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The Independent Culture
IN THE same week that it was announced that the British cat population had overtaken that of dogs, the number in our own household dropped by one. Dear Skunk - farm kitten turned clown and dare-devil prankster - vanished one night and never returned. Cats go missing everywhere, of course, and most meet unpleasant fates. But there is something poignant about their dematerialisation in the countryside, which goes beyond the sad "Lost" notices pinned to trees and village noticeboards by distraught owners. Most are never found, either alive or as roadside corpses. So what happens to them? I've always assumed that the stories of cats being snatched up by vivisectionists lurking in vans in the lanes are an urban myth, otherwise I think I would have become an animal rights guerrilla.

Gamekeepers certainly take their toll. A Norfolk friend's two Abyssinians (they hunted as a pair and sometimes used to try to get their booty in sideways through the cat-flap) met their fate at the end of 12-bore. Some are doubtless run over and crawl off to die in the undergrowth. Some get inside cars of their own accord, and are whisked off to a new life; and a few even make the long march back. One slogged it out between Nice and Marseilles this summer, having taken a year-and-a-half in the process. But I like to think that a few are just asserting that unreachable independence that every cat has at its core, and have gone on permanent walkabout. The snag with this fantasy is that I have only once seen a domestic cat in a truly wild place (in the middle of a bird reserve: cats always know where the action is).

Yet there is increasing evidence from Scotland that feral tabbies are breeding with true wildcats, which is leading some conservationists to worry about the survival of genetically pure Felis catus. The wild ones won't be "bred out of existence" of course. But we may see an exciting new hybrid moving southwards into a country desperately depleted of predatory mammals. I don't like what any cats do to garden birds, but all scientific surveys show that it is making no difference to the birds' overall population. As for Skunk, he was too much of spiv to waste time in the hard graft of hunting. The exception was collared doves, for which he had an incurably sweet tooth. But then he was a creature of obsessions, even fetishes - for shoes and washing-lines; for hanging under chairs like a fruit-bat, and for any burrowable aperture, anywhere, including open car doors. Yet his Estuary-cat looks and habits were belied by an unshakeable good humour and a rear view that, with his short, scuttling legs, reminded me of an 18th- century curate hurrying to evensong.

We shall never know for certain what happened to him. A neighbour told us that he saw a cat like him lying by the road, ironically in the same spot as the road accident that once brought him to us. But the body was gone the next morning. So, Skunk, whether you are in Valhalla, or inadvertently stowed away to Billericay, I wish you peace, and an abundance of doves. 8