King of the beasts.

Expectations are founded on previous experience, so when we welcomed Tony into our home, we had no reason to believe that he would behave much differently from the recently deceased Sam. Sam had been something of a Halloween miracle, an emaciated stray who appeared during Trick-or-Treat and boldly leapt onto my lap as I sat outside distributing candy. We put out some food for him, and he soon became a fixture below our front window. Plummeting temperatures eventually persuaded us to let him in one night, and with the exception of visits to the vet, Sam never left the comfort of the great indoors. For two years, he was the gentlest and most contented house cat. Then one Sunday morning, we found him inexplicably dead on the kitchen floor.

Julie and I did our best to console our young daughters, who had become accustomed to Sam’s comforting presence. Not long afterward, we heard of another stray that looked similar to Sam and had been hanging around our friends’ house, agitating their house cat. It sounded like taking him in would be a win-win-win situation. Little did we know that there was no such thing as “taking in” this cat, nor was his personality anything like that of his predecessor. Perhaps the fact that he hissed at us during our initial encounter should have alerted us to that fact.

The first few days were a period of adjustment for family and feline alike. Tony exhibited some feral tendencies, boldly attempting to climb into the open refrigerator and then letting loose with an indignant meow upon being denied. He seemed nervous in his new surroundings. Often he stood before the front door and brayed, and when we failed to let him outside, he would lash out at us. As Tony’s hostility toward us increased, it became clear that this was not an exclusively indoor cat. Reluctantly, we let him out one afternoon. We went to bed that night with no sign of our newly adopted stray. Nor did he return the following evening. But on the third day, when we had just about lost faith, he showed up again.

Eventually we began to acclimate to our altered family dynamic. It was easier to get along with Tony when we accepted that he was not anything like Sam. And perhaps Tony began to come to grips with the imperfection of the humans who now filled his food and water bowls and provided a warm, predator-free place to sleep. Whatever went through his little cat brain, he settled down somewhat. As long as we faithfully responded to his demands to go outside and be let back in, he was usually docile. Not that you could depend on it, though. Bonding with Tony required a special patience and quick reflexes. What seemed to be an affectionate rub could instantly devolve into the bearing of fangs.

One evening not long after Tony had established residence with us, I opened the door to find that he had killed a small mouse. I suppose I should have been appreciative, but having had mice as pets, I instead felt empathy for the tiny creature that lay motionless on our porch. What a way to go. Then Tony began to play with his limp prey, grabbing the mouse in his mouth and tossing it into the air so that he could bat it down again. He seemed to really enjoy this activity, and seeing as the mouse was already dead, I decided to let Tony have his fun before I disposed of the unlucky rodent. I closed the door and went back to my evening routine. When I returned a half hour later, I was horrified to discover that Tony was eating the mouse, head first. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It was a stark reminder that no matter how much I preferred to see the similarities between us fellow mammals, there were unavoidable differences that put us at opposite ends of the continuum from civilized to savage.

The mouse was but the first of many small animal conquests. Tony dispatches whatever birds he can get his paws on, usually little finches and wrens. Evidently he doesn’t find them palatable, however, as their corpses are generally unmolested. Invariably their necks are broken, and it seems like the fun is all in the catching. Like a disinterested child abandoning a broken toy, Tony walks away from lifeless birds.

Rabbits, though, are a different matter. For Tony, they are apparently a delicacy to be pursued at every opportunity. As cuddly as your average bunny is on the outside, I can assure you that they are generously stuffed with viscera on the inside. I know because I have sealed many a half-rabbit into a Ziploc bag before tossing the remains into the trash. Just as many people start on their chocolate Easter bunnies at the ears and work their way down, so does Tony prefer to consume the head before digging into the rest. Often we have found the back end of a rabbit in the vicinity of our front or back doors. Sometimes we discover nothing more than a quartet of tiny legs.

And once, near the service door to our garage, we came upon what appeared to be, incongruously, a pair of blueberries. Upon closer inspection, we realized that they were rabbit eyes. It is difficult for me to convey the full measure of our disgust at this gruesome sight, nor can I adequately explain our cat’s behavior. What does go on in that peanut brain of his? After all, he had just eaten nearly an entire rabbit, from its whiskers to its cotton tail and everything in between. Was he so full that, like the Pythonic Mr. Creosote turning down a “wafer thin mint,” he simply couldn’t manage another bite? Or having consumed his fill of brains, intestines, and crunchy bones, did he find the idea of consuming eyeballs revolting? Oh, sure, I’ll eat the innards, but eyeballs – THAT’S where I draw the line!

Helpless as we are to keep Tony from roaming about the neighborhood, so are we powerless to curb his savage bloodlust. We would much prefer that he simply leave the small creatures of the neighborhood alone. When we find yet another helpless victim in the scarlet string of serially killed mice, birds, and rabbits, we sometimes shake our heads. “Ugh,” we recoil at the spilled remains, “Sam would never have done that.”

And then we remember that, although the cat we took in over six years ago may look like Sam, he’s a different breed altogether.