Unexpected Nature Study

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While my family was out of town last weekend, one of my daughter’s friends found a kitten near his house that was apparently all alone. He texted my daughter to ask what to do, because we have eight cats, and in his eyes, we were experts. He was, in fact, getting ready to move to another town, and had no way to take care of the kitten, so we called our vet and had him take it there. We picked it up when we got home.

Unexpected Nature Study - By Beth

How is this nature study, you ask? Well, cats are mammals – and this is a rare opportunity for us to experience caring for such a tiny kitten. We love cats anyway, but this little guy, whom we’ve named Fintan (Finny), requires quite a lot of special care.

The first night he was home, we fed him, and put him to bed in our half bath on a soft pile of blankets. The next morning, we got up and fed him again, only to realize his chest was retracting as he was breathing – if you’ve ever seen someone who has difficulty breathing, you know that’s not a good sign, so back to the vet we went. It turned out that he had a touch of pneumonia, probably from aspirating some food, and his body temperature was low, so we needed to find a way to keep him warm. We’re also supposed to keep him separated from our other (eight) cats while he’s sick, so that hopefully none of them will get his upper respiratory mess.

This kitten is no more than 4 weeks old. He’s too young to be away from his mama, so we have to feed him around the clock, just like a baby. After each meal, we have to stimulate his little bum to get him to go to the bathroom (I had to look up a YouTube video for that one), and we’re thankful he seems to have caught on to the idea of using a litter box. He has an upper respiratory infection and his eyes are all goopy, as well, so we have to administer antibiotics and put ointment in his eyes. At night, we don’t let him go more than 6 hours without eating, and we keep him in a box with a heating pad that is keeping some fluid bags (from the vet) wStudy nature and find surprisesarm so that he stays warm enough.

Now that he’s been with us for a few days, he’s starting to feel much better. He’s finally showing interest in food, where before, we really had to force feed him to keep him hydrated. He’s expressing much displeasure when we do things he doesn’t like, when before, he just laid around and looked pathetic. He’s starting to play, which is terribly cute, and a good sign that he’s doing all right. I wasn’t sure at first if he would even survive.

What is my point here? My kids are learning a lot about how dependent young mammals are on their parents for care, and they’re learning how to be surrogate caregivers to an animal who needs constant care and attention. That means they are learning what it means to make some personal sacrifices of time and sleep to care for a creature who cannot care for itself. They are also learning a lot about feline behavior, which is a great deal of fun, but also educational! It’s not every day that we get to be up close and personal with an animal this small.

Now, I realize that not everyone is going to be able to bring a stray animal into their home! My point is that sometimes nature study shows up in unexpected places. In a season when you can’t get outside much, either because it’s too hot or too cold, or for whatever reason, look around you – you might find more in your own home than you think. Pets, plants, visiting spiders–all those things can be good nature study topics.

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my favorite nature study resources is Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study. In the section on mammals, she has information on cats for the teacher to read, and observation questions to ask children. The text is in the public domain, so I thought I’d include the questions here for you. Sometimes I read the questions and think, “How on earth are the kids supposed to know that?” I am always surprised by how much information they share. Obviously, you don’t have to use all the questions, but they are a great jumping off place for discussion.

Questions About Cats

Leading thought—The cat was made a domestic animal before man wrote histories. It gets prey by springing from ambush and is fitted by form of body and teeth to do this. It naturally hunts at night and has eyes fitted to see in the dark.

Method—This lesson may be used in primary grades by asking a few questions at a time and allowing the children to make their observations on their own kittens at home, or a kitten may be brought to school for this purpose. The upper grade work consists of reading and retelling or writing exciting stories of the great, wild, savage cats, like the tiger, lion, leopard, lynx and panther.


1. How much of Pussy’s language do you understand? What does she say when she wishes you to open the door for her? How does she ask for something to eat? What does she say when she feels like conversing with you ? How does she cry when hurt? When frightened? What noise does she make when fighting? When calling other cats? What are her feelings when she purrs? When she spits? How many things which you say does she understand?

2. How else than by voice does she express affection, pleasure and anger? When she carries her tail straight up in the air is she in a pleasant mood? When her tail “bristles up” how does she feel? What is it a sign of, when she lashes her tail back and forth?

3. What do you feed to cats? What do they catch for themselves? What do the cats that are wild live upon? How does the cat help us? How does she injure us?

4. How does a cat catch her prey? Does she track mice by the scent? Does she catch them by running after them as a dog does? Describe how she lies in ambush. How does she hold the mouse as she pounces upon it ? How does she carry it home to her kittens?

5. Study the cat’s paws to see how she holds her prey. Where are the sharp claws? Are they always in sight like a dog’s? Does she touch them to the ground when she walks? Which walks the more silently, you think so? Do you think she has a keen sense of hearing? How do the shape and position of the ears help in listening? In what position are the ears when puss is angry?

9. How many colors do you find in our domestic cats. What is the color of wild cats ? Why would it not be beneficial to the wild-cat to have as striking colors as our tame cats ? Compare the fur of the cat with the hair of the dog. How do they differ? If a cat chased her prey like the dog do you think her fur would be a too warm covering?

10. Describe how the cat washes her face. How does she clean her fur? How does her rough tongue help in this? How does the mother cat wash her kittens?

11. How does a little kitten look when a day or two old ? How long before its eyes open? How does the cat carry her kittens? How does a kitten act when it is being carried? How does the mother cat punish her kittens? How does she teach them to catch mice? How do kittens play? How does the exercise they get in playing fit them to become hunters?

12. How should cats be trained not to touch birds? When must this training begin? Why should a person be punished for injury to the public who takes cats to summer cottages and leaves them there to run wild?

13. Where in the room does puss best like to lie? How does she sun herself? What herb does she like best? Does she like some people and not others? What strange companions have you known a cat to have? What is the cat’s chief enemy? How should we care for and make her comfortable ?

14. Write or tell stories on the following subjects: (i) The things which my pet cat does; (2) The Wild Cat; (3) The Lion; (4) The Tiger; (5) The Leopard; (6) The Panther and the Mountain Lion; (7) The Lynx; (8) The History of Domestic Cats; (g) The Different Races of Cats, describing the Manx, the Persian and the Angora Cats. 

From the Handbook of Nature Study, Anna Botsford Comstock, p. 272-274

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