Hunting for fungi with your catHunting for Fungi With Your Cat

This Article appeared in Mushroomingin 1996

Those who read

"Mushroom Hunting ata Russian Dacha" in the Winter 1995-96 issue of Mushrooming might justpossibly wonder about whatever happened to my Russian cat, Shoelace, when I returned tothe 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 herwith 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 UAFwhere 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 eyeinfection, and was probably part of a nearby urban feral cat colony. Russians darn nearworship cats, and routinely tolerate and feed feral colonies in their apartment blocks.Many do this despite living in poverty themselves. While most American kittens inShoelace's appalling condition would have fled from humans in fear, Russian cats know theyare a privileged species, and so Shoelace, finding me in her path late one night, stuckher claws into the cuffs of my Levi's and vociferously demanded to be fed.

By the time of my first mushroom foray, Shoelace was anextremely healthy kitten of 3 months, with only a mild (permanent) limp and agoraphobia tomark her difficult babyhood. During the trip to the woods I tried to coax her into gettingover her phobia (cat therapy!), and I had a mild success. Shoelace would actually runaround 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, Winterintervened, 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 theUS via my parents home in California. Happily, the sunshine, security of my parent'sbackyard, and neighborhood cats, all conspired to lure the cat out into the real worldagain, and within one month she was leaping from tree to tree like Tarzan, barely beingcoaxed into the house at night with bribes of Fancy Feast. At last she had overcome theneuroses caused by her early life (cat self-actualization!). In August, in Alaska (wheremy job is) I was then faced with another problem. The only place I could rent was anapartment without a yard. I'd developed a liking for the outdoors in my cat, and thencouldn't safely provide it.

This was when I decided to see if I could get the cat to comemushroom hunting with me. Milla had married an American student of mine the previousJanuary and was living in the woods near Fairbanks.

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Since it was the height of the Alaskan Mushroom season, sheinvited me and the cat to come visit.

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I bought bright orange "hunter" fabric and madeShoelace (who is a tiny grey tabby, easily lost) a neck scarf. At Milla's we tried gettingher 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 onthe ground.

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This got her to happily follow us if we kept to a slow pace andperiodically "meowed" our direction at her. All went well for over two hours offoraging. Shoelace gleefully leaped from fallen log to rock to stump, sniffed fungi andberries, and generally seemed to have a good time.

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However, after two hours her limp reappeared, she got out ofbreath, and she'd hide under stumps and yowl her complaints. In vain did I try to bribeher with cat treats, in vain did I tell her we were heading home. Time after time she'drun and hide and refuse to budge. Finally I just caught her, stuffed her in my coat andcarried her back to the car. I never was dumb enough to take her out for longer than twohours again, even cats have hiking limits.

Other mistakes I made at different times include choosing anarea to forage that was too close to a inhabited area. Noisy traffic on one side of aforested strip caused her to bolt under a fence on the other side. I spent hoursburglarizing my way into a used auto parts yard and hunting her out from under bits ofdead 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 aredone. 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 whenyou want them to.

Despite these problems, I continued to forage with Shoelace tothe end of the mushroom season, because she so obviously enjoyed it. On the drive to andfrom 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 theforest. These trips being unplanned, would inevitably be ill-timed and hairraisinglydangerous, but she loved them.

With some degree of circumspection, however, you can take yourcat foraging with you. First, you need to mark the cat by giving her a hunter's orangescarf and safety pinning it to her collar so it won't invert, tripping her. Attach thistightly, since a loose scarf will get a paw caught in it on a leap. If she doesn't have anoisy 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 withoutyou having to "meow" for two hours at a stretch. Try to find areas that areremote, unpopulated, and dog-free. Wild animals, being afraid of humans, will usually keepout of your (and therefore your cat's) way, but domesticated animals don't. Other unknownhumans can also frighten or confuse your cat and keep them in hiding, leading tofrustration and wasted time.

Each cat has an optimum time stretch it will walk. It's nearlyimpossible to get your cat to go back in the car till it's tired, but it will refuse to gofurther once it's tired out. Practice will let you know your cat's time limit, and youwill 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. Thecat, being shorter, will also decide to cut uncomfortable paths through low dampshrubbery, and you will be forced to follow her. This is actually rather beneficial: Ican't count the number of times Shoelace has wandered into a thorny thicket and refused tocome out till I go in after her. I shout "When I get you I'm going to stuff you inthe basket!" then I literally crawl my way through the twigs to find her calmlysitting among a clutch of fresh boletes. I don't think she sniffs them out like a trufflepig, but cats do naturally gravitate towards the kind of low overhanging spaces boletesthrive in.

Now that I understand her "rules", I find Shoelace ismy best foraging partner. She never snatches up the best mushrooms before I do, she neverwants to walk us into a swamp, she never tires me out, or minds if we sit and take abreak, or talks, or minds if I talk. We take turns leading, but don't get lost, within twohours (by which time I can't carry any more anyway) she wants a rest, in all, the perfectsidekick.

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