February 4, 2021
Here’s something I didn’t always know: There are a lot of feral cats here.
Like, a lot. More than 200,000 — a number roughly equivalent to a tenth of the population of the city. You see them slinking outside of gilded lobbies, prowling behind gas stations. Or maybe you’re looking up — up at the signs promising money, shrimp cocktails, and sunset helicopter tours — and you don’t see them at all.
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In 2015, my boyfriend and I moved from Montana to the Shangri-La, a cluster of white cottages in Downtown built in 1939. Picture Leave it to Beaver-style suburbia in the center of a city. Manicured bushes, tidy black roofs, and, looming over it all, the golden marquee of the El Cortez.
Our lives were exactly as ridiculous as tourists imagine those of locals to be. We hung out in casinos, bumming wi-fi and applying for jobs at other casinos. We took double-decker buses to the Strip and rode elevators to high floors of hotels for the views. We ate at buffets for Thanksgiving and saw Britney Spears light the tree for Christmas.
There’s a wedding chapel inside the Denny’s here, I texted my non-Vegas friends. Or, I’m drunk at a rooftop pool on a Tuesday.
There was a comfort in telling others — and myself — that living in Las Vegas is exactly what you think it’s like. The embodiment of those clickbait articles: A towering chocolate fountain! The site where Elvis first performed “Suspicious Minds”! The world’s largest sex bike! To believe in the clichés is to belong. New to the city, I longed for that.
But at bars it was always the same. Someone would ask, “Where are you visiting from?”
Here, I’d say. I’m from here.
One evening, I sat at my desk facing the alleyway that separated the Shangri-La from the El Cortez parking garage. Other people’s nights were beginning. Heels clicked on the cement, laughter echoed. And there in that dark river of an alley, six eyes glowed from the shadows. Three cats: two obsidian and slender as weasels, one shaggy and gray. When I went outside to look closer, they hid beneath a car, their eyes still watching me.
According to the Humane Society, if you deprive a cat colony of food, it won’t go away; the cats will stick around and keep hunting. Or find a sucker willing to feed them.
We became suckers, at first setting out deli meat, and then graduating to cat food, purchased from a market on Fremont Street.
“What kind of cat do you have?” the cashier asked one night as I set a can of Friskies on the counter.
“I don’t have one,” I replied.
The three cats did not belong to us, they belonged to Las Vegas, which is the type of ownership every new resident of a city wants: to be taken in, to be a part of it. Each night, the cats emerged from the parking garage and ate greedily. The two black cats came out first. The shaggy gray one hung back, always letting them get their fill. She was their mother, we realized. They were a family.
They were ever-present and invisible. Stretching out languorously in the vacant lot beside the Shangri-La during the daytime, disappearing when pedestrians passed through.
I began to see colonies of cats everywhere. Orange cats tiptoeing along the spine of a house, striped ones sunning themselves at Charlie Frias Park, a grey-eyed pair on the Strip, so close to a casino entrance they could have walked right in.
I went out cat trapping one night with C5 Community Cat Coalition of Clark County, an organization that traps feral cats, neuters them, and returns them to where they were found.
I met a C5 volunteer in Sunrise Manor, a Las Vegas neighborhood so close to Nellis Air Force Base that windows rattle when jets fly over. The cats, of which there are many in the area, don’t seem to mind.
We would be catching both kittens and cats, the C5 volunteer told me. The former would be kept for adoption and the latter would be returned, with a piece removed from the tip of the ear to show they had been fixed.
We met a woman who had a colony of cats mousing around in her dirt yard. It was easy to catch them — significantly easier than I’d expected. They weren’t afraid of us at all. We set the traps and they went in right away, as docile as house cats, only hissing and howling when they realized they’d been discovered.
When our lease was up, we moved out of the Shangri-La, traded the cottage for the kind of stucco apartment complex everyone in Las Vegas lives in at some point. Resort-style living with a sparkling pool.
I no longer felt like a tourist trying to blend in. I knew which casinos charged for parking and which didn’t. I didn’t need Google Maps to walk from Fremont Street to the Arts District. I had a Nevada ID, a library card, a gym membership — tokens proving I belonged.
But I couldn’t abandon those three cats. Not after all the times I’d gone to bed wondering if anyone else in Las Vegas even knew I existed, only to hear their meows outside, at first plaintive and then demanding. I was a constant presence to them, not just a traveler passing through.
I drove back to the Shangri-La with a can of cat food in my purse. Just as I arrived, a car pulled up. Someone in a hooded jacket got out, a large bag in their arms. It was cat food, I realized, watching them empty the contents.
True to form, the cats appeared, tails switching. After the car drove away, I walked over. Mercifully, they didn’t flinch at the sight of me. They looked healthy, their coats shiny, their eyes alert. All around them, tourists parked and headed out for the evening, the felines at their feet as unknown to them as the residents of Las Vegas, who also dwell in the shadows of gambling halls and steakhouses, out of sight but at home nonetheless. I took the can of food out from my purse, pausing for a moment, wondering if the cats even needed it.
Eventually I decided they did.
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Of course, a lot of people have some level of arachnophobia, which is why spiders so richly symbolize our unease about our species’ superiority — in Starship Troopers, Dr. No, It, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in untold sci-fi howlers ( Lavalantula!). They skitter among all the repressed junk in our collective subconscious, seemingly purpose-built to trigger our psychology, so frighteningly non-human. Unless you’re E.B. White, a spider is harder to anthropomorphize than a hedge-fund bro. Arachnophobia has always struck me as too dainty a term for my visceral response to all of that.
However. Prompted by my science-savvy kids, who tell me spiders keep the other bugs down, and by those memes about spiders thinking we’re their roomies, but sure, go ahead, kill my family with that rolled-up magazine, I’ve lately dialed back my kill-on-sight response. Go in peace, daddy longlegs. Enjoy your corner, common house spider. If it doesn’t look too brownly reclusive, it gets a chance.
Except black widows. No mercy for those monsters! It’s instinct: The mind shrieks, the heart pounds, the fear glands bubble, the rolled-up magazine descends. Latrodectus mactans — it’s their Latin name and the name on the death certificate every time I see one. That spider in my dream? Always a black widow.
1992. A Saturday morning. I’m drowsing in bed when I hear my 4-year-old son shout, “Spider! Spider!” I rise slowly, thinking I’ll have to smash a longlegs on the wall, and go into the living room — where I find a black widow dangling from my son’s right hand by a six-inch strand of web. In my memory, the spider is the size and weight of a ham, though I’m sure in reality it was maybe half that. What I am certain of is that it meant to murder my boy.
Same home, different day. We’ve pulled our broken dishwasher from under the counter, not seeing the black widow egg sac fused to the side. Until it ruptures, which I also don’t notice — until I’m suddenly covered with tiny death spiders, many more of which float through the kitchen, airborne on filaments of silk. Keywords here would be: panic, squeal, disrobe, purify with fire. And while I stop short of burning down the place, I do blast that kitchen with enough bug spray to qualify it as a Superfund site. My skin crawled until we moved out.
Which, as it happened, was to a house in very old Henderson, owned by a kooky landlord whose eccentricity manifested in two ways relevant here: He was too chintzy to provide a clothes dryer, and he apparently didn’t believe in pest control. That meant we had to lug our wet laundry to the clothesline, usually after work, in the dark ... past the old-growth thickets of black widows that bewebbed the house’s rear wall. A gantlet of red-hourglassed lethality. We quickly developed a division of duties: My wife carried and hung the laundry, while I wielded a flashlight, the Raid, and my frothing anxiety, killing and killing and killing.
So, no, I don’t think a tidy, clinical word like arachnophobia can contain everything I need to put into it. It lacks the deep reverb of revulsion, the keening high notes of pure EEK!, the savage onomatopoeia necessary to convey my operatic fear and loathing. The right word may not exist, or may be a primal yowl.
But they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. No. Here’s how I know: Years ago, as the family loitered through a bright morning in our front yard, I leaned over to peer warily at a corner of our house where I suspected a black widow lived. See that distinctive asymmetrical web? A sure sign. Alas, in this case my spidey sense failed. Behind me, my wife snuck up and, with nothing but love in her heart, lightly brushed her fingertip across the back of my calf. As the life fled my body, I flashed on the final scene of William Shatner’s Kingdom of the Spiders — the whole landscape matted in webbing — and had to admit: I always knew they would get me in the end.
A visit quite soon, perhaps, because my beautifully bland suburban home in Las Vegas, where I like to think years of nearby atomic testing destroyed the ecosystems of many vermin, has roof rats. Confirmed today when a large man who drives a truck with an NRA sticker, and who struggled with the mandatory mask and the frail ladder, plunged his torso into my attic through a hatch in the hallway. In 10 years I have never, ever opened that panel. I was raised primarily in Tucson, where good people know that a flat ranch house that has neither a basement nor an attic is far superior to any other. Nothing good happens in basements or attics. Why build either?
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To make a nest for rats, I guess. They accessed our attic, the wobbly pest guy said from 10 feet up, by climbing a tree in the backyard, following its healthy limb to the nearby patio roof, and making what is, for a rat, he said, "an easy jump" to the roof. You can dwell on that if you like: Las Vegas rats have a good 3-foot jumping range, along with their ability to scale peaceful trees. I love that acacia tree, by the way; it provides a little privacy between us and our matchy-matchy neighbor houses. It provides shade. It loves us back.
So, yes, he said, there's rat poop. The scurrying I’ve been hearing was indeed a rat. Or, plural, rats. He climbed down and left me under the open attic hatch, while I could still hear scurrying, as he went to his truck to get a trap. To repeat, he left me there, beneath a 3-foot hole through which vicious rodents could fall or jump into my house. I longed for a shotgun.
Upon his extremely overdue return, he showed me a black plastic rat trap with some crushed peanuts in it, and demonstrated how to reset it should I find that it had snapped without catching a rat. So funny. He spoke as if I was actually going to pull out my ladder, open that hatch, and stick my head into the dark oblivion. I let him keep talking because it's a skill I learned in the last four years.
"You'll hear it snap," he said. "If the rat is in it, just put the body in a bag and throw it out. Otherwise, the corpse will make your whole house smell like hell." It was January 7, the day after the Capitol riots — I thought of politics, of deadly, pervasive viruses, of all kinds of easy and disturbing metaphors.
I asked if I might hear a rat scream, and he considered it a perfectly legitimate question, which has pushed me to take a sedative this afternoon. "Not really, but it might struggle if the trap doesn't crush its skull. You might hear it struggling."
Mm-hmm. I see. So, then, I'm to go up there while a Rat vs. Trap UFC match is occurring, stick my head in at eyeball level to the rat and its insurrectionist friends, and just check things out. Then, presumably, if it dies, I'll reach up there and simply pick up the corpse — these rats are 4 or 5 inches long in the body, plus 5 or 6 more in the tail. And so I am to just pick it up — by tail? by trap? — and drop it in an Albertsons grocery bag, and toss it in my garbage can. Or reset the trap, he said, with peanut butter. Mm-hmm. Just bring some Skippy and a spoon up there and set that trap again, while the rest of the rats gnaw through the back of my skull.
So much that's inconceivable has already happened in 2021 that I live inside a strange, out-of-body calmness. I don't alarm. I don't run around like a rat with its head cut off. I just nod, as if I'm in a Zoom chat with the mute button on. Yes, yes, I agree, good idea, whatever, whatever, while my thoughts drift to any number of inconceivables — the end of America, a respiratory virus killing everyone, whether the possibly right-wing pest guy saw my copy of Pelosi on the table, and whether he actually just spread rat food in my attic as a political hate crime, and why didn't I keep my father's double-barreled shotgun when he died? All of these thoughts were nested in a comfy bed of attic insulation and surrender. The pest man came down the frail ladder and clap-wiped his hands to clean them of attic debris. He had lost his mask somewhere.
As I sit here, the pest man gone, on a beautiful Friday afternoon filled with words like insurrection and crushed skulls, I'm listening to a song about numbing oneself with alcohol, pills, or TV reruns to endure a bad marriage (Pistol Annies, “These Are the Best Years of My Life”). It makes me think of all the things to which we are married, and how we handle those relationships. Am I married to this house? Am I married to the notion that I cannot co-exist with germ-infested, teethy rodents? Am I married to my country? Am I married to my squeamishness? Can I, to protect my wobbly marriage to safety and sanity, find the courage to pull a dead rat from a dark attic? Am I married to this reality? So many others have been able to divorce reality and just go on. Can I do that? More than the little bit that I do every day to survive?
I hear the scurrying. I'm going to have a drink while I wait for the tree trimmer. I love that tree. It is our little bit of nature. I will adjust my thinking a bit. Adjust my reality another couple of hairs. A rat is a little bit of nature. Maybe we are not all meant to live together — all of these humans in neighborhoods or dense cities or social contracts or shared realities. Maybe we should just ignore the scurrying and go on.
My cats are lying on my bed, asleep. They do not care, about rats or anything else, and they are at peace.
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But the ones that pop up in my house with irregular regularity are not like this. They’re chill, super-chill, so chill, in fact, that I’m starting to wonder whether my home is its own mini-bioregion hosting a new species called lolidgaficus scorpionus. I’ll find one hanging out at the end of the hallway like it’s politely waiting in line for the bathroom, or abiding, yes, just abiding, near the front door as though it’s mentally rehearsing its grocery list before a trip to the store, or relaxing, yes, just relaxing, near the fireplace. We’ve reached a kind of uneasy detente, I guess: I signed up for outdoor pest control and dutifully squish them on sight inside the house; and, on their behalf, I convince myself that they tacitly agree not to go full covert-ops facehugger from my ceiling fan when I’m trying to eat hella nachos and watch hella The Bachelor.
Which gets to my underlying issue about scorpions: They test my common sense. I’m usually a marginally sensible and informed enough human not to engage in the folly of anthropomorphizing animals, ascribing human motives and feelings to them. Yet there’s something about scorpions that make them an exception. In the absence of lore that might otherwise imbue them with a comprehensible personality, scorpions are a ready receptacle, a blank slate for my dire imaginings. Scorpions have no instructive fable to guardrail their raw being into the realm of human coherence — like, say, the industrious ant, or the happy-go-lucky grasshopper, or the wise, wily, solitary spider. (The only fable I can think of is the one about the scorpion and frog: A scorpion convinces a reluctant frog to give it a ride across a river. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, sealing their doom. Why, oh why? “I couldn’t help myself,” the scorpion tells the frog. “It’s in my nature.” Aww, a fable about suicidal nihilism.)
And, really, on principle alone, any creature that blings on the ultraviolet spectrum is sus as hell.
Into this void of alien otherness I unhappily pour my own visions of taunting menace: The scorpions in my house must doing this on purpose, they’re arrogantly loitering just to push my buttons; these sapient splinters with their venomous stings and hair-spiked pincers are mocking me. Maybe they’re saying: Imagine how many of us you don't see. Maybe they’re saying: When you leave the house, the hide-and-seek party begins! Maybe they’re saying: Ha ha, I’m just a sacrificial decoy for the real, hidden threat. Maybe they’re saying: Ceiling Fan Covert Ops Facehugger Team, deploy!
This would represent a grave violation of our imagined truce, but, like the fable says: Scorpions gonna scorpion. Whatever they do, they can’t help themselves.
Photos and art: Illustrations by Delphine Lee
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