Hunting for Fungi With Your Cat
This Article appeared in Mushrooming in 1996
Those who read “Mushroom Hunting at a Russian Dacha” in the Winter 1995-96 issue of Mushrooming might just possibly wonder about whatever happened to my Russian cat, Shoelace, when I returned to the USA. As it happens, the US Government is amazingly broad-minded about cat importation. The Customs inspector only checked to see that she was a cat and alive, and so passed her with all federal blessings. Even the USDA beagle took no exception to her immigration. So, full-grown by this time, she now resides with me in Alaska where she commutes daily to UAF where I work.
Shoelace was originally adopted when she was about a month old, in July of 1994. She was starving, heavily limping, had around 100 fleas and an eye infection, and was probably part of a nearby urban feral cat colony. Russians darn near worship cats, and routinely tolerate and feed feral colonies in their apartment blocks. Many do this despite living in poverty themselves. While most American kittens in Shoelace’s appalling condition would have fled from humans in fear, Russian cats know they are a privileged species, and so Shoelace, finding me in her path late one night, stuck her claws into the cuffs of my Levi’s and vociferously demanded to be fed.
By the time of my first mushroom foray, Shoelace was an extremely healthy kitten of 3 months, with only a mild (permanent) limp and agoraphobia to mark her difficult babyhood. During the trip to the woods I tried to coax her into getting over her phobia (cat therapy!), and I had a mild success. Shoelace would actually run around outside, (within about 20 feet of the dacha) in any direction. Unfortunately, before I and Milla (my landlady/roommate) could get her to the woods again, Winter intervened, and we were back to square one, with a neurotic indoor cat.
In July of 1995, with Shoelace now a year old, I returned to the US via my parents home in California. Happily, the sunshine, security of my parent’s backyard, and neighborhood cats, all conspired to lure the cat out into the real world again, and within one month she was leaping from tree to tree like Tarzan, barely being coaxed into the house at night with bribes of Fancy Feast. At last she had overcome the neuroses caused by her early life (cat self-actualization!). In August, in Alaska (where my job is) I was then faced with another problem. The only place I could rent was an apartment without a yard. I’d developed a liking for the outdoors in my cat, and then couldn’t safely provide it.
This was when I decided to see if I could get the cat to come mushroom hunting with me. Milla had married an American student of mine the previous January and was living in the woods near Fairbanks.
Since it was the height of the Alaskan Mushroom season, she invited me and the cat to come visit.
I bought bright orange “hunter” fabric and made Shoelace (who is a tiny grey tabby, easily lost) a neck scarf. At Milla’s we tried getting her to follow us into the woods, but she kept trying to hide under the car or house. Eventually we grabbed her and walked about 50 yards from the house before putting her on the ground.
This got her to happily follow us if we kept to a slow pace and periodically “meowed” our direction at her. All went well for over two hours of foraging. Shoelace gleefully leaped from fallen log to rock to stump, sniffed fungi and berries, and generally seemed to have a good time.
However, after two hours her limp reappeared, she got out of breath, and she’d hide under stumps and yowl her complaints. In vain did I try to bribe her with cat treats, in vain did I tell her we were heading home. Time after time she’d run and hide and refuse to budge. Finally I just caught her, stuffed her in my coat and carried her back to the car. I never was dumb enough to take her out for longer than two hours again, even cats have hiking limits.
Other mistakes I made at different times include choosing an area to forage that was too close to a inhabited area. Noisy traffic on one side of a forested strip caused her to bolt under a fence on the other side. I spent hours burglarizing my way into a used auto parts yard and hunting her out from under bits of dead cars. Parking one’s own car too far away from the edge of the forest, or in a noisy, near traffic area, also makes it much harder to coax the cat into the car when you are done. Even cats who drive every day like mine don’t like car-riding, and any excuse (noise, traffic, open spaces, etc.) is enough for them to avoid getting in the car when you want them to.
Despite these problems, I continued to forage with Shoelace to the end of the mushroom season, because she so obviously enjoyed it. On the drive to and from work in September she’d look longingly out the window at the passing woods, and “meow” her desire to stop at the trees and not the buildings. Periodically, she’d escape from the car when I’d parked near trees, and lead me on a chase into the forest. These trips being unplanned, would inevitably be ill-timed and hairraisingly dangerous, but she loved them.
With some degree of circumspection, however, you can take your cat foraging with you. First, you need to mark the cat by giving her a hunter’s orange scarf and safety pinning it to her collar so it won’t invert, tripping her. Attach this tightly, since a loose scarf will get a paw caught in it on a leap. If she doesn’t have a noisy collar tag, it also will help to bell her so you can find her in thick shrubbery. It’s best if you also dress brightly and noisily, so the cat can see and hear you without you having to “meow” for two hours at a stretch. Try to find areas that are remote, unpopulated, and dog-free. Wild animals, being afraid of humans, will usually keep out of your (and therefore your cat’s) way, but domesticated animals don’t. Other unknown humans can also frighten or confuse your cat and keep them in hiding, leading to frustration and wasted time.
Each cat has an optimum time stretch it will walk. It’s nearly impossible to get your cat to go back in the car till it’s tired, but it will refuse to go further once it’s tired out. Practice will let you know your cat’s time limit, and you will need to forage in a circle that leads back to your transport just as kitty conks out. A cat’s pace, unlike a dog’s, is perfect for foraging, neither too fast nor too slow. The cat, being shorter, will also decide to cut uncomfortable paths through low damp shrubbery, and you will be forced to follow her. This is actually rather beneficial: I can’t count the number of times Shoelace has wandered into a thorny thicket and refused to come out till I go in after her. I shout “When I get you I’m going to stuff you in the basket!” then I literally crawl my way through the twigs to find her calmly sitting among a clutch of fresh boletes. I don’t think she sniffs them out like a truffle pig, but cats do naturally gravitate towards the kind of low overhanging spaces boletes thrive in.
Now that I understand her “rules”, I find Shoelace is my best foraging partner. She never snatches up the best mushrooms before I do, she never wants to walk us into a swamp, she never tires me out, or minds if we sit and take a break, or talks, or minds if I talk. We take turns leading, but don’t get lost, within two hours (by which time I can’t carry any more anyway) she wants a rest, in all, the perfect sidekick.