For months now, Guido has marched up the driveway, tall and proud, only to drop down and leopard-crawl the second he entered the house.
At first I thought it was because of Swooner, our youngest cat, who has a wicked habit of hiding behind the door and jumping out and shouting, “Boo!” in Cat. But I soon realised that it wasn’t Swooner that had Guido on high alert; it was my handbag.
I’d understand if it was my beach bag that is loaded with tassels, fake coins and shiny baubles but Guido was freaked by a plain brown classic sling. I couldn’t figure it out, and as Guido was fine in every other way, I decided he was simply going through some temporary weird cat complex.
This week, I discovered how wrong I was.
We bipeds were inside watching TV while the cats were outside, talking to Charlie, the cat who lives across the street, checking out birds and climbing our garden tree as the sun went down.
Until recently, suppertime for the cats was at eight. However, Guido likes to eat a little later and so in recent weeks we changed it to eight thirty.
That night, we were surprised to have Guido trot in, rapidly followed by Swooner and Target, just before eight. From the way they plonked themselves down in the kitchen, it was clear they were in for the night.
Like a fool, I thought they were hungry and looking for an early dinner. Also, the new dog across the street, Jinn, a little rescue from Rawang, had been barking off and on for ages, upsetting the pugs next door and irritating me too.
So we shut the doors, mercifully muting the noise, and I went to get the cat bowls. Before I got to the kitchen, Charlie’s mum came running up. From her haste, it was clear it was an emergency and my mind instantly went to hospitals and accidents.
It was no such thing. “We saw your cats run up the street very suddenly and so we looked to see why,” she gasped. “There’s a huge black cobra. It slid underneath a car.”
At that, we went into panic mode. Our windows and doors were shut, so I ran to warn our neighbour whose granddaughter likes to play outside. Then we alerted the pugs, the huskies, the Gremlins and the two families down the road who have kitties.
It only took a few minutes for everyone to be locked up tight but with all the activity, the snake vanished before the bomba pitched up.
The thing about a fright, is that it really fuels the brain. While we stood about, watching the men search the drains, we considered that this snake was possibly the one that killed our neighbour Zara the Rottweiler a few months ago. Also, Jinn had been barking a warning but we’d been too dumb to understand.
For me, Guido’s leopard-crawling and sudden handbag phobia was also making sense. He must have seen the cobra around and, being spooked, decided my handbag was suspicious enough for him to take evasive action.
In contrast, Charlie’s mum said her kitty had just sat there, examining the snake. Either Charlie isn’t afraid of cobras or he was petrified, we’re not sure.
To be honest, I seriously considered locking us all indoors until further notice. However, common sense reminded me that the last time we had a snake visit, it was sitting in the living room. Also, Charlie’s mum found a cobra that was actually inside her sofa.
The issue is due partly to the way our homes are designed. Snakes like warmth and quiet, and as our house has an open indoor garden with pipes and drains to prevent flooding, indoors is pretty much outdoors.
So, the next morning I unlocked the front door, took a good look around, waved at the other neighbours who were also spot-checking, and let the cats out. “Be careful,” I told them. “And if Jinn barks, come straight home.”
I was a bit nervy, so when Jinn woofed and there was a feline scream from our garden, I was up and outside faster than The Flash. Target was up in the tree, Guido was on the roof of the car, and Swooner streaked inside past me and took cover behind the sofa. This time, it wasn’t a snake. This time, it was Jinn.
Yes, our canine heroine, Man’s Best Friend herself, had escaped and decided to check out the ginger cat trio. She’s a nice girl and probably harmless when it comes to cats, but my gosh, did she cause havoc.
Her mum was still apologising as Target slid down out of his refuge, tail puffed up like a witch’s cat. Guido was growling steadily, no longer afraid but definitely cursing all dogs in a fine feline rant. When we got back inside, poor little Swooner was in shock and had to be cuddled.
A treat helped us all get over the drama and, while the cats were munching away, I found I was relieved. Between the cobra and the dog, I’d seen for myself that Target, Guido and Swooner have fine instincts. If there’s trouble, they won’t be hanging around; they’ll take evasive action.
The upheaval has also changed my mindset. Now when Guido drops to the floor and leopard-crawls, I praise him for his vigilance and quote the military adage to him: Proper Planning and Practice Prevents Poor Performance.
While Guido exercises watchfulness, I’m hoping his caution is a case of overkill. We have a field with rough brush at the end of the road, so I’m crossing fingers the cobra migrated there via the storm drain.
If he did, he can live a happy life chasing juicy rats and we can get back to our proper business: watching birds, chasing bugs and climbing trees.
The fascinating fear of snakes
We talk casually about an instinctive fear of snakes. However, Guido runs a mile when he sees a snake but Charlie sits down. So what’s going on?
It may be that Charlie decided freezing was better than running, but by his relaxed manner, it’s more likely he just wasn’t scared.
In the past, scientists thought that all living things inherited a bunch of fears in order to make survival easier. They reasoned we were born with a fear of heights, wriggly things, big teeth and more because it stops us from falling off cliffs, being bitten by snakes, eaten by sharks, and so on.
While it sounds reasonable, it doesn’t seem to be entirely true. For one thing, there’s Charlie who isn’t worried about cobras. Also, there are lots of people who adore heights, as well as people who love their pet snakes, and who spend their holidays swimming with sharks.
In fact, experiments show that babies aren’t frightened of snakes and spiders at all. They’re interested but not afraid. What seems to matter more is experience. If we play with snakes as kids and nothing happens, we like snakes. It’s the same for cats: kittens who grow up with rats, learn to love rats.
But we’re very quick to learn from bad experiences. It only takes a bite or a fright to learn fear. We can also learn to fear by picking up on the behaviour of the people around us.
What is even more interesting is that studies from the field of behavioural epigenetics show that it is also possible that our parents’ life experiences may be transmitted to us at a genetic level.
So Guido running away and Charlie being interested is part of a big, complicated picture that we still have to unravel. Who knew, right?