She was ugly, matted, less than a pound of kitten the first time we met Tanya. She’d been smuggled into the United States from Columbia, probably inside a boot from the looks of her. We knew it was horrifying that the poachers kill the mama for their pelt and take the baby for a pet. We’d never participate in such a disaster but there she was and there was no sending her back. I’d heard of her from a guy who knew a guy….you know how that goes. Knowing that she’d not get a better home anywhere else, we paid $300 and took home a Margay.
I would never do it again but at the same time I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
We built her own domain in the garage, a cage 3 feet deep and the length of the garage, floor to ceiling. The top two feet were enclosed and dark with access holes for Tanya to climb down. She had two trees with branches where she could hang in her usual manner with her chin and tummy on the branch and feet dangling each side. She had numerous toys and a litter box and of course lots of water to drink and play in.
That was 1968 in Fort Lauderdale Florida and exotic cats were more common back then. We had an excellent vet who specialized in the big cats and it wasn’t unusual to find a nice tame Cougar or Ocelot in the waiting room, one time we even met a Cheetah. As Tanya grew we were fortunate to have his medical and dietary advice plus the friendships we made with his customers and their beautiful wonderful cats. I have a delightful memory of spending a hour inside a cage with a juvenile Jaguar that weighed maybe 40 pounds with feet the size of saucers. All I could do was keep my fist in her mouth (which she loved) and dance and roll and tumble around the enclosure. I had a new pair of aviator sunglasses in my pocket and when they hit the ground we trampled them instantly. That Jag was a beautiful kitten and grew to be a much pampered member of her people family.
Of course it is necessary to keep in mind that these are wild creatures and can return to their native state of mind in an instant. I’d never handle one in a noisy or unpredictable environment, there is too much chance of something going wrong. At the same time the thrill of sharing their sphere, even for a few moments, is a treasure that non-cat lovers could never comprehend.
When Tanya was tiny we acquired an orange domestic kitten the kids named Dog. They more or less grew up together but Dog was no match for a playful Margay and eventually went elsewhere to sneak his fortune. In his paws I would have done the same. We never considered altering Tanya, she kept her toenails and canines and all the other parts.
I remember Tanya liked strawberries and pieces of apple and a few vegetables too, but her mainstay was raw meat: chicken backs and necks plus the ground horsemeat which she loved. At that time horsemeat was available frozen at about 50 cents a pound, rather coarsely ground with some bone content. (Sorry about that, horse lovers!) Tanya believed that the chicken parts must be thrown around the cage for awhile to be sure they were absolutely, totally, irrevocably dead. We tried briefly to breed her but to no avail. A larger male spent a couple of weeks with us but the two cats just ignored each other, no interest at all. Since we only had one cage the boy kittie slept in our bedroom in the highest place he could find. When we told his owners where he slept they turned pale, they’d never trust him that way but we had no problems.
Comparing the strength of a Margay with an equal sized domestic cat is like comparing 12 lbs of the finest Swedish spring steel to 12 lbs of cast iron. No comparison at all. Tanya loved to jump, her favorite resting spot was atop a door and she could jump effortlessly, there was hardly a sound when she lept from the floor and settled her chin on the door with legs hanging on each side. One of her games was retrieving socks from the chandelier. The kids would throw them up there (the smellier the better) and Tanya would effortlessly bring them down, never disturbing the light one tiny bit. And she was so beautiful. That cat loved outdoor activities, she would ride around my neck as we bicycled about the neighborhood and sometimes after school the kids would take her to the grassland nearby. That south Florida grass is about two feet tall and she would run. And run. It’s too bad we didn’t have video, she’d make four jumps forward, then one leap upwards to get her bearings, then four more forward. We would watch as Tanya’s head would pop out of the grass for an instant, disappear, then pop up again. Over and over it went, four forward and one up. Incredible to behold and impossible to adequately portray.
Sometimes Tanya would climb a tree in the grassland and refuse to come down. So one of the kids would get me and when I called and patted my shoulder she would jump. I knew there would be claws but that’s the way it is, to fully enjoy a Margay you have to be willing to accept the whole package! Most of our friends thought we were crazy. Or worse. And having all those hickies didn’t help, Tanya would lie on my chest and suck my neck by the hour, resulting little red marks that led to jokes that cannot be repeated here.
How to describe Tanya’s temperament? She was one-sided, her side. We learned that there was no, and I mean no, way to discipline or train her. She did what she wanted and as long as our goals were the same it worked great and otherwise we learned to quietly put her in her domain and walk away. Fortunately most of the time our desires paralleled but when they didn’t she could not be persuaded or bribed or trained or forced to do it our way. Just calmly put her away. We had little or no problem with her toilet habits and sometimes she would actually use ours. Margays often go on a branch over running water so it fit right in. Otherwise she usually let us know she wanted to return to her home in the garage.
That cat could be very possessive. Once our son had a fever and Tanya took it upon herself to protect him to the point where she wouldn’t let any of us near his bed. We finally just had to throw a blanket over her and cart her away to her domain. On another occasion we were at a secluded beach and when our daughter ran into the surf Tanya jumped in to save her, resulting in deep ankle scratches. Tanya meant well, sometimes she just meant too well!
If you’re squeamish just skip this paragraph. Tanya could be very jealous and twice she demonstrated it in a most unpleasant manner when she thought her person was giving more hands-on attention to another object. Margays have an ability to instantaneously generate a mix of diarrhea combined with a scent worse than skunk which they can forcefully spray in an instant. I’m sure it is valuable in the jungle but quite unwelcome when applied to the piano keyboard or sewing machine.
When Tanya was five we moved to the woods in the edge of the Ozark mountains. She spent a wonderful summer in a place where she had space and freedom in the big trees. At first she’d return home in a hour or two but as the season went on she stayed longer, returning with a very full tummy, then staying out overnight, then a few nights at a time, and eventually she returned no more. To say we were sad is an understatement but at the same time we felt rewarded that - as best we could - we had given her the freedom to live as a Margay should. It’s doubtful that Tanya survived the winter, we will never know.
It is now a half century later and the world has changed. Today we wouldn’t have the freedom to experience the wonder that was Tanya. Some animal activists get very upset that we were involved with a cat from the wild but I think we did the best we could. She had five years of a quality life, more than she might have had in the wild. As we watch the population of big cats dwindle toward extinction I wonder if we’re handling them as best we might. But that rests inside the bigger question of whether we’re handling their earth as best we might. The fate of the big cats cannot be separated from the fate of us all.
Rest in peace Tanya, you were truly loved.
This is a lion making a kill in the wild. I know it’s very graphic but I think it’s important to show just how brutal nature can be.