Getting Sick In The Wild

By: Mary Richmond


If you’ve battled the flu and all its accompanying feverish and respiratory joys, you have a pretty good idea what my last week was like. But here I am, mostly recovered and ready to head out the door again.

While I was sick, I had many hours to read quietly, stare out my window and try to find something to watch that didn’t bore me to death or upset me. I ended up reading. A lot. Since I couldn’t get out in nature, I read a lot about nature, which made do in the state I was in.

Although I managed to work one day, I ended up at home for most of the week, unable to do much more than drink ginger lemon honey tea and dream weird dreams.

One afternoon I woke from a nap and thought about the very first cat we had when I was a child. He was big, fluffy cat called Muggins (after Muggins the Mouse for those that may remember). My mother called him a tiger angora. He was big and beautiful. And wild. This was back in the day when almost all pet cats were outdoor cats. He caught mice and baby rabbits and yes, some birds, too. Our house was surrounded by woods and he had an expansive playground. This was long before coyotes were even whispered about on the Cape.

One morning he did not come for his breakfast. He didn’t return at lunchtime or even dinnertime. We called and called his name but if you know cats, you know that doesn’t mean much. We walked familiar paths and we spoke to all the neighbors. No one had seen him. My father went to the animal shelter and no one had turned him in. My mother was inconsolable. I was very young and when my dad said in a soothing voice that Muggins was probably hurt and was taking care of himself before coming home, I was confused. How could a cat take care of himself all alone out in the woods?

Several days went by. My dad explained that wild animals and our pets hid when they were sick. They didn’t want other animals to know they were sick or injured. That made them too vulnerable. It was easy to hunt an animal that was weakened, he told me. I’d watched too many Disney movies, which always seemed to feature bloodthirsty wolverines, and I worried myself sick over the possibilities, even though I knew the chance of a wolverine on Cape Cod was not even calculable.

After about a week, Muggins reappeared. He dragged himself across the back lawn, obviously hurt. My parents scooped him up and rushed him to the vet. My little sister and I sat in the office with all the other waiting pets and pet owners as the clock ticked on. The vet thought Muggins had had a scrape with a raccoon. He kept the injured cat overnight so he could have some special medicine. He’d had rabies shots, etc. so the vet told us he’d make a full recovery.

Over the years since, I’ve been witness to many instances of wild animals hunkering down to take care of themselves. Sometimes they heal and sometimes they don’t make it. The most striking example was when I was on a trip to South Africa and saw my first wild lioness. It was just after dawn and she was taking in the early morning sun, lying in a patch of tall grass. She was panting, even though we had on sweatshirts and fleece. As we watched, she stood. It took a long time for her to get all the way up on her feet. She stood and looked around, then slowly walked to a nearby bush, which she collapsed beneath. She had left her pride, for there were no other lions in sight. Her last days would most likely be peaceful and quiet, but we were all saddened by what we’d witnessed.

My retreat into quiet and solitude was a return to our wild roots in a way. It is a natural thing to go into hiding when sick. Now, if only we could convince all those sick workers and their bosses that it is a far better thing to stay home than to go to work and share the germs.