Thursday, June 08, 2006

Paws for thought

Garfield believes he's king of the world, or at least of this farm.

Garfield's extra toes are an example of polydactyly, more commonly seen among cats in Key West that have links to Ernest Hemingway.

By Elaine Shein

When you live on a farm, you never know what animal will enter your yard.

It could be a wild animal — or it could be someone’s abandoned former pet.

Near our farm, different dogs and cats have been unceremoniously dumped in our driveway or in the ditch, followed by vehicles that sped off into the night with their inconsiderate drivers.

However, it did allow us to occasionally adopt new pets — or have the pets adopt us.

Last year, my mother informed me we had a new cat on the farmyard because of this type of easy adoption process.

“He’s a big orange cat, and really has quite the attitude,” she said. “We named him Garfield.” She paused. “And he has extra toes.”

At first I must admit I didn’t know what to think. Extra toes? On a cat? Perhaps I wasn’t sure what to expect because I had just read another of those “someone’s cat had a two-headed Cyclops kitten” stories in one of the local newspapers.

Last summer, on a visit home, I finally met Garfield. The attitude revealed itself quickly. This big fluffy orange cat was either the most stupid or more stubborn of any farm cat we ever had. He had already shown the dog Rex who was boss of the yard: the cat settled himself into sitting on our steps outside the front door of the house, rather than hiding in the barn like the other cats had in the past. Garfield had also decided to help himself to Rex’s food bowl. And if that wasn’t enough insult, Garfield had also decided Rex was great to rub against when he needed to scratch his back.

Poor Rex didn’t know what hit him. I guess originally he tried barking, biting, and even shoving the cat with his nose towards the barn as a hint, but Garfield would have nothing of it.

Perhaps Rex gave up after he also saw the extra toes.

Sure enough, as my mother had said, there were the extra toes, one on each paw, especially noticeable on the front paws. Garfield became quite the talk of the community, as neighbors would occasionally curiously drop by to see this strange cat.

Rex didn’t like this any better than all the other changes in his life. The only time he seemed to warm up to Garfield was on cold nights when he would huddle next to the orange furball to seek some extra heat. But I saw him nip at the cat while pretending he was chasing a flea.

So how rare are extra toes on cats? Surprisingly, not as strange as one would think.

Just type in Polydactyly into Google … or if it’s easier, try Hemingway and cats.

Why Hemingway?

Writer Ernest Hemingway had been given a six-toed cat while he stayed in Key West a few decades ago, and he grew quite fond of the cat and kittens that followed. That cat’s ancestors are still there, and have become a tourist attraction for their extra toes.

Polydactyly means extra digits, and is actually a common trait among cats, especially on part of America’s eastern coast and southwest Britain, according to one website that had an article written by Sarah Hartwell.

One of the interesting things in her article is she wrote that someone had once written in New Scientist magazine that “innermost extra toes on the front paws are often opposable and some cats use them with quite startling proficiency to manipulate small objects with almost human dexterity.”

Remarkable, isn’t it? Or rather, frightening, isn’t it, especially if you’re a dog and your kingdom has already been usurped on the farmyard?

I still dread to hear what Rex versus Garfield stories I might hear next from my mother.

“Garfield yanked Rex’s tail again…”
“Garfield gave Rex a haircut with the lawnmower somehow…”
“It appears Garfield has figured out the tractor gears and … well … I just can’t go on…”

Or perhaps one of these days Garfield will figure out how to open the doorknob to the house front door (using those opposable extra toes on the front paws, while standing on poor Rex) and show all of us who really is in charge of the place.

“Garfield has the remote again…”
“Garfield gave up playing with the computer mouse and seems to have created his own website …”
“It appears Garfield has figured out how to flush the toilet and … well… I just can’t go on..”

Really gives a person paws for thought, doesn’t it?

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