CATS AND DOGS - SOUTHEAST UNITED STATES
Lazy during the day, the dog frisks like an excited puppy at night when lanterns are refilled or carbide headlights brought out for a hunt. Padding down a dim trail, he suddenly jerks his nose to the ground and snuffles anxiously, his soft nose making little noises over each stick and leaf; then his quavering, exultant baying floats across the swamp.
—Arkansas, A Guide To the State (WPA, 1941)
"Cats is the devil’s own and they’ll sure steal the soul of the departed if they can get up into the coffin."
—Tennessee, A Guide To the State (WPA, 1939)
Animals are a part of our daily life. There is the occasional exotic pet and I’ve met my fair share of mule lovers, but for the most part, we live with our domesticated pals: cats and dogs.
A portion of the pet-loving population enjoys showing off their companions and their skills or perfect proportions. My two favorite events to walk with the animals are cat shows and coondog treeings.
A cat show is the more quiet of the two. Cats are fascinating. I am constantly reminded in the dealings with my cat Mad Max that they are the only species to domesticate themselves, preferring the interior protected life to the chaos and dangers of outdoors.
Cat shows are most often held in hotels and fairground buildings. Each cat gets an allotted space at one of the long tables. Their person makes them as comfortable as possible in this foreign space brimming with new smells. Some fluffy cats snooze in the cage with fancy curtains shrouding their enclosure and some, like the super chatty Tonkinese (a sleek muscular breed who often do gravity defying flips), interact with their person—extending up a paw to touch a face or bat at a brush.
Divisions and classes are called and cats are brought up and put in their spaces to await the judge. Cat show judges are a beauty to behold. The best judges can focus the cat’s energy on them to show their bright eyes and unique personality by using the perfect hushed coo or an irresistible stick and feather. After a quick tally, ribbons are hung and reasonings are provided with a flourish of staccato language describing what made the top felines stand out.
Far from the hushed tones and orange glow of fluorescent light, coondogs are baying in the harsh light of day. The dogs are used to excitement in the middle of the night. Raccoons are nocturnal and are more active in the moonlight, so that is when the hound normally gets to play. In the event of a treeing contest, they are out in the daylight in front of hundreds.
A special tree is chosen, or temporarily erected under a tent, to be THE tree. Dogs are registered and put in divisions. (If betting is to take place there is a round at the beginning to introduce the dogs to the crowd. The dogs are bid on and some are chosen for hundreds of dollars. Most often in a betting situation at least half, if not all, money is given to charity.)
Then the noise begins. A raccoon, either real and frazzled or stuffed and drenched in scent, is caged. The first dog enters the circle around the tree. The handler shakes the cage in front of the dog (sometimes with a hiss from the man or the raccoon) and another man then pulls back on the rope to hoist the creature up the tree to mimic a hunting situation. The dog reacts. Some roff, roff, roff, roff, while lobbing up the tree into somewhat ungraceful flips. Some do long low bays, aroooroororoororroorooroororoooroooroooro while standing at attention. Then, some get distracted by the crowd and trot along the edges of the circle goofily looking out at the people or simply sit and just don’t bark.
During the minute, the crowd is utterly silent and the four judges listen carefully, calculating the bpm or barks per minute. The crowd responds after each dog, cheering wildly a high bark count or young hunters regardless of how their dog did, while the judges confer and average their counts. Ribbons are given and bet money is dispersed.
As the French poet Anatole France remarked, “Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Cats and dogs hold a special place in the heart with probably the most pure love one can have for another being. They live in the moment, don’t hold grudges or feel ill will, and reflect the best parts of ourselves back to us. Consider spending the day with a fancy feline or black and tan.
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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.
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