In the fall of 2005 my wife and I were living in Urbana, Illinois. If you've never been there, Urbana is a pleasant college town, filled with trees, quiet streets, and left-wing university types. Our house sat on a half acre lot with a hedgerow of trees about 30 feet wide running behind the backyard. Large trees and shrubs abounded on our dead end street. Outside of Urbana was the city of Champaign, almost twice the size with many more businesses and a somewhat conservative bent.
Outside of the two cities were fields of corn and soybeans. Urbana appeared as an island of trees when seen from the country. Unless you travelled to one of the small pockets of preserved habitat there was a lot more nature in the city than in the country.
It was in this environment that Max entered our lives.
In 2005 we had a single cat resident in our house. Abby was much as she is now: plump, indolent, and much more fond of us than other cats. We had thought she would remain an only cat the rest of her days.
Then a large male cat appeared in our yard, a very light gray tabby that shone like silver in the sun. He was friendly and interested in going into our house without being insistent. He returned for visits day after day. We knew he didn't belong to any house on our block and his residency in our yard made us think that he had lost his home.
The decision to make him ours was made when we let him inside. Abby hissed and snarled and Max, well Max shrugged as much as a cat can shrug and moved on to exploring the rest of the house. It was at this point that Max stopped being 'that cat' and became Max.
Max was in many ways an ideal cat. He was friendly and gentle, never scratching or even trying to run away in the face of unpleasantness. However his previous owners had allowed him to come and go freely and he was used to being outdoors. We didn't have outdoor cats. In addition to the dangers of traffic and other cats they post a danger to the local wildlife.
Faced with a cat that screamed to be let out and that was an efficient killer when he was out I proposed a solution. Max would be let out for half an hour or so each day in my company. Thus my natural history adventures with Max began.
Initially I took Max out on a leash which I soon realized was completely unnecessary as he would never make the slightest attempt to get away. In fact he seemed to like to hang out with humans in the great outdoors. After that I would simply walk along close to him and turn him back when he tried to wander too far. Also stop him from killing animals when that seemed likely to happen.
It was quite an education.
(As a parenthetical note I'll add that 95% of the time Max would pin something with his paw and then I would pick him up and the animal would run off. On rare occasions he would get something in his mouth and I would make him drop it - this probably happened no more than once a year).
Max moved slowly through the yard and, at times when they were vacant, the yards of neighboring houses as well. There were frequent stops, and times when he would just sit for long periods. Lots of smelling specific spots. Oddly he rarely did any marking himself in what seemed to be a lifetime preference for relieving himself indoors.
What was striking was the signals that would make him stop and take notice. Distance sounds never elicited a response but even the tiniest sound close by made him pause. Immobile objects, even ones as tantalizing as rabbits were of no interest. But the slightest movement could transform him from a seemingly sluggish calm to taunt attention and tail twitching anticipation.
I learned a lot about the natural history of our yard from Max. I had seen a short-tailed shrew, probably in distress, on our driveway. From Max I learned that they were common under the mulch. He would stop suddenly and bring his paw down on the wood chips to the sound of squealing below. He was cautious about grabbing them, presumably having learned of their venomous bite earlier in his life. Small rodents such as voles were grabbed instantly if I didn't prevent it.
These small mammals weren't stalked, they were encountered haphazardly and captured with lightning reflexes and keen senses. Even under the snow. There was a lot of hidden life in the yard. And he was good at catching it even when I always made him let them go.
Rabbits were a different matter. Adults were uncatchable but supremely fascinating. Nothing made his evening more than an opportunity to stalk a rabbit. It quickly became apparent that he was never going to get close to catching one and I let him enjoy himself and the cost of a few minutes of disturbance to the grazing rabbits.
Larger mammals were seldom encountered. Opossums were ignored. Once one walked within a yard of both of us without evening glancing at us. Max followed it with his eyes as it walked past with moving a muscle otherwise. Ones at greater distances didn't warrant more than a brief glance. Raccoons seemed to be seldom in the yard during the early evening hours we were out.
Two and half years later we moved to Florida. The evening walks continued. Small mammals were more rarely encountered and I have Max's help to be more certain that I hadn't just missed them. What he did encounter were lizards, snakes, and frogs. And the great virtue of holding still. Frogs and anoles perched on the walls of the house and the deck railings. To me they were much more obvious than shrew and voles and yet Max walked by them oblivious. Twice he passed within a foot or so of a sizable snake that had its head up, watching us but remaining completely motionless.
The one reptile that he did notice were the ground skinks. These tiny lizards glide through the leaf litter and the grass. It is easy not to notice them. But Max did notice those flashes of movement in the leaves. But boy did they frustrate him. Unlike the voles and shrews the skinks were small enough to just slide out from under his paws and vanish.
After a few years in the sunny south age began to catch up with Max. He had been middle-aged when we first met and ailments began to crop up. He remained comfortable and active although less so than before. It became apparent about three years ago that he no longer posed much of a threat to wildlife unless they were really unlucky like the cardinal who flew into a window and basically fell at his feet.
At this point Max was allowed free run outside. He mostly lay in the sun and didn't wander far from the house. He would come and hang out by the insect sheet and black light when I put it up and once or twice went after a large moth. Our yard is 'rife' with opossums and raccoons but Max never had any trouble. And he only had one fight with another cat. His skills as a hunter had been replaced by those of a diplomat.
For the last eight and a half years, in all kinds of weather, Max has been part of my experience of backyard natural history. That came to an end on Friday when Max succumbed to the illnesses that had accumulated in his increasingly frail frame. Or, to be more accurate, we decided that it was time to end those ravages.
My experience with the great outdoors of the great backyard will never be the same.