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Heroism can emerge within any species

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Cacomistls, also called Ringtail Cats, are cat-like — but they are not cats. Although distantly related to raccoons, they are not as bold and they don’t raid trash cans. As delightful as they may appear, they avoid us. At best — and if a person is lucky — this animal might be glimpsed when it makes a dash across a deserted rural roadway at night in front of a car.

About four years ago, a gaunt, scruffy female Cacomistl appeared on the railing of our porch, where she hastily began devouring kibbles that were left behind by some Steller’s Jays. She was the first Cacomistl that we ever saw. Surprisingly, she ignored the bright floodlights we had just turned on as she gulped down her meal. After a few bites, she would repeatedly look up to peer into the darkness, swiveling her ears in all directions to check for danger.

But something was wrong. She clearly was very stressed. In her urgent need for food, she was disregarding the lights surrounding her. It was then that we noticed that her left eye had been recently badly injured. Perhaps she had run into a sharp tree branch. The eye itself appeared to be oozing and had sunken behind the upper and lower eyelids that were matted together. At our distance of a few feet, the prognosis was grim: she probably would never again see with her left eye.

Although she still had two perfectly functional ears that rotated like mini-bio-sound receivers and a sensitive nose, she now had only one healthy eye. Obviously, she would no longer have the advantage of depth perception — a real problem for animals that spend much of their time aloft in trees, especially at night. Like driving a car without a spare, a loss of vision to her other eye would leave her stranded — but in her case, ultimately doomed. As matters stood, and although we felt that she would not long survive, we clearly saw that she had no intention of giving up.

We urgently wanted to net her and take her to an animal eye specialist but the only one I knew was in Chicago. More importantly, she would defend herself like fury if we made any attempt to restrain her. She was up against a major threat to her life and we felt that we could help. But, as a wise old veterinarian once told me, the most critical first step in treating an animal is knowing when NOT to intervene. Assessing the odds, the verdict was clear: We had to stay our distance and not risk doing anything that would complicate her life or drive her away. We would “have her back” as best as we could by providing food each night and allowing her to take full responsibility for her destiny.

Trying to anticipate all the threats she faced, we could only conclude that soon a Great Horned Owl, a coyote or some other predator would attack her from her blind side. In the meantime, I strung up a monofilament line above the feed dish to thwart any night-time airborne attack. We would keep an eye out for any other kinds of interference that could make her uphill struggle even worse.

She was quite remarkable in several ways. For example, if I blundered out onto the porch while she was eating, she would not run. Instead, she would back up and glare at me with her good eye as I quickly retreated back inside until she completed her meal and left.

On another level, she was exceptionally bright and persistent at problem-solving. A small wire box was fastened to the railing in which suet was placed for birds. She had a passion for fats probably because she needed the energy. Whether her motivation was heightened due to her injury is debatable, but whereas two Cacomistls had previously attempted to open the suet box, they soon gave up. But not the one-eyed female.

We watched as she spent at least a minute trying different tactics to get at the suet, eventually learning how the door opened. Quickly she ran off munching her reward. From then on, she could open that little door in less than 3 seconds! Did her injury propel her problem-solving creativity to a higher level than would have happened otherwise? Clearly, she was determined to make her difficult life work in ways that other Cacomistls might not or could not.

She continued to come back every night. However, she was so vulnerable that we knew that she could disappear at any time. Every evening that she returned was yet another little triumph of surviving another day. Nevertheless, she had an aggravating habit of occasionally taking one or two nights off, which heightened our anxiety until she showed up again.

Then — voila — in mid-May she showed up with four — not just two or three, but four kits in tow! She obviously survived her pregnancy (we provide the most nutritionally wholesome food available) and the birthing process. Now her work would really begin. How she had managed to restrict these little explorers to quarters in their den until they were old enough to venture out with her is completely unknown.

Clearly, she maintained a very tight parenting policy. Yet, kids being kids, they would each be off in their own, each separately exploring their own tiny world, until she had eaten her fill on the railing. Then she would trot off, keeping her little herd close by, as she kept watch for hazards.

After three weeks or so, the kids dispersed. Consequently, she would only come by infrequently and we would begin to relax — but only just a bit. Since her arrival, the eye itself seemed to be gradually filling out. Although the lids would dry up, periodically there would be a relapse and her (and our) anxieties would soar once again as she spent most of her feeding time scanning her surroundings with one eye.

Longer term, her life took on a pattern. In winter she would come to the railing nightly for food and snatch a bite of suet. In early summer, the kids would be born and would later join her on her forays. In autumn after the kits left, she would take some time off. We would then see her but only on rare occasions until the nights began to freeze and she would show up in a new, thickly-grown “parka” of fur. She was in charge of her destiny and we were very fortunate whenever we could catch an occasional glimpse of her life.

She has produced two to three kits per litter for the last three years and since she is still with us, we have expectations that she will once again produce a litter this spring.

Mother Cacomistl, pictured in the dark in January, with her left eye nearly completely healed. (Ray Pawley Photo)

Meanwhile, and based on the recent night picture of this female, the healing of her eye is apparently complete although the upper lid of her left eye remains slightly misshapen. The reflective shine from both eyes (i.e. light reflected off of the Tapetum Lucidum immediately behind the retina) indicates that she probably has full use of both eyes. We never thought that this kind of regenerative healing to an eye could happen. We are delighted for this tough little mother that could.

Our take-home message: She never, ever gave up. She exercised great caution when her eye was injured and during her 3+ year recovery period. More than that, she capably raised her kits in spite of her handicap. She was protective of her kits, but stern. For example, any kit attempting to stick around into the next year, even though much bigger than the mother, had to back off if she came strolling by for food. Tough love had to prevail since she would now be carrying progeny for the coming spring.

Obviously, we are not the only species that has horror stories about bad times when all odds are stacked against us. In fact, heroism can emerge within any species whenever a challenged individual is capable of rising to the occasion.

Note: If I should come back in the future, I want that Cacomistl for my mother!

Ray Pawley, previously with Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos and the Field Museum of Natural History, continues to consult for zoos and museums. He resides in Arabela, New Mexico, where his research on animal behavior and physiology is ongoing. Most recently he has directed the Hubbard Museum of the American West in Ruidoso Downs and lectures for national audiences. He can be reached at raypawley@pvtnetworks.net.