16 March 2011

Survival of the fittest

Survival of the fittest
"In evolution theory, natural selection is conceived of as a struggle for life in which only those organisms best adapted to existing conditions are able to survive and reproduce." 

I wasn't going to write about what happened today but I feel that I must but I will not provide any supporting photographs, even though I had plenty of opportunity to take some, I did not want to take any - it was just awful. 

Charcoal the stray cat gave birth on Sunday, 13th March.  She was not even a year old herself but had obviously become pregnant.  She had chosen to give birth in a terracotta flower pot that resembled an urn in our garden.  She went into the flower pot in the early afternoon and within a couple of hours we could hear several kittens miaowing.  It filled our hearts with joy. 

I thought to myself she is a young mother but she will instinctively know how to take care of her kittens.  We did not want to disturb her although we did look into the flower pot once or twice and we could see Charcoal nursing at least one kitten it was hard to make out if there were any more.  She stayed in the flower pot all day Monday and I only saw her come out once presumably to stretch her legs and go to the toilet and I gave her some cat sausage which she ate ravenously and then went back into the flower pot. 

Then, early on Tuesday morning when I came outside into the garden around 6:30am to turn off some lights, I saw a male cat standing over the freshly killed body of Charcoal's kitten.  The male cat had bitten the kittens neck.  It was a horrible sight.  Charcoal had obviously left the kitten on its own whilst she went out of the pot and in the meantime the male cat must have taken the kitten out of the pot and taken it into our garden by our front gate and killed it.  Charcoal was inconsolable at first she couldn't understand where the kitten had gone to as she kept on going in and out of the pot and frantically looking around so, I went inside the house and got some gloves and a newspaper and placed the kitten on the newspaper and showed it to Charcoal so that she could see that her kitten had died.  Charcoal appeared confused and spent the next couple of hours mourning or perhaps calling her kitten.  Whatever she was doing it sounded dreadful and I really felt for her. 

In the meantime, I had to take the dead kitten away as to my horror, the male cat who had killed it was trying to consume it.  So I wrapped it up in newspaper and put it in a plastic bag.  I briefly considered burying it in our garden but I was afraid that the male cat might dig it up and if he only ate parts of it then it might encourage other creatures into our garden like rats. 

Then, I thought I would check inside the flower pot with a flash light to see if there were any other kittens and sure enough I found one other dead kitten but it looked as if it might have died shortly after birth as it did not have any bite marks on it.  Around midday Charcoal finally stopped crying and I prepared a place for her on our windowsill in the garden where she used to sit before she gave birth and she settled down there and after cleaning herself went to sleep.  I disposed of the dead kittens in the municipal bins.

I spent the rest of the day deep in thought.  Out there in the wild where these stray cats live, it really is a survival of the fittest.  I then looked up on the internet the phenomenon of male cats killing kittens to try and find out the reasons behind this cruel act.

"Males Killing Kittens
Although cats are often considered to be purely solitary, in the feral and the domestic situation they are frequently organized in social groups similar to the social grouping of lions (prides). These groups are matriarchal in nature i.e. dominated by the females, and often the males will only be in attendance when a female is available for mating (though this rule is flexible and some groups will have a resident male). A tom cat will normally establish a territory which contains a number of females or female groups, and it is in his own interest to repel other males and to destroy kittens which may have been fathered by another male and which contain the genetic complement of his rival. This is true of many social animals, relatively few of whom will expend their own energies in raising the offspring of another male.

How do males know who has fathered the kittens? Cats rely greatly on scent and scent markings to determine who is present in their territory and who has visited that territory. If a tom smells the scent of a rival tomcat he may decide that the kittens belonging to his 'harem' have been fathered by the visiting tomcat. This is not in his own genetic interests. Consequently he may kill those kittens. This has two purposes. Firstly it ensures that his queens do not raise kittens fathered by a rival male. Secondly, the queens will usually come on estrus within a few days and he can be sure of mating them so that subsequent kittens are his.

When a new tomcat takes over or inherits a territory (the former territory owner having been removed, neutered and thus non-competitive, or dead) he may also be driven to destroy any kittens in order to 'found his own line'. A territory can be something as small as a single room in the house. These are all fairly anthropomorphic terms describing an instinctive drive to give his own genes the best chance of survival.

Whether a queen defends her kittens probably depends on her presence (most male attacks occur when the female is away from the nest), her physical condition (ability to defend the kittens and not sustain injury herself) and her size (she may be smaller and less powerful than a tomcat). Most queens will defend their litters against attacks from larger animals e.g. bobcats, coyotes, dogs so it is likely that they will also defend against tomcats. The fact that tomcat attacks on kittens have mostly been seen when the queen is AWAY from the nest suggests that the females will indeed protect their litters against other cats. This is not a certainty since too few kitten-killing instances have been observed from which to draw firm conclusions."

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