me while I talked. When I finished, mom held my gaze, blinked and then quietly ushered her babies out.
I kept my end of the bargain every night but one… Mom and her cubs raided the kitchen after I went to bed that night. I live in a tourist destination. The local raccoon population makes much of their living from uninitiated tourists. We don’t get many travelers here between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I didn’t stop putting out the cat food after Christmas. I liked the feeling of helping out a local family even more than I liked not having raccoons in the house. It seemed like a benign arrangement for everyone involved. Now, I’m not so sure.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that the cat food cans were disappearing. For the previous several weeks, the empties were where I had left them. I searched the front and side yards. They were gone. The bucket of water I left out front for the wildlife, wasn’t getting as muddy as usual either. I knew that a change had happened, but didn’t know what it was. Would that I had been more curious about it…
A few weeks ago, I was lounging in my easy chair next to the woodstove engrossed in a book on archetypes. This has become my operational definition of domestic bliss. My cats were snoozing nearby.
A week-long series of storms was in full swing. The roof hadn’t leaked and the power was still on. My health and that of the cats was improving. All was well, I thought. I had nodded off and was dreaming of a band of familiar horses gathering on a knoll. They took a defensive posture in a tight circle facing out. There was a lot of snorting and pawing going on. These were not peaceful equines. They were clearly protecting one another from an unseen threat.
Back in ordinary reality, our peaceful domestic scene spun upside down. My usually laid-back cat, Chiron, suddenly snarled. His growls escalated into spit-spraying barks before I could stand. Chi was fixated on a sliding-glass door that leads to a passive-solar room. Architecturally, this room creates a transition zone between a cat-fenced backyard and the house.
I figured that the family of raccoons had decided to try their luck getting to the cat food bowls in the kitchen. This, in my mind, is a frequent enough occurrence that it doesn’t register as an emergency. It’s just part of country life. Chiron was having none of that. He just kept screaming, “EMERGENCY!!!”
I hot-tailed toward the kitchen, thinking that if Chi was kicking up this much of a fuss, the raccoons must have gotten to his food bowl. All was quiet there. No– in retrospect, it was an eerie quiet, not a peaceful one, though that hadn’t registered, yet.
So, I flipped on a dim light to the sunroom and went out another glass door, where I fully expected to run into a mom raccoon and her litter of four cubs. We’ve done this dance twice this winter. I went out the door fully prepared to make exiting their only choice, by becoming my best version of an ugly American.
There were no raccoons. Just silence, a bottomless silence. I scanned the room. My mind did a back-flip on itself. No, THAT couldn’t be. No, that can’t be right. What the…? No, not in the house!
The cougar growled, long and so low that his base notes rattled my chest. I reached behind me and closed the door as Chiron whipped around the corner. He slammed into the closed glass door. The cougar and I made eye contact. He was one seriously pissed off and frightened adolescent male. He gathered to spring. My body gathered too.
None of my actions were voluntary or intentional. My autonomic nervous system took over. My consciousness was allowed to go along for the ride, but had no room to offer an opinion.
Time stretched itself out. The moment probably lasted a second or two. It felt like eons as we each assessed the other, the open door to the backyard, our relative weight and agility, what our respective next-best moves would be. Time suspended itself.
The cat shot me a look of pure hate. Fury rose in me. All the while, Chiron banged his fists on the door behind me. I sensed the strong presence of the dreamtime band of horses; it felt like they were circling to protect me. It seemed that they had arrived to give me the confidence necessary to deal with this.
Back in ordinary reality, my body filled with oxygen, while my muscles and limbs started moving in big arcs. A weird, loud noise reverberated through the glass-lined room. Was it the cat? Oh, wow, it was me! The consciousness that I normally identify as me, had lifted out of my body. That part of me watched my body’s limbs spin like a windmill and listened to the other-worldly keening.
I was doing with my limbs what horses had shown me was the best way to communicate, “My space. Back off.” In ordinary reality, with horses who need a little help defining appropriate boundaries with people, I work with a 15-foot lead, which I twirl around myself in a windmill fashion. I don’t hit them with it; I just twirl so they get it’s not where they want to put their body parts. With a line in hand, this maneuver takes no more energy or drama than a slight rhythmic motion in the wrist. Turning one’s whole body into the line calls for considerably more energy. Facing down a scared cougar with one’s body requires a whole lot more drama than backing off a herd of horses from a gate. I certainly generated as much drama as I could, or, my autonomic nervous system did.
The cat crouched. He was fixated on my throat. Fear radiated off him. My body shot forward. As I was in a mid-air leap toward the cat, I saw his bones rearrange themselves inside his skin. There was an instant in which that cat’s bones and skin were going in opposite directions as he turned to make a break for the door. I bounced onto the decking as the cougar leaped off the landing, cleared the stairs and disappeared into the night. It seemed as if my autonomic nervous system had thought that the twenty-year-old me was going to land. Instead, the sixty-five-year-old me made that landing with considerably less grace.
I ran into the night cursing like a drunken fisherman docked by the storm. Before I got far, my sympathetic nervous system wrested a modicum of control, ‘What are you doing? You won! Get your butt inside!’
By the time I had secured the sunroom and gotten back to the cats, Ariel, an elder calico, was tending Chiron, who was panting amidst a pile of his luxurious fur that was no longer attached to his body; it had simply fallen out. I threw another log into the stove, gathered up Chi and went back to the easy chair until his heart, respiration and temperature normalized. What little shut-eye I managed that night was logged in the chair under two purring cats. During the night, I assumed that the encounter had been sufficiently dramatic to permanently scare away the cougar.
The body knows
Chiron and Ariel have lived their thirteen years with free access between the house and their quarter-acre yard. By daylight, they wanted out – now!! I tried negotiating with them, but they wouldn’t have it. I insisted on going out first. They didn’t disagree, they just bolted for the door when I cracked it to slip out. I am no longer fast enough to beat these cats when they’re on a mission. They know all my moves and of course, they can read my mind.
They stopped on the landing so suddenly that it looked like they had run into an invisible wall. The only thing that moved on them were their noses. I jumped over them by swinging myself over the railing so that I landed at the foot of the stairs. Chi and Ariel spun and ran back into the house. I was right on their heels. That move had nothing to do with a conscious decision either. My autonomic nervous system had taken over, again (it really needs to get that I’m not as agile as I once was).
My body said, ‘NO!’ when I started to take the laundry out to a shed, where the washing machine lives. When I opened the front door, a frisson ran up my spine and lingered on my crown. I could smell, but not see the cougar.
Hmm, what now? My body didn’t need directions from my mind. I was back inside throwing the deadbolt on the front door before I could exhale. The laundry basket didn’t make it. Chiron eyed me with the look of a fatigued, worried, frustrated parent. ‘Could you really be THAT stupid?’
For a few minutes, a sense of panic born of feeling trapped, tried to take over. I decided to chase it off by digging into housekeeping chores. By midday, I had exhausted my enthusiasm for indulging the Susie Homemaker within. Hunger for human interaction, that wasn’t going to be assuaged by Facebook time, arose. Was it safe to go outside?
I decided that any self-respecting cougar would be at rest by noon, so I slipped out the front door, gathered up the laundry, got it started and headed up the road on foot to our local coffee shop. On the way, I rethought my need to talk about the cougar. What would my neighbors do to him if they knew? Without question, one would lay out poison and the other would relish the opportunity to use one of his many firearms.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of fine folks where I live. It just so happens that my property is sandwiched between two that are owned by people who are my polar opposites. Unlike most of the Trump voters around here, they didn’t make that decision because they were angry about not having the chance to vote for Bernie. The close neighbors did it because Trump’s values are consistent with theirs. By the time I got to the coffee shop, my mind was tangled in the need to talk through the drama and an equally strong need to protect the cat; who wanted to eat my cat friends and, presumably, me.
The coffee shop was full. Most of the customers were locals, but I didn’t know some of them. I chatted with Jim, the owner, about politics while he made my drink. Then I sat with the one guy in town who has a marrow-deep, life-long bond with felines.
When the noontime crowd dispersed, I told Stewart about the cougar. His eyes widened. He came home with me, meditated for a few minutes inside, then we went in the backyard. My cats stayed in the living room. It seemed that they’d had enough of outdoor adventures for the time being.
Outside with Stewart, the same frisson I had experienced on the front porch at dawn raced up my spine and nested on my crown. As if we shared a brain, our bodies turned to face a side yard. Stewart’s gaze was fixed on a shed that used to house chickens. He whispered, “He’s behind the wild rose next to the shed.” We inched our way back to the house.
Stewart’s gait is compromised from a series of strokes. I felt fiercely protective of him. Unbeknownst to me, he was feeling equally protective of me. Neither of us had the slightest inkling that we, ourselves, were in danger. We both assessed the other as being at huge risk.
Once we made it inside, Stewart told me that he’d connected with the cougar, who had let him know that he was about six-months old and had recently lost his mother and sibling to ranchers who had hunted them down with dogs. “He hates dogs and people. He’s hungry and only knows how to hunt small game. He’s terrified.”
My heart melted. How could I have been such a bitch to a scared, hungry orphan? Here he was, wedged behind an eight-foot wooden fence that abutted my neighbors’ gross puppy mill. I was feeling about an inch shorter than a grasshopper.
Stewart laughed, “If you hadn’t been aggressive, he’d have gone for you. He’s a cougar, Pat.”
I had never considered myself as prey before. I’m nearly six-feet tall and was a professional athlete in my earlier years. There just wasn’t room for that degree of vulnerability in my wheelhouse. Denial was my first reaction. When I told Stewart of my fears for his safety, he laughed too.
The conversation that ensued revealed that we were each happily living in a cocoon of denial about the degree of disability Life had thrown our way. As fascinating as that line of inquiry was to me, it held less than no interest for Stewart. He was all about the cougar and domestic cats. To his way of thinking, this was clearly meant as a wake-up call to me about allowing my cats access to the outdoors. He has three cats whom he keeps in his small rented room, where all four of them live.
To my way of thinking and sharing life with critters, that looks akin to torture. To Stewart’s way of thinking, my letting my cats out was hugely irresponsible and cruel. I suddenly felt like I was talking with a Trump voter. From the look on Stewart’s face, it appeared that he was having similar feelings toward me. We opted to pick up our conversation the next day.
By dusk, Ariel and Chiron insisted on going out. I grabbed a rake and went out to chaperone. The cats tested the scent of the air frequently, but weren’t dissuaded from their evening gopher hunt. I stood lookout. Ariel busied herself with her catly calling. Chiron wove between my feet.
Another frisson wiggled up from the base of my spine. This one lingered below my shoulders. Chi growled from his station between my feet. Ariel was busy about three-feet to my side. She was fixated on a gopher hole. Chi growled again. This got Ariel’s attention. Without a second of hesitation, she leaped for the stairs with Chiron on her tail.
I stood as if rooted. I had no fear. I was clearly dialled in though. I could distinguish the sounds of individual tires rolling down the road out front.
Words started pouring out my mouth. I was crying. “I’m sorry that we humans wrecked your family and left you defenseless. I know that you’re just lost, hungry and scared. I get that you need a Mommy. I’m not her. I’m spoken for. Chiron and Ariel are my responsibility. As long as you threaten them, I can’t be your friend.”
A sense of utter frustration and blind fury rose in my spirit. How could we humans be so selfishly shortsighted? How could parents fail to see their responsibility to their young included handing them a viable life-support system? What’s wrong with us humans? What keeps us so stuck in our dominion delusions?
“I’ll try my best to be a good neighbor though. If you stay out of the cats’ yard and the house, I’ll leave you be. I wish you well. You can hunker down here, if you want, while you figure out your next move.
“I hope that you get that you can take down deer. There’s plenty of food for you, once you master a few more hunting skills. You won’t have time though, if you stay in this area. Other humans will kill you. I can’t protect you from them. You’re not safe here.”
I then imagined myself hiking through the dunes out to the Head, a trail I know well. Most of it abuts a State Park that sports a huge deer population and probably millions of bunnies and gophers. “There’s a lot of food and only rare humans, most of whom would be delighted to catch a glimpse of you. Safety is less than a mile away.”
I started for the back door, but paused. I was awash in maternal instincts. Tears and snot flooded off my face. All I wanted to do was to lie down and offer that youngster a breast. I stood transfixed.
I had experienced this urge-sensation twice before. On both occasions, I was involved in dramatic rescues of young, highly traumatized horses who were in immediate, life-threatening situations at the hands of crazed humans. I didn’t have children and was largely raised by horses and their barnyard pals. Apparently, I’m at least as bonded with critters as I am to humans.
My inner Mommy rises for traumatized creatures. The cougar is by far the most desperate creature who’s come into my world. That’s saying something. My life has been a magnetic dance with creatures, most of whom found their way to me through horrific human-rendered abuse.
When I turned to go into the house, Chiron was sitting at the window, eyes wide. When I slipped in and stroked him, handfuls of his hair fell out, again. Clearly, Chi was having none of this. From his perspective, I was a member of his Pride. He has a duty to protect me and was none too happy about my chatting up a cougar in the side yard.
The cougar stayed close to the house for the next several days. Stewart came over each day to meditate with him. He has loads of experience linking with cats. He even wrote a bang-up novel about it, When the Weather Is Just Right. It’s a great read.
When I link mindfully with critters, I mostly get pictures and feeling states. Stewart gets specific data. I’m delighted to have access to his skills and deep motivation to act on behalf of felines. His primary concern was to protect the cougar from ‘dumb-ass people.’ He provided me with support to stay focused on the feline energetics.
On the third day, another friend called to invite me to join her and her dogs, elderly poodles, on a walk that evening. I felt that I had to alert her. She suggested that I call a big cat rescue agency.
The politics of wildlife rescue
This sent me on a two-day dance with various non-profit and governmental agencies. In the end, I understood that no one who wanted to help, could do so legally. The one governmental agency that could have transported him to a local non-profit rescue, who had the setting and expertise to finish raising him so that he could hunt on his own, wouldn’t.
According to everyone I spoke with, cougars require about 18-months at their moms’ side. Apparently, there’s a lot to learn for a cougar to make it on his own. This guy was far younger than that, but too large for the State agency to be motivated to catch and transport. We were on our own.
It took me considerably longer than a minute to climb out of the hot-spring of rage I dropped into after the last conversation with a Senior Wildlife Biologist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. My anger reaction was to the yawning absence of reciprocity in our official cultural position toward other members of our collective life-support system. It’s perfectly okay for ranchers to do whatever want to cougars and coyotes. Around here, most ranches run sheep or cattle. Horses are also big in this area, though far less territory is devoted to them. Apparently, officialdom consults heavily with ranchers about these sorts of wildlife rules.
Having spent time on local ranches through horse connections, I know all too well how most ranchers handle predators. They kill them any way they can. Ranch kids are often sent out on three-wheel motorized bikes with a pack of dogs and rifles to scout for coyotes, bobcats and cougars. It’s part of their early education as they’re prepared to move into the family business.
Wasn’t government there to balance the needs of the commons with those of humans, so we can all thrive? Apparently, not. From what I gathered in this situation, government sees its duty as protecting the rights of ranchers to protect their “products” from those our life-support system has in place. I had known this intellectually before. The desperate cougar cub hiding behind a rose bush rocketed that fact into a far more vivid perspective.
The storm let up after about four days. Ariel and Chiron had been reasonably content to stay in when it was raining. When the sun finally appeared, they were beyond ready to bask in it. Thus, began a period through which I escorted them outdoors and stayed with them. Wow! I had missed a lot about who they are, how they relate with each other and how they deal with their territory.
It took about a half-hour to realize that I barely knew these critters. Though I connect with them through mindfulness several times a day and only recently finished a nearly 18-month stretch during which they were my sole companions due to contagions I had been carrying, I had never noticed how reliant they are on scent. They each adopted new ways to enter and be in their yard. They now pause on the landing outside the sunroom to test the air. They wait there while I walk the perimeter of the fence. They check the side yard, where the cougar rested, from the elevated stair landing.
When one is hunting, the other takes a lookout position. It looks like once they’re engaged in a stalk, they’re more vulnerable. Their attention is devoted to that and nothing else.
They also seem to have a sophisticated communication channel through their ears. Yes, they hear well, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Like horses, cats’ ears are always conveying information about mood and intent. I had long-since known about a few ear cues, but had missed a huge chunk of their more subtle moves. The soft joining that connecting through Mindfulness channels allows, suddenly shifted into a clearer, more functional focus.
The same thing has now happened within my body. I have a new sense of connection with my autonomic nervous system. That’s the part that does all the automatic stuff, like heart rate, respiration and, apparently, predator sensing. The frisson running my back is becoming a trusted ally. I’m beginning to get the hang of seeing them move through the cats’ spines too.
So far, every day, since the advent of the cougar, has been a new adventure in deepening my connection to reality, the bond between Ariel, Chiron and me, and our places in the matrix of life. Part of the process involves stark recognition of how disconnected I am. I’ve spent this life primarily connected with critters. They’ve taught me so much that it can sometimes be challenging to bring it into human realms. But still, I was way behind in realizing that we were being stalked.
In retrospect, I get that the big guy had been around for at least a couple of weeks before we met in the sunroom. Normally, I rarely join the cats in their yard. The only times I hang out there are when yard chores force it. Then, that’s where my attention is – on the chores.
I hadn’t realized that Ariel and Chiron had been trying to get my attention focused on the yard. I had brushed off several of Ariel’s invitations to come out with her. I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that Ariel and Chiron were spitting and slapping at one another far more than usual. A couple of times I noted it, but I attributed it to their reaction to my distress over Trump’s election.
I had thoroughly missed or misinterpreted signals the cats had given that something was amiss. I also missed the more subtle signals the dreamtime horse bands had tried to convey. What a humbling experience it is to discover how dense I can be. How embarrassingly human I am!
I became very quiet, withdrawn. I didn’t want to be around any human, except Stewart, and I could only take short doses of him. I just wanted to be alone with my cats and property. My focus for writing evaporated, temporarily.
I wasn’t idle though. I was sensing so much more of the teeming action that fills my territory. I’m still thoroughly entranced with how complex and connected Life is. What floors me is how disconnected I was before the cougar showed up. The sad fact is that I’m far more deeply connected than most folks. No wonder we humans have created such a horrific mess.
All those years of hanging out with bands of horses and their barnyard buddies taught me to move in and out of their social systems with an easy confidence. I had thought that I was more in-tune than this incident demonstrates. Though disconcerting, the collapse of hubris is a good thing. One of the best lessons of this shift is that I’m still amazingly distant from the here-and-now reality of Life. Even so, Life saved my butt, yet again.
And sent me a course in reconnecting with reality through this young cougar. There’s nothing like survival issues to awaken us from our habitual mindlessness. I will be accompanying Ariel and Chiron on their outings for the foreseeable future. If my education stays on pace, it seems that the cougar’s advent will prove to be a tremendous gift for me and my team. Thank you.
Would that we, our voting population, have a similar result as we address the life-threatening challenges inherent in our current events: Fukishima, Trump, Brexit… It appears that it may take wake-up calls of life-threatening magnitudes to get us off our skewed cultural balance beams. It’s high time to construct one that’s plumbed to reality. The great news is that the body politic of US is awakening. We’re pouring into the streets, online and through telephone connections to exercise our authority over our governments.
We’re making mistakes. That’s okay. We’re also learning, refining our moves, getting slicker at the tasks at hand. That translates into HOPE.
Special stories and experiences from fellow horse listeners