Florida Through Native Eyes

Managing the eco-tours at the Babcock Ranch gave me lots of free time to hang out with some of the ranchhands. Tom was my favorite. I hated it that he was confined to a half acre enclosure during the day and a small 20'x15í enclosure at night. I would often sit inches away from him, a thin chain link fence separating me from the 150 pound cat. Seldom did I face him unless it was to feed him grass -- which he loved. Below is a conversation we had one evening just before dark. -- Mark Renz

A Conversation With Tom

You think itís fair for you to be in there?

For you to even ask speaks volumes about your kind.

Donít judge me so quickly. Iím just trying to stir up a conversation.

Iíll take some more grass if you donít mind.

Now thereís a legitimate question. How can you eat that stuff?

There you go again with the dumb questions. Letís talk about your diet.

My diet?

Sure. Iíve seen you wolfing down Ho-Hoís and hot dogs. Whatís up with that?

Acquired taste, I guess. Donít knock it till youíve tried it.

No thanks. Iíll stick to raw meat and grass.

About that grassÖwhy do you eat it?

Fresh green grass is rich in vitamins, minerals and enzymes.

That hasnít been proved.

What are you some kind of expert?

No butÖ

Look, if youíd put yourself in my paws, the answer is easy. Consider that I eat herbivores. What do a lot of herbivores eat? Grass and other greens. For me, grass is an appetizer. And since you brought up the question of freedom, let me say that it should be a fundamental right of every life form.

Oh yeah? How free is the prey you catch?

As free as the prey my prey catches. We all have to eat. Where my hunger begins, freedom ends for the animals I pursue.

Is that fair?

Yes, in the sense that all of us have to eat to survive. Back to freedom being a right. Some of my species are occasionally psychotic and play with their prey while it slowly and painfully dies. But overall, we get the killing done quickly. Your kind robs other life forms of freedom, not just for food, but for entertainment, servitude or an abundance of testosterone.

What are you talking about?

Well, let's take fishing. Sometimes you eat what you catch. But often you hook fish, watch them fight for their lives, then unhook them and throw them back. Or you spend $25,000 for an off-road truck, $800 on a rifle, $75 on a hunting license, take two weeks off work, then claim you're hunting deer or hogs for food, or to help manage populations. Or you cage up calves until rodeo time. Then you whoop and holler while trying to lasso the terrified creature so you can throw it to the ground. Then you lock it up again. You may walk upright, but I have my doubts about your intelligence.

At least weĎre not afraid of water.

Who says I'm afraid of water?

Everybody knows cats hate water.


My housecat, Inspector Clueso, hates water.

Why do you call him a house cat?

Because he likes to be in the house.

He does? You mean you like to keep him indoors and heís gotten used to it.

You sure are cynical.

Yes I am, if you look at it only from your limited human perspective. By the way, I love water. In the wild, Iíd think nothing of swimming half a mile across a river to get to land on the other side.

What about gators?

You take your chances when youíre looking for a mate. Besides, it would be better than what I have here.

But youíve got it made here! We feed you, provide you with medicine and shelter. We also protect you so that no one can hurt you.

Oh wow! What a bunch of saints!! Thank you, thank you for all youíve done for me!

Look, we humans have to have our animals. How else can we study you?

Study us? Is that what you call this? Iím honored. How about trying a camera?

Itís not the same. We need a closer experience than that.

Youíre pathetic, you know it?

Do you realize the good we do? If not for us, a lot of animals would become extinct. But we protect them in zoos and allow them to mate there for the continuation of the species.

Have you ever thought about why you really need to do this? Your kind wipes out our habitats and much of what we prey on in the process. After youíve made us homeless, you feel the need to protect and preserve us. I would rather go extinct.

How much freedom do you need?

As a male, I may roam up to 150 square miles while searching for food and love.

Canít you find it closer?

Sure, if there were more of us left, as well as more food. Hey, look at you. Your kind travels around the world searching for love and happiness. Címon.

Letís change the subject. Who do you think is more important, you or us?

What, are you a lawyer?

No, why?

You ask already knowing the answer. Every animal thinks its kind is the most important. The only difference is that most non-humans realize that every life form is equally important in the big picture. We rely on each other. Weíre interconnected. We only eat what we need for the moment. We donít hoard our food or other valuables beyond the needs of our near future.

There you go with the cynicism again. And why the snarly face?

Youíre staring at me.

Iím just trying to make eye contact when we talk. Are you trying to intimidate me by brandishing those big teeth?

I donít have to try. You know youíre afraid of me.

What makes you think so?

Which of us is on the outside looking in? Which of us has the key to the locked cage?

Who named you Tom anyway? Thatís so typical. Everyone names male cats Tom. I would have called you Tiedomahalavich -- or something more original...

Why name me at all? You donít hear me giving you a name, although plenty come to mind.