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MARTHA SEZ: Jupiter, Orangy and the tale of the shrew

February 23, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

Jupiter the cat is bored. Sometimes he will come into the living room and sit down on the floor next to my chair to watch television.

He can't make head or tails of the weather report. If he could, he'd see that a big thaw is predicted for the rest of February, and that would be a big relief to him.

For weeks now the roof outside the kitchen window has been rendered treacherous by deep, drifted snow, so that he can't go in and out using the apple tree next to the house. This has generally been a snowy winter, but occasionally he has been able to jump out the window, cross the roof, hurl himself to the tree trunk, scramble down and head over to the fields behind the house to hunt in his accustomed manner.

When Jupiter returns, he will often bring in a mouse or, more likely, a northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevidcauda), which he will throw around the kitchen for a while with his compatriot, Orangy, after which he will retire for a nap. Orangy will eventually eat a mouse, but invariably walks off and leaves a dead shrew.

Hunting seems to calm Jupiter down. It is these long stretches without killing anything that make him restless and edgy.

The northern shrew is preyed upon by many larger mammals, but rarely eaten, because the scent glands in its skin make it distasteful to predators. A shrew female may bear up to 10 litters a year, which explains why these shrews are so plentiful in the fields in this area.

I used to think they were voles, but no. Shrews are not rodents. Northern short-tailed shrews are about the size of moles, to whom they are distantly related, with velvety black, gray or brownish fur. They are not what I would call cute, compared to mice; although Jupiter once brought in a dead rat with part of its head gnawed off, and northern short-tailed shrews are somewhat cuter than that.

Mainly nocturnal and nearly blind, they rely, like bats, on echolocation. Unlike bats, they mostly burrow just underneath the surface of the ground or below snow or leaf litter. They eat almost anything, voraciously, from vegetation to worms, insects, mice, other shrews, voles and salamanders.

Fortunately, as far as I know, the cats have not been bitten, since these shrews are armed with sharp teeth and a hemotoxic venom similar to that of the Mexican beaded lizard, a relative of the gila monster. It is also said to resemble cobra venom. It is strong enough to kill a mouse, and while the bite of a shrew is not always powerful enough to pierce the skin of a human, its saliva can cause painful inflammation.

This shrew has a high metabolism, requiring it to eat every few hours, except when it is in a torpid state. That keeps it scurrying around on mild, cloudy winter days in search of food, providing entertainment for Jupiter.

When Jupiter is housebound he tries to think of ways to engage me to perform tasks for him. He is black and white, a color combination that is said to denote high levels of serotonin in a cat, and therefore an extroverted, confident personality, and this description fits Jupe to a T. His mother, however, is Siamese, and he has inherited the typical Siamese vocalization, which he uses to good effect, making demands.

Follow me! I do not want to drink out of Orangy's water bowl, I want to drink from the bathroom faucet. No, that is too much water, no, that's not enough, I want a perfect, threadlike trickle. Open the kitchen window! What's the deal with the wind?

Lately, Jupiter has taken to leaping into the bathtub when it's dry and meowing for me to entertain him with superballs and wind-up toys, which he watches with great concentration but does not attack. He demands my participation. It's a way of spending quality time together, and I suppose I should feel flattered.

Soon enough the snow will be gone and Jupe will be off in the fields stalking the venomous Blarina brevidcauda.

I am thinking of my erstwhile neighbor, Sarah Prince, who would have been interested in all of this animal lore, as she was fascinated with the natural world around her, every day of her life. How many people do we want to tell something to, and then realize, again, they are gone?

Have a good week.



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